I confess that life has turned me into something of a cynic.
I haven’t always been this cynical. In fact, it is only recently that I even came to recognize myself as a cynic. Truth be told it is an odd label for me to accept because it is not at all what people used to see me as. Especially when it comes to the Christmas season. But I’ve come to realize I’ve learned how to hide it well. Or at the very least was once more adept at knowing how to battle back against it. Looking back at my younger years, i funneled my struggles with crippling fear and anxiety and depression into a love of story. An embrace of story. Telling stories, reading stories and watching stories. Imagination helped to remind me that there was more to this life than what I was experiencing in the here and now, and fostered a sense of hope that could see beyond my struggles.
But life has a way of unsettling all of that stuff that is lying underneath the surface. The stuff we don’t always acknowledge. The stuff we aren’t always aware of- my questions, my fears, my hurts, my struggles, my inability to change or break certain cycles. All of this has creeped to the surface in recent years, beginning with a personal crisis of faith. And the more unsettled it all becomes the more power it seems to have to turn me into a perpetual cynic of all things big and small.
The Cynical Cycle
And when it comes to that struggle, I have found that the more cynical I become the more I tend to replace imagination with what I perceive as realism. The truth, the facts of the matter, the answers, become the most important thing when it comes to navigating this life. The problem is, as a few significant players in my life once said when they walked away from their once imagined faith, knowing what I know now it is impossible to go back, and the more I feel I know the more disillusioned I seem to become.
And then I wondered, what happens when this starts to move from my perception of what’s right in front of me to the way I view the whole of life? I become cynical. And then more cynical. And the cycle repeats itself. And grows. And grows. And the life I once knew, that life of child like wonder that I used to hold so near and dear. That life where imagination was a possible and cherished part of my reality. Where story could remind me that life is not simply what my grown up mind believes it to be. It gets more and more distant, reminding me that this is a time long gone, a time I cannot to back to knowing what I know now.
But go back to what? That childlike wonder? That pure sense of abandonment I once felt at marveling in the mystery of the small things? Of my ability to imagine God and the unknown and the unseen? None of this fits in a cynical worldview where it is built on a think first and feel second outlook. But I am learning something important about myself as I think through this stuff in 2018. Looking back over some of my previous Christmas traditions and experiences, I am realizing that this is precisely why Christmas has been so important for me over the years. I have always been prone to cynicism. I faced darkness at a young age and that darkness became familiar to me. Christmas was always the one time of year that I seemed to be able to let some of that stuff go and embrace the idea that life was more than I could see on the surface. And the older I got the more important it became to enter into this in an almost liturgical fashion. It reminded me that maybe it wasnt all gone. That some of that imaginative and hopeful process still remained.
Unfortunately the older I got the more life also seemed to steal from Christmas at the same time. So rediscovering this year after year became harder and harder to do.
The Green Book Controversy
I have said in many circles that the new film Green Book has quickly become one of my new favorite holiday films. I had been thinking about writing a piece on it for a while as it was one of those films this past year that helped me to return to that childlike joy I once cherished and that seemed so significantly lost to me.
But as time went on the more life started to push back on my experience of this film, as it does with so many things. Controversy emerged. Writers and think pieces began to question the films “truthfulness” and wonder whether its message of hope was disguising the fact that we still have a very real problem with racism. One writer went so far as to label it a “magic act”. A good one, but nevertheless a feel good delusion that becomes less meaningful once you recognize how the trick is done, let alone dangerous for the degree of manipulation it fosters.
You can see the core of the controversy with a simple google search online. But to summarize the main points of the controversy here:
1. Some have deemed it a picture of a “white savior”, depicting Dr. Shirley as estranged from his family (a fallacy his family says is absolutely not true) and Tony (the white man) as the one who gives him a place to belong and to rediscover who he is as a black man.
2. The story is being told by Tony Vallelonga’s son (Nick) and thus largely from the white man’s perspective. The family has since spoken out calling it a “symphony of lies” that gets very little about Dr. Shirley right.
3. The film tells the story of two sides coming together in hopeful reconciliation, seeing the solution in relationship with one another while, according to some, largely ignoring the fact that racism is a problem that still exists.
4. In making the movie the filmmakers failed to track down and speak to members of Dr. Shirley’s family (Mahershala has since apologized for his failure to do so, which was largely because he was unaware they existed or were free to approach).
For what its worth, this is a good article on Dr. Shirley that highlights an upcoming documentary that will share his story in a more faithful light:
And on the side of Tony Lip, here are some of the letters on which the movie was based:
Navigating The Complicated Landscape
The big question here for me is, what does one do with a film like this when it is mired in such a complicated landscape? How do I reconcile my experience of the film with knowing what I know about the film today?
This is largely the same question that fuels my cynicism in life. Knowing what I know now, how do I reconcile this complicated landscape with my ability to hold a childlike wonder. And can I even trust life enough to allow myself the freedom to enter into the experience of it?
Spoiler alert: I haven’t figured this out yet.
The Problem of Perspective
If Green Book taught me anything it is that so much of life comes down to a problem of perspective. And while gaining perspective is the thing that stole my ability to experience this film as I initially did, perspective is also the thing that can allow me to reengage it.
This is especially true as I do my best to willingly bring my own perspective to the table.
Perspective. It’s a dangerous idea.
Told from the perspective of Tony Lip, Green Book largely tells the story of his experience of their time together. For as much as many think-pieces and critics desired to display a measured response, more often than not I found them making definitive statements that were not open to challenge on why Green Book was a dangerous and flawed film in a world where racism definitely still exists, and how this film is saying something false about that reality. What they tend to gloss over though is that the reality of reading through much of the controversy actually shows that there is a good deal of uncertainty and confusion that still remains when it comes to this film. There are compelling gaps in the story on both sides, both in the story that was told and the story Dr. Shirley’s family believes they failed to tell.
And as a matter of perspective, as all film is, what Green Book set out to do was fill in those from one particular perspective- Tony Lips. But here is what is important. Just because it is telling his side of the story shouldn’t relegate this to black or white terms. What matters most is what this perspective was trying to do- which is to say something about their relationship.
The problem as I understand it is that far too often perspective tends to get equated with knowledge and absolutes, or even worse “truth”. If they failed to tell the perspective of Dr. Shirley, many critics and think pieces would have you think that the perspective they did share was then unequivocally false. Which is not truth. What gives this film value and what was clearly valuable to those who participated in telling it (from Tony’s letters and his witness) was the relationship that changed their singular perspective. This is what drives the film. This is what lies at the heart of the story the film is looking to tell. Not a white perspective or a black perspective, but a human one.
Here’s what really matters in Green Book. From his perspective Tony was racist, and this relationship with Dr. Shirley challenged his racist thoughts. It broadened his perspective. It opened his eyes to how big and broad and diverse our Country really is. And it helped him rediscover love above all. This is what Tony’s family observed. That is what this film depicts. Nothing more. Nothing less.
And this is a line that you can draw through may of the particular depictions in this film, even if the film (as every film does) takes a bit of narrative freedom in building the stories structure (the timeline is different for example). Take Tony’s perspective on Dr. Shirley’s estrangement from his family for example. It is not that this was necessarily true, and it is important to gain perspective on this from Dr. Shirley’s family. But what is clear is that this was the perspective Tony had from his relationship with Dr. Shirley. This is also something we have evidence of, and this is also important.
And this is always important when it comes to a matter of perspective.
Further Thoughts From My Perspective
The way this film lifted me up, gave me hope and caused me to cheer is important. The way it imagined a world in which the problem of racism could be approached in relationship with one another is important. The way it challenged me to reach inside and examine my own racial tendencies, whatever those may be, is important. But it is important as a matter of perspective, and if anything can break the cycle of cynicism that exists within me it is the idea of gaining perspective.
Christmas as a Matter of Perspective
This raises an interesting question in terms of my love for the season of Christmas. If Christmas is a season that lifts me up, gives me hope, causes me to cheer. If Christmas imagines a world in which the problem of poverty and struggle and distance and apathy and depression can be approached and dealt with in the context of relationship, what does this do with those of us who’s experience is largely not this? Those who live in poverty, who continue to struggle, who remain distant and apathetic and continue to wrestle with depression… those who are stuck in cycles of perpetuated cynicism.
And from a specifically religious perspective, what does it mean to imagine a world in which the great community of the children of God is being called to live in a hopeful expectation that there is freedom from these things. Do we approach this like Green Book and simply shut the book altogether when it our knowledge and our experience don’t match up? Do we remain skeptical about the experiences that Christmas can bring as a season of hope and reimagining because it does not measure up with the truth of our reality? Of our world?
This is what has fed my cynicism for many years. Again, that old adage that says knowing what I know now I can’t go back. It’s one I have heard too many times over. And it is one that consistently challenges my ability to embrace the Christmas season as I once did. In fact, this is true about my ability to embrace life as a whole.
Full confession here. I have written about my struggle with suicide elsewhere in this space. Far more than that struggle (I have come to discover on my own journey that for many of us who have struggled with suicidal thoughts, the real issue is not finding a reason to live… we know there are reasons, but it is fighting against that feeling that we don’t have the courage to die and the guilt we feel for feeling that. That’s what makes many of us feel most stuck) is the ongoing struggle with apathy. This is what life breeds when we have no idea what to do with life itself.
The Model of Apathy and Life’s Deconstruction
I would say that one of my biggest challenges is that this world models this apathy for me on a daily basis. It is insistent on telling me every day that the most important thing is to know that there is a problem, and that any experiences that speak into this problem must be primarily questioned and scrutinized and broken apart before we do anything with it. In my own narrow perspective of this world’s model, it has consistently deconstructed nearly every corner of my life, including religiously, politically, socially, experientially. In a world that appears at once addicted to truth and rational thought and the need for answers, there is very little that the darker corners of our reality does not touch and does not counter.
The problem is that the world, generally speaking, is not very good when it comes to giving us something in its place, in the absence of this childlike wonder. It is not very good at dealing with the idea of hope, of knowing how to live with different perspectives that don’t always reflect our own. It is not very good at being willing to shelf one notion of truth for the idea of actually living “in” relationship where perspective has a chance to grow and challenge our understanding. If I take Christmas as an example, there exists this perpetual rift between those who hate it and those who love it, and what often doesn’t get addressed is the gap inbetween. The places where those perspectives live and breathe and develop. And when that gap dosen’t get addressed it tends to get demonized and/or written off and ignored.
But what about those of us who live in that gap? What does that do with us?
Minding The Gap
What is my gap? My gap is that who I used to be doesn’t seem to belong anymore with who I am today. My childlike wonder is often a fleeting memory, something I have to wrestle to hold onto. My cynicism is often all I can see in the here and now. And yet, again from the confines of my narrow perspective, what I know is that cynicism never brings with it the answers it promised me when I allowed it to deconstruct my world. It didn’t free me. In fact it has slowly revealed itself as a sickness, a fight against my ability to actually embrace other perspectives and see this world more clearly.
The truth is, if I may use that word, is that I need hope. The same hope that Green Book dares to imagine. And Christmas is a place and time where I always used to find it. Hope that wonder still exists in the struggle. Hope that those gaps don’t need to simply represent a life of loneliness and struggle and apathy and depression. Hope that I can still experience something good in the midst of the messiness of life, and that these good experiences can grow my perspective and raise my sights to the promise that all of this is being reconstructed into something new and reborn. If Christmas is ultimately about opening my eyes to the concept of waiting and anticipating this growth, this revelatory break in my singular reality and struggle, these moments where it does break through to me are the miracles worth waiting for. This is what hopefulness looks like, the freedom to experience life and moments and perspectives for what they are- stories worth sharing and stories worth telling and stories worth hearing.
And so this Christmas season I carry my experience of Green Book forward as I look forward to Dr. Shirley’s upcoming documentary. A chance to see one perspective and gain another. My prayer is for a Christmas miracle. Not simply for myself, but for anyone who feels stuck in that gap. And as I do, my eyes remain open to the idea that miracles still happen. That God is somehow in someway still with us. Still with me. That a light is shining in the midst of these growing perspectives.