Robert DeNiro and Drew Barrymore in "Everybody's Fine"

I appreciate it when the Universe conspires to make sure I'm on track and paying attention to the right things. Take yesterday, for example, when I opened the latest movie in my Netflix queue and took the afternoon off to watch Kirk Jones' "Everybody's Fine." Random movie, right on time. (see yesterday's post).

The story line is as follows: a recently widowed father (played by Robert DeNiro) decides to visit his grown children after they all renege on an invitation to a family gathering. As he travels cross-country, the dad (Frank Goode) finds that all is not as he's imagined. The story has has hung on to - working hard at a job which has affected his lungs and threatens his health in order to allow his children to pursue their dreams and achieve happiness - starts to disintegrate. Even his image of himself, an impartial, sacrificing encourager and cheerleader of his children needs to be revised.

But Frank is not the only one at fault for being out of touch with the true state of his family. As the story unfolds, we realize the adult children have been complicit in fabricating a false reality. Just as his wife had kept from him anything unpleasant, or disappointing, his children continue to edit the script they use in a desire to make their dad feel good. They don't want to disappoint, to fall short, so they built barriers with half truths. And yet, despite the lies and hurt, the pressures and misunderstandings, each  child truly loves their dad, and cares for their siblings. The dysfunction has not taken away their core desire to love and be loved.

The movie underscores the difficulty of being truthful. "People want life to be easy," says the truck driver who gives DeNiro a lift. Her comments echo those of his daughter Amy, the advertising executive. We've just seen her promote an advertisement for a loan consolidation company pitching the ease of their product. The only problem is the client knows what he's promising is false. "It doesn't matter," Amy says, "they're only paying us to market the product. It's that or nothing." If the truth won't sell, don't use it.

Everybody is not fine in this movie, if you define "fine-ness" as a happy life without disappointment or heartache (messy-free). But stating the truth and committing to community gives strength to move on, to find joy in the midst of renegotiating one's life. As the dad's name hints at - a good life is not possible without frankness.

I've been accused of seeing things too brightly, of thinking there was more health than was actually the case. In part this is because I, like Frank, have difficulty in dealing with the pain that comes from recognizing and speaking the truth. But in the past years, the invitation has been to "fear not," to allow myself to be stretched to the limit, to plumb the dark and scary depths of emotions. Though experiencing pain or grief or sadness can be uncharted territory (ironically in the movie, DeNiro has to have a heart attack for his family to assemble), it need not debilitate.

A friend of mine who offers spiritual direction, continues to draw me back to the importance of truth telling. "Notice and name," she will say. "Only then can one have the power to make changes." Is everybody fine? Yes, and no, and  hopefully yes, if we don't shrink from the truth but choose to look it in the eye, name it for what it is, and allow it to touch us. If we do this, drawing out strength from authentic community, we will not drown. We may have momentary experiences of panic, and difficult decisions to face, but even in the midst of it, we will be fine.
"In God's sight we do not fall, in our own sight we do not stand. As I see it both are true. But the deeper insight belongs to God." (Julian of Norwich)

When inspiration seems lacking, it's time to outsource. Robert Llewelyn's book "All Shall be Well", (mentioned here and here) has been a treasure chest of insight. In recent reading I've come across some golden nuggets well worth pondering. As Llewelyn interacts with Julian's writing, he spends several chapters responding to the quote above. Believing God's love desires us to become more and more the people we were created to be, Llewelyn explores that movement toward deeper freedom. At times our steps may seem counterintutive, or even morally wrong. He explains himself in this passage from Chapter 4:

"That we should always speak the truth, and that it is wrong to tell a lie, has probably been a part of Christian training from earliest years...but it needs to be taught with sympathetic understanding...for the fact is that our relationship to truth is expressed better in the words of Jesus "I have come to bear witness to the truth", than in the speaking of the truth as we commonly understand those words. Happily the two normally coincide, but when they are in conflict it is how we may best bear witness to the truth which we must try to decide. Thus if a father 'tells a lie' to conceal his child's whereabouts from a man brandishing a knife, it would not be correct to say that truth for the moment had been set aside, but rather that truth had been vindicated because the deeper truth in this situation is that life is sacred and is not to be placed at the disposal of evil men...Bonhoeffer argues in his Ethics that if a boy, who is asked by his teacher in front of the class if his father comes home drunk at night, replies 'untruthfully' that he does not, then truth has been vindicated because the boy has witnessed to the deeper truth, that a teacher has no right to ask such questions before the class."

The insight that "bearing witness to the truth" may be different than "telling the truth" helps put a new lens on "living truthfully". Llewelyn further goes on to say that in seeking the deeper truth, we may end up breaking a law that we thought was true, bringing a sense of guilt. Here, we trust in the grace of God, who realizes that we, to the best of our ability, are seeking to follow God in our actions. And even if we feel like we are not standing, as Julian says, yet we can be assured that in God's eyes we cannot fall.
(more after the break)

One can't hang around Julian of Norwich for long without starting to see life through the lens of love. To believe that God is acting first and foremost (and even through to the end) motivated by love is the theme of her shewings. This loving God cannot be untruthful, but He is always full of goodness. As Julian comes into God's presence she is met with kindness, not judgment, with compassion, not anger.

Love is not afraid to speak the truth, but is always doing so in context, and in kindness. Far from being "judgmental," this kind of truth-speaking earnestly desires the best for the beloved. Several years ago I watched a movie version of Emma, the last novel written by Jane Austen. Although over the years I wouldn't have been able to tell you much of the plot, there has remained lodged deep in my psyche a line from this story. Recently I've returned to Emma, wanting to find again this passage that I remember so vividly. It comes near the end of the book when Mr. Knightley, a family friend who cares deeply for the character of his young sister-in-law, sees Emma act in a way that is carelessly but cuttingly unkind to one of the older ladies in their circle of friends.

After the exchange, which happens at a picnic where Emma is a bit out of sorts, he pulls his friend aside and says: "Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do: a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation? ... Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed!"
(More after the break)