Wednesday, January 5, 2011

angry birds

Whatever happened to the dreamers
They always look beyond the sky
Saw a world they could believe in
But only when they close their eyes - Jack Savoretti

Where is the line between dream and reality?  What is the relationship between ambition and obsession?

These are the questions at the center of Darren Aronofsy's latest film, Black Swan.  The film depicts ballerina Nina Sayers as she wins the role of a lifetime starring as the Swan Queen in a stripped down, raw production of Swan Lake brought to the stage by a visionary, mercurial director.  Faced with the full weight of the pressure of dancing the lead in the show, she slowly begins to buckle under the enormous stress that is put on her body and her psychological health.  Even as she revels in her newfound fame and power, she becomes increasingly suspicious of a new dancer to the company, Lily, and constantly worries that Lily may be trying to steal her role.  Nina becomes only more consumed by the role and driven to the edge of madness by the requirement that she transform her personality to achieve some method-like form of representing the evil Black Swan onstage. 
I'll stop my summary there as not to spoil any of the key plot points in the movie but if you are familiar with the story of Swan Lake, you may quickly catch on to where the action is headed.  (Only Aronofsky would attempt a film about Swan Lake with the plot of Swan Lake.)  As one reviewer described it, the movie is "cold to the touch leaving more to be admired than liked."  However, Natalie Portman's spellbinding and Oscar-worthy performance  is reason enough to see it and study it as a piece of pure cinema.  More than anything, the film left me pondering whether the interplay between dreams and reality will forever be aggresive and adversarial and whether ambition and obsession share a similar fate.

On the one hand, dreams (read: hallucinations) are what Portman's character experiences throughout the film as she falls further down the rabbit hole of her own obsession and paranoia.  However, on the other hand, her character also dreams of being a prima ballerina, of dancing a perfect routine to the loud cheers of an adoring crowd, and winning the admiration of her mother.  I think there has to be more of a connection between these two kinds of dreams than simply the word we use to describe them.

Nina's dreams/hallucinations materialize more as nightmares as the movie progresses but they are directly fueled by her dreams to achieve and fulfill the bright star of her potential.  Her nightmares are caused by the fear that her dreams will never come to fruition.  As Langston Hughes would have it, a dream deferred is not simply a missed opportunity but a haunting specter much more difficult to decipher and traverse than merely a disappointment.

But sometimes our dreams don't come true.

This is a fact of life.  We don't get everything we ever wanted.  No matter how hard we strive for it or how well we work for it or how ingeniuous our plans to grasp hold of it, there are times when our dreams remain just beyond our reach.  Like the hazy first few moments of realizing the dream has ended and reality has returned, we remain just within sight of our dreams but incapable of attaining them.  Nothing can hurt so much as the intanglible that feels just beyond arm's length.

I would submit that our character is forged many times by our response to these seeming tragedies.  I think most people would say I'm a very driven individual.  I live my life with purpose.  I expect much from myself and from the people around me.  I value boldness and vigor when making decisions and I take that approach to my professional life, social life, romantic life; I apply the same philosophy whether I'm on the basketball court, in a meeting with politicians, or across the dinner table from a date. 

But I wonder whether that ambition can lead to obsession and whether taking that responsibility to make things happen for myself, to achieve my dreams conflicts with Christ-like humility.

There's a verse in Scripture that I feel like is always quoted out of context and misrepresented by preachers in the pulpit and paltry promisers looking to make a quick dollar on their newest Christian self-help book.  It's in the 29th chapter of the book of the prophet Jeremiah.  In verse 11, "For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."  If you have any knowledge of the Bible or have heard any amount of contemporary preaching, you have probably heard this verse used out of context to feign comfort for those with uncertain futures or even to promise prosperity.  What you likely have not heard is verse 1.

This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.

This is the context from where God's promise comes.  These are the words God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah to the people of Israel who have been exiled to Babylon.  They aren't even necessarily personal words of comfort, they are more meant to assert that God is ultimately in control despite the outward reality of Babylonian captivity facing the people hearing them.  The words were spoken to a people that had worshipped at the temple built by Solomon who had overseen one of the most prosperous times in the long history of Israel.  Spoken to a people who knew of the promises given to his father David that a king chosen by God would forever reign on that throne.  Spoken to a people who had seen all of that come crashing down as the temple itself fell under the crushing blow of the Babylonians.  But not without God's permission.  God had sent the people into exile and sacrificed the temple because the people had relied on themselves and not on God.

Sometimes I'm in exile.  And the way out is not to rely on myself, to try harder, to buckle down, and drive myself to obsession over my own ambitions.  Sometimes the proper response is to take an objective view of reality and believe the fact that God is in control and ultimately has my good in mind.  Christ prayed for his followers that they would have eyes to see and ears to hear.  He did not pray that their dreams would come true.  This is not a case against dreaming but it is a plea to myself not to let my dreams and ambition turn to the nightmares of obsession. 

I feel like I've just been through a year where I got everything I wanted and nothing that I needed.  What do we do when our dreams come untrue?  Achieving a zen-like ignorance of reality won't solve the issues that surround me and neither will giving a firmer tug to my own bootstraps.  My only response, my only option is to remember and wait.  Remember that God is in control of this world and that everything happens only because he allows it.  Remember the ways in which He has worked for my good and on my behalf in the past.  Wait for Him to show me what comes next and where I can join Him in living out what He plans for my life and ultimately the plans He has to continue to redeem this world and all its broken dreams.

It is in light of that context that I can more fully understand what God is speaking through Jeremiah to the people and how the truth of that might apply to all of us.

"Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity."

I can learn much from that passage by simply listening to the cadence of the You's and I's.  God says: You will call.  You will pray.  You will seek.  God promises: I will listen.  I will be found.  I will bring you back.

We don't need our dreams or our ambitions to bring us comfort.  And whether realized or unrealized, they would never be up to such a task.  Our source of comfort comes from the fact that God is in control.  Even when we are in exile.  Even when we are in captivity.  He has a plan and wants us to be a part of it.  He is listening.  He is waiting to be found.  He is bringing us back.

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