Tuesday, July 22, 2014

On Self-Sacrifice, Courage, and My Favorite Movies

I always wonder how personal to get with this blog. Because while this is, you know, my personal blog, it's really more of an academic examination of popular culture thing. So I wonder. But today, I feel like it's important for me to be totally honest with you guys, and that means being really vulnerable and personal and feelings-y, so if that skeeves you out, you should probably leave now.

Okay? Good.

Two weeks ago I went on a "Jesus retreat." I had some time off of work, so I drove out through the Olympic Peninsula, and went hiking in La Push, in the rainforest and down to the Pacific Ocean. I saw sunlight glinting off of Crescent Lake in the National Forest, I ate diner food and slept in a super cheap motel, and I stared across the water at a looming Mt. Rainier, reminding myself again that I live in the shadow of a giant volcano and how cool is that? It was a good trip. But it was also a really hard one.

It was a hard trip because God asked me to do something I don't want to do, and he phrased it in such a way that I understood fully and exactly what he was asking. I understood, and I know I can't refuse. Because when God asked me, he was talking about my favorite stories.

My favorite stories, as some of you have no doubt discovered in your deep and obsessive reading of my blog (I like that, keep it up), tend to be very disparate in tone, but very similar in content. What I mean is that while my favorite films include a period piece sports film (Chariots of Fire), an experimental Bollywood film (Rang de Basanti), a big-budget blockbuster about robots punching aliens (Pacific Rim), and a superhero movie about governmental conspiracies and the philosophical point of fear (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Oh, and I happen to love an animated musical based on a Bible story (Prince of Egypt). So, yeah, it's a rather diverse group.

It's diverse, that is, until you get to the themes of the stories. Because while each of these movies is totally different from the others in basic story, they all share the same heart. In each of these films, the characters are forced to confront the truth about the world, and then make a choice. They can either live a simple, unextraordinary life, or they can step into their true identity, who they really are, and change the world.

Most of the time, though, that changing the world thing looks a lot like giving up. Which is as it should be.

The idea for this came to me when I was writing my paper for the upcoming Divergent and Philosophy (you might be able to pre-order it on Amazon already, but probably not). I wrote about the connection between courage and selflessness, and how I think those two ideas are essentially just different facets of the same one. You can't be truly brave without being selfless, and you can't be truly selfless without being brave.

But there is another facet to all of that courage and self-sacrifice. Namely, that self-sacrifice tends to look a lot like giving up. When you do put the greater good before yourself, or prioritize your ideals over your existence, the world tends to look at you like you're nuts. Which you kind of are. But that's okay.

Here's what I mean: in Chariots of Fire, the main plot revolves around two men, Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) competing for the gold medal in the 100m at the 1924 Olympics. Literally the whole movie leads up to that, following Liddell and Abrahams through their various training programs, the setbacks and personal issues that threaten their ability to compete, and even their relationship with each other. The point of the movie is that one race. Or so it seems.

What actually happens (what actually did happen in history, because this is a true story*) is that before the Olympics even really start, Eric Liddell finds out that the qualifying heat for the 100m is on a Sunday. Eric, being a deeply religious man in a very real way, quietly informs the Olympic committee that he cannot run on the Sabbath, and therefore he is dropping out of the race.

This is, for the record, complete and total crazy talk from any normal perspective. Eric has been training for this race for years. He is the favorite to win. And not just the favorite to win, the favorite to set a new world record. He literally has not lost a race in years. He's a hometown hero, and the whole country is waiting for him to win. So this guy goes up to the committee and tells them very politely that he won't race.

They don't take it well.

They actually do everything up to and including siccing the Prince of Wales on him, but Eric doesn't budge. Instead, he drops the race, picks up another race in a different distance (one that he has never run before on this competitive level), and then proceeds to actually preach in a church on that Sunday morning during the qualifying heats.

Harold Abrahams wins the 100m (spoilers for a race that happened almost a century ago!), and Eric goes on to race in the 400m. He not only wins, he sets a new world record. In a race he's never actually trained for. At the Olympics.

The thing that gets me about this story, though, isn't that Eric is totally the best person ever (even though he was definitely my childhood crush, for reals), but that it's not a stand-alone incident. Eric Liddell stood up to the Olympic committee, and then showed them down. Yay, right? But in the larger scheme of things, it's not all that important. It's just sports, for crying out loud.

What is important is what happened later in his life. You see, the reason I love this story is because it's just one of many incidents like this in Eric Liddell's life. Moments when he chose to give up what seemed like the thing he should want, in favor of something that seemed crazy or scary or completely unknown. He did it because he knew it was the right thing to do, and he did it because God asked him to. He didn't always prosper in it, either, at least not by our standards. But he did it anyway.

Eric Liddell died in an internment camp in Japan-occupied China during World War II. He had enough advance warning of the invasion to send his wife and children to safety, but he chose to stay behind, because, as a missionary, he felt this was the place he could best minister. He used his Olympic running skills to run through battlefields gathering the wounded in a wheelbarrow and taking them to the hospital. When he was interned at the camp, he was offered the chance to go free, and refused, asking that they take some of the others instead. He is still remembered as a kind, generous man by all who were interned alongside him, and was known as "Uncle Eric." When he died, all of Scotland mourned.

Courage. Self-sacrifice. Giving up. It looks from our perspectives like Eric Liddell kind of died a failure. I mean, he chose to bail out on an incredibly successful athletic career to be a missionary in China. Then he died there. Blech, right? But that's a narrow perspective. Eric Liddell changed the world, and he did it because he was not afraid to look like a failure. He wasn't afraid to give of himself, because he knew he could not be diminished. He wasn't afraid to look like he was giving up.

Or how about Rang de Basanti? An amazing movie (that more people should see, seriously), the film follows six Indian college students as they make a documentary film about the revolutionary heroes of Indian independence and become, in turn, revolutionaries themselves. It's a brilliant movie. But it's also a hard one to love, because the ending involves, well, the characters all giving up. The movie follows them as they become aware of the real, intractable issues in their country, and examines the possible reactions to those issues. Do we run away to America? Complain about what our country is? Wait for something to come along and change it while we go about our lives?

Do we give up who we are and the future we might have in order to ensure that our brothers and sisters have a better life?

What moves me here is partially the sacrifice, yes, but more how as they become more aware of the suffering around them, they also become more themselves. They become more fully alive. These young people are able to make sacrifices like this only because they have learned who they really are. You have to look at yourself, and then step into your real identity. Who you are supposed to be. That is what changes the world.

Pacific Rim is about robots punching aliens, yes, but it's also about how necessary other people are in our fight. How we should be willing and ready to give ourselves to protect others, and how ultimately, none of us is in it alone. We are all in this together, and it matters whether or not you show up and bring the fullness of your identity and what you can offer. 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier? The only way to really save someone, the only way to show how much you love them, is sometimes to just give up. Yeah, there's all that other stuff going on about HYDRA and SHIELD and the philosophical meaning of fear, but let's be real. All the Captain America movies are just one big love story between Steve (Chris Evans) and Bucky (Sebastian Stan). And when Steve learns that Bucky has no idea who he is, that he is just a target to Bucky, and that Bucky wants him dead, Steve's best act of love is to give up. By giving up, by sacrificing himself, he saves Bucky.

And, incidentally, he saves himself.

Heck, even Prince of Egypt is about these same themes, and it puts them in very blatant terms. When Moses (Val Kilmer) discovers who he really is, namely a slave child adopted into the royal family of Egypt, he has a choice. He can either pretend he doesn't know, and go on living his cushy, nice life, ignoring the plight of his people, or he can give up everything he has, admit who he is, and live a life of slavery. It seems like a really obvious decision. So clearly he makes the "wrong" choice. 

Moses can't live with the idea that he is free and the rest of his people are not. He freaks out. He admits the truth. He even (semi-accidentally) kills a man who was threatening a Hebrew slave. He's banished from Egypt and loses everything. Except his purpose. That he gets and gets in full when a weird bush (in which God is appearing, to be fair) tells him to go back to Egypt (which is suicide) and tell Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go (which is a terrible strategy).

But if you remember the story even a little bit, then you'll remember the key factor here. Not only is it a terrible strategy and a genuinely stupid idea by human standards, it works. The Hebrews go free. And yet everything Moses did could totally qualify as giving up. Or at the very least, making the exact wrong choice at the exact wrong moment every single time.

Funny how that works.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying what I thought of when God told me, on that camping trip, to think of my favorite stories. Because every single one of my favorite stories is about self-sacrifice, courage, loss, and doing the stupid thing because it's the right thing in the end.

While I was praying on that trip, God told me something rather scary. He asked me to think about my favorite stories, and then He asked me if He tells good stories. Obviously He does, so it was easy to reply. And then God got kind of intense. Well, intense even for God.

"Are good stories nice?"

No, no they aren't. Especially not the ones that I love. The stories that I love are full of pain and death and misery and a full and meaningful awareness of human suffering. They're hard stories to love, but they're so vitally important. Good stories aren't nice, good stories are true.

"Do you want me to tell a good story in your life?"

In each of those stories I cited above, there comes a moment where the main character has to decide whether they want their life to be a nice story or a good one. Because these are films, and because they're my favorite films, all those people chose the good story over the nice one. Well, last week it was my turn to choose. It's a terrifying thing, to suddenly be faced with that choice. On the one hand, I, like most people, really and truly hate pain. I'm not going to lie about that. I haaaaate being hurt, physically and emotionally. I don't like doing things that are hard. It sucks.

But on the other hand, I really do believe in the importance of self-sacrifice. I believe it is our duty not just to notice suffering, but to act on that knowledge. After all, "Any man who knows the good he ought to do and does not do it commits a sin."** So the answer, after a lot of deliberation and freaking out was, yes. I want my life to be a good story. I want my life to matter.

It's hard. I'm scared. And I kind of wish I knew what I was in for. All I know is that at some point in the future, I will be asked to "give up my life", and I don't know what that means, or when it will happen. Which I think is the point. Not knowing. Because now I have to live with the understanding of what really does matter. Not success, not living until you're old and grey and surrounded by fat grandbabies, not even falling in love.

What matters is how you answer that question: Will you turn away from the suffering in the world? Or will you step into who you really are, into who you are supposed to be, and face it head on? Even if it makes you look like a failure?

Will you do the stupid thing?

*Plus or minus a few details.

**James 4:17