Surprising insights from Neelix’s struggle in Mortal Coil

I recently watched an episode of Star Trek: Voyager called “Mortal Coil,” where one of the characters, Neelix, suffers a loss of faith and becomes suicidal.

During the episode, he dies on a dangerous mission and is resuscitated hours later. Because he remembers nothing from the moment he died to the moment he was restored to conscious life, he starts thinking that his faith in an afterlife has been based on a lie.

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Years ago, his family was murdered in a war, and he long believed that he would see them again in this afterlife. The realization that he might not – that there’s nothing there – wounds him deeply to the extent that he questions the meaning of life and the point of living.

There are two things that really stuck with me from this episode:

When Neelix reaches the point of wanting to kill himself, Chakotay, the ship’s First Officer, tries to convince him not to. After Neelix speaks with certainty of what he now knows about his beliefs, Chakotay says,

“You don’t know. You’re not there yet.”

To me, those were the most powerful words in the episode. Chakotay was telling Neelix that he had rushed to a premature judgment about his life and faith. The crisis he was going through wasn’t an end state. It could be the start of something new, including an even stronger faith or a deeper understanding of his life’s purpose.

The second thing that stuck with me was how the episode affirms the need for relationships, community, and a sense of purpose to help make life worth living. Recovery from despair is much more difficult when someone is adrift. Neelix is re-focused at the end on what he does for the ship, the meaning of his work, and his important relationships with others, including his goddaughter.

The ending might be too tidy (and on Star Trek in general, the writers often struggled to understand and portray effects of trauma and the work of psychologists or therapists), but at least there’s an emphasis on an ongoing process over quick solutions. Neelix will continue working through his crisis with Chakotay. His relationship with his beliefs and with other people, both the living ones and the dead, aren’t static. They can change in various ways over time; they can deepen, become stronger, or be perceived with new understanding. Maybe he won’t lose his beliefs permanently. Maybe he will find a new way to understand his life and its meaning and take nourishment from how he lives among people. It’s an ongoing process, this journey full of questions, this struggle with its crises, and this ability to change. He hasn’t reached a definitive end.

(Image credit: Memory Alpha.)

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