© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, All Rights Reserved
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In my research for this message, I read a story about a woman named Cynthia Daley who was among 1500 people laid off from a large utility in the small town of Rainier, Oregon. The shock and fear in Cynthia and her colleagues was extreme. Many employees had worked for the company for over thirty years. They knew no other life and many doubted that they had transferable skills to help them find new work in a difficult economy. Cynthia, however, decided she would use her remaining thirty days at work to help others. She began publishing a short guide that was distributed to laid off employees on how to save money. She researched ways to find low cost insurance plans, how to do simple car repairs and ways to save on household expenses. As her paper grew in size, employees began asking her for advice in their job searches. She counseled individuals in writing resumes and in articulating skills that could be used in other jobs. Her actions were so noteworthy, the company asked if she would stay on and work in their human resources department. She accepted but she continued writing her paper which soon caught the attention of the local college. They asked her to teach a course for the unemployed which she also did. Her knowledge, her willingness to help individuals one on one, and her encouragement not to give up has led her to a full time faculty position and to becoming a well paid consultant hired by companies across the country to assist laid off employees.
What interested me in this story is its inspirational example of resilience by this woman and her goal to serve and love others. This same ethic gives the movie “The Artist” its emotional power. It has received widespread acclaim because of its feel good call to overcome fear and hardship and allow love to prevail.
What each of us has learned in life is that we all face daily challenges in which we must make choices on how to react. Many such challenges are big ones. Whether it be from a loss of financial security, loss of a job, health problems or challenges in our romantic relationships, we are assaulted throughout our lives with trauma and change.
This truth about life was best expressed by the philosopher John Simone who once said, “If you’re in a bad situation, don’t worry, it will change. If you are in a good situation, don’t worry, it will change.”
While such an assessment of life is pessimistic, it is also true. Change is inevitable and we often have no control over events that confront us. What we can control, however, is our response to them. Indeed, I believe that it is not the change event that causes us pain – like a major economic recession, the break-up of a relationship or the loss of a job, it is how we respond to that event that determines whether we sink or swim, whether we find happiness or live in fear.
And that, my friends, gets to the essential truth for how we might live. Oprah Winfrey once said, “I believe that every single event in life happens as an opportunity to choose love over fear.” Those are the two primary emotions or approaches to life that we can choose to follow when faced with a problem. We either live in fear, or we live in love.
Which brings us to the movie “The Artist” – whose trailer we just watched. On this Sunday eve to Valentine’s Day, it is an appropriate film for us to consider. As a creative and beautifully made film which takes us back to the silent movie days of the 1920’s, “The Artist” is, at its heart, a love story that is both charming and spiritually instructive. Without using words, the movie tells its story with great acting and relies on facial expression, body language, music and sight gags to weave its tale and ultimately inspire.
As a cinematic valentine to old Hollywood, the movie is also a valentine to us. It offers the spiritual wisdom of which I just spoke. Despite the vagaries of life, despite the heartache, the pain and the challenging circumstances which daily confront us, how do we choose to live? Are we inspired by our better angels to also take wing and fly – to embrace love of others, love of serving and love of making an impact in this world? Or, do we succumb to the fears of life, the fear to change, to experience something new, or to embark on a new adventure? Fear or love, what do we choose?
As a movie, “The Artist” tells its story of how the choices we make in our approach to life affect our happiness. It also embodies that very theme. I have heard many people say they have no desire to see this film – once they hear it is a silent movie. It will be boring, some say. Indeed, in a culture that often thrives on constant talking and even on shouting at one another, how can a simple picture with no words be entertaining? The movie, however, embraces its change theme by being a change agent itself. It pays homage to something which seems old – silent movies – but which, in reality, is new to us. The old has become new and the so-called new – modern cinema – has become old.
By implicitly rejecting the loud bombast of current films with their explosions and special effects, this movie shows us a simpler, quieter and deeper understanding of the human condition. It offers us change with a dose of love. It calls us to watch, think, feel, and listen with our hearts.
George Valentin, the main character, is a silent movie star, worshipped by millions. As a likable narcissist, he lives in his own world of fame, money and his constant sidekick – a small terrier dog who provides many of the comedic sight gags. But change comes to George’s life – as it does to everyone.
George is told that the era of silent movies is over. Talking films are the wave of the future and, as a silent actor, he must change or be left behind. He rejects the new reality and produces a silent film on his own. It is released just as the stock market crash of 1929 hits. The film and his finances are ruined. George’s fear of speaking and of changing technology lead him to make his poor choices. In an appropriately fitting scene depicted in the silent film he produces, George’s character sinks into a morass of quicksand – anguish and fear etched across his face. At the end, only his hand extends above the sand, reaching for the safety he cannot find. Art has imitated George’s real life.
In that life, George’s wife leaves him, his career comes to an end, his finances are lost and he moves from his mansion to a small apartment. He hits rock bottom.
Concurrent to his fall from grace, we watch a young actress who falls in love with George, Peppy Miller, as she embraces the new technology of talking movies. She becomes a star and soon has the wealth and fame George loses. Faced with a similar choice as George in terms of her career, she chooses the exciting and new world of talk. She embodies her name – she is literally peppy as she thrills to new adventures, new technology and new love.
During her rise, Peppy does not forget George or her love for him. When he is forced to auction all of his possessions, she anonymously buys them – both to help him and to save them for him. She even brings him into her home to recover from injuries he sustains. When George discovers she has been his savior, he is angry at this reversal in roles. He rejects her love and her devotion to him as much as he also rejects the idea that a woman can out earn and out succeed a man.
The film is a classic depiction of what we all face in life. How do we react to change and how do we react to challenges? Peppy chooses love – love of change, opportunity, technology and people. George chooses fear – fear of the new form of acting, the new technology of sound in movies and the new concept that a woman can not only succeed in a career, but that she can be the protector of a man. She thrives. He does not. In true Hollywood fashion, though, the movie does not end on a down note. It finishes by showing us that love is more powerful than fear.
And thus we have the set-up for the spiritual lesson about life we might learn from the film. The implicit lesson we discover in “The Artist” is that, like its characters, we are daily asked to solve a simple equation in decisions we must make. That equation is: E + R = O. E for “event”, plus R for “response”, equals O for “outcome.”
As I noted earlier, we face a barrage of events in life over which we have no control. But, we must then respond to those events. And that – the sum of the event plus our response to it – E + R – determines the outcome we experience. Will the outcome be a good one or will it not? As Oprah said, the outcome from any event in our lives is ultimately a choice between reacting with fear or reacting with love.
When we react to life challenges with love, we are really reacting with love for ourselves and the idea that we are called to serve others more than ourselves. As humans, our natural inclination is to focus on external security issues. Do we have enough money, shelter, food and health to make ourselves comfortable and, we falsely believe, happy?
Instead, we ought to focus on internal security issues – those ideals we hold in our hearts and souls like peace, contentment, humility, forgiveness and quiet confidence. Are we at peace with ourselves and who we really are? Are we angry or forgiving? Are we content with simple pleasures or are we greedy? Are we appropriately humble – knowing our abilities without needing to loudly broadcast them to others? Are we gentle in speech, actions and demeanor? These are all the stuff of inner security. They are what creates an ability to love the self and thereby reach out to love others. They are the ideals which dispel fear.
If I have a quiet confidence in myself, I may lose my job but know I will survive. If I know I am a loving and forgiving person, I will have the confidence to find a partner or thrive within a relationship. If I know that I find pleasure in people and simple experiences, I will not fear the absence of money or wealth. If I am content about my life, I will not fear health set backs or aging. If I am at peace with who I am as a person – gay, straight, white, black, young, old, witty or thoughtful – I will not fear being who I was created to be.
Fear leads us to depression, selfishness, anger and isolation. Instead, love of self, which is then translated into a love for serving others - partners, families, friends and total strangers – all of that leads us to real joy. It might be cliche to say, but love is, indeed, the answer.
As the motivational author and speaker Marianne Williamson famously put it, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.”
That, for me, is the beautiful message in the movie “The Artist”. Choose love over fear. Choose to embrace new things, new people and new adventures as if you will not fail. I especially appreciate the optimism of a man who I believe was one of our greatest Presidents – Teddy Rossevelt. He was a self-described Progressive. He was a man of no fear – a man who was always in the arena of life, as he put it. He once said, in terms of our response to life events, “The best thing you can do is the right thing; ………..the next best thing you can do is the wrong thing;………………. the worst thing you can do is nothing.” In other words, we must not allow fear to hold us back from anything. And for myself, a man who is often afraid of saying the wrong thing, offending others or embarking on new adventures, the lesson from “The Artist” is an important one.
And, I believe, it is an important one for all of us. Just as Teddy Roosevelt embodied his no fear approach to life in his Progressive ideas, we must do the same. I do not speak politically here but in terms of basic beliefs. Progressives embrace change. Indeed, the definition is inherent in the name itself. Progress. From religion, to the economy, to social issues like gay rights and racial equality, to every day matters of love, money and personal health, progressives are not afraid of change and dynamic activity. Indeed, I believe that without continuous change, no person and no organization can survive. This is what we embody in here – not a political ideology but a spirituality that is willing to ask questions, accept new things, new people and new experiences all as ways to ever love and serve others. Will we focus on fear of change and remain a small church always operating on a financial edge? Or, will be embrace the love we have in our hearts to serve other people and thus find ways to grow by enlarging our current physical space and expanding the services we offer? Will we operate in fear by choosing to hold onto what is a warm and comfortable group of people, or will we be an invitational congregation always dreaming of new ways to encourage others to join us in our loving effort to change lives for the better?
Just as important to us as an organization, we must not personally follow the fear based example of George Valentin in the movie “The Artist”. Love yourself. Love others. Love life and live it to its fullest. Serve with abandon. Give generously. Embrace change. Find contentment and peace in the inner recesses of your soul. As the Bible tells us, “There is no fear in love. Perfect love drives out fear. God has not given us a spirit of fear but one of power and love…”
Let each of us, myself included, love life and love others like we will never get hurt…
I wish you all much peace and even more joy.