Sunday, November 15, 2009

Looking for the Skillful

A line in the October issue of The Sun caught my eye. “I’d been reluctant to read The Long Emergency because I’d feared it would be debilitating..”

I have often avoided certain movies, television shows or books because I feared that they would be depressing. I think that most of the time, that was not the word that I was looking for. Sure, some things are just complete downers, mostly because sometimes they make me despair for the human race as in “Is this really who we are or we’ve become?” But, I think that the word debilitating is a more accurate word for what I would like to avoid. Debilitate means to hinder, delay, weaken. I don’t want that in my life. I need all the movement and strength that I can get.

A few years ago, friends of mine were all watching The Sopranos. They really wanted me to see it, but I resisted. I just couldn’t see that I would find it entertaining or helpful. But, each year it won awards upon awards and I figured that all of those critics/experts couldn’t be wrong so I picked up the first disc. I was somewhat hooked. The whole idea of a mafia boss having marital and childrearing problems after a long day of extortion and murder and then having panic attacks that sent him to therapy made me have this, “hey, we all have some things in common” kind of experience and I kept watching. Eventually, though, the series got darker and darker. I remember one day I was exercising and watching. Annie came through and I said, “Get out! Get out! You can’t see this.” It wasn’t the first time that she had heard this. That day she stood there and said, “I don’t think you should be watching this Mom. I don’t think that it’s good for you.” She stated what my heart already knew and very shortly afterward, I gave it up.

Did the Sopranos hinder me? Weaken me? When I think about how I felt after watching it there was a heaviness in me, maybe even a darkness. In her profile Pollinatrix over at The Whole Blooming World talks about being accused of trying to find “way too much meaning in life”, something that I am guessing that most of my readers are guilty of as well. I watched the Sopranos and I looked for the deeper meaning, the lessons that I might apply to my own life. I tried to feel compassion for people who are bumbling around in the dark, hurting each other. But the price was too high to my mind, my spirit and I think, even my body.

Inappropriate is a word that we use a lot with our kids in regard to movies and television shows. Inappropriate generally means that there is strong sex or violence in the movie. But, my 13 year old, a smart boy, says to us, “Why is it appropriate for you and not for me?” And we come back with the tried and true, “Because you’re not mature enough”. I am afraid that the truest answer to Tim’s question, in many cases, is, “It isn’t appropriate for me.” It isn’t helpful. The apostle Paul put it this way: Fix your thoughts on what is true and honorable and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” But that sounds so boring! So preachy and puritanical. Probably most of us think that the Apostle Paul was too uptight and wouldn’t have been any fun to hang out with any way. Can’t we just have a little fun?

Maybe some of us think that the Buddha would be a little easier to be around. Well, the Buddhists would call the choices we make between what is true and lovely and that which is less so skillful or unskillful. Unskillful choices lead to suffering. Skillful choices will lead to peace and happiness. And not just for me, possibly for the whole world. I’m pretty sure that Paul and Siddartha are saying the same thing.

What are your experiences? Are there examples of violent movies or television shows that you feel have been helpful to you and of spiritual benefit? What sorts of things feel inappropriate to you? Maybe you have less obvious examples of things in our world that might be debilitating for us. I would love to hear.

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Anonymous said...

Well speaking as a reailty tv junkie...I finally ''met'' a reality tv show I couldnt stomach. I decided to try Dr. Drew's Rehab show. I had seen bits and pieces of past seasons and thought i would jump in.
I made it through 1 and half episodes before i was totally frazzeled. I actually said to myself...Stop, this is not good for you.
I know this is not what you were asking but this is what i thought of when you mentioned annie's comment to you.

Roy said...

I am mostly vegetarian (I eat salmon and tuna) because of the violence committed in factory farms. I tread lightly on Mother Earth and I am mindful of my eco-footprint. My heroes are Jesus, Gandhi, M Teresa, Merton, Thich Nhat Hahn... all champions of non-violence. I practice silence (which includes closing doors or putting down my coffee mug in the quietest way possible) every time I get the chance. Yet, I watch movies with violence. Go be Freud and figure it out for me.

Tess said...

I really resonate with what Roy says, although my footsteps are not yet as light as they could be.

My all time favourite movies are Godfather I and II. Now this is partly because they are simply stellar in terms of every component that makes a great movie. But it's partly to do with the concept of taking what you want by violence (although I appreciate the concept is a lot more complex than that). I watch some violent TV shows as well, although I never did catch the Sopranos.

So I guess what I'm saying is there can be something cathartic about violent shows.

What I find completely debilitating are the reality audience shows like Jerry Springer. I forced myself to watch two episodes, to see what the fuss is about, and they made me feel completely hopeless about the future of the human race.

The Pollinatrix said...

I love it when our kids know us better than we know ourselves :)

I adore the apostle Paul, for reasons I won't go into fully here because this comment is already going to be too long. Suffice it to say that this post reminded me of something else he said, which is that all things are lawful but not all things are helpful.

I have come to realize that discernment is one of the greatest skills I can develop, but it's also one of the hardest. You almost HAVE to go off into the unhelpful stuff to find out where to draw the line. And it will probably be different for everyone.

I was also reminded of a discussion Barbara Kingsolver gave in her essay, "Be Careful What You Let In The Door," (from High Tide in Tucson) about being a writer and choosing whether or not to include violence in her novels. I won't attempt to summarize the essay (it's definitely worth reading), but she does say that the question isn't and may never be fully answered for her.

This post is yet another interlacing for me, as we've been discussing media violence in one of the classes I teach. I use the movie Natural Born Killers, and the resulting articles by John Grisham attacking it and Oliver Stone defending it. I've taught this for several years now, and no class has ever come to a full consensus about which "side" to be on. They all tend to side with Stone at first, that you can't blame art for violence, but after some discussion, they usually see other angles too.

For me personally, I don't think demonizing violence is helpful, as it's obviously built in to human nature. I agree with Tess' statement about catharsis. At least we're doing it through movies and not lynchings or throwing people to the lions. I tend to think there's actually a human NEED for this kind of catharsis.

And yet, there are some things I avoid, and some I wouldn't watch if you paid me. My very favorite movie is True Romance - a quite violent movie - but the violence serves a purpose, and part of that purpose is to show how love can walk away from it.

Context is everything for me. There has to be some sort of redemption involved, some meaning beyond the base.

Which brings me to my final comment - thank you for referencing my blog! I'm glad I'm not the only meaning junkie.
However, I must say, I've found that the search for meaning has to be balanced with a healthy appreciation and acceptance of mystery, paradox, ambiguity, and ambivalence.

Rebecca Johnson said...

On the contrary, N, this is exactly what I was looking for. Thanks for sharing your experience and awareness. My curiosity is certainly piqued about that television show. It's like a bad accident that we can't help but stare at, hmmm?


Rebecca Johnson said...

Roy, Thanks for all of the ways that you bring mindfulness, love and care into the world. I'm sure that you know why or why not in regard to what you decide to watch. I think that some of the other comment-ers have some great thoughts for the both of us. Love...

Rebecca Johnson said...

Tess, So, so true about Mr. Springer. Depressing and debilitating. Your comment about The Godfather is the kind of thing that I had hoped people would bring up. It made me think about a movie that I watched, Saving Private Ryan, that is horribly, horribly violent. Of course it is. It is attempting to really show us what war is like. I didn't enjoy that movie, by any stretch of the imagination, but I know that I was experiencing something true and important.

The Godfather is considered great film and unless my memory is wrong, its violence was never gratuitous.

Have you heard of the movie Precious. It's about a very overweight, African American girl who is abused in many different ways and has two children conceived through the abuse of her step father. I hear the preview (on the radio) and I think "Oh, my gosh. How depressing." But I am staying open to going and trying to be really present, a spiritual practice. My problem is that once some of those horrible images get in my head, I can't get them out. I can still think of many examples from the Sopranos.


Rebecca Johnson said...


I wonder, do you think that this need for catharsis through violent imagery is something that we will evolve beyond? Do you feel the need for catharsis yourself? It's so interesting to have your opinions since this is something that you discuss all the time! What is the class?

I agree with the need for redemption when you have to put up with a lot of violence in a movie. In the example of the Soprano's, it felt like I was having to wait too long. No one seemed to be figuring anything out. Of course, art imitates life or maybe it's the other way around.

In the "context" of this discussion, I have discernments to make for myself, and I am aware of all of the judgments floating around. However, it also seems to me, that sometimes humans are called on to help each other discern. It's a fine line.


The Pollinatrix said...

That's an excellent question - will we evolve beyond it? I hope so.

This topic seems very complex and emotionally charged, and definitions are needed. In one sense, as long as we must destroy a life (whether animal or plant) to perpetuate our own by eating, there will always be violence.

And I think about the Samurai, and other warrior cultures that saw no problem in weaving violence and spirituality together. There's a mystery in that to me; I can't explain it, but there's something "of the essence" in violence of that sort.

I feel self-conscious saying these things though, partly because I fear the judgment of others and partly because I can't fully explain myself.

I'm drawn to the writer, Clive Barker, who is commonly considered a horror writer. I see him as much more than that, but he does delve into the "dark" side of human nature, and portrays - well, thanks to where I am, I can only say - its "dazzling" side. I know that's probably not how you mean it, and I hope I'm not taking too much liberty here or being offensive.

This is a very sticky topic. Deep breath.

For myself, I need the catharsis in aggressive physical action and/or vocalization. Sometimes I need to scream obscenities in the car (by myself) or run very fast or hit something (NOT someONE.) I've tried to wish this quality away, meditate it away, you name it - but there it remains.

And sometimes I need things (books, movies, etc.) that bring out things that makes me uncomfortable, (whether it be violence or something else) so that I can look more deeply into what they are and how they connect to other things.

The class I teach is an introductory college level essay writing class. The reader that I use includes the Grisham and Stone essays. Which, incidentally, are both badly written, so part of what we do is tear them apart by looking for logical fallacies.

Rebecca Johnson said...

Polli, I can not tell you how meaningful it is to me that you would even attempt to tackle this tough topic in "public" here. (I don't think too many people are watching though.)

Re the inherent violence in life is we want to eat: yes, you're right.

Re judgments: Yes, I am human and my mind jumps to make them all of the time. But, I temper it. I certainly didn't ask for people's input so that they could all sign on and agree with me! : ) I am so grateful that you give me new ways to look at this topic. Truly. I have been thinking about it so much. Thanks for taking the deep breath and wrestling. I am now declaring my blog a Judgment-free zone.

Your description of needing some "kinesis" in times of stress or anger makes me think about how we all carry things differently. I am a terribly impatient person (again, I'm learning to temper it) and so I understand completely that build up of energy. But, for me, the meditation thing does work. It dissipates the energy for me while you need something physical or vocal.


The Pollinatrix said...

Thank you for your response. I've been pretty nervous about how you might take my last comment - I didn't want to lose a new friend as we're just getting to know each other!

It's especially difficult in this kind of forum, saying exactly what you want to say, not being able to see facial expressions, etc.

Meditation definitely works for me with anxiety, worry, impatience, etc., but there are just times - not very often, really - when I do need the physical release.

This conversation has been forefront in my mind. In fact, my 18-year-old daughter and I had quite a lengthy, inspired, challenging discussion last night. I may have to work all this into a post, as it's getting way too long for a comment!

Thank you for bringing out this topic, and for making your blog a safe place to express ideas. That's such a valuable thing to me.


Hey Rebecca,

I have been absent for a few days so am catching up with you this a.m. Nope I didn't catch the sopranos and decided finally to download the series The Tudors. I had held back because scenes of violence are not in my comfort zone. I was ASSURED by several friends, there was a little violence so I downloaded. The first scene is a gruesome bloody murder, face to face with about 8 men stabbing and restabbing one among them to death. Ok. Deep breath, forget it, deep breathing got me nowhere. I knew it would be violent, I know the history but my goodness I don't need it stamped onto my brain. The history is important to remember but the gore on my screen is NOT. Also I'm well aware that Henry was a womanizer but every other scene of his prowess - I got over that quicker than the violence!!

Frankly, the Godfather movies, for me were viewed in a much less conscious state. I was still so into me and what my life was that I could easily (sort of) gloss over what I was seeing on the screen. I don't think I would enjoy watching that movie again today.