Sunday, September 14, 2008

Message to Tim (re: Lars and the Real Girl)

My friend Tim, who teaches at a seminary, sent me a lengthy message today. Here's an excerpt:

"Hey I saw [...] that one of your recent favorite movies is Lars and the Real Girl. We've found it to be a powerful movie about community! [...] One of the questions I've been asking in response is this: how do you discern when your acceptance of someone is enabling their brokenness rather than helping them experience healing? We tend to be a very accepting community (our church), but sometimes people stay stuck right where they are for years. Any thoughts on this, and on the movie?"

And here's my reply:

I love LARS AND THE REAL GIRL for precisely the aspect you mentioned--community. The brother, his wife, the would-be girlfriend, the doctor, the townspeople--the sense of wisdom and support there--fantastic--and deeply moving for me. It's what I always hoped existed somewhere.

Of course, the movie's a fantasy. Such a huge level of support and acceptance seems far-fetched--even the ease with which resistance was subdued seems improbable--far more likely (to pessimistic me, anyway) is that those who disapproved of Lars' little folly would have entrenched themselves, perhaps found a way to turn the whole deal into a Righteous Cause ("What kind of example is this for the children?")--the primal herd instinct to repel outsiders is much stronger than the movie presented.

But, then, I don't mean any of this as a complaint--it's only a movie, after all--Oz probably doesn't exist either.

Your related question is intriguing. How much is too much acceptance?

Here's my first thought on the matter, having not given it close examination yet: Acceptance is the opposite of resistance and entrenchment. When should we resist? Should we never resist?

Resistance is almost certainly the right thing to do when confronted with injustice, cruelty, manifestly destructive behavior--particularly when the harm is immediate and unmistakable.

But HOW should we resist? Nonviolently, compassionately. Is it possible? Is that really what turning the other cheek means? Satyagraha?

But we live in a culture that believes in redemptive violence--either the violence of swift revenge (or even torture) as an effective arm of true justice, or the violence of martyrdom, sacrifice, and (what's the word I'm looking for?) shunning, closing off, driving off. (I'm thinking as I go along here, so don't expect coherence.)

So, acceptance--I'm going on a limb here--is generally preferable to resistance--that is, saying YES is better than saying NO ... in general.

So when is acceptance wrong? I think acceptance runs the danger of becoming indifference when it ceases to be active. If "acceptance" is passive, it is simply not-caring. Active acceptance involves curiosity and involvement, empathy--an imaginative leap into the consciousness of others.

So in LatRG the townspeople (the ones we like anyway) manage, through openness and imagination to enter into Lars' delusion. In doing this, they are diligent enough not to become deluded themselves, but rather to find creative ways to interpret the delusion and mine it for its beneficial effects--not just for Lars but for themselves as well.

I feel the movie indicates that the people surrounding Lars are as profoundly changed in the end as Lars himself. (And we see some of them are already capable of this in the sister-in-law's persistence in trying to get Lars to come into the house for dinner, at the beginning of the movie.)

Talking about this subject, I'm reminded of something I read years and years ago about some Native American culture--what tribe or tribes I cannot remember. But it goes like this--if a child were born into the tribe whose only gift was to make dolls out of corncobs and could do nothing else, the tribespeople would then develop a NEED for corncob dolls--for ritual uses or as toys, or maybe as decorations. The tribe took from each what each was able to offer, in other words. When the dollmaker died, and if there was no replacement for him/her, the tribe gradually ceased to need the dolls anymore.

Of course, such a society would have to depend on the fact that most people would bring skills to the tribe conducive to survival, but given their organic view of community, all people's gifts were assumed to have value, not because they conformed to what is normal but because each member was already assumed to be irrevocably an organic part of the tribe.

Of course, this information may have been BS, part of the sentimentalizing of Indian culture--the noble savage and all that. But I think even if there never were such a culture, even if LatRG portrays a Hollywood dream, even if violence and ... ostracism! that's the word I was struggling to find up above ... but even if violence and contempt for outsiders are deeply ingrained in human nature, possibly even for good survival-centered reasons, still, isn't the idea of community a rather wonderful dream?

And maybe I haven't even answered the very intriguing question you posed.

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