The first serious film I saw was ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST. Late night BBC2, Christmas 1988, I was 13. Mum & Dad gently insisted that I stay up late to watch it - they had seen it on first release, the year I was born. Something in them knew I needed to see it. What I saw, although I didn't know this then, was that movies had the gift of inviting empathy for people who were different from me, but still the same. Milos Forman opened that door, and the path beyond goes on forever.
If you're a guy who wants to transform aggression into healthy boundaries and protection of the vulnerable, or fear into a sense of meaningful purpose for the common good, or wounds into scars, or confusion into self-knowledge, or fantasies of domination into sharing power, or let's face it, if you just want to be less of an asshole and more of a gift, I know some people who can help. They're still helping me. We do this thing a couple times a year. We're doing it again in a few weeks. You're invited. Some people tell us it was the beginning of the second chapter of their lives.
It was St. Patrick’s Day last weekend, and as an Irish person living in the United States, I’m still surprised at how generous y’all are in wanting to celebrate my heritage.
Being Irish overseas is a mixed blessing. Most people seem to like us, which is nice; on the other hand, the stereotype of drinking and fighting doesn’t just trivialize the suffering of real violence and addiction, but misses the best of who we are.
There’s not a lot we can know for sure about Patrick, but we do know that about 1,500 years ago, at a time when Irish people were often not seen as fully human, Patrick committed his life to us. By believing that Irish people deserved to be loved, with dignity and the freedom to imagine a more fully human life, Patrick helped us see ourselves as worthy.
And so for me, along with green rivers and allegedly funny hats, St. Patrick’s Day can be an opportunity to revel in traditions of hospitality, poetry, resilience, and not taking ourselves too seriously. To pause for a moment and unpick the knots by which bad religion or politics have tied us into self-punishment or community division.
It’s a happy accident (or serendipity) that the great unsung hero of the U.S. Civil Rights movement, Bayard Rustin, was born on St. Patrick’s Day, because Rustin and Patrick have something else in common. Rustin, an African American man, a gay man, a nonviolence teacher and activist, did not allow the false and dehumanizing stories told about him—less-than, weak, toxic, coward—to have the final say.
But more than that.
Knowing that oppositional energy always recreates itself, he worked for a world in which power would be exercised with and not over the community. Former enemies would not be dehumanized or squeezed into the same space from which he had just liberated himself. Instead, as he said:
"Loving your enemy is manifest in putting your arms not around the [person] but around the social situation, to take power from those who misuse it, at which point they can become human too."
Bayard Rustin doesn’t have the iconic public profile of Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks, but he should. Rustin is credited with mentoring Dr. King’s deeper vision of nonviolence not just as a political strategy, but as a way of life. Dr. King made his most famous speech at the March on Washington, which he himself referred to as “the greatest demonstration for freedom” in American history—and Bayard Rustin organized that march.
I never got to meet Bayard Rustin, but I’ve been grateful to encounter people who did, and I’m glad there’s a Saint’s day that coincides with his birthday. I don’t imagine he’d want to be treated as a saint, not least because making people saints does tend to make it easier to ignore what they really believed in. Dyeing a river green isn’t exactly acknowledging the humanity of your enemies. So not a saint, but perhaps an angelic troublemaker (Rustin’s words): one who sees what’s wrong with the story we’re living by, and tells a new one.
PS: Two invitations, if you want to explore these ideas further:
1. In April, join Alice Walker, Brian McLaren, Mira Nair, and myself at our annual community gathering. We call it the Movies & Meaning Experience, but it’s for everyone who loves stories and wants to learn better ones. We think it’s a life-changing event. You can find out more here.
2. Or this summer, join me in Ireland, for a deep personal dive into new stories. Eight nights with a small group of fellow travelers, meeting peacemakers, poets, politicians and people who really did make a difference in a society that sometimes wondered if it would ever make progress. Click here for more details.
My favorite actress is Sally Hawkins, and for me the loveliest thing about the Best Picture Oscar going to The Shape of Water is the recognition of her starring performance. (Want to know why she's my favorite? Try a triple bill of Maudie, Paddington, and Happy-Go-Lucky.) Also lovely was that The Shape of Water seeks to respect character types who have often been marginalized, exoticized, or otherwise dehumanized: a mute woman, a woman of color, a gay man, and a foreign agent, not to mention a "monster," accompanied by exquisite production design and music, warm and engaging storytelling, and Guillermo del Toro’s rare directorial craft.
Yet I was also troubled by The Shape of Water, which ultimately resorts to meting out retributive violence to a caricatured bad guy. We're inviting a conversation in the new edition of The Porch magazine about how easily our fictional heroes slip into murderous violence, and how just as easily we applaud.
Meanwhile, I've been pondering how one of the characters in the original King Kong famously says that “it was beauty who killed the beast.” This line is spoken after the magnificent ape is hounded to his death by buzzing planes which knock him off the side of the Empire State Building, so it’s not strictly true. Beauty is actually what Kong wanted to save; I guess we could say it was the military-industrial-special-effects complex that killed him. It’s a nice turn of phrase, nonetheless, and came to mind recently. The Disney version of Beauty and the Beast doesn't immediately invite comparison with King Kong, but the story it's based on is actually about the same thing: finding vulnerability behind terrifying facades.
The tenderness of Kong's approach to Fay Wray and Belle’s openness to the light that might be hiding behind the Beast’s frightening demeanor are mirrors. But it’s inaccurate to think that the transformation—or the risk—in these stories travels only in one direction. Fay gets rescued; the Beast turns back into a man. But, also, Kong experiences love, and Belle undergoes a rite of passage that leaves her more whole than before.
What initiates positive change in wiser stories is the risk taken by a vulnerable character to face something fearful and allow themselves to imagine they might be looking at more than just a monster. Behind every human face, there’s always something which could lead us to empathize with even our worst enemies.
While passionate opposition to policy or behavior that harms people or the earth is a necessary part of living with integrity, courageous peacemakers tell us that dehumanizing our opponents doesn’t move us further in the direction of a society at home with itself.
When we know that we’re safe, or have found allies who will support us, or perhaps when we’re willing to take the risk of meeting people whose beliefs might oppose ours, one of the most vital things that we can do to help transform aggression into passion for the common good is to approach strangers with curiosity. What are the hopes, dreams, fears, and needs that lead them to feel the way they do about the world, and about us who are asking the questions? Do we have anything in common? Can we help each other? We may all be invited to be Fay Wray, or Belle, open to the hidden light behind a face that frightens us.
Let's keep the conversation going.
PS: We talk about these things at The Porch's annual gathering, the Movies & Meaning Experience, happening just a few weeks from now. People who have attended in the past have told us it made a positive difference in their lives. I'd love to see you there. Click here to find out more about how you can join us.
We’re delighted to announce the early schedule for the 2018 Movies & Meaning Experience, taking place April 26th-28th, at the Diana Wortham Theatre in downtown Asheville, NC.
Now in its fourth year, Movies & Meaning is a three day conference, festival and community gathering, sharing better stories for better lives and a better world. It’s a life-changing experience of wisdom, inspiration, challenge and connection.
We’ll tell seven stories paired with seven conversations, and seven opportunities for positive change - featuring special guests in person including: Alice Walker - Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Color Purple. Mira Nair - Academy Award nominated, Golden Globe & BAFTA winning filmmaker. James McLeary - transformational leader and CEO of the Inside Circle Foundation. Brian McLaren - acclaimed author and activist. Gareth Higgins - Irish peace activist, writer & storyteller, and founder of Movies & Meaning.Read More