Today's Wisdom

Those who do not pass from the experience of the cross to the truth of the resurrection condemn themselves to despair! For we cannot encounter God without first crucifying our narrow notions of a god who reflects only our own understanding of omnipotence and power
Pope Francis

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Planes, Trains and Automobiles - A Comment for Reading in Thanksgiving

Last night we watched the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles at Jesus the King Church.

In spite of a couple of objections, I thought the movie was a great introduction to the Christian meaning of thanksgiving which we celebrate this weekend in Canada. Why should we thank anybody? Or why should we thank God if our lives are so miserable? And how can we really express thanksgiving to God and to the people who had any role in our lives?

I think the answer to the above questions will become clearer as you read the rest of my comment. 

The above movie is a reflection of the state that we all go through many times in our short lives. Yet we do not pay much attention to the core of our existence. We are not random numbers but created with a purpose to enjoy life and beyond this life in eternal life with all the beloved, but somehow we bring misery upon us and others and cause them and ourselves to curse God although we seem to think that God always loves us and is faithful to us according to the Christian faith.

The movie starkly questions us: Either we owe thanks to God and therefore should never curse him or God is not there so we can curse him and curse the entire creation.

The story of the movie starts with Neil Page, a business marketing manager, rushing out to take the flight to join his family in Thanksgiving Day where they hope to enjoy a day of relaxed relationship and refresh their love. He believes that he is deceived at least twice by other busy people who stole the taxis he attempted to take to the airport. He is already frustrated when he arrives at the airport only to meet one of those who “stole” his cab! Del Griffith is this other guy who “stole” the cab and claims to be sales director of shower curtains at a certain company. They are “entangled” for two days due to stormy weather. Every time Neil attempts to go his own way alone, he ends up again encountering Del and in the end his eyes are opened.

First, Neil needs Del to find him a motel when the flight to Chicago is cancelled, i.e. when his plan is disturbed by other factors. Yet the way Del “behaves” in the manners of using the shared-room and bathroom frustrates Neil to no end. Each of them gets angered by the reactions of the other. When the flight gets loud, Del says “You want to humiliate me? Go ahead…See if I care. I am not changing. I love me. My wife loves me.” Again they find no solution to arrive at their destinations but to stick together!  While Del is an easy-going person, Neil harbors skepticism that Del robbed him. This feeling is repeated in more than one occasion. When Neil could not find the rental car, he started cursing God and the flight company that had issued his papers. In a fit of anger he forgot that he needed both. Del appears again in the minute when Neil is about to be crushed by one feisty worker for his lost-temper. Although practically-speaking Del saved Neil from further delay, he still did not receive any recognition from the heart. On and off, Neil was at last going home in train. There he remembered what Del said to him “I have not been home for years” and decided to return to the station where they departed. He found him sitting in the same seat. Del then talked about his own story. The real story! He had lost his beloved wife 8 years earlier and now he was alone with no home.  Feeling his pain, Neil invited Del to Thanksgiving at Neil’s home.  This is the beginning of another story.

Centuries ago, Jesus Christ gave the Parable of the Rich and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31). The rich man did nothing wrong that he could remember, yet he ended in hell where he did not wish to go. What was his great sin? However we try to understand it, we always come to the same point. He did not “see” Lazarus who was at his door. However sick was Lazarus the rich man did not recognize him, for he was too busy with his own festivities, probably empty thanksgiving feasts with turkeys as we do today, fortunes, his own inheritance, and his own brothers…

Let’s look to the needy where we are.  I am sure there will be many who hide their needs out of pride but who welcome us in sharing with them. Many are lonely like Del. Many are suffering like Jesus. If and when we make a step out of our own closet then we shall see him in them.

Helping others in need is universally recognized in all cultures. In fact, it is based on the innate call for justice and reciprocity of giving i.e. the basis of collaboration, trade and mutual benefits at the scale of tribes, countries, and nations.

And the above reality moves me to share with you a few selected findings of recent research in sociology, psychology and neuroscience that provide evidence in support of the Christian message of sharing and the sense of justice for all.

In 2011, “The Fair Society and The Pursuit of Social Justice” authored by Peter Corning (past professor at Stanford University and director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems) was published by the University of Chicago Press. In the book, Peter Corning makes the case for the innate sense of human fairness. Bringing together the latest findings from the behavioral and evolutionary biological sciences and citing examples of contemporary American social policy, he critiques the neo-conservative political/social elitist trend, and proposes a “Biosocial Contract” built on a deep understanding of human nature and commitment to fairness. In Peter Corning’s view, a set of economic and political reforms are required to transform society based on three principles: equality, equity, and reciprocity.

Fairness, Corning proposes, is a moral imperative developed in the very brain of each human. Citing the accident that occurred to Phineas Gage in 1848 which damaged part of his brain, Corning explains the effect of the brain on the development of personality and behavior. “What is going on is always a dynamic synthesis of many influences – the neurological structures that are specified in our genetic ‘blueprints,’ the ways embryonic influences and child development processes shape the phenotype, how family and cultural experiences imprint themselves on our brains, and even the dynamics of the immediate contexts.” He quotes Antonio Damasio in “Decartes Error,” 1994 to show what the USC Professor of neuroscience had already found: “Our reasoning powers and emotional sensibilities are closely intertwined.  Indeed, the emerging new science of ‘moral psychology’ assigns a primary role to our underlying ‘moral intuition.’” 

Corning also quotes a world leader in neuroscience research: Michael Gazzaniga, Professor of Psychology and Director of the SAGE Centre for the Study of the Mind at the University of California - Santa Barbara. In Gazzaniga`s 2005 book The Ethical Brain the question posed is “Do we have innate moral sense as a species, and, if so, can we recognize and accept it on its own terms?” to which Gazzaniga answers “yes.”  Gazzaniga continues “From an evolutionary perspective, the neural structures that tie altruistic instincts to emotion may have been selected for over time because helping people immediately is beneficial. Gut instinct, or morality, is a result of processes selected for over the evolutionary process.”

In his book “The Neuroscience of Fair Play: Why We (Usually) Follow the Golden Rule” one of the leading neurobiologists, Donald Pfaff,  explains how we are hardwired to behave in an ethical manner towards others “I believe that we are hardwired to behave in an ethical manner towards others, and they towards us. But with all the life-supporting functions that the brain handles from one millisecond to the next, only a few are likely to be capable of sparking an ethical response. These must be the circuits crucial to our survival: The circuits that are active whenever a situation may suddenly or significantly change our status: when a child runs out into the street in front of your car; when you are hurrying to get out of the rain and a stranger slips on the sidewalk; when you turn on television and see an appeal for disaster relief in a part of the world you know from a map.”

You may see now that we are relational creatures where the Golden Rule of Christ rules!
“Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt 7: 12). Let me take the above research one step further towards the meaning of our existence. Although research in numerous fields of science continues to discover new findings in their own areas, they, nevertheless, are pointing to the relational character of creation.  What brings creation together is God who in Christian revelation is Love. He is the Alpha and Omega of our existence. He binds humans together by his all-powerful love in spite of evil.  

Another point I wish to make to those who objected to showing the movie in the Church. They feared that the Church would not be respected and that the Blessed Sacrament would be offended. However, I ask them why can't we see the good things and ignore the bad things in everything if Christ himself did this? He reached out to the Samaritans who were enemies of the Jews and to the Canaanites who did not worship the true God. He looked for what is good in everyone and everything. He sent his disciples to the world from Jerusalem to Antioch and to Alexandria and Rome,  and in their apostolic work they lived together as a community whereby the rich voluntarily gave to the rest (Acts 2: 44). It is the mission of the Church to reach out to the world as spelled out by Vatican II. Reaching out is the mission of every Christian in all walks of life.  If the Church really wants to understand the needs of the world she must learn the language of the world even if through showing movies that may on a first impression appear inappropriate for the holy. This is not to say that every thing goes but Christians must discern the times and use appropriately methods that secular communications media use to attract people's attention. Although she is not of this world, she remains in this world and must reach out to all. 

My heartfelt thanks go to Fr. Georges Farah for his support. Above all let’s thank God for He not only cares for us but also is a Father of creation who wills to save us in Christ in spite of our great sins.

Today's Quote

"Behold I make all things new." (Revelation 21:5)


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