Tag Archive for 'God'

Director Frank Capra: My Great American Hero

It’s not just that  Frank Capra is a great director or that his movies are a big part of why I want to make movies. Both points are true, but it goes beyond that.  Ever since I saw his films as kid, there was a part of me that wanted to somehow find my way into the Capra world. I didn’t realize this until a few months ago, at least not consciously.  Until then that wish was hiding somewhere in the back of my mind,  subtly influencing my choices throughout the years.

Time Magazine cover: Aug. 8, 1938.  (Cinema: Columbia’s Gem, written as You Can’t Take It With You was coming to theaters.)

To those of you who are already starting to fidget in your seats, I see you! Well, I don’t, but I’m imagining that I can, and it looks like you might spill your coffee if you keep it up, you impatient cinema enthusiasts, you.

Not to worry, I am going to talk about Frank Capra’s movies.  I went back and watched as many of them as I could find, including the documentaries.  I read his interviews and his autobiography. I even read his critics.  But, I’m also going to talk about how his movies affected me.

Art is meant to have an impact on its audience, after all, so why try to sterilize the subjective experience out of the discussion?  If you prefer straight analysis, I suppose you could read Cahiers du Cinéma or something equally pretentious, I mean prestigious.

Poster for It Happened One Night, 1934


With that said, what are some of the qualities that make Capra’s films so special?  There’s  playfulness for starters.  Mr. Capra began his career writing gags for the silent-era comedians, and he’s carried that comedic training into the films he directed.   Some comedy-oriented performers and directors dismiss the value of what they do.  Not Frank Capra.

“Comedy is fulfillment, accomplishment, overcoming.  It is victory over odds, a triumph of good over evil,” he explains.  He saw great merit in making people laugh, and so he worked diligently at his craft.  Maybe that’s why his screwball comedy It Happened One Night was the first film ever to win an Academy Award for both Best Picture and Best Director.

Photo credit: flickr.com/uw_digital_images, 1909


In the Why We Fight series of documentaries that Capra directed during World War II, prominent Nazis and Japanese adversaries are described as being “humorless men.” Them’s fighting words, at least to Capra; To be humorless is to be villainous in Capra’s movies.

Consider: Mean ole Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life doesn’t bother with jokes. He’s too busy with financial concerns.

In Hole in the Head,  Frank Sinatra plays a fun-loving gambler who struggles to take care of his son.  He makes mistakes, but we’re meant to root for him. Sinatra’s more responsible, but sullen brother, played by Edward G. Robinson, is the antagonist.  About his reckless brother whom he has spent most of the movie condemning, Robinsson finally concludes, “he’s broke, but he’s not poor. We’re poor.”  The ending leaves some hope that even the uptight brother will learn to love and play.

Indeed, rediscovering playfulness is essential for any Capra heel who wants to turn good. In Riding High, the dad is the humorless business tycoon who stands in the way of the young lovers getting married, but he eventually grows tired of being the stuffed shirt.  With previously unseen jubilation, he tells his guests that he’ll be running away with the young couple. Then he dances triumphantly to their car.

An even better example is found in You Can’t Take it With You.  This time Edward Arnold plays the baddie who happens to be—wait for it ladies and gentlemen—another heartless, money-minded man.  He puts the squeeze on a hard-working family, but in the process he gets to know the father of the house.

Arnold eventually reveals that he used to once play the harmonica, Capra’s way of telling us that he wasn’t always such a bad guy.  When he’s moved by the strength of character that he sees in the family,  Arnold renounces his selfish ways.  That happens shortly after he receives a harmonica as a gift.  By the end, Arnold is all smiles, playing music with the rest of the family.

Photo credit: flickr.com/uaarchives, 1917


To prepare for this post, I even forced myself to watch Frank Capra’s made-for-TV science documentaries. I remember the awfully boring science videos I was shown in school, and I was not keen on re-experiencing them.    I looked for something potentially more exciting to do … like flossing.  If I skipped the videos I could do quite a bit of flossing, after all, and that way, for the first time in my life, I could go to the dentist without being embarrassed when the flossing questions come up.

“Tell me, Mr. Savides, when was the last time you flossed?”  “Just yesterday.” “I see. And how long did you floss?”  “Two and a half hours.”  That would shut him up, don’t you think?  It could have been a glorious triumph for me, but it was not meant to be.  I watched the Capra documentaries, and consequently I am still embarrassed by flossing questions.

My flossing sacrifice was not in vain, however.  While my dentist might disagree, I think I made the right choice.  The science videos were not just informative but personable, imaginative and even amusing.  The one I enjoyed most was “The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays.”  It features puppet versions of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens,  and my favorite, the intoxicated Dostoevsky presiding over a mystery-writing contest.

Debonair scientists make a case that their scientific inquiries about cosmic rays should be up for consideration.  They show cartoon sequences to explain their research, while my boy Dostoevsky pours himself more vodka and struggles to stay awake.  I learned more science from those videos than from several humorless, strictly academic lectures that I’ve endured throughout the years.

Photo credit: flickr.com/library_of_congress


Another aspect of Frank Capra’s work that I admire is his love of America.  He was born in Sicily, and he came to America as an immigrant.  His family was poor, and I imagine even discriminated against, but Capra never lost sight of how good we have it here.   His affection for America is sometimes revealed by a subtle reference to a national pastime like baseball.    In some of his best work, though,  (films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, Why We Fight, and It’s a Wonderful Life come to mind) defending what’s right about America is a central preoccupation.

I still get chills whenever I hear some of the speeches from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Here’s one of them: “Just get up off the ground, that’s all I ask. Get up there with that lady that stands for liberty, take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something, and you won’t just see scenery—you’ll see the whole parade of what man’s carved out for himself after centuries of fighting and fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet—free and decent, like he was created—no matter what his race, color or creed.  That’s what you’ll see. There’s no place out there for graft or greed or lies or compromise with human liberties.  And if that’s what the grown-ups have done to this world that was given to them we’d better get those boy’s camps started fast and see what the kids can do, and it is not too late because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you or me, or anything else.  Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light.  They’re right here.  You just have to see them.”

Photo credit: flickr.com/cornelluniversitylibrary, 1888

Some of Capra’s critics accuse him of creating a sugar-coated view of the country.  They sneeringly describe it as Capracorn, but their critiques are unfair.  Capra shows the bad along with the good.  In State of the Union, one politician in power spots one of the good guys and asks his friend, “”How did he get in here?  He’s honest.”   Sure, Mr Smith Goes to Washington showcases idealism, but that idealism is put through the fire and mocked by the film’s gaggle of world-weary cynics. It prevails only after battling to survive.

In fact, that film was met with outrage and protest when it was first screened in DC.  The politicians and press representatives were displeased that it portrayed their professions as being susceptible to corruption. Capra didn’t turn a blind-eye to America’s flaws, but he still believed in and celebrated its potential. As proof of that, he named his production company Liberty Films, and used the Liberty Bell as the logo.

I wish more of today’s hipsters would show gratitude for the freedoms their country provides, even as they address some of the problems they see in America.  Unfortunately, these days it’s basically uncool to talk about love of country, especially if you’re an aspiring creative type.  Be that as it may, Frank Capra offers a reassuring example that you can be both an engaged patriot and a successful artist.

What’s more, Capra didn’t support his country with just empty words.  At the height of his success as a director, right when the US began fighting in World War II, he contacted the Army to help with the war effort.

He committed to making several films to show his countrymen why they had to fight the German and Japanese oppressors.  That meant giving up a significant amount of time that could have been spent doing more profitable or prestigious projects.  When was the last time you heard of a contemporary celebrity doing something like that?

Photo credit: flickr.com/library_of_congress, ca. 1905-1910


If my imagination is right, then you’re starting to look a little too serious, diligent blog reader. Well, I guess it is serious stuff, and you’ve been reading for a while without encountering  any more attempts at humor.  (Depending on your perspective, that might be a blessing.)

However you may feel about the matter, I want to do something about it. That’s why I hired a few mimes to help me with the jokes.  But you know, it’s not working out so well; they’re not saying anything.  Maybe next time.

In my defense, I guess I could mention that my dog ate my jokes, at least the funny ones.  I don’t have a dog, but if I did, I’m sure he would have eaten pages of jokes by now. Assuming that these jokes in question involved some thought, which is admittedly a big assumption, then the theoretical dog would be in the unusual position of having thought for food.  I’m not sure what that means, but presumably there are philosophers out there trying to find out.  For now, let’s just keep on marching.

Poster for It’s A Wonderful Life, 1946


Think back to the scene in It’s a Wonderful Life where a desperate George Bailey goes to Potter to borrow some money.  Uncle Billy had misplaced $8,000 dollars, but when Potter interrogates, George takes full responsibility for the mistake. I recall thinking something like, “Oh, so that’s what it looks like when a good man is facing a crisis.”I don’t often get to see intimate displays of integrity in the real world, so I’m captivated whenever Capra gives me the opportunity to do so in his films.

Essentially, a Capra hero is a man of character who faces the temptation of giving up his ideals, of selling out in the name of convenience. George takes a cigar from Potter before deciding not to yield.  In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jefferson Smith’s mentor Senator Paine pleads with him to compromise for the sake of advancing his career. When Longfellow Deeds is betrayed by the city gal he tried to help in Mr. Deeds Comes to Town, he questions his small-town values and considers giving in to the vultures who want his money.

Promotional material for The Strong Man, 1926


The absence of just one man of principle is enough to turn a charming Capra town into a vice-ridden slum. That’s what Bedford Falls would be without George Bailey.  We see hints of that even in Capra’s silent film The Strong Man, which stars the wonderful, vastly underrated Harry Langdon.  In that film, the town hall becomes a decadent vaudevillian house when the local authorities accept bribes.  A title card explains: “Justice and decency had fled before the new law — money.”  Only the minister refuses to sell out; he leads the town in opposing the gangsters.  Eventually order is restored and the town hall becomes a place of justice once again.

It’s not an accident that the minister is the restorative force.  There is an undercurrent of faith throughout Capra’s work. Jefferson Smith is encouraged to look to a higher power when he despairs.  In both It’s a Wonderful Life and Meet John Doe, the hero is rescued from tragedy on Christmas day.  As if that weren’t symbolic enough, the dialogue in Meet John Doe goes so far as to associate the hero with Christ.

Photo credit: flickr.com/library_of_congress, 1942


The Why We Fight documentaries set up two opposing worlds, the free world vs. the slave world,  similar to how St. Augustine sets up two opposing cities in his theological masterpiece City of God.   In the free world,  leisure-minded men and women care about each other, order their own lives, and worship God as they please.   In comparison, the slave world deprives its citizens of choice and aims to “take children from the faith of their fathers and teach them that the state is the only church and the head of the state is the voice of God.” (What is a modern-day example of a political leader who gets the messianic treatment from his followers, whose image is plastered everywhere as if it were a religious icon?  It does sound familiar…)

In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title,  Frank Capra talks about how being director means that he has the opportunity to talk to millions of people in the dark for hours at a time.  Dictators kill for that kind of access, and so he feels a strong responsibility to make it count for good.  “My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, and that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they learn to love each,” he writes.   Wow, thanks for that Mr. Capra.

Photo credit: flickr.com/kevharb


Maybe that’s why I’ve never been demoralized by watching a single Capra film. I can’t say the same about many of today’s contemporary artists, but they probably don’t share Capra’s esteem and affection for his audience.

To be fair, this is an issue I struggle with as well. Looking back, I’ve acted in one or two shows where my character had  more swearing than I’d prefer.  I didn’t think about it at the time, reasoning that the story had some merit and that I needed to get  experience,  but maybe I influenced some of the audience to be less civil with their speech.   This is not to say that artists should avoid any questionable material, but there is something to be said about considering how your work will affect others.

The tricky thing with drama is  that it deals with vice and human frailty.  If you don’t show it at all, then you aren’t telling the truth.  But if you show it in such a way as to glamorize it, then you risk corrupting the audience.  Somehow Capra found a way to deal with corruption, violence, sex, despair, deceit and greed without losing a sense of innocence, but it’s not an easy thing to do.

Harry Langdon and Joan Crawford in Tramp Tramp Tramp (directed by Harry Edwards), 1926


What if you’ve already lost your sense of innocence, though? You’re not alone.  At the beginning of this post, I mentioned how I secretly wanted to inhabit Frank Capra’s cinematic realm.  Who wouldn’t want to be a part of a world where most characters radiate folksy charm and goodness, the mothers and fathers love each other, the kids are rambunctious but cheerful, and everyone knows each other by name, even the maids and taxi drivers.   The only problem is that I knew even as a youngster that Capra would not have cast me in his films.  I was too tangled up inside.

My family did the best they could, but there was a bit of screaming when no one else was around, and I didn’t handle it well.  In school,  I was the chubby kid who didn’t know how to defend himself, so people picked on  me to the point where I’d come home crying and count the number of days left in the school year.  (I’m better at defending myself now.  If possible I’d prefer not to fight, but I don’t fear conflict.)

Photo credit: flickr.com/library_of_congress, 1941


Anyway, I chose to let those sour ingredients ferment inside my heart, and slowly I grew up a little crooked.   I tried to hide the things in my soul that weren’t as they should be by being a good student and striving to get the outward appearances right.  Sometimes, I even tried to be earnest like Capra’s actors,  but I came across as muddled and disingenuous. When you can’t even be honest with yourself about who you are, then it’s much harder to convince others of your sincerity.

Lamentably, there are still things I do on occasion that don’t mesh with the Capra ideal.  I’m doing the best I can to live better, but it still stings to admit that.  Now and then when I’m confused about how to handle a challenge in my life, I’ll ask myself, “What would Capra do?”  To admire someone but to know that you probably don’t live up to all of his standards is a conflicting experience, to say the least.  Still, I have reason to think that I wouldn’t be entirely scorned by Capra.

Meet John Doe and State of the Union both feature men who sold out but who are struggling to redeem themselves.  Lest you think I’m reading too much into the films, consider Spencer Tracy’s quote from State of the Union, “I sold out to them, but get this straight, I am no lamb led to the slaughter.  I ran to it.”  Still, just like Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe, Tracy gets to set things right after he acknowledges his errors.  Capra believes in second chances.

The last movie Capra made was Pocketful of Miracles, which is a remake of his earlier Lady for a Day.  The story involves a gangster who is given the chance to help a beggar lady by getting his goons to act like high class people.

Getting lowlifes to appear cultured can be part of a director’s job as well, and maybe that’s why Capra liked the story enough to revisit it. (If you don’t know what I mean, try spending a little more time around actors!  I’m saying that as someone who has, on a few rare occasions, gotten paid to act.)  It’s possible, though, that Capra connected with the story because it offers even a gangster the chance to become a decent person.

Photo credit: flickr.com/uw_digital_images, ca. 1929-1932


The decisions Capra characters make in the past aren’t nearly as dramatically significant as the choices they make in the present. I’d like to think that is Capra’s way of offering hope to those of us who have already lost our sense of innocence but are trying to rediscover it.

In the course of preparing for this post, I ran into another instance where I found myself wondering what Capra would do.  It came after watching Glenn Beck’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial.  After seeing it and hearing about the criticism he received, something inside my heart told me I should defend him.  I did not wish to do so.  Every time I speak out politically I threaten my ability to work in the film industry, since a strong majority of filmmakers think differently than I do.

I’ve spoken out before, but this time it felt like there was more at stake.  This time I had a sense that I was close to attaining something very dear to my heart, something I’ve pursued for months and even years of my life, and that I might ruin things by speaking up.  Maybe it was just my imagination.  I don’t know, but the things I sense tend to have some connection to reality.

Angrily, I pushed the idea of defending Glenn Beck away, but a voice in my head kept asking me what Capra would do.  The only way to avoid that question was to give up on this post.  I tried that too, but I kept coming back to the same question.  Avoiding the question in the name convenience is not the Capra way, after all.

Finally, I answered: Capra would do the right thing because it was the right thing to do, regardless of the cost. But I still had a way out: I wasn’t entirely sure that defending Glenn Beck was the right thing to do.  I asked God to make it clear if I should speak up, and God made it clear (at least as clear as anything can be that involves divine revelation, which is to say that there is still room for doubt and that pressing forward still involves faith, but I got more than what was statistically probable).

I did defend Glenn Beck, and I don’t know what will happen because of that, but I might not have made that decision if it weren’t for the influence of Frank Capra, a man I’ve never met. As Clarence Oddbody the Angel might say, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives.”

Photo credit: flickr.com/george_eastman_house, 1945


I’m still praying that things will work out.  If you’re up there reading this Mr. Capra, then I could use your help.  I’m not Catholic, but I’ll campaign to get you sainted, if the secret wishes in my heart come true in part because of you.

Since Frank Capra preferred the popular over the pretentious and liked to end his films with a stirring bit of music,  I think these lyrics from Lee Ann Womack’s song are a fitting way to end this Capra tribute:

“I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance

Never settle for the path of least resistance

Living might mean taking chances

But they’re worth taking

Lovin’ might be a mistake

But it’s  worth making

Don’t let some hell bent heart

Leave you bitter

When you come close to selling out


Give the heavens above

More than just a passing glance

And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance

I hope you dance.”

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, 1943


Thanks for reading, and God bless.

(If you’ve enjoyed reading this post or some of the others I’ve written, consider signing up to get my posts by email.  You can do that by clicking here.  I don’t write every week.  I only write when I have something worth writing and after I’ve spent some time considering my subject and finessing my thoughts.  If you’re following along by email, you’ll know right away when I have a new post waiting for you, whether that’s next week or a month from now.)

A Celebration and a Warning Regarding Playfulness

If your life doesn’t have enough playtime then there might be something seriously wrong with you, at least that’s what Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play, suggests.  I’ve been considering his ideas ever since a friend shared this video with me, and I think he might be on to something.  The video is about thirty minutes long, but it’s worth watching. (You can see a larger version of the video on the TED site here.)

(This link was updated from the TED site to the YouTube one on April 11, 2012 due to embedding issues from TED’s site. The link is the same, but some links did not work properly when I migrated my blog from nsavides.wordpress.com to the current location.)


As a writer, I keep my eyes open for new ways to understand others (and myself). That’s not just about getting better at my craft, although that’s a nice bonus, but there is something intrinsically compelling and beautiful about getting closer and closer to the truth of a person.

After reflecting on Stuart Brown’s ideas, I’m now convinced that you can get a  decent sense of a person just by considering his or her play history. At first that might seem silly, but let’s consider the idea a bit.  Aren’t you a little more wary of someone with whom you’ve never shared a laugh?  And if playtime was insignificant, why does our society value sports so highly?

Professional athletes, highly skilled individuals who train extensively to play games in public, are some of the highest compensated members of our society. Successful movies, music and shows often feature visual gags,  amusing variations on a theme, and witty dialogue  (they don’t call them plays for nothing, folks).  Let’s not forget about video games: According to the NPD Group, the United States video game industry generated more than $20 billion worth of revenue  in 2008.

The Lute Player - Frans Hals

The Lute Player - Frans Hals

Playfulness isn’t just a financially valuable attribute to some folks.  Frank Capra, the director of films like It’s a Wonderful Life, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, uses playfulness or its absence to reveal character.  In Capra’s World War II documentary Why We Fight, the narrator asks us to, “take a good look at these humorless men.”  This happens just as the camera reveals grim footage of men like Rudolf Hess, Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels, and Adolf Hitler.

The implication is that because these men appear humorless, they are not to be trusted.  In comparison, consider what Capra says about comedy in his autobiography, The Name Above the Title: “Comedy is fulfillment, accomplishment, overcoming.  It is victory over odds, a triumph of good over evil.”  Did you get that? As far as Capra is concerned, comedy is what happens when goodness prevails, and without playfulness there is no comedy. It mixes well with the ideas of Dr. Brown, does it not?

Would you like a more contemporary example?  No problem.  In the world or Harry Potter, we are allowed to enjoy the playful side of magic only when we’re around the good kids. The bad guys are only interested in the magic that allows for cruelty and domination.  Are you starting to see a pattern?

Perhaps this is a redundant point, but the moments that feel most corporate at work and in my personal life are decidedly unplayful ones. Work is going to be hard and frustrating sometimes, I know.  Otherwise employers wouldn’t be so quick to entrust us with their hard-earned cash.  That’s not what I’m getting at.  I’m more interested in the cruel or banal moments in our lives that make it harder for us to keep alive our own inner sense of playfulness.

Being playful doesn’t have to be the polar opposite of doing business.  That’s one of the key ideas from a different TED lecture given by a man who is also named Brown, Tim Brown in this case.   He is also the CEO of the design firm IDEO as it happens.  Here’s the video link, if you’re interested.  (It’s the last video link in this post, I promise. Once again here’s the link to the video on TED.)

Tim Brown suggests that there is a connection between the playful environments of places like Google, Pixar, and IDEO and their ability to solve problems  in creative, but also highly effective ways.  It’s as if a playful environment makes it feel a little safer to bring a sense of a playfulness to the work at hand.

Research he references concludes that the most playful kids are the ones who come from the most stable and loving families. It follows, then, that companies who are smart enough to value playfulness should do whatever they can to make the workplace feel more like a supportive family.

Let’s get back to Stuart Brown, the guy from the first video.  It’s interesting, isn’t it, that Stuart Brown doesn’t just ask us to set aside some time for playing.  Instead, he advocates an ongoing state of playfulness. It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s worth addressing.

If play time becomes a mandated thing, then it could quickly turn into something ugly.  By ugly I mean something like a mandatory Nerf-powered shootout in cubicle land where the ambivalent employees have to face off against the obnoxious office go-getters.  Then playtime would get measured, and employees would get evaluated on key play metrics.  At this point, the management folks would quite possibly turn this data  into sheets of uncompelling bar-graphs, and these sheets would be distributed to unsuspecting employees in the name of promoting playfulness.  Honestly though, whose idea of fun is that? (Not mine.)

Stuart Brown is right: The real magic happens when you can bring a sense of playfulness to any situation, but only a true saint can preserve a sense of inner playfulness even in the most trying of circumstances. Whenever I’ve seen the Dali Llama speak (on TV not in person), I’ve noticed an almost jovial lightness to him no matter what he is discussing. The Apostle Paul is another great example to consider.  Even in jail he was  writing about how he had learned, through the grace of God, to be content with all things.

I know being content and being playful don’t mean the same thing, although I do believe they go hand in hand.  When was the last time you remember being simultaneously jealous and playful?  What about being both playful and malicious or conniving?

I don’t about you, but my soul has been muddied from time to time with malicious or conniving inclinations.  In those moments it wasn’t so hard to be persuasive or assertive. I could even muster up a kind of contrived imitation of playfulness, but I couldn’t be truly playful until I put aside, at least temporarily, those ignoble preoccupations.  That’s why I buy into Stuart Brown’s claim that playfulness is an essential part of building trust.


Senecio - Paul Klee

Senecio - Paul Klee

Now comes the warning: not everything done in the name of playfulness is good.  Sometimes things are going to hurt. I think part of becoming an adult involves learning to face the pain in our lives without always looking for a way to anesthetize it, to make it seem more fun.  It is the unfiltered sting of truth that lets us better see the broken parts of our lives, but many of us, myself included, find it easier to pour some sugar on our problems as we keep on dancing to the same old dissonant song.

Do you have friends who are always joking around even in serious moments?  Those kinds of  people might seem amusing enough right now, but what if ten years go by and they still aren’t working to improve the world around them?  What about the hardcore gamer who stops providing for his family just so that he can play more games or the sports fan who does nothing but watch games on TV?  What about the partygoers  who bankrupt their futures just to buy a few more temporary thrills? These are all examples of how an inclination toward playfulness can turn tragic.

Stuart Brown tells his patients to explore the most joyous moments of their lives and to adjust their lives accordingly.  That’s great advice.  Let me also suggest that it might be helpful to consider the moments in your life when being playful seems most difficult or when your inclination to play seems most excessive. Do what you can to figure out what it was that robbed you of your ability to enjoy the moment in those situations, and then try to face similar situations in a better way.

I’m going to explain that in a kind of indirect way but also in a personal way, so bear with me. It’s not easy for me to use myself as an example: writing honestly and in a personal manner doesn’t always make me look good, but I wouldn’t respect myself as a writer if I did any less.  In my more optimistic moments I believe that by being honest about my struggles, I can help both you and me in the process.   The wisdom or foolishness of that concept will, I’m sure, reveal itself over time.

In any case, with my life being what it is, I have to believe that the truth, and not my profit margins or my badass quotient, can eventually set me free, free to be the best version of myself, the man I someday hope to be. Maybe you think that’s a foolish thing to believe.  Maybe you’d rather get tips on expanding market share or becoming more of a badass?  If so, then by all means go and find something else to read.

Intrigue - James Ensor

Intrigue - James Ensor

But then, maybe a few of you can relate? If so, then thanks for sticking around.  I hope I can reward you for your patience and your desire to get beyond the surface of things.

With that said, here are some examples of  when it is hard for me to be playful. In  the past, I had difficulty finding a sense of playfulness about my work.  It was too important to joke about because it was the only way I knew of determining my value as a person.  It was an awful way to live.

Now I’d like to think that I don’t take my work as seriously.  I’m participating in a silly one-act play over at the Smithfield Little Theater later today, for example, but sometimes I still get caught up in the belief that my work is the only thing that matters in my life.  Kind of a corporate way to think, right? I know, but when I think that way, I don’t have to put myself in a vulnerable position when dealing with others.

Speaking of other people, I have a hard time remembering playful moments that I shared with my dad when he was still alive. My mom and my sisters played lots of games with me, but not my dad.  Like many other dads, he was too busy with work and with other pursuits to have much time to play with me.

He was helping his patients fight off cancer, and that is admirable enough, and yet the absence of a dependable and playful father figure in my childhood made it harder for me to bond with other guys, whether in sports or in class.  It is still hard for me to form lasting, sincere and playful friendships with others.  Don’t get me wrong: ultimately, I hold myself responsible for the quality of my relationships, but my dad’s interactions with me didn’t make this kind of thing easier.

Earlier I mentioned an admiration for the Apostle Paul’s ability to be content regardless of his situation.  I am, on certain days, the exact opposite of the Apostle Paul: I sometimes have difficulty finding a sense of harmony, of playfulness, even in the most comfortable of settings, and in those moments my world becomes unbearable.

Self Portrait with Masks - James Ensor

Self Portrait with Masks - James Ensor

Anything that can make the moment feel more enjoyable becomes very appealing, whether or not it is good for my long-term goals or even my soul.  In those God-forsaken, loveless moments, the only thing that matters to me is finding some way back to that illusive state of bliss, no matter what it takes.  I try to avoid taking the easy way out when tempted by such toxic siren songs, but I don’t always succeed.

Yes, sometimes I’m the guy who is pursuing playfulness in the wrong way, the one who laughs too much, the one who has a few too many drinks.  I’ve been the guy at the party who has made others shake their heads with disapproval and ponder the uncivilized creatures that this world can produce.  It does wound me so to get that reaction, and yet that’s probably the look I would give to myself if I was a third-party observer.

I try very hard not to be that guy, but sometimes it is easier to laugh and joke and make an ass of myself than to face the truth of the moment.  The only remedy I know for that kind of thing is to acknowledge the pain, to give the moment back to God, and to open my heart to the love that’s out there. It’s not an easy remedy, and I’m not good at adhering to it, but it’s the only thing that seems to work even in a subtle way.

In the book City of God, Saint Augustine writes about the importance of enjoying the presence of God.  He writes that no one is foolish enough to suggest that a man who drinks from a fountain is doing something good for the fountain.  Nor does a lamp benefit when a traveller uses it to navigate.  Why then, asks Augustine, do people assume that God is meant to be loved and enjoyed for the sake of God and not for the good of the souls who love and enjoy Him?

I believe the only way anyone can maintain the ongoing sense of playfulness that Stuart Brown advocates is to enjoy the presence of God moment by moment. It’s OK if your conception of God is different than mine. You might not even believe in God, and you might be better off in this life than I am.  Obviously, I don’t have it all figured out, so there’s no reason why you should take my advice if it doesn’t somehow ring true.

Even so, I still think you might benefit by trying to reconcile yourself moment by moment with something bigger than you, a higher power if you will, in case you find that phrase less objectionable than the word, “God.”   If you and I diligently seek out the truth,uncomfortable though it may be, and listen carefully to the still small voice that speaks with love inside our hearts, then I believe (when I am not distracted by anger or despair) that someday we’ll wake up and discover that our worlds are once again filled with playful possibility. Why take my word for it, though?  My soul is, after all, still a murky blend of light and darkness.  Seek for yourself.

Several Circles - Wassily Kandinsky

Several Circles - Wassily Kandinsky

(This is one of my favorite abstract paintings. It made an impression from the moment I saw it.  Serene and playful, the circles gracefully overpower the darkness around them.)

Let me end with another reference to Frank Capra.  Towards the end of his life, Capra was involved in a video tribute for the late director George Stevens, the man responsible for Shane and other cinema classics. I was captivated by Capra’s playful demeanor even in old age.  Up to that point, I had assumed that older people were by definition more severe than younger folks.  Frank Capra, though, had more vitality and twinkle than a lot of kids I know.

He was talking about looking up George Stevens when he got to heaven so that they could work on something special together.  That kind of cheerful disregard towards death is what it can look like when the good kind of playfulness prevails.  And so, I’m going to pray for more of that kind of playfulness for me and for you.  Here’s to a more playful, less corporate world!

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