Again, my son Will picked the movie for a Friday-night movie night. His choice was The Greatest Showman, which overtook our household last September and forced us into a late costume change from Moana characters into characters from The Greatest Showman for our church’s Halloween family costume contest (side-note: we won).
If you haven’t seen this movie of finding hope, beauty, and redemption in the wonder and diversity of humanity, I hope you’ll give it a chance. It’s a movie that is a loose biography of Phineas T. Barnum and his journey of putting together the Ringling Brothers and P.T. Barnum & Bailey circus. Sure, the movie might gloss over his penchant for profiteering or bending the truth slightly to sell a show. But the movie does recast P. T. Barnum as a “woke” Barnum. One who finds beauty in all of the diversity of humanity, then dresses it up (maybe with some exaggeration), and organically sells it as a extraordinary show. He brings people together previously outcast as “freaks” or “oddities,” from the fringes of society. Instead of shunning them, he brings them front and center, and celebrates them.
This makes me think of this movement we’re seeing (or at least, that I’m feeling) toward this inward, centripetal force (drawing toward a center) and getting away from this centrifugal force of separating elements, and forcing things outward.
The latest label that this has, and I quite like, is the Perennial Tradition (also referred to as the Christian Contemplative Tradition). The Living School, a part of the Center for Action and Contemplation, describes the Perennial Tradition as:
…encompasses the recurring themes in all of the world’s religions and philosophies that continue to say:
There is a Divine Reality underneath and inherit in the world of thingsThe Living School, Center for Action and Contemplation
There is in the human soul a natural capacity, similarity, and longing for this Divine Reality, and
The final goal of existence is union with this Divine Reality.
I mean, how can one say it any better?
I understand that the confirmation bias is hidden in everything, but I am sensing this pull amongst us toward each other and not away.
I put forth, to you, this global example.
Do you know how much money The Greatest Showman made? $435 million, world-wide. This was a movie that came out in December of 2017 against Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Initially, the movie was a financial disappointment. It was panned by the critics (there is a nice green-splat of 55% on Rotten Tomatoes if you look it up there). The movie was a total disappointment.
Then something strange happened. The lights, the beauty, and the music surprised audiences and the word-of-mouth recommendations kept spreading— globally. The soundtrack took off, and created a niche of fierce The Greatest Showman fans, eager to sing the lyrics from the top of their voices! (This includes our family.) This movement from disappointment to smashing success is covered very well in the the Vulture write-up, Inside the Slow-Burn Success of The Greatest Showman, The Season’s Sneakiest Hit, by Chris Lee. When all the money was counted, the movie was the third-highest grossing musical in North America, and also the third highest globally. All for a budget of $84 million. It even becomes a joke in the series The Good Place, as an example of what happens when other worldly-beings interfere with human agency.
We read headlines designed to demand our attention, and compact complex issues into a single sentence fragment. We seek out new media outlets that already agree with the thoughts we have— and if they don’t agree, we already know how they’ll disagree. We see images of separation, violence, angry rhetoric, and unabashed nationalism.
Politics is a world of words, and words divide. The more you define something, the more words you need, and then the subject you’re describing becomes even narrower, and narrower. That’s the centrifugal force— the separation of elements, and a movement away from a center.
Don’t seek your solace in politics. What happens if your favorite wins? Well, you probably still won’t be happy for very long, because now they’re the target of every headline, late-show host, and will be mischaracterized by the political party in opposition. What happens if your favorite loses? Well, now you feel angry, and depressed, and hopeless because that’s what you’ve been conditioned to feel.
I’m going to say something very counterintuitive to the message of this blog, but instead of living in the exact present, go into deep time. Think about politics 500 years ago. 1,000 years ago. How about 2,000 years ago. You think it’s bad now? It’s always been bad. It’s not an area of resolution and solace. It’s a place of systems management. You’re surprised that a politician lied? Or did something self-serving? What, in history, has conditioned you to be shocked by this? The people that rise above these political rules are few and far between, and have statues in honor of their legacies (and they don’t order people to build the statues of themselves).
I’m not saying that everything is perfect right now, and you shouldn’t do anything about it. If you’re passionate about an issue, then invest yourself in it. But, maybe take a stoic approach. Focus on what you can control. Live a good and virtuous life. That’s it. Don’t seek your solace in going out from the center. Find your solace by going into the center, because ultimately, that’s where we’re heading.
It’s in the opening and closing lines of The Greatest Showman lyrics.
The Greatest Show, The Greatest Showman Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
It’s everything you ever want,
It’s everything you ever need,
And it’s here right in front of you,
This is where you want to be.
This is the greatest show.