[Excerpted from the book in progress: A Year in Prayer]
When I reflect on where and how joy is found—which is not by achieving our foolish aspirations to be like gods, but by realizing that God aspires to be like us, and then further realizing that God did become like us, so that through Jesus God could be with us—what comes to mind is a short conversation I had with a friend of mine who is a Jesuit priest.
My friend had just emerged from an exchange with his (non-Jesuit) boss, who was also my colleague at this particular charitable organization in which we all worked. My friend was fuming (yes, even Jesuits can get angry and impatient).
I listened to my friend’s complaints for a moment, and then commiserated, saying, “What I find difficult is that because he seems to compare himself and his work here to Jesus Christ, whenever I disagree with him it makes me feel like Judas.”
My Jesuit friend looked up at me kindly from where he stood on the stairs. “We’re supposed to identify with Judas,” he told me, “it’s the people who think they’re Jesus Christ that I’m worried about.”
* * *
The wonderful comedic actor Bill Murray made what I like to think of as a trilogy of films in the late 1980s and early 1990s that capture my friend’s statement in a way that’s laugh out loud funny. None of these movies are actually related, except that they all share a theme of redemption, each one told from a different perspective.
The first of these films I’d like to explore—“What about Bob?”—particularly captures the relationship with our colleague that my friend and I were bemoaning. It portrays the paradox of finding joy by letting go of all pretenses to perfection; that happiness is not simply a function of what we achieve or attain.
In this film Bill Murray’s character—Bob—is a humorous caricature of every neurosis imaginable, whose insatiable need for validation ultimately pricks the balloon of every therapist’s ego. Hence at the start of the story Bob has landed—by virtue of a colleague’s cruel deferral—in the office of a psychologist with the ultimate ego: Dr. Marvin. Dr. Marvin has a thriving practice, a new best-selling book, what he thinks is a picture perfect family, and an upcoming interview slot on Good Morning America that will be shot at his picturesque summer home in Lake Winnipesaukee. Skillfully played by Richard Dreyfuss, Dr. Marvin believes he is better than most and admired by all; in direct contrast, Bob knows he’s a mess. However, the key to Bob’s redemption—and the tragic turning point for Dr. Marvin’s gradual unraveling—comes with a few flippant words of advice that Dreyfuss’ good doctor dispenses in an effort to get rid of his annoying new patient, but actually should have heeded himself: take a vacation, Bob—from your problems. Take a vacation from your Self.
Thus Dr. Marvin inadvertently invites the increasingly intrepid Bob to follow him and his family to Lake Winnipesaukee, where events are set in motion by which the tables are turned: ninety minutes later Bob is in awe with a world that he breathes easily into the interior space that he used to protect, while Dr. Marvin cynically hangs onto the last remaining shreds of his identity, an illusion of perfection that prevents him from seeing how profoundly he is loved by friends and family despite—or perhaps even because—of his obvious and tragic flaws.
In one scene, a banished Bob has hitched a ride with Dr. Marvin’s daughter, Ana (Dr. Marvin named his children Sigmund and Ana after the father of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud, and the daughter he analyzed). The late adolescent Ana is lamenting having grown up with a father who analyzes everything, who does so from a standpoint that father always knows best, and who—though she concedes his intentions and advice may be mostly good—is ever intent on fixing what she feels may not be particularly broken: namely her. This entire confession is prompted by Bob—who keeps coming back to Dr. Marvin no matter how often he’s turned away, never discouraged, always as eager for attention as a puppy—when he asked Ana in all earnestness: What is it like growing up with the great Dr. Leo Marvin as your father, having access to a mind like that 24/7?
She doesn’t want to be with the great Dr. Leo Marvin; she wants to be with her Dad. Bottom line: Dr. Marvin is not fun. Only a father, as a father, promises joy. Dr. Marvin’s constant reminding her—and everyone—of all he has achieved and attained may impress, but it oppresses as well. In order to push himself up, he inadvertently pushes others down, and consequently pushes people away. Ana feels she is with a doctor who dispenses, not a father who welcomes, who holds, and who listens.
The ever transforming Bob—on vacation from his Self, and therefore filled with newfound confidence—says simply that this is okay, she can get through this, that in time Ana’s relationship with her father will be restored. He has faith: people are like telephones, Bob tells her. Sometimes they don’t work. That doesn’t mean that a particular phone never worked, or that it won’t work again. As the pre-recorded message for a non-operating number would say, just temporarily disconnected, that’s all. Try again later. No judgment, just temporarily disconnected.
* * *
In another of this trilogy of redemptive stories, Bill Murray plays just such a temporarily disconnected individual: Phil, the weatherman for a local Pittsburgh television station. Whereas Dr. Marvin in What about Bob? had been certain of what he felt was his self-knitted SCARF (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness & Fairness), and was consequently completely disassembled when he saw that SCARF so easily unraveled, Phil feels life has not bestowed upon him the SCARF that he deserves. He refers to himself as “the talent”, calls the news anchor with which he works “hairdo”, and broadcasts to everyone within earshot that an unnamed major national network is interested in him, which will soon reveal how superior he is to his surroundings. As fate would literally have it, he seems inexplicably sentenced for these sins to the purgatory of repeating the same ‘non-holiday’—Groundhog Day, the title of the film—over and over and over again, broadcasting the same event from the tiny hamlet of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.
Every morning Phil wakes to find himself in the same place, on the same date, with the same tasks before him, and no one else apparently aware that there seems to be a cosmic skip in the record of life.
However, the movie proves anything but redundant as the gravity of Phil’s situation first dawns upon him and then begins to further unfold, unwrapping layer after layer of his skimpy, scrappy SCARF, already fragile to begin with. While everyone else goes on blissfully unaware that everything they say or do Phil has heard a thousand times before, Phil begins to feel doomed to live an eternal winter for which spring will never come, as that is what Groundhog Day is all about: if the hibernating groundhog sees its shadow and returns to its hovel on February 2nd, it means that there will be six more weeks of winter; if the groundhog doesn’t return to its sleep it means there will be an early spring—the world will be reborn. If you have never seen the movie, the parallels between Phil the weatherman and Punxsutawney Phil the weather prognosticating groundhog may seem nonsensical, even silly; indeed, Phil is at first merely confused, but in time the situation proves profound.
Early in the film, sitting at the bar in a bowling alley nursing a beer beside, though not actually with, a couple of Punxsutawney locals—something Phil would never have feigned to do before this fate befell him—he rhetorically asks aloud:
What would you do if you woke up and every day was the same, and nothing you did made any difference?
One of the locals stares straight ahead, as if looking at a movie of his life, and not realizing that the question wasn’t really meant for him, answers, “Yep, that about sums it up for me.” His buddy nods in sad, silent agreement.
From that moment forward Phil first seeks to take control of, then escape from, and finally abandons himself to his predicament, moving hilariously, yet touchingly, through hedonism to headstrong industry, then despair, and finally acceptance. In the end he seems content; knowing all the trials and travails the town will endure during this single day, he appears to find meaning in doing acts for others, acts that are truly altruistic, as not only will they need repeating, but they will also be completely forgotten by their beneficiaries in a series of tomorrows that will never come: in the morning it will be the same day, as if his acts of kindness and even heroism had never happened, everyone once again thinking that Phil is the same jerk he has always been, but which he is slowly becoming no longer.
Out of these small acts of kindness, the SCARF Phil had always felt robbed of and which he has now half-forgotten, he finds embarrassingly bestowed upon him by those he once despised—and whom he now genuinely cares for. Ultimately Phil finds, and Phil is found by, love—not in grand acts or grand places or grand people, but in his awe at the ordinary. It turns out that not every day is the same: if we decide to make a difference, tomorrow will be different; we do not need to repeat a string of yesterdays—a new day will dawn.
* * *
Love both flourishes and allows us to flourish in awe of the ordinary, as love makes all things new; love enables us to transform and transcend our yesterdays to embrace a new dawn.
This is made most clear in what was actually the first of this trilogy of films to be made, a late 20th century retelling of Charles Dickens’ classic redemption tale, A Christmas Carol. Re-titled Scrooged, in this movie Bill Murray plays the stand-in for the original titular character, Ebenezer Scrooge, whose personality straddles the actor’s other incarnations in What about Bob? and Groundhog Day: slowly Murray’s character is revealed to be, although slightly less of a caricature, every bit as insecure and neurotic as Bob in the beginning, and perhaps exactly what Phil would have become if instead of suffering the purgatory of Punxsutawney PA he had, like Dr. Leo Marvin, achieved and attained everything he felt he deserved. In fact, in this re-telling, “Scrooge” is a top executive at exactly the sort of major national network Phil had boasted was interested in him. Re-named Francis Xavier Cross, this “Scrooge” was the youngest such executive in television history; however, time has passed, he’s not so young anymore, and he’s starting to feel the pressure to produce at an ever increasing pace from both the few seniors that remain above him and a young, well-connected upstart snapping at his heels. Hence he never passes up the opportunity to be the one to apply pressure at the network, snapping at his subordinates, ridiculing roomfuls of yes-men and –women, bullying everyone around him except the higher ups that he both panders to and pities. The film finds us on the cusp of this character’s crowning achievement: an incredibly crass, live-on-location-from-remote-sites-around-the-globe television special—centered around the story of the Charles Dickens classic—to be shot and broadcast on Christmas Eve, keeping all of his colleagues away from friends and family for the holiday and keeping millions of viewers world-wide focused on advertisers rather than Advent.
In an early scene, Bill Murray is visited by his character’s younger brother at the network executive’s private gym, located in a suite adjacent to his office. As the ever-hopeful brother tries once more to convince Francis Xavier to come spend Christmas with the only family he has, Cross scoffs at his sibling’s appeal to the true spirit of Christmas. Behind the executive, as he pedals furiously atop a stationary bike (a metaphor in itself), we see a motivational poster that looks like a blowup from a dictionary entry for Francis Xavier’s last name:
Cross • kr • óss • n. something you nail people to.
The poster proves prophetic, as does the Bill Murray character’s other appellations—ostensibly in honor of Saints Francis and Xavier, perhaps the two most effective, best known and best loved Christian missionaries outside of the original apostles—for after a harrowing Christmas Eve visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, Francis Xavier Cross crashes his own TV show, all sense of Self gone (along with his job) as he interrupts the live worldwide broadcast to denounce the life he has led and proclaim over the airwaves and to all the earth his newfound humility and Joy.
“I’m not crazy,” a harried Cross shouts at the camera, knowing how disheveled and unexpected he must appear to his global audience. His words echo the disclaimer the apostles had to make to the crowds on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon them, filling their being and making them burst out in all tongues to proclaim the Gospel. “I’m not crazy,” Cross repeated. “It’s Christmas Eve!” he continues:
It's Christmas Eve.
It's the one night when we all act a little nicer.
We...we smile a little easier. We...we...share a little more.
For a couple of hours we are the people we always hoped we would be.
It's really a miracle because it happens every Christmas Eve.
And if you waste that miracle, you're gonna burn for it. I know.
You have to do something. You have to take a chance and get involved.
There are people that don't have enough to eat and who are cold.
You can go and greet these people.
Take an old blanket out to them or make a sandwich and say, "Here—l get it now."
And if you give, then it can happen, the miracle can happen to you.
Not just the poor and hungry, Everybody's gotta have this miracle!
It can happen tonight for you all!
If you believe in this pure thing, the miracle will happen and you'll want it again tomorrow!
You won't say, "Christmas is once a year and it's a fraud." It's not!
It can happen every day! You've just got to want that feeling!
You'll want it every day! It can happen to you!
I believe in it now.
I believe it's gonna happen to me, now. I'm ready for it!
And it's great. It's a good feeling.
It's better than I've felt in a long time.
Have a Merry Christmas. Everybody.
If you haven’t seen the movie, I haven’t ruined it for you by revealing the ending: you already knew how it would end without my ever telling you. We all know this ending. Since we were children we have felt it; all our adult lives, beneath the wrapped layers of our SCARFs and false sense of security, this ending is our true desire; and as we age, this is the truth that we try to pass on to our next generation: that this is the only ending that really matters.
We try to deny our sentiments, we try to say that such stories are more trite than true, we look at characters such as Ebenezer Scrooge and Francis Xavier Cross and say that in the ways of the world they have become fools, but it can be countered that for two thousand years the words of the Apostle Paul have commended us to become precisely that—fools for Christ.
It can even be countered that in our own time, in even our own cynical age, to experience Scrooge’s conversion remains our not so secret aspiration: for the past half century—perhaps to date the most increasingly secularized series of decades in the history of mankind—one of the most popular, perennial tales of the holiday season has been “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Through this story the illustrator Charles Schulz’s cartoon creation—the child Charlie Brown, embodying at an early age all the faults and foibles of Bob, Dr. Marvin, Phil the weatherman and Francis Xavier Cross rolled into one as he fumbles to find the true meaning of Christmas—every year manages to get millions of people of all ages to sit down and listen (in their own homes, as a family, on commercial TV) to nearly two full minutes of Bible reading. There is no action, no acting, just the reading of two full repetitions of the Gospel story that people of all persuasions have found to be among the most moving moments in the history of television, or any media:
Charlie Brown sighs, and we feel his plight.
“I shouldn’t have picked this little tree. Everything I do turns to disaster. I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about. Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” he exclaims.
“Sure, Charlie Brown,” replies Linus, his friend Lucy’s little brother, still so young he clutches a security blanket wherever he goes, even here, in public, at the start of the community Christmas play. “I can tell you what Christmas is all about,” he states earnestly, compassionately, without pretense or guile.
Linus crosses to the center of the stage. The lights dim, and a spotlight shines on him alone.
“And there were in the same country Shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you. Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in the manger.’ And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men.’”
“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
It is through Jesus that we more than know, more than understand, more than even feel God’s all encompassing desire to be with us; for lack of a better explanation, as with any child, it is through our author and it is with our creator that we are filled with Joy.
The Charlie Brown Christmas special then repeats this for us, making sure it enters our living rooms even if we never enter church, just as it has for television audiences for over half a century:
“And there were in the same country Shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord.
Have a Merry Christmas. Everybody.