Monday, April 25, 2011

A Tribute to Blythe and Hendley

It is long past time to pay my respects. There’s a special movie I saw a long time ago, and two special characters that I have wanted to write about ever since I began this blog.

Say hello to Blythe and Hendly. They’re Allied POWs in The Great Escape. If you have not seen this movie yet, I urge you to see it. And don’t read the rest of this post, because spoilers abound.

In these two, I find the most endearing friendship in the movie. If you can’t remember, Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence) is the forger among the POWs. He’s a wispy, quiet little man, with a keen eye for German documents. Working day and night, he creates fake passports and other documents. A true introvert, he would spend his days bird-watching if there was no war.

In every way he contrasts with his cellmate, Flight Lieutenant Hendley (James Garner). He’s big, canny, and assertive. He is “the Scrounger”, and gets materials for the other POWs by hook or by crook. He swindles German officers and guards with a smile. With a wink he slips wrenches and rations to the other POWs. You don’t hear much about his history in America, but I can just see him telling a joke to a dozen people at the bar, and making them all fall off the bar-stools laughing. He knows what makes people tick.

As the time nears to break out, Blythe goes blind from too many nights of squinting at papers in dim light. He’s desperate to make sure no one finds out. Blythe wants to be a part of the escape. He doesn’t want to hang back, even if that was the safer road.

Blindness is hard to hide. Bartlett, the leader, catches him with a simple test. It’s pathetic to watch. Blythe had laid a coin on one end of his room, and practiced walking to it, “seeing it”, and picking it up. Bartlett isn’t stupid. When Blythe takes the coin, Bartlett calls him back and trips him easily. A blind man cannot crawl through a tunnel, or sneak through the forest quietly, or evade the German army. Bartlett forbids him to take part in the escape.

And then Hendley makes his sacrifice.

“Blythe isn’t blind so long as he’s with me,” he said. He offers to escort Blythe out of the camp, and out of Germany. Bartlett accepts.

What a humble, beautiful sacrifice. It’s surprising Hendley had any bond with Blythe at this point. They have next to nothing in common. They were cellmates, but their conversations were never that animated. They had little in common. Why did Hendley reach out? Did he feel that much pity for quiet little Blythe? Or had he truly become his friend, and was reaching out as any true friend would?

Blythe begins to back out later, but Hendley convinces him to stay with it. Now it is set in stone. They both sit in the room. It is brightly lit. Somehow you can feel the weight of the looming jailbreak, dense and dark in the air. My heart is thumping at this point. And a light comes up in my eye when I see Hendley- confident, crafty Hendley- pledge his life to Blythe. Frail, quiet little Blythe.

Together they go. As the escape attempt falls apart, Hendley guides Blythe through the forest, and through the Nazis that come after them. They seize the airplane. They fly to the Swiss Alps! The triumph is unlike any other triumph in the movie.

Except that it’s not a triumph. They run out of gas and crash-land. The Nazis swarm in, and before Hendley can reach Blythe and warn him, the guns go up and shoot Blythe down.

Hendley was in enough danger on his own, but he chose to take this withdrawn, blind man with him. It would have taken courage for me. It would have taken humility. If I was as resourceful and energetic as Hendley, I would have been annoyed to be saddled with Blythe. I would feel like a 12-year-old told to take his little brother with him to a party. It’s so petty, but Hendley must have felt it. Just a little.

Yet he shows nothing but compassion and companionship. He dares to sneak through the might of the Third Reich, and do it with this feeble man with him. He chose it, freely. He chose the burden, and he transformed it into the most touching friendship among all of the POWs.

Can this story teach you something?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The April 2011 Alternative Rock Showcase

I don’t have time to write anything worth writing. So I choose this Sunday to show off music from my generation. Forget the Ke$ha and the Wiz Khalifa everyone's talking about. This is where the real music is playing. There is a God in heaven, and He shines through these songs.

“Field of Daggers” by House of Heroes. This is the penultimate track from their timeless masterpiece, The End Is Not The End. It swings between weary sorrow, and fierce optimism, and it takes you places that 5 minutes shouldn’t be able to take you.

“Traveler’s Song” by Future of Forestry. Thank you, Marc Barnes, for promoting this amazing artist. I cried when I first heard this song.

“Drama Queen” by Family Force 5. I dare you to find goofier or cooler songwriting on the face of the planet.

“Scottish” by The Ascendicate. Prepare for ferocious, agonized heavy metal, where the singer screams his pain of being trapped in sin. This is why God allows metal to exist.

“Wretches and Kings” by Linkin Park. They swear a couple times. Which disappoints me, because for the most part this is a powerful, stunning battle song. This was my motivation for portraying an angry mob with my friends in Julius Caesar.

“Abracadavers” by The Classic Crime. Matt McDonald’s vocals are so gut-wrenching and wrought with anguish that the results demand a place on this list.

“A Conversation With the Sky” by Abandon Kansas. Everything this band puts out is a little weird, and completely breathtaking. 

“So Far Away” by House of Heroes. If these voices do not melt your heart, you have been kidnapped by cyborg robots and given a virus extracted from Ebenezer Scrooge's blood.

This is barely the tip of the iceberg. I could post dozens more, but you don’t have time for dozens. If you have time to comment, that would be amazing.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Ralph's Beautiful Dream

On Wednesday, I have a paper due about Ralph Emerson’s Nature. Reading his stuff has given me a chance to reflect some more on something else I read by him: Self-Reliance.

Have you read this man's writing? He makes prose glow. The way he talks about the countryside makes you never want to see another skyscraper again. The rhythm of his words draws me in every time I read his works. He does with the English language what Mozart did with violins and voices.

Unfortunately, it is philosophy that he dabbles in, and not just lush descriptions. So I keep a careful eye out when I read Emerson's work. I don’t agree with all of the points he makes. Self-Reliance in particular is outright ludicrous. His whole point in there is to make your own judgments, and not let anyone tell you what to do or believe. Over and over, he pounds it through. “Don’t let anyone influence you!”

It sounds wondrous. He has a lengthy passage where he depicts someone facing his loved ones, like Socrates before the Athenian court, and pronouncing his resolution to be independent, and say and do what he means, and not what anyone else means. What a tableau! To actually take that step would be revolutionary. It would be exhilarating. Wouldn’t you like to stand up in your living room someday and say something like that?

I won't stop you, but think for a minute. Why is Emerson trying to influence you into not letting anything influence you? If anyone can explain this to me, please do. Until then, I remain convinced that the whole piece is self-contradictory.

Which is curious, because at the same time I realized how Emerson-like my thoughts have been in college. I didn’t even realize it; I didn’t read Self-Reliance until a few weeks ago. But it makes sense. Ever since my exposure to basic logic and The Republic last semester, I was moving towards Emerson’s ideal. When it came to faith, I was no longer satisfied with acting like everyone who seemed devout. Now I began to question them. Why do they kneel extra long after Mass? Why do they wear veils over their head? Are they sincere about what they do?

If I had taken any careful thought about these thoughts, they would have led me to the same ideas as Emerson. For years before now, I entertained a self-ideal that was far higher than the ideal I was living out. The natural result was disillusionment, both within myself and the people around me. Nobody ever seemed to do anything courageous or important in my world. Everyone seemed bored. They seemed like they were conforming, and not being their own men.

I didn’t know it for a while, but I was chasing Emerson’s self-reliance. I wanted to be completely ruled by my reason, my principles, and my thoughts. No one else could move me. And so many times, I fell short of this, and watched Family Guy with my friends even though I knew I could be enriching myself with other things.

Spending time with friends is a good thing, though. Family Guy, not so much. Little things like that obsess me to this day. I haven't completely let go of Emerson's dream.

I try to keep it under control, now. I’ll leave you with one more twist in the track. I was sitting in my General Psychology class the other day. Dr. Buhman-Wiggs, as usual, had my full attention. Right at the end, he previewed the next lecture on social psychology.

He drew a pie chart on the white board. He told us that the three wedges displayed the biggest influences on human behavior. He told us it was based on years of research, and hundreds of studies.

The first wedge took up 10% of that pie. It represented one’s personal beliefs.

The second wedge took up 30%. It represented our personality and habits.

The third wedge took up 60%. It represented social context.

Think about that this week.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

To Anonymous

I decided to make my answer a full blog post for you, Anonymous. For everyone else, this is the continuation of a conversation that began on my Beowulf post. I encourage you to read those comments, so you can see from where we started. Basically, Anonymous made some charges which I am bound by my identity as a Roman Catholic to answer.

1) He disagrees with my opinions about pride, as expressed in my Beowulf post. “Pride is a sin, a very serious sin. Mainly related to Lucifer's hubris. Now this blog is encouraging pride toward service of god and showing that pride. Now pride is pride. It is still a sin. I wasn't saying that sinning is acceptable. Rather that this blog is encouraging a sin, and that is then acceptable within this context. That is where I find the contradiction.”

2) He disagrees with the Roman Catholic Sacrament of Confession. “The idea of forgiveness for sins is not a contradiction. I just find it to be a recruitment tool in which it detracts from any true morality. You say it's wrong, but if you do it and you're sorry it's okay… This then leads me to the assertion that it is a recruitment tool. The church teaches you that everyone sins, and sinning is wrong. If you sin you will burn in Hell for all eternity. Then they continue to say, but if you're really really sorry god will forgive you and you won't spend eternity in the fire pits of Hell.

The reason that it is such an abhorrent technique is that it is done to children. Confirmation is done at a young age, where the church manipulates the children to join so they won't spend eternity suffering.”

3) He disagrees with the Roman Catholic Sacrment of (I think) Confession and Confirmation, when administered to children. “The reason that it is such an abhorrent technique is that it is done to children. Confirmation is done at a young age, where the church manipulates the children to join so they won't spend eternity suffering.”

There are a couple of other points that we split on, but these are the prominent ones in his comments. Especially the first two. Therefore I will devote most of my answer to those first two.

1) I think I mentioned in one of my comments that I find a difference between excessive pride, and legitimate pride. Excessive pride I regard as glorifying yourself, and ignoring God in the process. Legitimate pride I call a sense of joy, triumph, and fulfillment over accomplishing something. This must include the understanding that it was God who gave you the strength to do what you did- and that it is God who smiles in your triumph. This also means that you must not speak of your triumphs excessively.

I admit I was too admiring of Beowulf's complete self-glorification. I still hold, however, that sharing legitimate pride, under my terms, is a healthy thing. Arrogant pride that mocks God is indeed “Lucifer’s hubris”, and the most terrible sin a human can commit, according to Fr. Francis Sheed. Pride that is satisfaction with a job well done is not.

2) Confession can indeed be a recruitment tool, if it seems attractive to a potential convert. You were correct that the Sacraments are not in their nature recruitment tools, and that is still not what they are. They do not detract from true morality, because they are still a path to true morality. Catholics believe that God showed us these rituals in order to come into contact with Him to receive special graces. These graces give us the strength and devotion to live a life in imitation of Jesus Christ. If we do this, we will come to Heaven.

Confession is not about escaping the horrible tortures of Hell. Confession is about keeping oneself pure in order to be able to live in Heaven. As you said, we clear the slate. And we know that it will not stay clear. You were too right when you said that we are “weak and flawed”. That’s why we can go to Confession more than once. It is a constant process of struggle. We fail, we go to Confession, and through our resolve and the graces won in Confession, we do better next time. Just as an obese man cannot run a marathon without lots of practice, we cannot live a life of grace without trying and failing several times.

You could come to grace without Confession. The obese man could drink no water while running his marathon. But just as the water would help him immensely, so Confession helps us so immensely that to refuse it is almost ludicrous.

That is the meaning behind it. We do not keep it propped up to scare people into Heaven. Any Catholic who tells you so is not reflecting what his Church actually says about it. And if any Catholic does that to children, I would not weep to see that Catholic excommunicated.  

(As a side-note, I do not know if there is even any fire or physical torture in Hell, but I am certain that if there is, it is not the thing to fear. The thing to fear is external separation from the God who gave you life and holds you in existence, He who alone satisfies the human heart.)

3) I may be wrong here, but it seems you don’t like the idea of children being taught Confession and Confirmation at an early age. It seems to me that you are opposed to religious indoctrination for children, but I overstep myself, and apologize if my guess is incorrect.

Children will inevitably be indoctrinated by something. I was taught Confession and Confirmation as a child. I was also taught that premarital sex isn’t so bad, by the way people talked about it in high school, and in PG-13 movies. So either way, exterior forces will help shape what someone believes. Catholicism is based in Love, a ruling principle that sounds distant from the “vicious cycle” you brought up.

If children who have grown up as Catholics decide they do not believe our creed, they are free to leave the Church. We would no longer have a Catholic Church if the Church was that intolerant. Free will is essential in our faith. Dangerous, often, but essential.

Is this a satisfactory answer?