Through the magic of smartphone Netflix, I watched Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story, while working out and doing the dishes, last night. Apart from lamenting that Cuba Gooding Jr. will probably be too old to play me, should I ever do something worthy of a movie, I found the film to be a good reminder to contemplate goals in life.
The first requirement of such contemplation is clarity about what the actual objective is. Do you want to be a surgeon, or a surgeon about whom a movie is made? Is the goal to save lives, to be recognized, or to have a movie star play you on the big screen? The all-of-that-and-then-some option is too likely to end up with the latter part of “all or nothing.” Is being a surgeon enough if it isn’t validated by a movie, or would the movie be sufficient validation whatever the activity that made the producers take notice?
In our times, being noticed is too often the primary goal. Believing that major movies or at least widely shared YouTube clips are the only validation for actions worth taking, I think we overlook the stuff that’s really important.
It strikes me that this conclusion might be inverted from that which Walter Russell Mead observes about the West, as symbolized in Brussels:
The West as a whole these days is cursed by moral grandiosity and failing performance. Our self-esteem has seldom been more robust, or our performance more pitiable. We busy ourselves with what we think is the last unfinished work of implementing universal egalitarianism, by for example tending to high school students who identify with a gender other than that into which they were born, ensuring that they can use the restrooms toward which their aspirations lead them. We see ourselves as courageous warriors even as the foundations of our world are beginning to crack. We claim that tolerance and diversity are the touchstones of our civilization, and have raised a generation of weaklings who cannot bear to be exposed to unorthodox ideas or to the bustle and collisions that life in a diverse society inevitably brings. To cite another of Jesus’ condemnations of hypocrisy, we ‘tithe mint and dill and cumin, and neglect the weightier matters of the law.’ That is, we busy ourselves obsessively over small bore issues, and ignore the graver challenges that face us on every side.
Perhaps the problem isn’t so much that we obsess over superficialities as that we’ve misplaced our understanding of that which is profound and therefore chosen the wrong goals. After all, tending to our own gardens and families is the stuff of a life well lived, but it’s not quite the stuff of movies.
Perhaps, therefore, the problem is that we’re like would-be-starlets who jump on the faddish topics of the hour. We try to tell the same story over and over. When the great civil rights battles have largely been won, transsexual potty rights become about the closest simulacrum available. Likewise, the first requirement to playing a role in the campus fight for tolerance is to find some way to count as untolerated on campus (perhaps by becoming intolerable).
If the movie at the end of the career weren’t the focus (despite its being an unlikely result in almost any circumstance), maybe we’d stop trying to imitate things about which movies have been made and actually do things that are meaningful, intelligent, and important.