I think I may have found a new favorite film. The Adjustment Bureau is much less depressing than most of my favorite movies. I am sure that says something about who I am and who I am becoming.
There is a lot that can be said about the religious, spiritual and philosophical questions this movie explores. But tonight I was more interested in a potential psychological illustration I believe the movie subtly offers.
The agents – the powers that be in the world of The Adjustment Bureau (see it for yourself to find out more) – they do not want David and Elise to be together. The agents do everything they can to keep them apart. When their various meddling efforts go awry, they try a different approach. One agent tells David that neither he nor Elise will reach the great heights they are destined for if they have each other: the chemistry between them brings out David’s free and impulsive side and will cost them both greatness.
Later another agent played superbly by Anthony Mackie (who played a mentally ill version of Tupac in Notorious) tells David that was a lie. He insist that the problem is not that Elise brings out the worst in David; rather the problem is that she will be enough for him. He will stop reaching for greatness.
I am not a big fan of Sigmund Freud. But I think he was on to something with the whole id, ego and super-ego thing. The agents’ lines of reasoning on why David and Elise should not be together sound a lot like a super-ego out of control: fear your impulses; fear your heart; they will lead you astray. If some brand of asceticism doesn’t work, the out of control super-ego then attacks happiness and contentment: there are more lofty aspirations to be considered. Sacrifice for some greater good.
I do not mean to downplay self-giving. It sort of plays an important role in my religion. And of course setting aside one’s desires and privileges for the sake of another can be the most profound of human experiences. But the unbridled super-ego is so vulnerable to self destruction and outside exploitation:
Churches use Jesus’ words “sell all you have and give it to the poor” to get the poor to forsake all they have and give it to the rich.
National war machines use “For god and country” to enlist the masses in protecting national interests by desecrating the god and country of another nation.
But this is not meant primarily a critique of religious exploitation. Neither is this an anti-military rant. Every institution – the girls scouts selling cookies at my door, the investment firm trying to strong arm employees to give a few more hours to the company, the makers of brand name cheese, clothing and SUV’s trying to tell sell us products they insist our children need to be happy – they all prey on (and pray for) super-egos that are out-of-whack.
But the one we have to worry most about is the voice we hear when we look in the mirror. The one that says you’re better off not great, your better off less than happy, discontentment will give you an edge, reaching for the stars will not leave you grounded in reality.
I often wonder if it is the super-ego, not the id, that tells us to have one more beer, a second cheese burger or an extramarital affair. If it can’t drive us into a desert of self imposed saintly isolation, it will offer a hungry id opportunity to exploit food, fun and community, anything to ensure we don’t use and give thanks for these gifts properly. Lest we become great.
And this is what we do. People with insatiable super-egos form id adjustment bureaus in the form of economic, political, religious and even artistic structures, to make sure some pockets and bellies stay empty while others stay fat – as long as all are unhappy. Because that is what we believe we deserve.
Several weeks of nights filled battling with a two year old over going to sleep in her own bed have had me asking: What are we so afraid of? She kicks, screams, cries and demands to snuggle with me or my wife, Erin in our bed or on the couch. She acts deathly afraid. She has asked for so many night lights that it looks like a planetarium in her room. But that does not seem to help. There is a door in her room that goes to the adjacent townhouse so that it can be turned into a three bedroom. She has asked eerily, “who has the key, nobody wont come in there will they daddy?” Where does she get this? We don’t watch Law & Order or even pg13 movies in her presence. Yet she acts like she is terrified. What indeed are we so afraid of?
Because I am weird like this, I find strange points of resonance in these kind of quirky every day life situations and all sorts of stuff I have been reading lately. The first thing I thought of was Marianne Williamson’s provocative words from A Return to Love: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.” I doubt that my two & 1/2 year old daughter is lying up late nights keeping us all awake because she is agonizing over here true potential.
So then I thought of these words quite to the contrary from Freud: “The patient represents his ego to us as worthless, incapable of any achievement and morally despicable; he reproaches himself, vilifies himself and expects to be cast out and punished…It would be equally fruitless from a scientific and therapeutic point of view to contradict a patient who brings these charges against his ego. He must surely be right in some way…Indeed, we must at once confirm some of his statements without reservation. He really is as lacking in interest and as incapable of love as he says…It is merely that he has a keener eye for the truth than other people who are not melancholic” (Sigmund Freud – Mourning and Melancholia). But I really doubt this happy playful child who spent the day outside playing and celebrating her new Barbie bicycle and the fact that we finally had a day warm enough to play outside has a serious psychosis or melancholia.
Religion often offers us the same options. We are either told that we have been endowed with enough godlike ability to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps or we are totally depraved. But what if both are true? That might be something to be afraid of. What if in the same day, sometimes in the same breath we can swing from benevolent to malevolent? Don’t we? I do. What if we are so beautiful and powerful and at once so ugly and the web of connections that weave our lives together so fragile that it sometimes seems at any moment something could happen to us or we could do something to another that could irrevocably change our lives for better or for worse. This perhaps is something even a two year old could know intuitively. She has seen me kiss her mother and then grow irrationally irate when that driver next to me cut me off on the road. What other heights of good will or depths of inhumanity am I capable of?
Most of us probably don’t spend much time – if any at all – agonizing over such questions. And probably for the better. But I do think there is something to be said for holding our enormous capacity to do both good and evil in tension. I was reading an essay from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recently. He describes several shifts in his thoughts on humanity from his religious upbringing in “a rather strict fundamentalistic tradition” where he was taught we were essentially evil to his early theological training in the “liberal theology” of his day which he described himself as grateful to for waking him from a slumber. But in retrospect he said, “I came to feel that liberalism had been all too sentimental concerning human nature and that it leaned toward a false idealism.” He settled finally on the complexity of our situation and used his energy to fight for truth and justice through nonviolent means rather than spending too much time preoccupied with such questions.
I hope to do the same. But perhaps I am stricken with a bit of melancholy or even neuroses. I am always thinking about how incredibly good or bad my life could end up. I don’t want to turn my brain off. I just want to turn my heart on. So I – like Dr. King – can be consumed with making this place a bit better for others.
I actually think what I have on my hands is just a case of the terrible twos. But it has given me something to think about just the same.
Until next time,