Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Faith in...things

Douglas Christian Larsen

Faith, as well intentioned as it may be, must be built on facts,
not fiction—faith in fiction is a damnable false hope.”
Thomas A. Edison

An awkward moment at the end of the movie Signs occurs when Joaquin Phoenix's character says to Mel Gibson's character, "I don't want to see you like that, ever again. You know, when you lose faith...in things."

Even the first time watching it—what an awkward moment—I half-expected Mel to say: "Well, the bags of dog food. I never lost faith in them, did I? I thought they would keep the aliens out, and they did."

And why in the world is a farmer with two dogs going to stock up on such a huge quantity of 50-pound bags of dog food, anyway? Faith in the combined voracious appetites of two German Shepherd dogs?

Of course, the gag in the movie is that Mel Gibson is a priest, in a mysterious order that wears the clerical collar, but also marries and has children, and also is called "Father" by everyone, even people who don't attend his particular church service, and runs a huge corn farm behind his farmhouse in his spare time. The priest's wife is killed in an odd accident, in an odd way, and before she dies she says some odd things. All of which causes the priest to lose faith...in things.

He never quite loses his faith in God—or maybe we should use the term "higher power," which seems to be the replacement term for God, and even a god in religion. The priest still believes in higher power, but possibly just not that higher power is willing to do any more special favors for him, personally, such as saving his wife from an odd accident.

Don't get me wrong, I love the movie. It's my go-to movie whenever I'm ill, it makes me feel better, just lying there dying in bed, there's something about Signs that...well, restores my faith in things, er, I mean, well, you know...at least my faith in coincidence. I do believe in coincidence, and it is not really coincidence, or it is coincidence, but I do not believe it is merely a random tumbling of oddly matching events. Or maybe. You cannot prove it either way, kind of like crop circles.

But the overarching theme in Signs is faith in coincidence. Coincidence is like a message. The coincidence of things working out for the best, in a mysterious way. The coincidence of the sickly boy with asthma miraculously being protected from the lethal body odor of a lizardy alien, because of that persnickety asthma, that life-threatening condition proves the instrument of salvation. The coincidence of an oddball little girl with shades of obsessive compulsive disorder, driving her family crazy with glasses of water all over the house, which ultimately proves to be the most effective weapon against the "how dry I am" alien. The coincidence of the Phoenix record-breaking baseball bat mounted conveniently on the wall with the dying wife's wish to "swing away!" Hey, it is pretty cool, all that coincidence, no?

It is enough to drive a man back into his startlingly white dickey, and allow people to call him father again, which is what the Mel Gibson character ends up doing. He is a priest of coincidence.

The lyrics to "When You Believe" from The Prince of Egypt run something along the lines of: "There can be miracles, when you believe." Not necessarily that you believe...in God, but that you just...believe. Period. That magical believing.

And granted, belief, and faith, really can seem like magic. Just like coincidence seems supernatural, utterly out of the ordinary. Medical science has used faith and belief very effectively, employing placebo medicines and cures, which are nothing more really than belief and a spoon full of sugar to help the imaginary medicine go down.

An unscrupulous merchandiser capitalizes on this principle, selling cheap plastic-and-nylon bracelets that cost less than a buck to manufacture, and sell them on television for $20, promising you magical healing, a better life, and a continuous journey down Life's river of Liquid Luck. But are they unscrupulous? If wearing a cheap bit of plastic and nylon on your wrist makes you feel better, and you don't mind shelling out $20 plus shipping and handling which pushes the expenditure up beyond $30, shouldn't they be able to offer you a placebo, and shouldn't you be able to purchase this placebo? Aren't you and the merchandiser partners in the crime?

It is no different than purchasing a lucky coin. Carrying a rabbit's foot. The "better life" bracelet is a lucky coin. The idea of a lucky coin, or lucky piece of clothing, the horseshoe over the door—all of it, it is faith in...things. Casting a positive hex on...things.

Don't step on a crack, you'll break your mother's back—this ditty drives some children batty. They feel a sense of true guilt if they step on the line separating the concrete slabs, somehow in a "law of attraction" endangering their fair parent. It is belief. But thankfully, children mature, and drop most of the OCD superstitions. When we are children, we think like children, but then we grow up.

Or at least we are supposed to grow up, and think like adults. That is the prescribed method of maturity.

People glower at the merchandiser for selling magical bracelets for $20, but then they nod wisely when the Government pushes magical placebo flu shots on them. It will protect you, they promise. It will keep you safe from the rampaging virus, they swear. These oaths despite the lack of evidence to back up their claims. Scientists and doctors raise their right hands, hoping you will buy into the combined magic of large numbers of people all believing the same thing. We will quench the pandemic fear, if we believe! It will work, truly, if we all get behind the push and...believe.

Thomas Edison stressed that we should have belief, but only in true things, faith based on facts. That faith based on fiction is a damnable false hope.

But then again, there is the parable. Every parable is a fiction that teaches reality, a lie that tells the truth. Grimm's diabolical fairytales imbue protective principles that lead to right-thinking in children, much as the Geico Gecko, a fictitious being, leads people to trust in the protective merits of auto insurance. Jesus always spoke in parables, and those bits of storytelling have lasted thousands of years, simple stories teaching eternal truths.

It is important to dig deep into your own head and heft the nuggets scattered there. What do you believe? Why do you believe it? Is it faith...in things? Or is it faith...in man-made traditions? Are they your own thoughts, thoughts you have birthed? Or thoughts you have adopted? Is your thinking all second-hand in nature? Is your faith based on damnable false hopes? Or on eternal truths?

Think. Challenge yourself. Believe in yourself, but not in a fictitious version of yourself. When you believe, you can achieve miracles...but what is it, really, truly, that you believe in?

Art et Amour Toujours
Douglas Christian Larsen


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