Grace and Grit is the compelling story of the five-year journey of Ken Wilber and his wife Treya Killam Wilber through Treya's illness, treatment, and, finally, death. (Penguinrandomhouse.com, third edition, 2020)
Stuart Townsend (Ken) and Mena Suvari (Treya) in Grace and Grit (2021)
The Growth of Love
Some Personal Reflections
on the ‘Grace and Grit’ Movie
The theme of this film and book is the growth of love, which usually expresses itself as eros and philia, into agape or self-less serving.
I watched the movie Grace and Grit, featuring Mena Suvari and Stuart Townsend, which was finally released last week, and was not disappointed. The New York Times and Variety had already trashed it, for being unbearably New Age or too disjointed and exploitative to work. That seems to me unfair. If anything, the book demonstrated quite a critical stance towards New Age beliefs about illness and healing, and the format of the book was a journal, which is fragmentary by nature. Other, more positive reviews have come in as well now. On IMDB, the average score is 6.3, but this hides a huge variance: both 1s and 10s have been given for this film. Fans have also reached out to rottentomatoes.com now, giving a bunch of 5 star ratings over there. Obviously, it has a fan base and one of loathers—but that has been a customary pattern with Wilber.
Though the film music was quite irksome at times, and the words "amazing" were used a bit too many times for European ears, I found the two main characters believable and recognized many scenes, of course. I had devoted a full chapter of Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion (2003) to this episode of Wilber's and Treya's relationship: "Love, death and rebirth: Years of test and trial". I remember reading the huge manuscript of The Great Chain of Being, which he wrote in 1987 and which never got published, and is briefly displayed in the film, at night at Wilber's house, in 1997. I even used a quote from it as motto for my book: "God, or the Absolute Spirit, exists—and can be proven. And there is a ladder that leads to that summit, a ladder that you can be shown how to climb." It is testament to the high-spirited moods I lived in during that time of my life.
It also brought back memories of my own life, since my wife contracted breast cancer back in 2011, and received—successfully, thank god—all the horrendous medical treatments you can imagine (operation, chemotherapy, radiation, hormone therapy). It was a time of hardship for both of us, and we found a way to deal with it quite different from Wilber and Treya. Having many shared activities turned out to be key—even if our interests diverged widely. Especially in Wilber's interpretation of these events, as documented in the book, he tends to spiritualize and inflate what occurred, to the point of both of them reaching (some form of) enlightenment. And as to his promise to her "I will find you", which he repeatedly makes to her in the film, in the book it first reads like: "serving Treya was a way to enlightenment for me" until it became: "it's not that I will find her but she made me find my Self." Which strikes me now as incredibly self-absorbed. And in both cases this Self stands for Spirit, or the Ground of existence, which is manifested to both of them due to these tribulations and their spiritual practices.
This resonates, of course, with the mystically poetic, integral-spiritual view of life: it's love that makes the world go round, even the stars and the planets cannot do without. Love will win in the end. Love is stronger than death. But this is a hugely romanticized and rosy-colored worldview, if you ask me now. Love is certainly a mystery, but stars and planets do quite well with gravity, thank you. And love does not conquer death at all. At most, it is a blessing if these health related hardships don't destroy one's relationship (which is not imaginary), or even strengthen and deepen it. At the end of the film Treya ends a speech with "because I can no longer ignore death, I pay more attention to life." That is a truth even Heidegger and the existentialists could have taught her. There is no need for any esoteric or Tibetan overlay. On the contrary: a more sober approach is more credible and yes, inspiring to me now. Not because I deny Spirit but because it invites all kinds of unwarranted speculations.
A key scene from the book is passed over lightly in the film. When in Germany for one of the last medical treatments for Treya, he ends up in a pub, where he starts drinking and tries to get drunk, and starts crying. Some locals invite him to dance with them, and reluctantly he complied. Looking back on this event, he writes: "I would like to claim that my big satori about accepting Treya's condition, that my coming to terms with her likely death, that my becoming finally responsible for my own choices about setting aside my interests and doing anything to support her—I would like to claim that all of that came from some powerful meditation session with blazing white light and insights pouring over me... But it happened in a little pub with a bunch of kindly old man whose names I don't know and whose language I don't speak" (p. 310-311). Real and refreshing humility. Other scenes in the book, in which he hit Treya during a fight, or when he went to a night club, full of self-pity, were not recognizable or not included at all. We seem to have been offered a sanitized version in the movie.
The theme of this film and book is the growth of love, which usually expresses itself as eros and philia, into agape or self-less serving, and which is framed in a spiritual context. Eros is passionate love, sexuality and intimacy. It has a strong selfish component. Philia is the ability to become life-long friends, which is a lot harder to accomplish, and is a mix of selfishness and unselfishness. Agape, finally, is the most unselfish form of love, and often involves sacrifices to oneself. Wilber has been helpful in clarifying the role of the support person, who often doesn't know how to find room for his own problems and worries, given that a partner with cancer "always wins" given the severity of the illness. The relationship between Wilber and Treya reached its nadir when he couldn't even find a quiet place anymore in their home in Lake Tahoe to start writing again, after so many years of having given up what he wanted most to do: write books.
There are many ways to deal with these periods in one's life, and religious or spiritual beliefs can be helpful, as much as they can be restrictive. The strong aspect of Grace and Grit has always been for me that it pushed back against facile "you create your own reality" beliefs, so popular in New Age circles, and which admirably get deconstructed both by Wilber and Treya. Given their deep journey into many conventional (and gruesomely experimental) medical cancer treatments, one can hardly dismiss this narrative as "unbearably New Age". But its heavy spiritual and mystical overtones might not work for everybody. A more stoic approach personally fits myself better: worry about what you can change, but not more than that. In that sense, yes, it is a matter struggle and surrender (as the title of the Dutch translation of Grace and Grit aptly put it). And knowing which one is called for at what time.
Given my intimate involvement with Wilber and his ideas over the past 40 years—and even if I had a falling out with him around 2005—I found the movie enjoyable and endearing. But with less metaphysical or mystical interpretations, and more clarity about how to cope with these situations over time (there is almost no character development occurring) a lot more people in comparably difficult circumstances could have related to these ideas. I do get that to "outsiders" it remains a rather cultic affair, which impacts the love story theme for a movie like this. But then again, we can hardly blame the film for the nature of the book, though some adaptation would have been in order. With both actors claiming to have reached enlightened unity with the infinite Ground, or something similar, it makes the personal dimension evaporate.
The love story itself would have been enough. Love in times of cancer is a vast subject, that allows for many approaches. In this movie, and the book it was based on, a spiritual dimension is explicitly present. May it find its own audience.
Talk by Treya Killam Wilber (1946-1989) at the Windstar symposium, 1988.
The Dutch movie Stricken ("A serial adulterer faces his demons when his loving wife falls severely ill"), with Carice van Houten, has about the same IMDB rating of 6.8. Selfless-service blossoms here in a completely this-worldly and hedonistic context, when a psychic women puts the main character on the right track of acceptance and responsibility. In Grace and Grit, a psychic women merely reinforces the self-serving idea that Wilber is a genius—and both she and Wilber of the level of Buddha ;-).
 This is, for example, how Wilber looks back in 2019 (in the preface of the third edition of Grace and Grit, Jan. 2020), to the first moment he met Treya:
We sat on the porch and put our arms around eachother; and almost instantly, both of us felt a complete self-dissolution and an immerson into a vast, seemingly eternal "Ground of Being" (however you might wish to conceive that)... Everything dissolved; the self-sense was gone; there was only profound, limitless, radiant, all-pervading, timeless and eternal Thusness....
We thus were both plunged into a timeless, deathless Awakening, that has continued, in my case, unbroken to the present day (and I am sure the same is true for Treya). And that is why her presence still seems like it was just yesterday. Timeless, after all means, timeless. Literally.
So my one, overriding promise to Treya—that I would find her again—has been a promise that I have kept since the day I first made it to her. Since her passing, I have gone on in the world of time... And Treya, in a perfectly timeless way, has been along, at every step, unfailingly. (p. x-xii)
The universal experience of falling in love ("love at first touch") is interpreted in a mystical frame of reference. The deeply personal promise "I will find you" has turned into a commitment to live a spiritual life, its goal being symbolized by Treya.
 Andre Comte-Sponville, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues: The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life, 2002.
 Ken Wilber, "On Being a Support-Person", Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 20(2), 1988.
 Treya Killam Wilber, "Attitudes and Cancer: What kind of help really helps?", Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 20(1), 1988.
"If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life - and only then will I be free to become myself."
- Martin Heidegger