Wednesday, September 13, 2017
Traveling North by Northwest
I started writing this talk in the last few weeks of summer. This was a big mistake. Because my summer identity and school identity are very different, and they don’t really get along. I love Summertime Me. He is so relaxed and carefree--full of whimsy and dreams and spontaneity. Work Me is saddled with responsibility; he is sleep deprived most of the time, full of stress, and driven by the school schedule. The difficulty of transitions is the hardest part of teaching for me, and the hardest part of life. All beginnings are hard. And, for me, Early Week doesn’t help the cause. Everyone is so friendly, so positive, and optimistic—frankly, I find it hard to take.
So, on this past Labor Day, Summertime Me was so decimated, so forlorn, I had to find solace somewhere. I looked for a great movie to pass the last day of summer vacation, but not on Netflix. For me, it’s Turner Classic Movies. I love old movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and later too. I live in the past, just like Gatsby, always reaching for the green light. Always looking for Daisy. My last act of summer was watching my all-time favorite movie: North by Northwest. But it was a ritual of mourning, not celebration. Summertime Me was dying. The movie was directed by the great Alfred Hitchcock who directed so many powerful films. The cast from 1959 included Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive in New York; Eve Kendall, an American spy, played by Eva Marie Saint; and Philip Van Dam, a foreign agent selling government secrets, played by James Mason.
The movie is about a case of mistaken identity. The spy ring led by Philip Van Dam misidentifies Roger Thornhill as an American agent. They believe he is George Kaplan, an American spy who does not exist. He was a decoy created by the CIA. Thornhill is kidnapped by Van Dam, and they eventually decide to kill Thornhill whom they wrongly believe is Kaplan. Thornhill is in a state of shock as he struggles to escape and survive. His old way of life as an advertising executive is over, and he has great difficulty accepting this. The transition between his old identity and his new one generates the suspense in the movie. The difficulty of the transition creates the element of fear, something that Hitchcock was always keen to explore and uncover in human nature.
As Hitchcock once said, “The only way to get rid of my fears is to make films about them.”
Thornhill attempts to plead his case with the CIA: “I’m an advertising man not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives, and several bartenders dependent on me. And I don’t intend to disappoint them by getting slightly killed.” Your life can change in a heartbeat. Just think of the victims of the recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida. Lives are marked forever as pre-hurricane and post-hurricane. The transition can be terrifying for the survivors.
Confusion, fear, and comedy are all mixed together in North by Northwest, just like in life. Roger Thornhill even takes the time to fall in love with Eve Kendall during the great chase. I would elaborate more on their highly flirtatious relationship, but this is a chapel talk. Sparks are flying. What are some of the lessons of North by Northwest? Though his life is in danger, Cary Grant as Thornhill always looks fantastic. He even takes the time to get a suit dry-cleaned while the manhunt is closing in on him. If you’re confused and harassed, you can still look good. I learned that from Mr. DesMarais. You can make the dress code snap for you. Not to suggest that Mr. DesMarais is confused, but I often am. It’s ok to be confused, but it doesn’t have to be a permanent state. New ways of seeing, new ways of being in the world are always possible. You just have to adjust to your new identity, and let the old pass away. The turning point for Thornhill is when he finally gives up his old identity. If everyone thinks he’s a spy, he might as well join the fray. As a force for good. He becomes a temporary American agent, and he behaves with cunning and creativity. Thornhill isn’t exactly fearless, but his anxiety is now under his own control. And he gets the girl, after saving her from falling off Mount Rushmore in the movie’s iconic closing scene.
So, it’s goodbye to Summertime Me and hello to Work Me. I’ll manage the transition and so will you. Human identity is not static, and it’s not solely individual. It’s always changing and growing, in relationship to others and to God. The key thing is to have faith during the difficult transitions, and to not live by fear.
For Jesus doubt was not the opposite of faith. For him it was fear. We can live our lives in fear, or we can pursue the life of faith. It’s our decision, after all. Fear can take over our lives if we let it.
So what scares me? Beyond Early Week and the beginning of school and hurricanes? Here’s a story of human fear for you.
It happened over the summer: when we found a black bear in our garage. What a way to start the morning. I didn’t see this coming. The bear was on his way to the garbage bags, but he was having trouble getting around my motorcycle. Thank God for a cluttered garage; you neat people may be in the danger zone and not even know it. After being discovered, the bear left by the garage window. He had pushed in the screen to get inside. Then he circled around the garage and came up to the house windows where my two daughters and I stood watching him from inside. The bear then stood upright, reaching his full height, and he began to press the screens on the widows with his paws. He was three feet from me and the girls, who were fascinated not alarmed. I, on the other hand, felt the creeping presence of real fear. I hadn’t experienced this level of fear in years. The bear was trying to push in the screens, just like he did in the garage. He was trying to get into the house. What was most disconcerting about this particular bear: he didn’t have a care in the world. He was like Summertime Me. He was just looking for some tasty garbage. The bear was stress free, on a headmaster’s holiday, looking for treats. After giving up on the house, the bear approached the garage door, and thoughtfully licked it. Then he sauntered off into the woods, as the king of the food chain.
Human fear can be both large and small. But you can fight your fears and worries by slowing down in the moment, and paying attention to what is happening all around you. The spiritual writer and thinker Eckhart Tolle had this to say about being in the moment.
“Being is the eternal, ever-present One Life beyond the myriad forms of life that are subject to birth and death. However, Being is not only beyond but also deep within every form as its innermost invisible and indestructible essence. This means that it is accessible to you now as your own deepest self, your true nature. But don’t seek to grasp it with your mind. Don’t try to understand it. You can only know it when your mind is still. When you are present, when your attention is fully and intensely in the Now, Being can be felt, but it can never be understood mentally. To regain awareness of Being and to abide in the state of ‘feeling-realization’ is enlightenment.”
That’s deep. So take a look around you; look at all the beautiful human faces. Take a deep breath. And let it out. Look at this beautiful place where we now live together, sharing it with the bears, bald eagles, red tailed hawks, foxes, and tiny, racing chipmunks. With all of God’s beautiful creatures we share this land. Don’t ever let the remarkable become commonplace in your life. When you slow down in the moment, you remember how great it is to be alive, the miracle of our being, and our hope for the future; as you travel north by northwest, or whichever direction you choose. Have a great year.