Friday 24 January 2014

Truth, Film Characters, and My Hunger for Authenticity

 By Santiago Rodriguez, S.J.

“$#!^”, I said it. I had just returned home after a long day that unfortunately included a colossal series of mistakes. They played on my inauthenticity and pride. No cuddly panda there to entertain me, I sequestered myself to my room and I sat frustrated on my bed. I had no desire to pray, or to call a friend, but I didn't want to wallow in my own misery. In moments like that, only two things benefit me: exercise or a film. I opted for the latter. Thought-provoking plots in films help me expand my horizons and consider things differently. As I drove to the movie theatre, I kept thinking, “When will I fully grow up? Why can't I be more authentic?”

I wanted to see American Hustle. When I arrived at the theatre, the film had just started, but I chose a later showing. I killed some time walking through a nearby bookstore. I browsed some books in the 'Religion' section, and I found myself searching for the words 'authentic' and 'authenticity'. There were a few great insights in some of those books; among them, a wonderful quote by Fr. John Hardon, S.J. “To be authentic”, he expressed “is to know the Truth, to live the Truth, and to suffer the Truth.”

After perusing and skimming through books for a while, I made my way back to the cinema - theatre number ten was “now seating”. I sat alone in that theatre and I pondered about Fr. Hardon's quote. “The Truth is a person... Jesus the Christ,” I told myself. “But how exactly do I suffer the Truth?” The answer seemed distant.

Some say a film can transport us from a world of grim reality to an enchanting world of beauty and glamour. American Hustle did not do that for me. It did not make me laugh or tickle my sense of humour either. The film does not depict the agonies of unfortunate lovers or the madness of heartless villains. It's not that sort of film. Instead, American Hustle illustrates the lives of ordinary people playing to be con artists. As the film progressed, my identification with the characters didn't grow. My uncaring attitude towards the plot and the characters led me to keep going back to Fr. Hardon's insight: “How the heck do I suffer the Truth?”

On my way back home, I started to think about what it means to know the Truth. Somehow, I ended up thinking about this in the context of the film's main character, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale). Irving, as his mistress admits, isn't much to look at – maybe that also applies for the film as a whole. Irving is an a caricature of a man who seeks approval, affirmation, and fellowship, but only achieves to get entangled in crime and chaotic relationships. Over the next few days, I found myself identifying a bit with Irving.

The weeks that followed presented me with an opportunity to watch some of the other must-see films of the year. Most of them had well-written scripts, but used complex, bleak, or morally offensive plot lines to communicate hidden narratives. None of them was able to capture much of my interest and imagination. It was only in the aftermath of these films, that I kept going back to examine the lives of their characters. I would sit down, and jot down a few notes about a specific character. In this way, I found myself engaging in a dialogue with them: “Who are you?”, “What makes you tick?”, “What were your intentions?”, “What did you learn about life and about yourself?”. These conversations became more fascinating than the films themselves.

I had coffee with Llewyn Davis (Inside Llewyn Davis), Irving Rosenfeld, Jasmine (Blue Jasmine), Theodore Twombly (Her), Philomena (Philomena), Ron Woodroof and Rayon (Dallas Buyers Club), and others. In those conversations, I discovered 'people' who desired to be real – or experience the real – but who got lost in their emotional pain, unchecked longings, and sense of entitlement. Their thirst for authenticity guided them to play music, fight the Food and Drug Administration, or set the record straight. But most of them quenched that thirst with sex, misery, drugs, or melancholia. I listened empathically. I noticed without judgment. I learned lots from what they had to say, and I paid attention to what the conversations evoked in me. In my own life, I can see how my hunger for authenticity has driven my explorations of ministry, relationships, play, and prayer.

Recently, a friend asked me what was the purpose of Jesuit formation. “After so many years of training, what do you wish it to accomplish in you?”, she asked. I told her that Jesuit formation – just as the experiences everyone has in life – are meant to help us to be who God wants us to be, our real self. Just as a sculptor carves to free a form trapped inside a block, or the way we peel the layers of an onion until we expose its core, Jesuit formation points me in the direction of authenticity. As a companion of Jesus, I learn to be at ease with who I am, and to live that reality joyfully.

We learn who we are, by contemplating God, discovering the world, forming relationships, and paying attention to what happens in our minds and hearts as we consider all things. The trouble for me is that authenticity evokes an image of something pure or unadulterated. Thus, at times I can become too concerned with what others think of me. I find myself disguising or suppressing features of my personality to please or appease others. That has caused pain, confusion, and anxiety. At times, I have become less of myself – I have drenched the sculpture in plaster, or added extra layers to the onion. This frustrates me.

My frustration was part of my conversations with the characters in the must-see films. I was also able to bring my disappointment and irritation to prayer. While I paid attention to the way God looks at me and loves me, I learned a valuable lesson. It's one thing to invite transformation for the sake of growth and to be more authentic. It's another thing to feel so dissatisfied with myself that no amount of change could possibly convince me that I'm worthy and lovable. My conversations with the film characters, and my time with the lover of my soul reminded me of something very important: I am not my worst mistakes. I am not who my sins say I am. I am who God created me to be.

It is in knowing the Truth, that I learn to love the Truth. To know and love the Truth is to be authentically joyful and joyfully authentic. To suffer the Truth is to know the pains of growing, and to detach myself from all the false answers to the question “Who am I?” In that magnificent journey, I let my heart be captivated by nothing but the Truth, and I discover how to align my heart with my steps.

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