Being ThereBecoming the Great Us, Columns — By David Zimmerman on May 16, 2012 at 10:02 am
There was a moment for me when I knew for certain that the cast of Seinfeld weren’t heroes but anti-heroes. It was when Jerry and Elaine were conspiring to become the new people in a separating couple’s life. In the 1996 episode “The Wait Out,” Cary Elwes (from The Princess Bride) and Debra Messing (later from Will & Grace) played Dave and Beth, a couple in trouble. Jerry and Elaine watched them having dinner and confessed to one another their secret crushes.
Jerry: “You know, I have a little thing for Beth Lookner.”
Elaine: “Well, I have to admit, I’ve always thought Dave was kind of sponge-worthy.” (Google it.)
Jerry: “Yeah, I’ve been waiting out that marriage for three years.”
Elaine: “Yeah, me too. Well, I’ve been waiting out two or three marriages, but this is the one I really had my eye on.”
Classy, huh? Later on, they hear the news: Dave and Beth have decided to get divorced.
Elaine: “So now, what is our move? What do we do?”
Jerry: I don’t know, but we don’t have much time. . . . The city’s probably teeming with people who’ve been waiting out that marriage. . . . Their grieving time is a luxury I can’t afford. I’m calling Beth tonight, and if you want a clean shot at David, I suggest you do likewise.”
The methodical play for a rebound relationship is in motion, but they need to disguise their motives. No one would date somebody that mercenary, at least not the night of their separation.
Elaine: “Oh! I’ve got it! I’ve got it! We’re calling just to say, ‘I’m there for you.’ . . . Then, after a period of being ‘there for you,’ we slowly remove the two words ‘for you,’ and we’re just . . . there.”
Like I said, classy. Jerry and Elaine are anti-heroes because they’re not behaving heroically; they’re ostensibly operating out of concern and empathy, but we the viewers know that they’re really motivated entirely by self-interest. But they’re also anti-heroes because their logic is completely flipped. As Jerry, obsessed as he is with Superman, might think of it, they’re being Bizarro heroes. They think that relationship starts with being there for someone and evolves into simply being there. In reality the opposite is true: You can’t be there for someone until you’re first there.
There is an ambiguous term, of course. It demands an antecedent, but often we stubbornly refuse to supply one. So there can be anywhere—from next door to across the universe. Even God, who is omnipresent, immortal and yet invisible and ineffable, can be there. As cultural critic and Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer famously observed: “There is only one philosophy, one religion, that . . . fills the philosophical need of existence and being, and it is the Judeo-Christian God—not just an abstract concept, but rather that this God is really there.” Where there is in this instance doesn’t really matter; it’s simply this assertion that God is someplace real that resolves our existential dilemma.
So Jerry and Elaine are on their way there. Big deal; God is already there. God’s been there the whole time. More to the point, God has already commanded Jerry and Elaine and you and me and all of us to be there too. Jesus told his followers: “As the Father has sent me [into the world], so I am sending you.” God told Abraham, “Go to the land I will show you . . . and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Wherever there is, it seems, God wants us there.
OK, fine then, but what next? Being there isn’t enough; by itself it’s the ploy of the self-interested. The heroic path isn’t Jerry and Elaine’s but their opposite: We need to get from “being there” to “being there for” someone. In this we also follow Jesus. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in Christ the Center, “Christ is Christ, not just for himself, but in relation to me. His being Christ is his being for me, pro me. . . . Every Christology which does not begin with the assumption that God is only God for me, Christ is only Christ for me, condemns itself.”
That’s not self-interested theology but the nature of the universe: being there is never enough. The priest and the Levite were there, in proximity to the man lying bloodied and beaten on the side of the road, but their being there meant nothing. Only the Samaritan was there for the man, and so only the Samaritan was good, the only one whom Jesus commended and suggested we do likewise.
This has real implications for being the church. A church may feel as though it’s fulfilling its mandate of outreach by having a social media presence, by being there online. But it’s not; it’s only doing anything once it’s there for someone. Otherwise it’s just setting up shop and biding its time, waiting for its goals to be realized. It’s Jerry and Elaine. It’s anti-heroic. It’s being there for no one but ourselves.
I witnessed the more heroic path just today, happening online, of all places. Two different friends of mine contacted me, via social media and email, about an opportunity that I could help them with: they had heard about a contest to win a handicap-accessible van, and they each had
entered a friend of theirs to win. They were contacting me, and really everyone they knew, to muster up votes for their friend.
I don’t know which of them will win; I’ll be voting for both people as often as I can. But I know this: they were both there for their friend, making a way for their friend to gain greater mobility and dignity; and they were both there for me, giving me an opportunity to do something casually heroic for someone I’ve never met. My friends were there for us, but they wouldn’t have been there for us if they hadn’t first committed themselves to a ministry of being there, noticing the people in their midst, befriending them, and acting on that friendship. That’s the heroic path, the path that is so largely out of favor these days. It’s easier, frankly, and more instantly gratifying, to see Jerry and Elaine and go and do likewise, to be there for no one but ourselves. But being there for us is what God does, and that’s what he expects us to do for each other.