Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The 7 Greatest "Self-Esteem" Building Songs of all Time

To refer to this list as the 7 greatest "self-esteem building" songs of all time is a bit of a misnomer, for the notion that one should sing a song to themselves about how great they are, or offer counseling advice on how to elevate one's self-importance is not what is traditionally done in music. In the past, songs were written on any number of subjects, none of which involved psychological navel gazing. So this list really only covers the last four decades, because prior to that time it would have been inconceivable to the balladeer to write a love song to himself (actually it would have been an abomination). If we are to give this self-nurturing mentality a charitable read, we should say that many such individuals are simply trying remedy the apparently popular trend of self-loathing. Yet the real question for these Oprah disciples is whether or not going to a spa and declaring one's undying love for one's self is the key to escaping the aforementioned pit of despair.

7. Firework - Katie Perry

The worst aspect of the self-help mentality is also the best part. For example, it is quite commendable to offer encouragment to someone in need of it; "Do you ever feel like a plastic bag drifting through the wind, wanting to start again? Do you ever feel so paper thin, like a house of cards, one blow from caving in?" So why is there a problem? Because she provides a remarkable diagnosis, but fails to offer any real path to health other than; "Hey, you're great, and all you have to do is believe it!" That is not to say that many young people wouldn't be comforted by such words. Indeed, anytime we feel that someone understands us it can bring great solace. However, if your doctor after correctly diagnosing your disease then told you that the prescription for health was simply to "feel better," then you might get a second opinion. In the same way, no one can be commanded to "love themselves" or to accept that they are "beautiful in every single way" by decree of a pop artist. Quite the opposite; one ceases to feel "like a waste of space" when they realize that their sense of worth comes not from themselves but from God, and one ceases to feel like they are "buried deep" when they get outside of themselves and reach out to people who have an even greater need than they- which brings me to my biggest beef with all of this inner-child worship. The key to feeling like a "firework" is not through self-admiration, nor is it by way of glorifying yourself and realizing how wonderful you are. The solution is the exact opposite of what is suggested in this and other songs. What makes people so miserable is not their failure to think about themselves enough (especially adolescents). That's practically all they do. Rather it is their failure to move beyond that terrible self-pitying isolation and into the world of others. If you want to "ignite the light" then do it by being a "light" to others, not by basking in the flame of your own personal glory.

6. Hero - Mariah Carey

It is not a tremendous surprise that artists who themselves spend a great deal of time looking in the mirror, should try to convince us that we too should do the same. In fairness to Ms. Carey, however, "Hero" is not so much about admiring one's self, as it is about convincing her listeners (and perhaps, sniff sniff, herself) that they have something "special in their soul". And that would not be so bad were she only recommending that her listeners keep their chin up, but alas, it goes well beyond that; "You can find love if you search within yourself and the emptiness you feel will slip away... And then a hero comes along with the strength to carry on, and you finally see the truth, that hero lies in you." The implication in this song is that one really doesn't need other people in the end (except a Diva who writes a song about it). All they need to do is "search within themselves" (really deeply) for a magical wellspring of love and hope; a wellspring that for some unexplained reason is there in the first place. I thought that the point of the song was that these sad individuals ultimately felt terrible about themselves. So why would it make sense for them to look even deeper into the pit of despair? Perhaps if she explained why there is something "special" within each of us I could make sense of it, but indeed there is no rhyme or reason; it's simply there because it's there. When I hear this song it reminds me of the type of person that will only say "bless you" because they want to offer you a blessing without acknowledging the one who blesses, or someone who tells you to have "faith", but never tells you in what. Incidentally, if this song were looking for a date (though it seems quite pleased to go stag), I would probably set it up with Five For Fighting's "Superman", for he too is a "hero" who is looking for "special things inside of himself."

5. Big Girls Don't Cry - Fergie

In this song by Black Eyed Peas singer, Fergie, we receive a lesson in complete narcissism. If you want  tips on how to sacrifice everyone and everything on the altar of your own quest for self-discovery, this is the tune for you. The general theme of the song revolves around Fergie's need to leave behind a relationship that leaves her feeling like she is spinning her wheels. Anyone can sympathize with being stuck in a relationship that is going nowhere, but what is entirely unsympathetic is the fact that she seems to be imputing courage and virtue to herself for breaking the poor guys heart; "... You're probably on your flight back to your hometown. I need some shelter of my own protection, baby, to be with myself and center; clarity, peace, serenity." So whoever this guy is, he'd better understand that she's thinking about him, yeah, but he dare not come between her and her precious time with herself, which will probably include at some point a massage and pedicure. "I hope you know, I hope you know, that this has nothing to do with you." Oh, but I think it does... "It's personal myself and I. We've got some straightening out to do. And I'm going to miss you like a child misses her blanket, but I've got to get a move on with my life..." There are no wasted words here. It is inconceivable that anyone could fit so many self-serving statements in such a small space. Right off the bat, she delivers a most patronizing sentiment; 'I just don't know what I want right now, maybe I'm just too messed up to be in a relationship right now.' I suppose you could tell him point blank that the relationship has hit a dead end and then face the consequences for it. But no, you take the "nobler" path by breaking someone's heart and at the same time pitying yourself. Fergie then commits one of the most egregious sins referring to herself in the third person; the unholy Trinity of me, myself, and I. Apparently, Fergie has no time for relationships unless that relationship involves the various personas of Fergie. And then to cap it all off she has the audacity to tell this guy (as if she hadn't done enough to make him feel about as valuable as a napkin) that she's "gonna miss him like a child misses her blanket, but she's gotta get a move on with her life." Whoever this lucky chap is, at least he can take comfort in the fact that this long term relationship means about as much to her as a used up old rag from childhood, albeit a nostalgic rag.

4. Dance - Lee Ann Womack

It is a little difficult for me to criticize this song because I have to confess I kind of like it. Admittedly, the chorus is rather weak, but the song in general is remarkably pleasant and uplifting; "I hope you never lose your sense of wonder, get your fill to eat but never lose that hunger... I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean, whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens, promise me that you'll give faith a fighting chance. So when you get the choice to sit out or dance. I hope you dance... I hope you dance." What makes this better than most of the songs on this list is;  a) the song is not about encouraging self-centeredness, but an attempt to inspire perseverance and fight;  b) The recommendations are generally good ones. She is encouraging awe at the beauty of creation, hope in the face of adversity, and an invitation to get in the fight as opposed to "sitting it out." So you might be asking yourself, why then is it on the list? The song itself is simple and sweet enough, were it left at that... but alas, nothing can just be simple these days. Instead, it has been turned into a kind of Chicken Soup for the Soul classic, a Hallmark moment for those who like vaguely spiritual sounding lyrics, as well as nebulous advice that really doesn't demand anything of you. For example, few could argue with the demands put forth in chorus, namely that we should "dance" (I know it's meant to be metaphorical, but one can practically impute anything to such a metaphor). They could not just leave the song alone, but had to lionize it, like some innocent child pushed into modeling because she is just too adorable. Thus, instead of only having to hear the song on the radio occasionally, we have to see the book "Dance" enshrined in the windows of Barnes and Nobles and every local country book shop. And what does this book of wisdom consist of? It consists of the lyrics to the song distributed throughout a book with fabulous pictures of landscapes and the distinct impression that we have truly pondered the deep mysteries of life. The only thing missing from the book is a picture of a cat clinging to a branch with a caption which reads; "Hang in there!" Sadly, by elevating it beyond what it should have been, it comes off a little bit too much like a glorified fortune cookie- or one of those wizened calendars that seeks to enlighten the reader with sage words on a daily basis; "Remember, to every acorn there is tree, and to every tree an acorn, and the love you make is the love you take... blah blah blah."

3. Silent Lucidity - Queensryche

Who would ever expect a metal band to be on the list of self-help songs? But remember- most 80's metal bands also had power ballads. Silent Lucidity was Queensryche's so called "power ballad." Even so, what makes it different from other power ballads is that it is not about romantic love, but about exploring one's dreams (literally). Heavy metal and the New Age (which is the spiritual arm of the self-help sensation) are strange bedfellows, but they do have their commonalities. The New Ager is into mysticism and the occult, while heavy metal certainly dabbles in the mysterious forces behind things. In the case of Queensryche, their little detour into the realm of dreams, stands out if only because, well, it really does stand out. Indeed, nothing else they wrote could be classified as a "how to" manual on dreams, or be mistaken for something you might find in the New Age section of a book store. "Hush now don't you cry, wipe away the tear drops in your eyes. You're lying safe in bed, it was all a bad dream spinning  in your head... So here it is another chance, wide awake you face the day your dream is over... or has it just begun?" Do you have chills now? I know I do. This should be the theme song to the movie Inception. At any rate, he calms the little boy in the song by insisting that he can help him achieve "dream control" if he will only sets his mind to it. Yet what is not calming about this song is a series of creepy voices in the background, coupled with the lead singers intentionally Pink Floyd-esque vocal stylings. It is, I am guessing, their attempt to create a dream-like atmosphere; "If you open your mind for me, you won't rely on open eyes to see. The walls you built within come tumbling down and the new world will begin." I'm glad to know that I have a dream expert here with me who can help me perfect and master the art of dream manipulation: a rather trippy prospect. Why am I trying to achieve "dream control" again? Is it so that I can manipulate reality and bend it completely to my will, is that the important lesson here? Dreams are obviously important to us, but I always thought that the awe-inspiring thing about them was that they went beyond our imagination, not that they were constricted to it. Yet that is precisely what self-help is all about, bending everything to fit your vision of reality. The chorus of the song is the spookiest of all, though I think it is supposed to be soothing; "I will be watching over you, I will protect you in the night... I'm smiling next to you in silent lucidity." Yeah, I'm about as comforted as a boy who is watched over at night by a smiling clown. Who's watching over me again? Is he a parent (best case scenario), is the singer making himself into God (worse), or is it some dream expert hired to loom over me as I sleep at night and make sure I dream the right way? Whatever the case, this emphasis on controlling your dreams is right up the alley (or aisle) of the self-help section of any bookstore.

2. I've Never Been To Me - Charlene

This song would be #1 on the list were it not for the fact that, far from telling herself how wonderful she is, "Charlene" is actually criticizing herself and the life she has led. She is not saying that a little more regard for herself is the perfect tonic for happiness, she is lamenting that she wasted her early years on a dissolute lifestyle. This is hardly the recipe for self worship. Rule #1 in the book of Self Help is you never blame yourself when there is a perfectly good relative to blame (or dead horse to beat). The key point is this: everything that is right in your life is because of you, and everything that is wrong is because of someone else. That is the yellow brick road of happiness. You are God, and everyone and everything else should just accept this glorious fact! Unfortunately, Charlene grew up in an era where one inevitably attempts psychologize everything and use phrases that are more at home in the theatre of pop psychology than a ballad about regret; "Oh I've been Georgia and California and anywhere I could run. I took the hand of a preacher man and we made love in the sun. But I ran out places and friendly faces because I had to be free. I've been to paradise but I've never been to me." It is a noble and understandable sentiment to want to go back and have a "Come to Jesus" talk with yourself, especially at those times when you were most reckless. However, having a conversation with yourself in a song can't help but to feel a little like the type of role playing exercise that a psychiatrist (or New Age guru) employs in order to familiarize you with your inner child; "Now I want you to imagine that you are here with yourself at age seventeen (these are my lyrics not hers). Talk to yourself and give yourself a little advice." It feels, well, just so 1970. Your heart can't help but to break when she speaks about how she weeps for "children she will never have," but the problem with her weeping is that she is not doing it for her children unborn, but for the fact that those children would have "made her complete". Which leads to, in my opinion, the most glorious self-help line of any song. Charlene has been to paradise, but you know where she's never been? "She's never been to me." I get what the sentiment is supposed to represent, but I have to disagree profoundly with her conclusion. The problem is not that she hasn't "been to herself." From the sound of it that's practically all she's been to. There is a reason the phrase, "I've never been to me", is grammatically incoherent, because it is a logical contradiction. The primary way you "get to you" is not by grieving over children that would have made you complete, but by grieving for all the people that you could have unselfishly served. Because she has spent all of her time serving herself, she has, as is noted Scriptures, lost herself; "for those who save their life will lose it, and those who lose it for my sake will save it." Now if she could just turn some of that 70s solipsism into something a little more pro-active, something which employs her regret in a more reform-minded way rather than despairing over a past she cannot change, then she may actually get somewhere.

1. The Greatest Love of All - Whitney Houston

If Satan wrote a love ballad this would be it. I say this with full recognition that people romanticize this song about as much as they do John Lennon's Imagine. Originally performed by George Benson in the late 70s, Ms. Houston was the one who ultimately made it famous (kind of like "I Will Always Love You"). The song starts off innocently enough, celebrating youth and recognizing their role in building the future; "I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way, show them all the beauty they possess inside..." I'm with you so far. "Give them a sense of pride to make it easier. Let the children's laughter remind us how we used to be..." OK, now the message is a little foggier. What is the topic again? "Everybody's searching for a hero. People need someone to look up to. I never found anyone to fulfill my needs; a lonely place to be, and so I learned to depend on me." This has to be one of the weirdest trojan horse songs of all time, for at one stage we are musing about the beauty of childhood, and then the next moment we are talking about how the songwriter never found anyone worthy of his trust and so concluded it was best to look up to himself (I'm trying to imagine what that would look like); "I decided long ago never to walk in anyone's shadow, if I fail if I succeed, at least I live as I believe. No matter what they take from me they can't take away my dignity..." Now it sounds like we're getting a little paranoid. But fear not, oh mighty navel gazer, thankfully you've got yourself to protect you! "Because the greatest love of all is happening to me. I found the greatest love of all inside of me. Learning to love yourself it is greatest love of all." Forgive me, but I have the greatest video montage of all in my mind for this (somebody please make it). It would include a series of images representative of what is being spelled out here. First you would see a man in a field with his arms wrapped around himself, dancing and leaping for joy. Then you would see a man in a straight jacket embracing himself in a mental institution. Then the scene would shift to a woman holding flowers, boldly proclaiming that she bought flowers for herself because she deemed herself more than worthy. The video then would conclude with a recent news story about a women who recently proposed to and married herself with many emotional onlookers. There is a lot to be said for recognizing your own worth and value, but is that really achieved by becoming Stuart Smalley (see above)? We should no doubt love ourselves in the sense that we should recognize who and what we were made for. But whatever you do, please do not declare that worshipping yourself is the "greatest love of all." Worship the moon for all I care, but please do not light incense to yourself. By the way, I always thought that the greatest love involved laying one's life down for one's friend or dying for some cause greater than yourself, but I could be wrong. How can anyone be so brazen as to suggest that the ultimate goal in life is to be selfish? Can you really die for yourself? Such is the nature of the self-help genre that even when it acknowledges God, God tends to look suspiciously like ourselves.              


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What I Learned from Mr. Miyagi

Beyond some incredible montages, the 1980s are probably best known, at least film-wise, for their attention to adolescent adventures. From Back to the Future to the Goonies to Sixteen Candles, it is difficult to deny their appeal. Even today, when I ask some of my students about these films, they seem to be at least moderately aware of their existence. I think that this is due in large part to the fact that they don't make too many "coming of age" films anymore, unless it involves some young man's "courageous" quest to explore his sexuality identity. Give me Sloth and Chunk any day over that crap. In any case, one such film that is almost universally loved and remembered by high school students is the Karate Kid. What is appealing about this film, no matter what the generation, is the fact that it involves, an underdog, a mysterious and wise teacher, and some nasty bullies that really do a get a fabulous, one footed, crane-kicking butt whooping in the end.

But apart from the fabulous closing scene, there is one other scene (or series of scenes) that looms large in my mind. Simply say to someone out of nowhere in a wizened Miyagi-like voice; "Wax-on Wax-off", and rest assured your friend will provide a demonstration without any further encouragement. Yet beyond the entertainment of having a friend show you karate moves of which he is incapable (think Star Wars Kid in his Garage), there is something else about these scenes which undoubtedly captures our collective imagination.

As campy as this film may be, Mr. Miyagi is a truly an unforgettable character. Even more unforgettable is the method he uses to instruct the young lad. For his part, Daniel (san) Russo wants to learn karate in order to confront some bullies that have been hassling him relentlessly. Fortunately, it turns out that his landlord, Mr. Miyagi, just so happens to be a black belt in karate and is more than capable of training him. So Daniel approaches him and expresses his desire to become his disciple. Reluctantly, Miyagi accepts Daniel's request, but only under one condition; "I tell you, you do. No questions, Okay? Walk on left side of road, fine, right side, fine; walk in middle, get squish like grape (insert grape squishing sound)." In other words, he tells the boy, either you give yourself completely to this, or don't do it at all. But whatever you do, don't do it half way.

Miyagi's first command is that the boy show up at sun rise the next day to begin instruction. Enthusiastic about his training, Daniel shows up at dawn ready to begin, but when he arrives, to his and the audience's surprise, he receives a very different kind of instruction. Miyagi hands the boy a sponge and a bucket. Apparently this mysterious man is some sort of collector of classic cars [that he appears to be fixing up] and he wants Daniel-san to wash all of them by hand and then wax them; a task that the boy must perform in a very particular manner. Indeed, it is not enough that the boy wash them and wax them haphazardly- he must use a technique whereby with one hand he "waxes on" and with the other he "waxes off". Of course this only makes his task all the more annoying and burdensome, prompting Daniel-san to initially protest. However, his protest is short lived, for Mr. Miyagi responds with a stern rebuke; "Daniel-san, remember our deal!" Consequently, Daniel resigns himself to the task.

The next morning Daniel shows up at the same time only to receive an equally onerous task. This time he must sand Mr. Miyagi's deck. Mind you, this is no small deck- it is a deck that extends throughout his backyard (it is part of an intricate Japanese garden). A slight variant of his original task, "sand the floor" involves the following motions; "right a circle, left a circle, breathe in, breath out." But as the day wears on, and all the work appears to be finished, Mr. Miyagi approaches Daniel-san who is clearly tired and sore and tells him "Good work, Daniel-san, go home, get some rest, start early tomorrow... six o'clock." Daniel says nothing, but it is clear by the look of dismay on his face that he is quickly losing patience with his master's regimen.

The following day is no easier for the boy, for what should follow "sand the floor", but "paint the fence." Like the previous tasks, this one also involves a specific motion (along with the requisite breathing). The paint the fence motion is one that involves both an up and down pattern and a side to side motion as well. At this stage, Daniel-san knows the program so he doesn't quarrel, but when he finishes the fence in relatively short order and points this out to his master, Miyagi simply points to the rest of the yard, indicating with his hand that Daniel-san's work has just begun; "whola yard." The movie does an excellent job of keeping you in the dark just enough to feel the sense of burden and futility that Daniel-san must feel as he is once again given a laborious task.

However, the last straw for Daniel-san occurs later that night when Mr. Miyagi returns from an apparent fishing trip, only to comment, not on the boys good work, but on the fact that he apparently had "missed a spot". Understandably, this intentionally glib comment sets Daniel off. Embittered, he begins cursing and accusing Mr. Miyagi of essentially turning him into a slave and using his karate instruction as pretext for getting free labor. But just as Daniel is about to walk away into the night cursing his master, Miyagi, shouts brusquely at him; "Daniel-san, come here!" Calming down a bit, Daniel approaches his master still frustrated to a large degree. What follows, as many of you now, is one of the more pleasing and satisfying scenes in cinema. Unbeknownst to Daniel-san, Miyagi was teaching him the fundamentals of karate the whole time. Thus, when he tells Daniel to stand at the ready, he finds that all of the monotony was not in vain. In fact, his muscle memory is such that when Mr. Miyagi tries to hit him, he instinctively blocks all of his attempts. The scene concludes with a flurry of moves by Mr. Miyagi, all of which Daniel-san is able to deflect thanks to the three primary motions that he had been learning during those days of toil.

From this sequence I have learned three major lessons. First of all, it (along with the rest of the movie) helped me to appreciate the virtue in karate. In some ways it is the most moral form of hand-to-hand combat, and in fact mirrors the Christian principle of how to engage one's enemies. The first aim is that of defense and not of assault. It is the art of trying to bring your opponent to submission, not by brutalizing him, but by subduing him. If this fails, and he will submit by no other means, then yes, one may have to employ a more offensive technique. But the larger aim is to avoid such an unpleasant exchange altogether.

Secondly, I learned from this scene one of the more essential lessons about the practice of religion. Whether in school, at home, or on the practice field, we accept, more or less, that we will have to do things that seem futile or meaningless in order to succeed at them. In the case of sports and other activities, we perform these disciplines, not because we think they are meaningful, but because we see them as a means to an end. They are our golden ticket to doing the things we want to do- whether that be driving the car, starting in a game, or getting an "A". Ultimately, we do these things for the pleasure that they promise, not for the discipline they impart. But what this movie so wisely articulates is the fact that, despite our superficial reasoning, all that annoying busy work (sports or otherwise) is not merely "busy work." This is not to suggest that there aren't instructors who do this, but most good teachers give their students work that they know will benefit them. The challenge from the teacher's perspective is that the student quite often only vaguely (at best) comprehends why such discipline is imposed. Consequently, what is so deftly communicated in this film is the reasoning behind certain essential, though monotonous, practices.

Indeed, one might even apply this lesson to certain "monotonous" practices in our religious faith. Like, why do we have to repeat the prayers of the Mass e-v-e-r-y Sunday. Or why do Catholics pray the rosary? Is God so hard of hearing that he has to hear the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be over and over again? And what's the deal with the Church's excessive focus on sexuality and the sanctity of life? One reason you could argue is if we say it enough times, someone might take the remarkable step of actually seeing the wisdom in these words. Another reason, I would suggest, is more pertinent to the movie. Men are, as it were, spiritual and psychological amnesiacs, and unless we tattoo certain principles in our very heart, mind, and body they will not find a permanent residence in our thoughts and actions. If there is such a thing as muscle memory, then there must also be a parallel in the spirit. And so the purpose of these little repetitive exercises is that they become second nature to us. An actor doesn't learn a script inside and out so that his performance is rote; he does so in order to make it as natural and spontaneous as a real life encounter. And indeed, what a joyous occasion it would be if we too were find (along with and Daniel-san), that all of this repetitious "nonsense" really had a purpose after all.

The last lesson I learned from the master- that is, Mr. Miyagi- is perhaps the most subtle and interesting one of all. Why didn't Mr. Miyagi just tell Daniel-san from the outset about his agenda? Why did he keep the veil of ignorance over Daniel-san's eyes as long as he did- knowing that it would push him to his limit? As an audience we accept this approach as if it makes perfect sense, but in truth it is anything but an obvious lesson. Mr. Miyagi could have said; "Don't worry Daniel-san. I am teaching you Karate moves. It is a special technique I use, and it follows from you learning the moves through repetition (something essential if one is to be a master at anything)." But no, he doesn't do that! Instead, he leaves the audience and Daniel under the impression that he may simply be playing games with the boy.

The lesson he must learn is the rarely appreciated discipline of trust through blind obedience. If the student cannot trust his master in things which are beyond his knowledge, then how will he ever understand what is beyond his knowledge? Parents will sometimes tell their children; "Because I said so". This may not always be the best approach, but it is not always possible, nor beneficial, to present your children with some sort of essay or thesis that explains their rationale for everything. Indeed, there is virtue in obedience alone. What I am suggesting is not some zombie-like servility, but one in which the student actively learns how to be flexible in a world that often is not. The truth is there are some things that a young mind can't (nor particularly wishes to) understand. For example, when a three year old reaches for the electrical outlet, you do not go on about the nature of electrocution and the galvinization of energy, you simply slap their hand. Perhaps at later time such an explanation is apropos, but at that point it is only possible to create an association between the light socket and danger. And this, in varying degrees, is the case at any stage in life. Thus, this radical trust must go well beyond the student's comprehension of things, and reach into the realm of "I can't understand, but I trust you, and so will do what you say." Without this profound trust, the student is doomed to know only what he immediately comprehends. Yet coupled with this form of obedience, he can then move beyond his limited capacity and truly understand the mind of his master. Some may scoff at the notion that anyone should have blind trust in anything, but there is no one who strives for greatness, who doesn't believe that their personal heroes are worthy to be trusted completely in their area of expertise.

In the Gospels, Jesus (the divine Miyagi) has his own Daniel-san moment with his disciples when he gives them his teaching regarding the consumption of his "body and blood." When many of his disciples are understandably shaken and disgusted by such a proposition, some choose to return to their former way of life. In the course of all this, Jesus never says anything like; "Wait, stop, please, I want to explain to you what I really meant." Rather, he lets them walk, and then turns to his apostles and says; "Will you leave me also?" Or on another occasion, when Jesus tells his apostles about his plans to restore Israel; a plan that includes torture, humiliation, and death by crucifixion. One can understand why such a pedagogical approach might be greeted with some genuine skepticism. It is almost as if Jesus is trying to shock and offend everyone on purpose. And indeed in some sense he was. For just as Mr. Miyagi had pushed Daniel-san to his limits, so also Jesus does with his disciples.

But why would Jesus want to push them away? Actually, it would be more accurate to say that he is trying to "push" them, rather than push them away. Like a great coach who tells an athlete, "I don't think you have enough heart to make it", the goal is not to provoke despair, but to see if there is any fight in the boy. "This is a long grueling journey and if you don't buy in completely, it would be better for you to turn back now... lest you get "squish like grape." Talent and passion will only take you so far. Without the recognition that you should "always look eye" when it comes to your master, you will never see things from the eye of the master. Most of all, what is required of the disciple is a flexibility of spirit. You must be capable of taking anything that is thrown at you- not bitching and complaining about it, but confronting and accomplishing the task that is set before you. Moreover, you have to be willing to go on even when you no longer physically, mentally, or even spiritually want to. Hence, the secret to genuine excellence is not your own personal comprehension of every single law or dictate of religion, but a divine adaptability, an internal freedom that grants you the liberty to proceed with courage, even when a cloud of uncertainty is overshadowing you.    


Saturday, September 8, 2012

A Fitting Tribute on the Memorial of 9/11

The above video was played on VH1 almost every hour on the hour in the days following 9/11. This tribute in particular features footage from that day coupled with the song "Overcome" by the 90's alt band Live. There were of course other beautiful attempts to capture the tragedy, but for whatever reason, this one struck me in particular...

In the past, when I watched this tribute I generally thought about the events of that terrible day and where I was when it all happened. I was in seminary at the time and it was just before breakfast when the towers were hit. At that point in time, I wasn't really sure about the gravity or the nature of the attack- because I had heard everything second hand. Even so, as I went to the chapel to pray, I could hear one of my classmates weeping, and I knew that there was more to this than some unfortunate aviation accident. I wondered if it was the beginning of World War III. Thankfully, my fears were allayed.

This year, however, I watched the footage with a different sense of sorrow. I was not so much moved about something that had happened in the past, but rather moved by something that is going on as we speak. For whatever reason, when I saw those two towers collapse over the weekend, I saw them as representative of all of the division and confusion that seem to permeate our culture. I saw those buildings as the embodiment of our beloved- though painfully divided- nation. I thought of Jesus' words as he wept over Jerusalem; "'If only you knew what made for peace, but even now it is hidden from your eyes... O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who I sent to you, how often I have desired to gather your children together, like a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were unwilling!"' Luke 19:41-44; Matthew 23:37

Unlike many today, Jesus demonstrates here the substance and source of true patriotism. He is not some moralist demagoguing the misbehavior and misdeeds of the Israelites, nor is he someone who is blind to their apparent weaknesses. He loves Israel for her own sake, and is therefore heartbroken that she seems so bent on destroying herself.

Lest we forget what true patriotism looks like, let us remember how people behaved on that day and the days that followed that tragic attack. Let us remember the men and women that went into those fiery buildings in order to save the lives of people whom they had never met. What healed our great nation was not the ideology of the left or the right, but something that is incredibly rare in our society today; a humbler and quieter spirit, the noble sense that there is something infinitely more beautiful and desirable than self-interest. It was like a tremendous jack hammer cracking the horrible shell of indifference in our society, and for brief moment, men actually remembered who they were meant to be. If we fail to recognize this, then the attack on 9/11- and all that was lost on that morning- will have been in vain. Consequently, we remember not simply because it was tragic, but because it reminds us of all that is at stake. It is not about the evil deeds of some wild-eyed god-forsaken terrorist, but about calling to mind the marvelous unity of our people that shined forth from the heart of that destruction.

But one way or another, we will have to learn this most vital lesson, whether it be through the spirit of true patriotism, or by, as it were, reducing ourselves to smoke and ashes. If  we choose the former, it will truly be a joyous and exuberant re-awakening; if we choose the latter, then we will sadly have to come to this knowledge in a most painful way. "For the days are coming when your enemies will surround... and they will not leave one stone upon another." And as we stand amidst the wreckage and rubble of that future Ground Zero, we will finally come to the realization that what held this remarkable structure together in the first place was not merely human ingenuity, but an unassuming, though undeniably essential crossbeam.


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Dead Poets Society and the Romanticization of Suicide

One of my favorite films growing up was the classic coming of age tale "Dead Poets Society". It was one of those films that as a young man you could relate to even if you yourself weren't attending an exclusive all-male boarding school. To this very day I enjoy watching it if only for the excellent cinematography and Robin Williams' sterling performance as the engaging literature teacher named John Keating. Yet in spite of all of these positive attributes and the overarching romantic vibe, there is also something in it which, in a quite remarkable way, embodies the mistake of romanticism.

Romanticism is a literary movement that began in the late 18th Century and ran until the end of the 19th century. It is characterized by an almost primitivistic attempt to restore man via emotion and imagination to his original innocence. The romantic poet wanted man to return to a tabula rasa-like state, whereby man, unconstrained by the framework of modern categories, could finally see reality again with a fresh pair of eyes. For many romantic poets like Blake and Wordsworth it was also a movement which began as a direct response to the Industrial Revolution. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with embracing nature and opposing a vision of society which seeks to mechanize everything; the mistake that the romantic makes is that he seeks to do this using rather dubious methods.

As it relates to the film itself, John Keating represents the type of teacher of which most students dream. He seems to be a bit unpredictable and "out of the box", and better still, he incorporates humor into his lesson plans, all the while maintaining high academic standards.  In one of the early scenes, Keating tells his students to tear out the pages of the introduction to their literature book. He tells them to do this because the textbooks suggest that you can actually grade and/or measure poetry, which is an abomination from his point of view: "We're not laying pipe! We're talking about poetry. How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? 'I like Byron, I give him a 42 but I can't dance to it!' " When the students realize he's not joking, most of them begin to tear the pages out enthusiastically. During this tearing frenzy, another teacher hears the noise and comes in the room demanding that they stop. At first he doesn't realize that Keating is already there, presuming that this is student led chaos. However, once he sees that Keating is in fact in the room, he quizzically backs out apologizing for his intrusion. Later, when both teachers are seated at lunch, he questions Keating's teaching methods, calling them interesting, though terribly misguided. He then goes on to point out that Keating is taking a big risk encouraging young men to be artists when few, if any, will succeed at this endeavor. Keating responds by explaining that he is not so much teaching them to be artists, as teaching them to be "freethinkers." The other teacher then laughs, and says rhetorically; "Free thinkers at seventeen John? Oh come on!"

In another scene Keating takes the men down the hall and shows them photographs of former students. The pictures are all in black and white and as the boys stare at these haunting photos, Keating stands behind them and whispers in a ghastly voice; "Carpe Diem. Seize the day." His point is- as he soon indicates to the students- that they too are "worm food," and that they had better take full advantage of the time given to them, lest they fail to leave a proper legacy.

On a superficial level, who could disagree with any of these premises? For example, does anyone really want to stand on the side of that cynical faculty member who thinks of the students as little more than a kind of receptacle for information- incapable of any real independent thought? And how could anyone dispute that boys of this age should be passionate about their lives and look to leave a lasting impression on the world? Hence, the message of this film is not only appealing on an aesthetic level, but also on a practical one as well. After all, who could object to the notion that young men should contemplate the meaning of their existence? Yet therein lies the perfect Hollywood deceit. It is like a beautiful car without an engine, or a bike without a bike chain. If something looks beautiful and has the whiff of something profound, then it must be. Dead Poets Society is so near the truth, that any teacher (including myself) could use a great deal of the movie as a perfect model for his students. It is the worst type of deception because it forcefully represents all of the beauty of romanticism, while feigning complete ignorance about the dangers.

The epitome of this self-deception occurs when Neil, one of Keating's students, inspired by his professor's romantic vision of life, looks to try out for the Shakespearean play A Midsummer Night's Dream. Nevertheless, there is one major problem with him pursuing this role; his father sees this as a distraction and a utter waste of time. The father is a typical Hollywood straw man, a robotic, one-dimensional character who envisions his son being a doctor and will not countenance anything else. The mother is a virtual doormat who doesn't have the courage to question anything her dictatorial husband decrees. And of course all of this makes Neil's predicament even more sympathetic. For though he wants with all his heart to be in the play, he knows his father will oppose him. And indeed, he is right on this account. When he asks his father's permission to be in the play, the father rejects him outright. Consequently, Neil approaches Keating for advice on the matter, and Keating tells him to go to his father and tell him exactly how he feels, assuring him that that will convince him. Unable to muster enough courage to do that, Neil opts instead to disobey his father and act in the play anyway. In the end the father finds this out and shows up to watch the performance from the back of theatre. At first, the audience is led to believe that the father may be swayed by his son's exceptional performance, but as the play concludes, the father swoops in to extricate him from all of the accolades he is bound to receive. Indignant by his son's blatant disobedience, he shuttles Neil through the crowd past Keating and his friends, declaring that Neil will be attending a military school, which, from a Hollywood standpoint, is probably the academic equivalent of the ninth circle of hell. As the car pulls away, the camera focuses on Keating's face who looks at the departing vehicle with an expression of complete bewilderment and helplessness.
When Neil and his parents arrive back at home, the father digs in his heels lambasting him for his insolence and ingratitude. While all of this is going on the mother just stares vacantly into space. And as Neil attempts to make one final defense of his cause, the father abruptly shouts him down, provoking Neil to impotently recoil into silence once again. Later that night, the father awakes with a start only to find that his son has presumably shot himself to death.  

It may be true to say that there are plenty of one-dimensional fathers out there; it may also be true that there are plenty of families that are like dictatorships in which there is no room for a child to dream or determine for themselves what their future will be. Nevertheless, what is naive about this film is the suggestion that being passionate for the sake of being passionate is the key to life, while realism, coupled with tradition, is inevitably wrong. I understand why a straw man like this might seem appealing to a youthful mind, but as is clearly demonstrated in the film, an unfettered romanticism really does lead to suicide. I do not deny that there are people out there like Neil's father, nor do I deny that some teachers are miserable blowhards, but my sense is that movie is not simply addressing an isolated incident, but rather presenting a manifesto on life; a manifesto that I would argue is rudderless.

And yet as charismatic as Keating is, he offers little rationale for encouraging his students to "seize the day". His reasons are purely sentimental. We should because... well... it's great and romantic and because we are all going to be "worm food" anyway. But is "passion" the only thing that is necessary in life? Terrorists are very passionate about their cause. Mobs tend to be full of "feelings". On the contrary, passion completely freed from its intellectual constraints is little more than an invitation to moral anarchy. "Memento mori" is a fine directive, but why should we remember our mortality? From the Christian perspective, we remember it because, yes, we need to leave our mark on life. But more importantly, we remember it because we will need to live with that "mark" for rest of eternity.

From the perspective of the director, Neil has been placed in an untenable situation by a father who is asphyxiating his creative energy. The audience can't help but to feel disdain for the father's utterly stifling ways. Even so, is the father really the only one to blame for the suicide? Indeed, the movie never once considers Neil's part in this, or even Keating's (he is subsequently fired, but the movie implies that there is an injustice in all this). OK, the father is a jerk, perhaps even worthy of our contempt, but could not Neil have waited his father out? Could he not have decided to put up with his father's nonsense a little while longer, and then "elope" into whatever life or profession he chose? No. What he chose to do instead is quite the opposite of honorable or romantic. He decides that his dad will never listen to him; and thus he has no other option but to take his life. But he doesn't just take his life, mind you, before he dies he puts on what appears to be a crown of thorns (it is in truth Puck's crown). He does this just so everyone can remember what a victim he really is. Great message! If at first you don't succeed, kill yourself. Jesus never put a gun to his head, claiming that he would commit suicide in order to save mankind- yet that is what this scene curiously implies. This is not the spirit of the true romanticism, but rather the spirit of Veruca Salt.

The night of the performance, as Neil's father shuttles him away, Robin Williams' face tells you everything you need to know about naiveté of romanticism. In all of the time he spent selling the young students on passion and poetry, never once does he teach them about the virtue and value of order and structure. Instead he tells them in essence that there are no boundaries, and then acts surprised when one of his students goes off the rails. Humans, especially teenagers, are naturally romantic; they don't need someone to tell them to be passionate. What they need is for someone to show them how to harness their passion. The ultimate mistake of the film is not that it criticizes the father's "realism", or even the traditions of the all male boarding school- the problem is it fails to see its own part in Neil's miserable demise. Indeed, both views are contributing factors in his death because both views have falsely pitted themselves against one another (like a head going to war with a heart). Thus, realism without romance is as cold and dispassionate as the father on the night of play, and romance without realism is a crown of thorns on the head of a boy who strategically lodges a bullet in his brain.