If you really want to make me feel terrible for weeks at a time, all you have to do is to pick an issue where you differ from me and attach some moral failing to it.
Recently, thanks to our Channel 4 movies, I watched ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ again. One way of looking at the movie is to see it as a description of what happens to “Life” when it confronts ‘The System”. J.P. Mc. Murphy, the extrovert protagonist, brings life and freedom to a mental institution where he is incarcerated (rather than jail) simply by ‘going out into the world’. Clearly his ‘going out’ is a threat to the existing world, which responds with ever increasing violence against him.
The other Character is Billy Bibbit, who is shy, dominated by ‘the system’ and stutters. He discovers his own power and potency by seeing what is possible under the influence of J.P. Mc. Murphy. But he too is hauled into line by ‘the system’ and attempts suicide.
What interested me this time was how ‘The System’ struck back. Billy Bibbit comes into the ‘day room’ full of life and confidence after having discovered his potency. Nurse Ratchet, who represents ‘The System’ says ‘Billy, I’m so ashamed of you!’ No longer stuttering, he says ‘I’m not!!’ But then comes the killer blow. ‘Billy, what would your mother think of this? I’m going to have to tell your mother’ The stuttering returns, and Billy is cowed.
Within me is sometimes Billy Bibbit, and J.P. Mc. Murphy. Within me is sometimes Nurse Ratchet. The relationship between these two forces in life is what the movie is about. What is going on in the play is an exploration of the question of how we ‘flow’ into life with all our strength and all our sweetness (to quote Andrew Marvel) yet need to get on with other people who are different from us, and have different views from us.
I remember hearing two brothers (Tim and Peter Costello) from Australia talking about their upbringing. Peter Costello became Australian Treasurer for the conservative parties. His brother, Tim, now heads up World Vision Australia. Talking about their upbringing, both brothers recall Sunday lunches, where debate and difference of opinion were valued. Both brothers were encouraged to express themselves with passion, yet passion tempered with respect for the other. It was as if difference of opinion was ‘out there’ and did not endanger the respect that the one had for the other.
This is a different picture of society than the one painted by the movie ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ I admire this picture, partly because my own internal experience is more like the movie than this one
There is an old saying in psychological circles ‘They do it to us, until we learn to do it to ourselves, and forget that it was them who did it to us.’ What I find that I have to contend with is my own susceptibility to the equivalent of ‘What would your mother say?’
Here is a secret. If you really want to make me feel terrible for weeks at a time, all you have to do is to pick an issue where you differ from me and attach some moral failing to it. These kinds of moral failings may in fact have a grain of truth in them, otherwise they would never ‘get in’, but they have nothing to do with differences of opinion. None the less, in recent times I have been at the end of my tether because the way people have argued, when they have a difference from me, is not one that conveys respect but one that uses this ‘moral defective’ accusation.
I do not want to go into more detail here about my own situation, but I can give you some examples from other spheres of action. There is a saying that goes ‘The first person to mention the Nazis or the holocaust in an argument loses!’ You know. Person ‘A’ says something that person B disagrees with. Person ‘B’ then says ‘That’s just what the Nazis did.’ Game over! Person B loses. Person ‘B’ has resorted to unfair play by reducing a difference of view to a moral difference. The same goes for Christians. As soon as some one says ‘That is not a Christian way to behave’, they have lost the argument.
Jesus, before the High Priest at his trial says ‘Yes, I am the Messiah’. He is struck by the guard who says ‘Is that any way to talk to the High Priest?’ Jesus says ‘If I have said something wrong, point it out, if not, why are you hitting me?’
That is the point! As soon as illegitimate forms of argument are used, two things happen: I am left debilitated and depressed for a couple of weeks. The second is that the person who has used such arguments has lost the argument. Their views are now associated with the hurt of a moral attack that has its origins in a difference of view.
As a Christian priest one might say that my worst failing is that I am too vulnerable to such attacks. The Archbishop of Canterbury says that the next incumbent of his role must have the hide of a Rhinoceros. He is going to be an Academic again, partly because of the injuries sustained by being him, in that role. I wish it were different for me, but it is not. That is what I struggle with.
In the movie, J. P. Mac. Murphy invites some kind of response because his ‘life-full-ness’ needs the relationship with others to modify it. ‘The System’ is so full of fear that it is really a death dealing system, rather than one that gives life. We need both: to ‘flow ourselves’ and ‘be respectful of one another’.
This is the image I have of the Trinity. A community of love, where the creative ‘going out into life’ is not hindered in God, but is also modified in love. I wish I could be like this, but the truth is: I can’t. I am both vulnerable to charges of ‘moral defection’ for having different views, and sometimes have used these charges against others. I do not think that this is a proper way to behave, either when I do it, or it is done to me. I pray daily for the grace to live like the Trinity.