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Améliechavellianism

Greater London ain't. It's pretty lesser I'd say. We had a choice of rundown three-screen cinemas, all of which were two bus-rides away, Selbourne Walk shopping centre (boasting an Our Price music store and a Mark One) one very slow bus ride away, and a bowling alley in some bewildering, unlocatable industrial estate that was definitely a parental taxi ride away. Within walking distance was a library, a town hall (venue for craft fairs and the annual 'Churches Together' performance of Graham Kendrick's The Gift [1]), a selection of Chinese and Indian takeaways, and a video rental store offering last year's top 10 and an odd assortment of nondescript mid-80s action flicks. Such were the dominant features of my 'cultural experience' prior to university. (Things could have been so different if only I had discovered the delights of not-so-distant-after-all Central London a bit sooner...but, as the over-protected firstborn of nervous parents, it was not to be).

Amélie, then, was one of the first 'proper' films I ever saw --  a defining occasion indeed. As soon as the opening sequence of delightfully quirky unrelated observations kicked in I sensed I was in for a treat. The film is largely about innocence and happiness and simple pleasures. Characters are introduced via the things they like and don't like, in an endearing and creative way that quickly engages the empathy of the viewer. The delicate and introverted protagonist herself learns to engage with the world around her via her own and others' peculiarities, devising ways to manipulate circumstances so as to produce happiness (and sometimes, by way of punishment, misery) for the people in her life, and eventually to negotiate her own romantic opportunities. The upshot of the film is a celebration of individuality and gratitude for the small things in life.

Doubtless my own sheltered upbringing and my late, gradual, encounter with a world of simple pleasures as-yet undiscovered helped to reinforce the appeal and resonance of 'Amélie' for me. As did, I expect, my quite substantial struggles with loneliness and a difficulty relating to people which took rather more time and care to deal with (still work in progress!). But, more dangerously, the film plays on (romanticises, even) an unhealthy tendency I share with the lead character, perhaps best described as a type of benevolent Machiavellianism. Maybe I am reading the weaknesses of my own personality back into hers, but I can't help but feel that, for all her supposed innocence and philanthropy, her 'mission' betrays a deep-rooted arrogance and self-indulgence. That she should be so unshakably confident in her own assessment of people's needs and deserts as to set about manipulating fortunes and meting out justice! Sheer hubris, surely?

I was rather reminded of Jane Austen's Emma, whose well-meant contrivances are naive and, at bottom, self-gratifying. But the novel emphasises the adverse consequences of her actions; there is a process of realisation and change as she begins to recognise the less noble elements of her own motives. By contrast, all the decisions that Amélie makes are validated within the context of the film and she is ultimately rewarded and lauded.

In my worst moments I find any genuine love I might have for people mutate unnoticed into some sort of twisted, self-centred power play [2]. UnFortunately, I do not have Amélie's charm and ingenuity, so my machinations are to rather less effect. But I still catch myself saying and doing things for all the wrong reasons -- or mixed reasons, maybe, cos there is still some germ of real care somewhere in me. Either way, my kindest and most selfless-seeming actions are tainted by the power-rush I get from apparently impacting someone's feelings for the better (even if that impact has nothing to do with their opinions of or feelings towards me).

This is a really sad state of affairs because it means that the very act of seeking blessing for others can be undermined -- to my own detriment, as I get entangled in the trappings of power, and to the detriment of the recipient, as they unwittingly become a pawn in my bizarre, inadvertent mind games.

So what to do about it? There is one very easy way to rid myself of this particular temptation, and that is to cease all (already too few) efforts to bless or be nice to people [3]. But even I can see that this is unlikely to be a satisfactory solution. The Bible is full of amazing insight into the complex, broken nature of the human heart -- take these (much quoted by me) words from Jeremiah 17: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? 'I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.' " (v9-10)

Believing this as I do, I guess a good starting point is to be humble before God -- knowing that He knows the mess of my heart and my true motives -- even more clearly than I am able to see them myself. No good-seeming behaviour on my part can fool Him. Fortunately, the Bible also indicates that His love and acceptance are not contingent on our behaviour or even our motives, but are by grace alone. It then follows from that same love that He neither leaves us in our mess and muddle nor simply orders us to change; instead He intervenes to work in us so that we are enabled to change -- not by our own determination but by the power of His Holy Spirit:
"Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy towards all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life." (Titus 3:1-7)
For my part, the more I understand and experience the grace of God, the more I find that accepting my weakness, and learning to depend on Him instead of grasping (in vain, or otherwise) for strength and influence on my own terms, really does 'open the door' for His transforming power. This is a recurring theme in the New Testament -- for example, these words from Paul's letters to the Corinthian church:
"For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, 'Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.' " (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)
"But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me." (2 Corinthians 12:9)

What a complete, radical subversion of all the world's values and priorities -- strongest when weak, because then it is God's strength that is at work?! Awesome way to usurp my Amélie complex: acting in His strength rather than my own -- not only would my life make so much more impact on those around me, but the upshot would be truly for their good, because rather than my own faulty, self-interested agenda it would be His perfect, loving will for people that was being accomplished. And as for the appalling pride and power plays tied up in my own 'good deeds', this new paradigm leaves no room for such thinking because it wouldn't be me who was doing the accomplishing. I guess it takes humility and submission to live such a life...and I'm very much work in progress -- but ready, I hope, to keep learning!

From a biblical perspective, then (at least, as I understand it), the purpose of 'doing good' is not to earn God's forgiveness or love -- because they are freely given. Neither is it to impress others or impose our influence on them. Rather, it is simply a testimony to God's work of grace in our lives. In the words of Jesus:
"In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 5:16)




[1] Hang on though, wryness aside, I never tired of The Gift all those many years they put it on and I always appreciate a bit of Kendrick on a Sunday morning.

[2] On reflection, these are probably my best moments. I suspect that my motives are messy and distorted by default, and that it is only when they begin to tend towards something more genuine and pure that I am able to spot my darker side (and hopefully, by God's grace, start to put a check to it).

[3] In fact, this pretty much describes my behaviour for much of my life, though not for such 'noble' reasons. There is too much to say here about the mess I got myself into -- and the grace that got me out of that mess (work in progress!) -- but feel free to ask me any time :-)

Comments

Just stumbled on this amazing, painfully convicting quote by Bonhoeffer: "Human love is directed to the other person for his own sake, spiritual love loves him for Christ’s sake. Therefore, human love seeks direct contact with the other person; it loves him not as a free person but as one whom it binds to itself. It wants to gain, to capture by every means; it uses force. It desires to be irresistible, to rule. Human love has little regard for truth. It makes the truth relative, since nothing, not even the truth, must come between it and the beloved person. Human love desires the other person, his company, his answering love, but it does not serve him. On the contrary, it continues to desire even when it seems to be serving." Hits on some pretty shameful home-truths, and is also an embarrassing reminder that I should probably write/say less and read/listen more, cos everything I try to say has already been said many times and many times better!

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