The Thing I Like About …

The Piano: when Baines says Ada looks tired.

Ada has been obliged to leave her home and marry – through the mail – a man she’s never met. She’s brought her young daughter over the ocean on a rickety boat to an unsettled land. She has been left on the beach, and has no idea when her husband will be picking her up. She makes a tent out of a hoop skirt to shield herself and her daughter from the wind, and they wait for hours to see what the next chapter of their lives will be.

Her husband Stewart finally arrives with a team of servants to carry Ada’s belongings. He busies himself deciding which of Ada’s things will be carried to the house and which will not. He discovers his new family in their makeshift tent, and, because he knows she is mute, shouts at her at first as though she were deaf. Eventually he accepts that she can hear him, but he still looks put off, and says to Baines, “She’s small; I never thought she’d be small,” and, “What do you think? She’s stunted; that’s one thing.”

George Baines says, “She looks tired.”

In the context of the film, this exchange illustrates the relationships of the three main characters – Baines sees Ada as a person, while Stewart sees Ada as a product he has purchased, and Ada is silent. In the context of the film, we are encouraged to dislike Stewart in his coldness and his unwillingness to see Ada’s humanity.

Outside of the film, however, Stewart’s notions and mindset and actions are a lot more like our typical behaviour than we would probably like to admit.

It isn’t that we don’t think other people are people. It’s that we forget that other people are people. We imagine that other people owe something to us – to be a certain physical appearance, to have certain opinions, to behave in certain ways that meet our needs and desires. We imagine a “perfect” partner – spouse, friend, colleague, family member, child – and we attach our goals and identity to finding these “things” we decided we wanted; when others don’t match what we imagined, we don’t just feel disappointed or let down. We feel attacked, as though the other person has actually hurt us by being himself or herself instead of the “perfect” thing we “purchased” in our heads.

Ironically, we even tolerate unacceptable behaviour – family-devastating drug addictions, physical violence, emotional abuse – if the person offering that behaviour falls into enough of the “goal” categories – in finances, in physical attractiveness, in social standing, etc. We prefer others who allow us to tick off each item on our list of “what we expected”, even if they’re accompanied by items that hurt us. Basically, “perfect” doesn’t mean “good” but means instead that another human being has met our goals and supported our notions.

And of course all too often we’re Ada: silent in the face of others’ opinions and actions, but underneath imagining the life we would prefer, and acting out from this subconscious longing in ways that are destructive to ourselves and others. We sublimate ourselves in hopes of garnering the “perfection” we want … but Ada doesn’t really find the love and independence and happiness she seeks until she starts talking – through her piano, through expression of emotions, through active decision-making.

Interestingly, Ada’s first true communication with Stewart after she finds her voice is to forgive him – not with words like “I forgive you” but with statements about her own feelings rather than accusations about Stewart’s inadequacies. Once she decides to use her own voice, his actions and mistakes just don’t really matter to her anymore, and she simply moves forward.

What kind of “perfection” from others do you seek? When you think of others, do you think, “Pretty, smart, pleasant, angry, stupid, ugly, etc.”? Or do you think, “Happy, sad, tired, afraid, peaceful, etc.”? Do you think about how they’re affecting you, or how they are affected? Neither way is wrong … but if we only ever interact from the first mindset and never include the second one, then we aren’t ever really seeing the other person as someone separate from ourselves. We’re never seeing them the way we want to be seen by others. We’re focusing on our expectations at the expense of connection – the connection we all want when we make our little “perfection” goals in the first place.

Throughout the film, Stewart seems “overbearing, controlling, sexist, shallow” … but in the end – after everyone has been able to see each other as human beings, after everyone has spoken with his or her own voice for their own happiness, after everyone has accepted that others aren’t there to meet expectations – in the end, Stewart just seems … sad and lonely.

We might all be a lot more like Stewart than we would care to be, but unlike him – a fictional character who must learn his lessons the hard way – we can just turn around and do something else.

We can turn around and really see someone else.

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The Thing I Like About …

Mission Impossible III: the part where Luther congratulates Ethan on his marriage.

MI:III starts with Ethan throwing an engagement party with his fiancée Julia. Of course, he’s called away on a mission, and then another mission, and the nature of the missions becomes so dangerous that Ethan realizes he needs to accelerate some of the things in his off-duty life: he and Julia get married way ahead of schedule, before Ethan leaves for the next part of the mission.

Throughout the film, the people around Ethan, especially Luther, caution him that lives like theirs don’t lend themselves to ordinary things like marriage and family. They tell him half a dozen times that if he gets married, eventually – probably sooner than later – the union will fall apart. They tell him that it isn’t fair to him or to Julia, that the relationship will be based on deception (no matter for how noble a cause). They tell him he’s making a mistake, and he’s obliging Julia to make a mistake too, and that he shouldn’t get married.

Then Ethan interrupts Luther’s latest lecture to reveal that he and Julia got married a few days ago … and Luther smiles, and says, “Congratulations, man!” And he never says another word about doom, gloom, or caution.

Why?

Is it because he ultimately just wants his friend to be happy? Is it that he wants to support Ethan in this choice for his own happiness, even if it results in failure or heartbreak? Well, sure. Of course that’s why … for the most part. But underneath that is another reason, one that these agents encounter every day as they risk their lives, and as they watch their co-workers risk – and lose – theirs.

What’s done is done, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

You can’t bring the dead back to life. You can’t un-make your mistakes. You can’t go back again, and have a do-over. If something happened to you, then it happened, and it will always have happened, and all the wishing and pleading and shame and anger and regret won’t change it one little bit. If someone broke your heart, then you will bear those scars. If you broke someone’s heart, then that someone’s heart will bear those scars. There are no do-overs, no matter how much you want to go back. You can’t go back. What’s done is done, and there is absolutely, under no circumstances, any way ever at all that there is anything you can do about it.

So you might as well let it go, and just move forward.

And that wisdom, couched in Luther’s “congratulations, man,” is more important than any of his cautionary advice.

The Thing I Like About …

Timer: the part where the father’s girlfriend says she removed her timer.

In Timer, a technology – never particularly explained – exists whereby the wearers can know when they will meet their one true soul mate. If your timer is blank, it is likely because your soul mate doesn’t have a timer. Once the timer counts down to zero, when you actually meet your soul mate – some time in the next 24 hours – your respective timers will beep together. And then you’ll know who you’ll be spending the rest of your life with.

Very romantic.

Except your timer may be telling you that you’ll be 43 before you meet your one true love. Or maybe it stays blank forever because your true love is too lazy to get a timer, so you’ll just wander around in perpetual wonderment, feeling like a chump. Or maybe you fall in love with someone who isn’t your “one true love”, and you spend your life feeling like everything’s just temporary.

And maybe it’s all just a huge self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe since you “know” who your one true love is, you don’t bother to struggle, or question; you don’t bring your fears of rejection or heartache, because you know you won’t be experiencing those. Maybe it wouldn’t really matter who it was, because you trust your timer, and you put your heart where it says to go.

The main character’s father lives with a woman who has removed her timer. When she’s asked why she had it removed, she explains, “Well, your father’s not my One, but I love him, so …”

She’s chosen with her present heart, rather than waiting for some “One” that had yet to appear in her life. She’s chosen with her present heart, so that she can live and love and be happy now.

In the real world, we long to find our “One” – that person who we are guaranteed – guaranteed – to be with happily ever after, forever. But when we wait for that guarantee, we lose out on today, on this moment, on this experience, on this person to whom our hearts are drawn. When we wait for that guarantee, we don’t allow ourselves to learn, or grow, or change, but instead stay distressingly constant as we give our power to whomever or whatever we feel will offer that guarantee.

When we wait for guarantees, we die a little, and we don’t make room for the love we’re feeling, or for the life we want. When we accept that there aren’t any guarantees, we can make a decision. When we accept that there aren’t any guarantees, our hearts can fulfill their own prophecies. When we accept that there aren’t any guarantees, we can be happy right now.

What are you waiting for?

 

The Thing I Like About …

House: the one where he sits with the detective and plays music.

Dr. House is not a likeable man; we like watching him, because he’s smart and funny and interesting and he gets away with the kind of bluntness and sarcasm we would like to get away with. But he’s a very broken person, carrying tons of baggage and full of neuroses, and if we actually knew someone like that in real life we would hate him with every fiber of our being. The only reason we like him at all is that we are also sometimes broken and baggage-laden and neurotic, so we understand. We get it … but we wouldn’t like a person like that in real life.

Dr. House “hires” a detective (he never pays the people he hires because he’s a jerk) to follow his staff, his boss, and his best friend. The detective develops a friendship with House, although neither would probably admit it. The detective waits in House’s apartment, playing the piano; when House comes home, he and the detective discuss all the things that are wrong with House, and all of the reasons the detective should probably not work for House anymore. They discuss this bluntly while the detective plays the piano and House plays his guitar. It’s a moment of brutal honesty, true camaraderie, and excellent music.

This moment is what we’re all looking for: the friend who knows exactly and precisely what we are, calls us on it … then accepts it anyway, and sits with us making beautiful music in the midst of all the things that are “wrong” with us. It’s what House looks for through the entire series but really doesn’t think he deserves. It’s the real reason we like House just fine – because we’re sometimes broken and baggage-laden and neurotic, and we want to be forgiven for it. It’s the reason we say we wouldn’t like someone like him in real life – because we’re all like him to some degree or other, and we’re not sure if we’ll ever find friendship with people who really know us but who can still focus on the beauty that we offer, who see all of our truths but accept the bitter with the sweet.

We want honesty, truth, friendship and beauty … but we don’t think we can have all of those things together. But why not? If House can find it, surely we can.

The Thing I Like About …

Sleepy Hollow (TV-2013):  Ichabod.

Ichabod Crane has been transported from his time – the late 18th century – to our time.  He faces a world much changed from his, but he accepts his circumstances with good humour and courage.  He welcomes learning about the new things around him, which makes his fish-out-of-water days rather brief.

Part of his acceptance stems from the fact that he is not so different from us as we might have imagined; he sees very quickly that the world in many ways is just the same as in his time  – bad guys are still bad, good guys are still good, people are people – and we see that, while he may sound like he walked out of a Jane Austen novel, he is perfectly “normal” (intelligent, sarcastic, and funny).

We live in a world where it bothers us if the coffee shop is closed today, or if there’s a new picture on our money, or if others aren’t doing/watching/listening to/liking exactly the same things we do.  We don’t like change, even when it’s the change we asked for.  We also live in a world where we think we are the culmination of civilization – that all that came before us are ignorant savages completely foreign to our “sophisticated” ways of thinking and living.  We forget what Ichabod knows – that people are people, that they always have been, and likely always will be.  We forget that people-being-people isn’t a bad thing particularly, so we criticize all that seems different, assume the worst, and resist growth, change, or learning.  We would be terrified and lost in Ichabod’s world, and often we’re terrified and lost in our own.

Neil Postman wrote a book called “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century” … thank goodness Sleepy Hollow took him up on his suggestion.  I look forward to seeing the world through Ichabod’s eyes.

The Thing I Like About …

Groundhog Day: the part where he keeps trying to save the guy who dies.

Phil is a reporter sent to cover the groundhog seeing his shadow on Groundhog’s Day.  For some reason, he enters a time loop and relives the same day over again .. and over and over and over again.  He starts trying to make small changes – to himself, of course, but also to the old man who dies in the gutter at the end of that day.

He tries to save him every day.  He tries CPR.  He tries encountering him earlier in the day, getting him a hot meal and some warm clothes.  He tries everything he knows how to do, but no matter what, the old man dies at the end of the day.

For me, this is the turning point for Phil, more so even than the meaningful connections he makes that eventually break the time loop.  He has to accept that he cares – something he had not been able to do before – and he has to accept that, no matter what he does or how hard he tries, he can’t control everything.  Not even an important thing.  The most important thing in this world – whether we’re dead or alive – is actually entirely and completely beyond Phil’s ability to change by even a moment.

In the film, Phil has to grieve for the old man; he has to come to terms with his “failure” to save him.  But actually, he learned the one thing that was stymying him when he arrived in Punxsutawney, and the thing that tends to stymie all of us:  whether the old man lives or dies is irrelevant.  It’s not the saving of the old man that Phil was being asked to do.  He was being asked to care.  He was being asked to involve himself with another human being, and to help make that person’s life as happy as possible while he’s on this planet.  Maybe the old man died anyway, but Phil had turned what could have been a sad ending in a cold gutter into an evening with a new friend, a full tummy and a warm bed.  Basically, Phil didn’t fail at all.

We all die.  What matters isn’t that we die, but what we do before we die.  Who have we fed?  Who have we clothed?  Who have we befriended?  Who have we loved?  Did we make the people in the world happier with our actions, or not?  Who did we hold, and who’s holding us?  Phil needed to learn to see the world from this perspective, and so do we, I think … but unlike Phil, we only have the one chance at it.  Let’s not mess it up.

The Thing I Like About …

Star Trek:  everybody brought the “old country” with them.

In Star Trek, if someone’s distant ancestor is from Africa, why, then, that person still speaks that language and dresses in the traditional garb and remembers the traditional myths and stories.  If that person is from France, or Russia, or Japan, or Vulcan, then everything about that place – its culture, its people, its history – is embodied within them as though the conformity of the Star Trek world is the same as the conformity of their workaday uniform, and as easily removed.  Everyone gets along; if they don’t, it’s because of the great social equalizers:  card games, love triangles, and arguments over their favourite physicist.  If groups in the shows/films are not getting along, then they are “the bad guys” – but their culture or dress or language or appearance is never judged.  They are judged solely on the basis of not being able to play well with others.

People from different planets marry one another and create offspring that can look completely bizarre but who are entirely accepted from birth to death.  Blue skin?  No problem.  Green blood?  No problem.  Giant head ridges and a predilection for living food?  Awesome.  Black, white, multi-limbed, psychic?  Fantastic.  Everyone is accepted, and no one “conforms” … in fact, Star Trek is a celebration of the preservation of culture and diversity.  And that’s in the military; the regular population must look like a giant tangled mass of skittles.  Yet there is peace.  There is honour and respect.  There is rational conflict resolution (except for card games, love triangles, and physicists).  Much importance is placed on each person representing his or her ancient cultural roots, even as they all come together to make a whole.  In fact, the worst “bad guys” in the show are the ones who want to assimilate everyone and take their uniqueness away.

I know it’s just a television show, but I see how much of it has come true: the cellphones and Kindles and medical scanning equipment; the growing acceptance of people of all colours, genders, and creeds.  They said in 1967 that the Communicator was science fiction, but I have one next to me on my writing desk.

I think if we can imagine it – this Star Trek world of diversity and acceptance, of peace and freedom – then we can build it.  If we can dream it, we can be it.

Who’s with me?