It’s that time of the year again. No matter what we believe or commemorate, December offers most of us a few days off work. A chance to reflect on what really matters in our complex, crowded lives, and how it can be nurtured so more will grow.
An Israelite sage living around the time of Jesus said that Jewish teaching could be summarized as, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” The rest, said Hillel, was commentary.
It can be nice to have the take-home message distilled. When that message is the Golden Rule, few disagree. Upwards of forty religions, and a posse of secular philosophers, have a version of the claim that compassion and love, not holier-than-thou judgment, should be central to ethics.
Sometimes though, the sheer ubiquitousness of a message can rob it of its power. It was Stalin who observed that while one death is a tragedy, a million is just a statistic. Most of us need stories about three-dimensional people negotiating real-world dilemmas to fire our imaginations and shift our hearts. Leaving us cold teaches us nothing.
Because of this, I observed my vow to watch less TV this year. Instead, I read more, and watched more movies. I wanted to stop observing facts in my head, and understand them better through my heart.
My favourite read was The Sorrows of an American, a stunningly written exploration of the big questions raised by 9–11 through the reflections of the book’s protagonist on the connections between his own past-personal and historical-and present.
But the gong goes to Lars and the Real Girl, out on DVD this year.
Lars and the Real Girl is not about sex, but love of the Golden Rule sort, despite what a one line summary of the plot-small town boy becomes obsessed with mail order doll-might suggest.
The problem is that Lars is deluded. He thinks the doll, Bianca, is real and that he is in love with her. The town doctor, also a shrink, thinks Lars’ only hope of recovery is if everyone, including Lars’ brother Gus, and Gus’s wife Karin, play along. “But everyone will laugh at him,” Gus protests. “And you too,” the doctor agrees.
But they don’t. No one laughs. Not Karin’s friends, or Gus’s workmates (“Wish I had a woman that couldn’t talk,” says one. “She have a sister?” inquires a customer). Even the church elders eventually get on board. “We don’t want anything to do with her,” protests Arnie. “She’s a golden calf. And we all know what happened with that.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake! What’s the big deal!” snaps Mrs Grinner, addressing each of the group in turn. “Sally, your cousin puts dresses on his cats. Hazel, your nephew gave all his money to a UFO club. Arnie, everyone knows your first wife was a klepto…These things happen. Lars is a good boy. You can depend on me.”
History and philosophy tend to focus on great moments of choice faced by important people. What I loved about Lars was its poignant recognition that the religious turn foul when they forget the Golden Rule, and that there is nothing exotic about ethics. They can be found in the everyday acts and omissions of us all.
I am constantly moved by how hard people try to be moral, and how often they get it right.
Thanks for taking the time to read and write to me this year. Happy holidays to you all.
Lars and the Real Girl Show Us the Way Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)