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Cloud Strife has had it rough. And he’s not making anything easier for himself.
In addition to the deaths of his closest companions, Cloud has witnessed the burning of his hometown, undergone unethical medical experimentation, and suffered from various psychological conditions—including a nasty bout of dissociative identity disorder.
By the time we’ve caught up with the unsmiling, spikey-headed hero in Final Fantasy: Advent Children, all that emotional instability has begun to take its deadly toll… and the fact that he’s contracted a cancerous, PTSD-inducing disease called Geostigma isn’t helping either. Spawned from strands of his arch-nemesis Sephiroth’s DNA, the disease literally thrives on Cloud’s guilty conscience, taking every opportunity to remind him that it’s his fault his love interest, Aerith, was brutally killed.
Cloud isn’t afraid to die—in fact, he’s exiled himself to a penitent, living death while the disease eats away at his skin. In fact, he’s terrified to live with the weight of his guilt. He isolates himself, attempting to cut all social ties so that no additional failures can taint his conscience, but in doing so he builds emotional barriers that, through misunderstanding, threaten to disconnect the network of friends he considers to be his family.
A long sleeve keeps Cloud’s infected arm hidden from prying eyes, metaphorically symbolizing his unwillingness to make himself vulnerable by telling others of his condition. That doesn’t stop his childhood sweetheart, Tifa, from finding out the truth, though, which leads to a heated confrontation:
“So you’re just gonna give up and die. Is that it?” she accuses.
“There is no cure,” he answers.
Cloud is clearly talking about more than his disease here—he’s also talking about his guilty conscience. Beyond believing that he’ll never be able to repay his “sins,” Cloud has convinced himself that he doesn’t deserve to be forgiven; he deserves to be alone. And since isolation is the thing he fears most, it’s the only self-inflicted punishment worthy of his suffering.
Unfortunately, Cloud’s guilt separates him from more than just his “family.” It also separates him from Aerith—his spiritual guide throughout the franchise—and keeps her healing touch at arm’s length. As Cloud obsesses over guilt, the Geostigma controls his body, transforming his Mako-blue eyes into the green irises of his long-time nemesis and making him susceptible to Sephiroth’s influence.
But Aerith doesn’t give up trying to reach him, and she’s able to open up Cloud’s mind to the concept of forgiveness. As Cloud accepts the idea, Aerith’s presence becomes more real—first as a voice, and then as a manifestation, albeit one that disappears whenever he tries to glance over his shoulder.
“I think… I wanna be forgiven,” he finally tells Aerith when the goddess-like figure appears to him in a vision. “More than anything.”
“By who?” Aerith teases. “Isn’t it time you did the forgiving?”
Aerith never forces Cloud, but instead offers gentle guidance, allowing him to come to the conclusion himself: nobody blames him for her death, and his guilt is entirely self-inflicted. It’s not until Cloud tears down his emotional barriers, ripping off the sleeve protecting his infected arm and baring it to the world, that Aerith’s healing rain is able to purify him. The grace that had ever been available to him is finally able to manifest itself because he’s made himself vulnerable to it.
Cloud’s journey is a powerful metaphor for forgiveness—particularly on a spiritual level. Cloud can’t cure himself of the disease wrecking his body; only Aeirth can do that. But not before he’s admitted that it’s his inability to forgive himself that’s separating him from her healing touch.
It’s more than just the peace of reunion that empowers Cloud to reach this reconciliation, though. In order to restore his connection with Aerith and move on mentally and emotionally, Cloud has to come to a difficult conclusion; namely, that he must not only embrace everything that’s happened to him, but that he must be grateful for it; he realizes this as he’s locked in a physical and psychological battle with the resurrected Sephiroth.
In a moment of villainous triumph, Sephiroth prepares a fatal thrust and orders Cloud to tell him what he cherishes most, so that he might have the pleasure of taking it from him.
Bleeding from multiple lacerations, Cloud retaliates, “There’s not a thing I don’t cherish!”
The pain, the tears, the long nights of isolation, fear, and confusion—Cloud has to embrace these moments as trials that have shaped him into the person he is, as well as accept the sacrifices that his friends—deceased and living—have made on his behalf. Living is the key to honouring those sacrifices, and “living” means letting go of the “dead” things in his life—the stagnant guilt, the “what ifs,” and the emotional barriers that are slowly beginning to tear away at his bonds with others.
In the aftermath of the battle, Cloud awakens in the dilapidated slum church—the place he first met Aerith—surrounded by the relieved faces of his long-time friends and family. As he surveys the crowd, a familiar figure draws his attention, and for the first time in two years, Cloud is able to look upon a fully-materialized Aerith Gainsborough.
“Y’see? Everything’s all right,” she assures him, unnoticed by the others.
As Cloud watches her fade into the light of the church doorway, he finds peace. Not only has he re-connected with his family, he’s re-connected with Aerith and is now able to fellowship with her on a spiritual level again.
“I know,” he says. “I’m not alone. Not anymore.”
Forgiveness requires vulnerability—demands it, in fact. Cloud is at first afraid to bare himself so openly and risk any rejection and scorn that could damage his already fragile emotions, but the prospect of peace and restoration makes him willing to take that risk. He’s willing to let go of himself because he knows that someone—who he unconditionally puts his faith in—is hanging onto him, eternally and lovingly by his side, so that he’ll never be alone.
And that gives him the courage to smile again.
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