Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Wise Dummy

In her book The Search for the Beloved, Jean Houston tells the story of going to visit Edgar Bergen with her father, who was a comedy writer.

Ed didn't hear us as we knocked at his open hotel door; he was sitting on the side of a bed deep in conversation with Charlie. My Dad shrugged. "He's rehearsing." But then we heard what Ed was saying. He was asking Charlie ultimate questions, like: "Charlie, what is the nature of love? What is the meaning of life truly lived? What really comprises the good, the true, and the beautiful?" And Charlie was answering! Pouring out pungent, beautifully crafted statements of deep wisdom. The funny-faced little dummy was expounding the kind of knowing that could only have come from a lifetime of loving study, observation, and interaction with equally high beings.

After several minutes of listening to this wooden Socrates, my father, embarrassed, coughed. Bergen looked up and somewhat shamefacedly greeted us. "Hello, Jack, hi Jean. I see you caught us."

"Yeah, Ed," my father said. "What in the world are you doing?"

"I'm talking to Charlie. He's the wisest person I know."

"But Ed," my father expostulated, "that's your voice and your mind coming out of that dummy!"

"Yes, Jack, I suppose it is," Ed answered quietly. But then he added with great poignancy, "And yet, when he answers me, it is so much more than I know."

Houston goes on to say how this short conversation profoundly influenced the direction of her own life:

At that moment my future was set. I had no choice but to pursue a path and a career that would discover ways to tap into the "so much more" of the deep knowledge that we all contain but rarely contact. These ways are offered in my seminars, not to produce more ventriloquists, but to enable people to inhabit more levels of themselves.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

"The Pursuit of Happyness": A (Late) Review

I saw this 2006 film on DVD the other night and have been thinking about it here and there ever since. My first impression was that it was one of the most agonizingly suspenseful movies I have ever seen, and I don’t mean this in any positive sense. The relentless parade of increasingly unfortunate events suffered by the main character Chris Gardner (Will Smith) and his young son had me squirming in my seat for much of the picture. I kept hoping—in vain as it turned out—that the next incident would signal an upturn in Mr. Gardner’s fortunes. Only in about the last three minutes of the film were we rewarded for our positively saintly patience with some kind of redemption.

The story goes something like this: Chris Gardner is a salesman with big dreams, as in dreams of $$$$$$$$$$$. He and his wife use all of their savings to buy a whole bunch of bone scanning machines, which Gardner then tries to hawk to doctors, clinics, hospitals. As the movie opens, sales are not going well, the rent and bills are not being paid, and the Gardners, who have a very young son, are not getting along. Gardner desperately tries to hold everything together with his salesman-like bravado but the family’s life continues to unravel. The wife leaves, Gardner and the son get kicked out of their apartment and then out of the motel they are living in and end up sleeping in a shelters, and he loses a couple of bone scanners and has his bank account cleaned out by the IRS.

One day, in the midst of these trials, our feckless hero spots an expensive red imported sports car parked by the curb; the owner turns out to be a stockbroker. Chris decides then and there that despite the ridiculous odds against success—if he succeeds in becoming one of twenty interns working for Dean Winter and learning the trade, he is also competing against the other nineteen for the one job that is waiting at the end of six-month internship—he is going to become a stockbroker.

Chris Gardner is a smart, witty, and determined man, and at the very end of the film he is chosen out of the twenty to become a broker at Dean Winter. After the film ends, we learn that he goes on to found his own brokerage firm and eventually sold a minority share in that company for a very large sum of money.

Happy ending. Well, if happy ending means I was glad the movie was over, then yes, The Pursuit of Happyness ended happily. But if this film, which was “inspired by a true story,” was meant to in turn inspire viewers to do whatever it takes (including putting your child through a virtual hell) to get a job that is going to put enough money in their pocket to give them financial security (and bolster their already significant ego at the same time), I am not sure if this is a message I would want to be giving.

I did not feel sorry for Chris Garner, nor did I cheer him on (except in the sense that I wanted him to achieve sufficient success—really quickly—to put me out of my misery). He is an egotistical, irresponsible jerk who cares only about himself. I could not help but feeling that his determination to keep his son when his wife was leaving him and his gritty resolve to succeed at Dean Winter were also manifestations of an ego out of control. I wonder what lessons the son took away from the experience his father put him through.

This is not a movie I would ever watch again, nor would I encourage a young person to buy into its message.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


Since I began this blog in late 2009—and actually even before that—I have been pretty much allowing the Spirit to guide what I study, read, or write (or not write) on any given day. The blog entries reflect this practice, I think.

In the past few months I have been moved to read and study more widely outside of Roman Catholicism. Books that I have on the go include the one by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi quoted from in an earlier blog; a new book by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly entitled All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age; a book on general science, Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy; and the ubiquitous Joseph Campbell, to whom I always seem to keep returning. I am also writing an article about a very interesting friend who has lived in Japan for the past thirty years. And I will soon finish watching the lectures in the Yale course “Introduction to New Testament History and Literature.”

At the same time, it seems that I no longer wish to attend Mass. I am at present more inspired to spend Sunday in my office with my books and my various projects. I have no feelings of guilt or regret about this inclination to “lapse,” and will therefore not force myself to go to church just because Sunday is a day of obligatory attendance for those who call themselves Catholics.

I now have a clearer idea of where all this “drifting” may be leading although I do not wish to in any way project my thoughts into the future or to begin to hang on to something I may have been subconsciously searching for over the past few years, and especially in the fifteen months since I began blogging. I now realize that this practice of allowing the Spirit to guide my work has been leading me to gradually let go of habits, ideas, and beliefs that I once thought were terribly important and thus clung stubbornly and desperately to. I am becoming more and more conscious of the fact that I have truly begun to “follow my bliss,” which Campbell defines as “that deep sense of being present, of doing what you absolutely must do to be yourself.”

"If you can hang on to that, you are on the edge of the transcendent already. You may not have any money, but it doesn’t matter. When I came back from my student years in Germany and Paris, it was three weeks before the Wall Street crash in 1929, and I didn’t have a job for five years. And, fortunately for me, there was no welfare. I had nothing to do but sit in Woodstock and read and figure out where my bliss lay. There I was on the edge of excitement all the time."

At this moment I also feel on the edge of excitement much of the time. I am very interested in this idea of following one’s bliss and I am moved to explore it further. I have no idea of what this means in terms of my Catholicism, but I somehow feel that I will sooner or later return to it because it is “the myth that I was brought up with.” I am always inspired by Karen Armstrong, whose life and whose person are true reflections of bliss: Armstrong entered the convent seeking God but only found God when she discovered her bliss, long after leaving the convent and only after several “failed” attempts at establishing a career.

As for Confessions of a Liturgy Queen, I am not sure if I will keep it going because I think of myself less and less as a “liturgy queen” as this term was defined in the earliest blog postings. This may be because I have not been able to find a church that consistently moves me closer to God through the overall conduct of the liturgy. I do not blame any church for my own disappointment; the problem—if it is a problem—lies with me. I am apparently being called to experience God on my own.

I am profoundly grateful to all those who have followed this journey, who have endured with kindness and patience all the ramblings and rages that have appeared on these “pages,” and who have supported and encouraged me along the way.

Blessings and peace to all of you.