Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Self-Evident Truths: "The Pursuit of Happyness"

I remember the feeling very well. That deep anxiety or fear in the pit of my stomach. It happened when I went before the scholarship committee at Chapel Hill to win a full ride to Carolina. I thought I did o.k., but I didn't get the scholarship. I remember it again when I interviewed for a job at Wesley Theological Seminary. I was one of two finalists. The Dean called me and told me that I was the better candidate, had the better credentials, gave a better lecture, had a better publishing record, but somehow I couldn't scratch their affirmative action itch, so the other person got the job. I remember the day as well that I was laid off by Carolina Door after I had worked very hard for them. Seems the bosses' son had come home from partying through the summer and wanted a job. I got the axe. Life is often not fair, and when the moment of truth or decision comes, there is hardly anything worse than that feeling of helplessness knowing that in spite of how hard you have tried, you still could not control the outcome. This feeling of dread is perhaps only out striped by the equally horrible feeling of not knowing where your next meal is coming from. Chris Gardner experiences all of this and more in the new movie "The Pursuit of Happyness".

Will Smith's new movie brings up all those sorts of feelings and so many more as well, as he tells the story of a man who made the mistake of taking all his life savings and investing them in a portable bone density scanners. Who knew this would be a step along the way to becoming a successful stick broker, after enduring poverty and desperation first? Along the way Chris Gardner loses his wife, his apartment, and nearly his sanity all the while holding on to his beautiful son (played very wonderfully by Will's very own son) for dear life. In fact this is a true story about one Chris Gardner who, while studying in the school of hard knocks, in fact got help along the way from Glide Memorial UMC.

Now I could tell you a lot about Glide Memorial. This is the church where J.C. McPheeters one of the great leaders of Methodism and one of the fine past Presidents of Asbury Seminary, was once a dynamic Evangelical pastor. This is also the church where Dr. Ed Robb gave his life to Christ and became an evangelist who was to found the John Wesley Fellowship and the Fund for Theological Education funding the doctoral work of Evangelical U.M.s like myself Today this church is one of the most liberal in the entire UM Church-- liberal in both the good and the not so good sense. They have an ongoing mission to street people, giving them shelter, food, clothing on a day by day basis. I have seen the lines lining up outside this church. Chris Gardner once stood in those lines on a daily basis with his son. And they took him in when he had nowhere else to go and sleep with his child. As John Wesley used to say, there is no spiritual Gospel without the social Gospel, but one could add, there is no social Gospel without the spiritual Gospel either.

In the middle of the movie Chris waxes philosophical. He talks about what Mr. Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence. You know the bit about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He figures that Jefferson was wise to talk about the pursuit of happiness, rather than having a right to happiness itself. Happiness is elusive, and in this movie it is not found in material success but rather in the moments of joy shared between Chris and his son Christopher, even though Chris goes on to be a millionaire broker between 1981 and 2006. It is as if that is the happy ending to the movie, the final validation of Chris Gardner and his sacrifices and hard work. But in fact, that is not the pay off of this movie. The payoff comes in the unrelenting love affair between a father and his son which is reciprocated. The performance of both Will Smith and his son is exceptional in this movie and hopefully will get some awards attention.

This is not a high budget, CG driven movie. It is all shot in San Francisco and Oakland, and has that gritty and grain feeling of life on the streets at times. If it is true that the real character of a nation is shown by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens then America has some serious character defects. This movie does not sugar coat what it is like to be down on your luck in urban America.

I would recommend all Christians go watch this movie about determination and perseverance. It is a moving account. But it raises a deeper question. What is real happiness? What creates and sustains it? John Wesley used to say that if you pursue holiness you will find happiness but if you pursue happiness you are likely to find neither, especially if you associate happiness with material prosperity and success. He was right, but this movie is certainly worth seeing anyway.


John Frye said...

I appreciate your thoughts here. Julie, my wife, and I were deeply touched by "The Pursuit of Happyness."

Matt said...

This movie is worth seeing. I often wonder what it does to multi-million dollar actors to play parts like that. Getting into that sort of character would have to have an impact on your heart for the poor. I thought it was kind of ironic that the guy who has the money to buy anything he wants was playing a guy down on his luck (which he did a great job of). I don't know anything about Will Smith on a personal level. I do wonder what kind of an effect playing a part like that would have on a person.

I was also glad to see that at the end it didn't feel the need to show off a bunch of nice stuff he could buy now that he had money. It was still focused on father and son.

We could all use to see this movie.

Anonymous said...

I was hesitant in going to see the movie...I did get the good message of love between Father & Son of not giving up and even other elements. But, I walked away with an underlying feeling of material gain is happyness. Which left me sad.

Ben Witherington said...

Yes Rhonda, I agree. We didn't really need a statement about his net worth at the end.

Anonymous said...

I was catching up on my e-mails and came across a article by Burt Prelutsky,
The Pursuit of Sappyness.

Good article.