Identity (those Jimmy Stewart moments)Essays, Featured — By Michael Green on October 15, 2012 at 5:24 am
I had dinner recently with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. His wife was out with friends, so we met at his place and ordered pizza.
We slowly caught up on each other’s lives. He shared with me that his wife was interviewing in two weeks for a job in Nashville. My friend is from Tennessee, and his wife is from Northern California. They have considered leaving for a while, but should she be offered the job, they would need to make a decision much sooner than expected.
“What do you think you’ll do?” I asked.
“I don’t know. My head says one thing but my heart says another.”
Since I’ve known him, my friend has had a love/hate relationship with Los Angeles, as do many who live here. LA will grind on you. For every selling point (great food, diverse range of people, the beach, and the weather) there are two dozen deterrents for living here—horrendous traffic, cost of living, more horrendous traffic . . . and helicopters.
Almost on cue, one flew overhead.
“This drives me crazy,” he said. “And it happens all the time around here. They wake me up in the middle of the night. And I’m a light sleeper. It takes me forever to get back to sleep. What good can having helicopters possibly do? It’s not like a criminal is going to say, ‘I better not commit a crime or the helicopter will come looking for me.’”
I laughed, then added, “Yeah, but it’s not just the helicopter. It’s LA, period. The helicopter’s only a symbol.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.”
“It’s a Jimmy Stewart moment.”
He laughed, then added, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Remember George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life? The knob on his staircase banister is broken, and every time he comes home and grips it, it comes off in his hand, and he loses his temper and yells something like, ‘I’m sick of this drafty old house!’
“It’s not the banister. It’s what it represents. I’m the same way. Several of the blinds on my bedroom window have broken off—the part that fastens them to the hook is missing—and every day, I come home and see them lying on the floor or behind the bed. I have to pick them up and re-fasten them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to stoop down under the bed to grab one and yelled, ‘Dammit!’
“It’s crazy, I know. It would take me an hour to drive to the curtain store, buy new ones and put them on. Maybe less than an hour. But in my mind, if I do that, I’m resigning myself to staying there indefinitely—and I’m ready to get out. I’m ready for things to change.
“Sometimes I have one of those George Bailey moments at the end of the movie, when he realizes all the great things in his life—his friends and family—and kisses the banister knob when it comes off in his hand. I pick up the blinds and say, ‘Thank you, God, for my life and all you’ve given me . . . ’
“But more often than not, it’s ‘Dammit!’”
I stopped talking and waited for a response. Hopefully he would remark at how clever my observation had been.
“Yeah, but you can fix your blinds. I can’t do anything about the helicopters.”
I should have known he’d say that. I didn’t have a comeback.
My former acting teacher used to speak of those moments when a character loses his temper onstage and screams at the other person. To paraphrase him: it’s not what has happened in that moment that causes him to explode—it’s everything leading up to that moment. Maybe he spilled coffee on his pants at breakfast that morning, got into a fight with his wife that afternoon and was stuck in traffic for two hours on the way home that evening. All the moment does is release the flood.
I had never really thought about it like that but it made sense. It’s like a driver that gets road rage. It’s not the singular act of getting cut off in traffic that causes him to boil over, but the thoughts brewing in his mind the hour leading up to it. It’s the same with George Bailey and the same with me: what are the thoughts running through our minds before those instances?
If I had to bet, I’d say it was discontentment. We’re unsettled, and it’s usually because we’re not happy with the way our lives are going.
There’s a story in the Bible, from the book of Mark, that recounts Jesus traveling with his disciples. The passage says the disciples were arguing on the road, but when Jesus asked them why, they kept silent because they had been arguing over which of them was the greatest.
Later, two of the disciples, James and John, steal away from the others and approach Jesus. They tell him, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
Jesus says, “What do you want me to do for you?”
“Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left, in your glory,” they answer.
It would be easy to condemn James and John for being glory-hounds. But the richness of Jesus’s reply is that it’s so simple, so direct, it must be answered verbally. What do you want? We keep many of desires silent because, to answer them out loud, we would look selfish. We would look like James and John.
I’ve spent the past two days asking myself that question—What do I want?—and digging deep for an answer. Every time, I’ve answered it the same way. Then I’ve held my answer to the light of another question: Why do I want it?
Is it for glory? A search for significance? So others will think highly of me?
Or is it for a good reason? Is it something worthwhile and worth striving for—and worth waiting for?
I’m encouraged by the answer so far.
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