“Better to illuminate than merely to shine, to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate.” ~ St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II q. 188 a. 6 co.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Good Clean Fun: The Theology of the Body in "Groundhog Day"

The movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell turns 21 this year, and I wish I could take it out for a drink ("Sweet vermouth on the rocks with a twist, please."). I feel as if I've seen this movie about as many times as Phil Connors lived that day. In college, my roommate and I decided to drive to the tiny hamlet of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for the real thing. (Warning: the movie bears very little resemblance to the phenomenon that is a thousand screaming drunk people in utter darkness. Learned that the hard way.) After spending the night in a car and freezing for two hours just waiting for a shuttle bus, the highlight of the day was buying a DVD copy of Groundhog Day in the town itself and then driving all the way back to our warm and cozy apartment to watch it. I have high standards for movies, and I confidently declare that this one is the best movies made in my lifetime. Its universal appeal will ensure that it stands the test of time. And what I aim to show here is that the movie's universal appeal is such because it is rooted in what Blessed John Paul II called the Theology of the Body (TOB).

I came to know TOB in ways probably similar to many of you. I read some Christopher West in college. I've attended TOB lecture series and conference talks. I've done a few small group discussions over it with friends. I used it whenever I could when I taught high school theology. Then to prepare for this post, I read Michael Waldstein's impressive and scholarly introduction to the work and finally mined the magnum opus itself for some choice quotes. But even after all of that, I think the best thing I can offer you is the flavah of the ideas as consciously digested and understood by me and less-consciously so by the people who made Groundhog Day. Still, in order to fix the discussion on a couple of key ideas, I will focus on two important fragments from the TOB (General Audience 32:4,6):
4....[A]s a person, "man is the only creature on earth that God willed for itself" and at the same time the one who "cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self" (Gaudium et Spes, 24:3). Concupiscence in generaland the concupiscence of the body in particularattacks precisely this "sincere gift": it deprives man, one could say, of the dignity of the gift, which is expressed by his body through femininity and masculinity, and in some sense "depersonalizes" man, making him an object "for the other." Instead of being "together with the other"subject in unity, or better, in the sacramental "unity of the body"man becomes an object for man, the female for the male and vice versa" [...] 6. "Concupiscence brings with it the loss of the interior freedom of the gift. The spousal meaning of the body in linked exactly to this freedom. Man can become a giftthat is, man and woman can exist in the relationship of the reciprocal gift of selfif each of them masters himself. Concupiscence, which manifests itself as a "constraint 'sui generis' of the body," limits and restricts self-mastery from within, and thereby in some sense makes the interior freedom of the gift impossible.
Summed up in one sentence, JPII is saying that the man who is ruled by concupiscence (which is the desire to possess something as an object to be exploited) cannot freely give of himself in love until he first mortifies those desires. For my purposes, that man is Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors (Murray). The story functions as a philosophical thought experiment: what if you woke up every day and discovered it was yesterday? For Phil, that day is February 2nd, Groundhog Day. When we first meet him he is an arrogant, cynical, prima donna. He is a man driven by concupiscent desires. He is fixated on the idea of landing a bigger network and deeply resentful of the fact that he has to cover the groundhog festival in Punxsutawney for the fourth year in a row.  An attractive, vivacious new producer, Rita (MacDowell) has just joined the news team and she immediately catches Phil's eye while playing with the studio's green screen just like a happy child might. Another weatherman tells Phil that she'll be accompanying him on the trip to Punxsutawney and says, "She really nice. You two are going to have a lot of fun." Even though we viewers see Phil's face soften when first sees Rita, he replies, "Mmmhmm. She's fun. But not my kind of fun." His comments and actions suggest that his preferred fun is of a selfish kind. When he says Rita is not his kind of fun, he means that her innocent joyfulness is not sexyor at least it doesn't promise the gratification of sexual desire. He's saying that she does not arouse his lust because and thus is not easily objectified for his pleasure.

Phil lives for comfort and status. Throughout the story, those desires are mortified in many different ways so that higher desires can take their place. Even before the main trick of the narrative begins, a seemingly providential transformation of Phil's life is foreshadowed in several scenes in which Phil behaves arrogantly and then is humbled by some apparently random bodily discomfort. After predicting that there would be no blizzard, he gets out of the car with no coat on and shouts, "I make the weather!" at the police officer who is closing the road. He trembles and chatters with cold, a fitting refutation of his self-absorbed claim. Shortly after that, he requests a special phone line for "celebrities" and is hit in the head with a snow shovel. That night, after saying that he'll spend his night taking a hot shower and reading Hustler, the faucet douses him in icy water. Following this pattern, the time warp functions as another example of divine justice, as if God is saying, "No. You're doing it wrong. Try again."

Just as one might expect, the first recurrence of Groundhog Day is just plain weird for Phil. He has no idea what is going on. He asks Rita for a good hard slap on the face and she happily obliges him. He also pops an aspirin. He initially thinks that stimulating his flesh will fix the problem, then he tries numbing it. The following time, he asks Rita for help, and after she expresses her annoyance, he seeks medical, then psychological evaluation. With no answers to be found there, he turns to bowling and boozing with a couple of locals. He shares with them what is happening to him, and remembers his best day ever:
I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster, drank piña coladas. At sunset we made love like sea otters. That was a pretty good day. Why couldn't I get that day over and over and over?
He soon realizes that he can have a day like this if he just puts his mind to it. So, he pursues a veritable feast for the flesh with no strings attached. The next day at the diner, he gorges himself on pastries, drinks coffee straight from the carafe, and smokes cigarettes. Rita, watching in disgust, leans in and recites to him part of a poem by Sir Walter Scott:
The wretch, concentred all in self, 
Living, shall forfeit fair renown, 
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonored, and unsung.
How perfectly apt for Phil in this moment. Still too pleasure driven to even hear her, he laughs and moves right along with his self-indulgent day, transitioning from food to sex. On his way out of the diner, he collects some biographical information from a very attractive young woman named Nancy so that he can use it to woo her the next day. His plan works perfectly and he is able to have a Virgin Islands-esque romp with her, but in the course of it he reveals that he is fantasizing about Ritathe childlike, good womanin the midst of it. The next day, he robs a bank truck and spends the money on a fancy car, a Clint Eastwood costume, and manages to trick a woman into dressing up as French maid. Phil is certainly having his "kind of fun." But what's interesting here is that he is not satisfied with replaying versions of this over and over. He knows that he could have his way with Nancy or the French maid every day; but he realizes that what he really wants is Rita.

He asks her what she is looking for in a man, hoping to exploit the information and use her in the same way that he used Nancy. She tells him she what everybody wants: "career, love, marriage, children." John Paul II would smile and nod at this. Then Rita gives her list of desired attributes:
 First of all, he's too humble to know he's perfect. He's intelligent, supportive, funny. He's romantic and courageous. He's got a good body but doesn't have to look in the mirror every two minutes. He's kind, sensitive and gentle. He's not afraid to cry in front of me. He likes animals and children, and he'll change poopy diapers. And he plays an instrument and he loves his mother.
What she has described is a man of virtuea man is who is striving in self-mastery and therefore has the freedom of authentic self-gift in the way that TOB prescribes. Phil doesn't realize this in the beginning. Instead he views it more as a cheat sheet to getting her into bed. He orchestrates a perfect day for the two of them, and they have many delightful moments. At one point, they build a snowman together, an act that symbolizes the creative power of love in the rendering of another human being. They even talk about childhood and children. Phil says, "I haven't done this since I was a kid." Rita: "Me neither. It's fun!" Phil: "Yeahgood clean fun." He knows this is her kind of fun, and adds that he hopes to do this someday with his own children. At this point, he is doing and saying what he knows she wants to see and hear.  He is not acting genuinely and he's not giving of himself. He taking advantage of her and objectifying her for his own pleasure. I think it's fair to point out that Phil really doesn't know any better. He believes that Rita is good and he wants her goodness somehow, but he is so absorbed in himself that he can't conceive of offering himself in order to receive her. Rita certainly feels drawn to Phil, but she is firm about not wanting to "spoil it"  by making their relationship sexual too soon. Phil thinks that sex is the ultimate goal of the relationship and he fears that all he has is that one day, so he is determined to figure out the exact formula of words and actions that will land her in his bed. But no matter what he does, each day he winds up seriously offending her as expressed in a hilarious sequence of face-slaps. By the end of it, Phil is angry, bitter, and depressed. He hisses a kind of curse at Rita: "I'll give you a predictionit's gonna be cold, it's gonna be gray, and it's gonna last you for the rest of your life." Then, he snaps like a crazy man, kidnaps the groundhog whom he has decided to blame for his ill-fate, and kills the two of them by driving a truck off a cliff. After that comes the despair sequence, in which he commits suicide in just about every way he can fathom day after day. This is the ultimate irresponsible act against his body. He may be imagining it as a kind of mortification, and it may function that way in the story; but it is certainly not the answer to his fundamental desires.

Phil simply does not understand what it takes to be a good man for such a good woman. Because he is a human being made in the image and likeness of God like we all are, he intuits what he wants and what he is but gets lost in the articulation of those things. He needs a guide. After many attempts at self-slaughter, he decides to tell Rita exactly what is happening to him. He starts by saying that he is a god. She replies, "You're not a god. Trust me. This is twelve years of Catholic school talking." This gives us a clue as to what Phil lacks and what he so badly needsa bit of remedial and illuminative theological education. Deep down he understands this, and at the end of the full-disclosure day, he confesses his feelings and desires to Rita as she sleeps: 
 What I wanted to say was I think you're the kindest, sweetest, prettiest person I've ever met in my life. I've never known anyone who is nicer to people than you are. The first time I saw you... something happened to me. I never told you but... I knew that I wanted to hold you as hard as I could. I don't deserve someone like you. But if I ever could, I swear I would love you... for the rest of my life.
And so begins Phil's education as illustrated by a very enjoyable self-improvement sequence. He reads voraciously, learns to play the piano and ice sculpt, and performs random acts of kindness around town. All of this mortifies his concupiscent urges. It also schools him in virtue so that he begins to live well, which as he discovers, means living for othersserving others through beauty and good deeds. His self-mastery affords him the freedom to choose the good, and finally, to give of himself. 

Rita's idea of fun"good clean fun"has become Phil's own. He begins a February 2nd cheerfully and warmly as he quotes Chekov and delivers a beautiful speech about winter to the Gobbler's Knob crowd and the viewing news audience. Instead of treating himself, he brings breakfast for his co-workers and carries their heavy bags. Rita is so intrigued by this that she asks him to spend time with her, but he has a list of "errands" to perform, all of which involve him spending his body for the sake of others: jacking up a car to change a flat tire, catching a boy falling from a tree, and performing the Heimlich on a choking man. At the groundhog party that night, all of these good deeds gather around to praise him like a Medieval allegory play. The beneficiaries of his kindness parade before him to express their gratitude as he dances with Rita. She begins to see that this man is the kind of man she is looking for. At the bachelor auction, which benefits a local charity, Rita unnecessarily cleans out her bank account to bid on Phil as a grand gesture of her wonder at him. To thank her, Phil perfectly sculpts her face in ice, again spending his body to serve her through beauty. Her body, symbolically in his hands, is not a tool of his pleasure but rather a gift that he offers back to her as an icon of his admiration. He tells her that he loves her, and this time there is no face slap, because he has shown her that this is true, and due to his strength of character, she is right glad of it.

Now here is where the movie takes a Hollywood turn instead of a TOB one: 6:00am arrives again, and this time, "something is different"Rita is in bed next to Phil (JPII face-palm). The movie could have been totally perfect had he awoken to the next day, got down on his knees and thanked God like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Day, and then run through the winter wonderland and into Rita's arms. But I'll take what I can get. The main point is still very well expressed. In his joy at waking up in tomorrow instead of yesterday, Phil turns to Rita and says, "Is there anything... that I can do for you...today?" The man of concupiscence, through self-mastery and self-gift, has found true love; and we have every reason to expect that it will find its full expression in spousal love soon thereafter. 

If you're interested in a study guide for Theology of the Body, I highly recommend Men & Women Are From Eden by Mary Healy. And here is some information on how the groundhog relates to the Christian feast of Candlemas.


EPILOGUE: To add another layer to this treatment of TOB and  Groundhog Day, I'll share a personal anecdote that fits remarkably well and contributes to my strong identification with the movie. I went through a really rough time in high school when I was miserably lonely but was starting to get a lot of attention from strangers. I was lured into the world of modeling after being given the impression that I had a really good chance of "making it" as long as my unusually tall frame reached a dangerously low weight. So, I began the work of pretty severe anorexia. I was so so bad to my body. There was a point when I was eating about 300 calories per day (disguising this from friends and family) and felt triumphant every time the sun went down. I got that thin, went to a crazy-horrible modeling expo, andthank Godran away screaming. But the lingering effect of the eating disorder was that I lost my menstrual cycle for nearly three years. All my life I wanted to be a mom, but the idea became so distant in that difficult time. Yet when a stranger in the ladies' room would ask me if I had any spare supplies, I would cry. Didn't have them, didn't need them. I was pretty sure that I had wrecked my chances of having kids, but I was still so wrapped up in warped thinking that I didn't take any practical steps towards correcting this self-inflicted tragedy. Until...

Shortly after I arrived at college, I had a major reversion to Catholicism. I knew very little of the Church's teaching but I became enraptured with every bit of it once I fell in love with the Mystical Body of Christ. I attended all the Masses and talks at the Newman Center that I could fit between my classes. One evening, I saw that there was a lecture on the Theology of the Body (had never heard of such a thing) and I just showed up. I knew that I had a really bad relationship with my body and I knew that I was suddenly really into theology. I was totally unprepared for what I heard that night from a lovely young Catholic couple who cheerfully and confidently articulated everything that I had never dared hope for in this fleshly life. I learned that my body was not mine (which was a relief because if my body had been my kid, Social Services would have taken her away from me) and that I owed tremendous gratitude to my Creator who loved me unconditionally. I learned about the incredible awesomeness of the Incarnation and the ways in which we can connect to God spiritually with the help of our bodies. I also learned about love between married people as self-gift and self-sacrifice. I felt an unidentified yearning well up inside me, whispering fiat to the Truth spoken that night. During the break, I was a mess of emotionburning within me was both intense desire and profound regret. Now that I knew what my body was for, I was prepared to live differentlyto treat my flesh differently. But was it too late? Was I already doomed to wake up to another Sonny & Cher 6:00am barren wasteland for the rest of my life? even though I had finally realized what my body was and what it meant? when at last I had the tools to be responsible enough to care for myself and perhaps even... someone else??

No. Our God is a God of mercy. To my shock and delight (and I apologize if your TMI-o-meter goes off here), my period returned during the Theology of the Body talk at the Newman Center after three years of nothing. The other girls in the stalls couldn't fathom my joyous laughter. I was so grateful, so happy to have the chance to give life (when the time came, of course)life which all at once seemed so worth living. I was Phil Connors of February 3rd that day, full of wonder and gratitude. I've tried to stay that way ever since.

Here's a lovely little bit of news from the Oscars related to this topic.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

2014 Sheenazing Awards


Huzzah! Through a Glass Brightly has been nominated in two categories for the Sheenazing Blogger Awards! The contest is hosted by Bonnie over at A Knotted Life. You'll find me in "Best Under Appreciated Blog" and "Smartest Blog." Be sure to click around to discover the delights and wonders of the Catholic blogosphere. Have fun and be sure to vote for your favorites!

A thousand thanks to whoever nominated me! I'm truly honored to be associated with Venerable Fulton J. Sheen in any way. I've listened to his wonderful Life is Worth Living talks for years, and I borrowed many of his ideas when I taught high school theology. May he be raised to the altars. 


UPDATE: I did not win a Sheenazing award, but the person who won "Smartest Blog" is the woman who left the first comment below; so it feels a little bit like winning. :) 

Congratulations Kendra and all you other Sheenazing bloggers! It was an honor to be nominated. Thank you to all who voted me for!

Monday, January 13, 2014

"Poor A.A. Milne": In Which Winnie-the-Pooh is Reclaimed from Disney

*Preface: This is not becoming a MommyBlog. My husband's academic advisor for his PhD in theology told him to read The House at Pooh Corner before his first job interview. So there you go.

This Saturday, January 18th, is Winnie-the-Pooh Day. It is the day on which the author of the beloved stories was born. And today is the best day of the year to remember or learn for the first time that Winnie-the-Pooh was originally a perfectly lovely and delicate story quite distinct from the general awareness of the "adventures" as reinterpreted by Disney from the early 1970s to the present day.

I recently saw the new movie Saving Mr. Banks which is about the author of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), handing over the film rights to her beloved books to the same Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). Travers resisted Disney's courting for 20 years before she found herself nearly broke; and at the insistence of her lawyer, she flew from England to California to give him one last chance to win her trust. (The movie is especially fun for anglophiles like myself who will relish all of the very British reactions to some bits of American garishnessfor instance, a giant platter of Jell-O).

When she arrives at her hotel room, she finds it stuffed with plush Disney creatures, mostly the iconic Mickey Mouse in several sizes. Among them she picks up a Pooh Bear, lifts him up to her face and says, frowningly,  

 "Poor A.A. Milne."

I lit up with a loud, "Ha!" at that moment because I found it very clever and it gave me the idea for this post. Disney had gained to rights to Pooh in 1961 (and dropped the hyphens in the name), the same year in which Saving Mr. Banks takes place. And 52 years later when I saw the movie in December, my four-year-old had just discovered the original Winnie-the-Pooh stories complete with Ernest H. Shepard's subtle and beautiful illustrations. I also scored the excellent audio recordings of Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner performed by Judi Dench, Stephen Frye, and others. These are just delightful. You can purchase them right now with those links. I don't care if you don't have kids, you will love them. They will transport you to the sunny moments of your own childhood. I can sit for hours with my son listening and laughing without ever growing tired of it. (He now says "Bother!" with a British accent all the time and it's awesome.) Having this world of Pooh fresh in my mind, I knew exactly what P.L. Travers meant with that sorrowful sigh. And it was precisely what she feared would be her own fate as expressed in her shout at Walt Disney, "I won't have her turned into one of your silly cartoons!" What she feared most was that her own vision of Mary Poppins would be overshadowed by Disney's and of course that is what happened. I certainly didn't know that there were books (illustrated by Ernest Shepard's daughter Mary, I discovered behind the Julie Andrews/Dick van Dyke phenomenon. Now, Saving Mr. Banks is going a long way towards changing that, thankfully. But since there may not be a Saving Edward Bear or somesuch on the big screen, I hope to make a similar contribution here.

 I watched a documentary called  The Making of Mary Poppins and a more recent BBC one about P.L. Travers in preparation for this. I also checked out several academic books on Pooh which made the librarian laugh and puzzle over who might want these and why. Some of it was quite good (Recovering Arcadia) and a few turned out to be very amusing satires (The Pooh Perplex and Postmodern Pooh). I also spent a rather soul-crushing evening watching YouTube videos of the most recent Disney adaptations of Pooh and friends. Fun fact: if you type "Winnie the Pooh" into a Google Image search (or just click that) your retinas with be scorched by bulbous, glowing, cutesyness. All of that research added up to one sentence from Dick van Dyke in the first documentary: "Walt knew what children would like. He never asked the question of what parents like their children to see."

Yes. That is totally it. Walt Disney loved Jell-O and he loved slapstick. He loved sentimentality and he loved silliness. He loved dancing penguin daydreams and so he probably would have loved dancing Heffalump nightmares (he died before The Many Adventures came out in 1977). P.L. Travers said his Mary Poppins, "Like chalk to cheese is the film to the book." And I know for a fact that kids like to eat chalk. Surechalk can be a lot of fun. But if you eat chalk, it won't nourish you. That's basically how I feel about all of this: the original Winnie-the-Pooh truly nourishesemotionally, spiritually, and otherwise. I'm not meaning to hate on Mr. Disney. I have thousands of Disney-themed memories; but most of them have the same feeling as shooting bottle rockets or eating Skittles. Milne & Shepard remind me of discovering a secret crop of cat tails by a pond or drinking chicken noodle soup when I was sick. To put it in the words of Pooh Bear himself, the original is a "Sustaining Book."
There are many ways in which the books and the cartoons differ; but I'll only focus here on what I think is the most important one: the role of Christopher Robin. In A.A. Milne: The Man Behind Winnie-the-Pooh, Ann Thwait explains why the little boy is portrayed as perfect (worth quoting at length):
He is seen in relation to Pooh and the other animals. Pooh and Piglet are the children and the boy himself takes on the role of the adult. The listening or reading child identifies with the superior strength and power he sometimes resents in the adults around him, however much he loves his parents. Christopher Robin is always resourceful and competent; he is the child as hero. [...] It is Christopher Robin who reads sustaining books at moments of crisis, who comes to the rescue, who will make sure that no harm comes to the kidnapped Roo and protects the animals from the teeth of fierce things. ('If Christopher Robin is coming, I don't mind anything.') He dries Eeyore's tail after its immersion in the river and does all of the comforting and useful things that parents do. The boy is brave and godlike to the toys, just as the loving parent is to a small child.
Just occasionally, as any adult does too, Christopher Robin reveals his frailty, his feet of clay, and this surely adds to his appeal. He has forgotten what the North Pole looks like. ('I did know once...') It is Pooh who is childlike [I would use childish], egotistical, hungry, alternately boastful and self-deprecating, occasionally managing to be brave and unselfish, accepting things without really understanding them, as children so often have to accept ununderstandable explanations. The listening or reading child recognizes himself in Pooh and recognizes himself as he longs to be, as he thinks he will be, in Christopher Robin. He recognizes and enjoys the wit and tenderness of the books.
 I think this juxtaposition of Christopher Robin and Pooh is very important modeling for the child who encounters these stories. And it makes them all the more interesting to the parents, as well. Unfortunately, Disney changes this dynamic by turning Christopher Robin into one more child in the Hundred Acre Wood. A good example can be found in Milne's very first chapter, "In Which We Are Introduced to Winnie-the-Pooh and Some Bees, and the Stories Begin". In search of honey, Pooh attempts to outsmart the bees with some help from Christopher Robin. The only indication that the bees are really bothering Pooh is that he says "ow!" a few times. But in the Disney version, the bees form an angry army and attack both the bear and the boy.  In Recovering Arcadia, Professor Paula T. Connolly points out that the serious problem here is that:
The child who seems to offer protection in Milne's Forest has his facade of power utterly shattered here as he, too, must flee the bees and hide in a mud pond to escape their sting. This is not a world in which he seems to reign, but rather one from which he, too, must guard himself.
Losing the Godlike figure in the Disney adaptation of these stories is a sad misfortune; and I feel it cheats the child out of a fuller, richer tale of childhood innocence and wonder which can be found in the books. I hope that you'll treat yourself and/or your family to the original boy, bear, and his friends this Winnie-the-Pooh Day. And join me in wishing A.A. Milne, in the words of pedantic yet loveable Owl,

Next topic: Theology of the Body in the movie Groundhog Day. Click here for the post.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Eucatastrophe in Everyday Life: A New Year's Resolution

If you haven't laugh/cried or cry/laughed in a while, this is your chance. I want to start with a big *thank you* to whichever one of my Facebook friends posted this Argentine ad for the new drink, "Coca-Cola Life," so that I could find it and celebrate it. It is the greatest sixty seconds I've ever spent after scrolling through my feed at the end of a hard daythe kind day so perfectly captured by the ad itself. Here it is (be sure to activate the sound):

Ok, go ahead and dry your sopping wet smiley face; and feel free to watch it multiple times in a row. There's more to notice with each repeated viewing, and the brilliance of it shines brighter and brighter. It packs as much emotional punch as Don Draper's Kodak Carousel pitch which sent Harry Crane hurrying out of the conference room in tears.

I think it is perfect in every way. It tells a funny, profound, sympathetic, and inspiring story in a single glorious minute. And the execution of the twist at the end is remarkably effective. You parents know all too well what this young couple feels in each little glimpse into their lives: the joyful expectation, then the utter transformation of the world you once knew with your beloved spouse; all new levels of clutter from baby gear and exhaustion from interrupted sleep; heart-wrenching moments of longing for the easiness of life before and of absolute terror when your little one suddenly disappears and you go looking; a moment as simple as sitting down to lunch disappointed by affectionate pummeling of your head.

KIDS ARE SO HARD. Sometimes, it's so overwhelming that you (...I) have to scream into a pillow. Lately, I've enjoyed sidling up to other parents at parties or after Mass just to say, "Parenting is the hardest thing ever," and then relishing their unanimous reaction of a breathy, "Yeah-oh my gosh-it really is-wow," with that stare and the light head shake as they suddenly relive it all. That is exactly where we find this young couple near the end of the ad when the wife reveals the positive pregnancy test. They feel like they are barely surviving each impossible day and now there is about to be twice as much of all of it.

I'm very pleased with the way the wife is depicted in that shot. She realizes that this might not be the best time to break the news and her facial expression is just vacantas if she is waiting for her husband to supply the correct emotion. What will he do? What will he say? What do I feel? What should I say? It's like she can't even know her own heart without him. They are one flesh, after all; and this new child is not theirs individually but theirs together. I had this exact experience. My husband and I still felt newly married while I was working hard (in a very enjoyable job) to supplement our graduate student stipend and our NFP efforts started to lack their former diligence. "I think you're pregnant," he told me one day. "Shh!,"I hissed, shooting him a panicked, dear-in-the-headlight look. "Don't even say that out loud. It's not a good time!" Then next day, there it was: a plus sign so clear it seemed to have a giant exclamation mark beside it. That hollow, petrified look is the same one I gave my husband. I needed his help to know how to be in response to such an enormous revelation. I see myself in that actress. What a performance.

Now to the husband. Someone, please give that man a CLIO or an Emmy or whatever award they have in Argentina for his acting in this moment: first the shock and alarm as he eyes the positive test while downing the drink, then the musically-cued shriek freighted with all of the anxiety and helplessness of the whole world gathered together in one terrified father. I totally expected the ad to cut to black at the peak of that scream while the song continued to play (its lyrics rendered ironic) and the Coca-Cola logo gently faded in: Life. I would have laughed for a moment, but would have been left in that moment of the wife's empty yet reaching face. How do we manage? How is it that every single living adult was once born and then raised through those very trying early years? How does the human race keep on? It is so hard. But mercifully and wonderfully, the ad does not leave me in that stupor. It harrows me from it like Christ freeing the righteous from Hell. Dawning over the crest of that despairing yell is pure joy bursting forth over top of it and conquering in the name of Life. As that smile begins to enter his shattered expression, I felt a rush of warmth flood to every part of me. Someone who is really into Coke could wax poetic about how the drink itself achieves this sensation with it's bubbly refreshing goodness and that's what's responsible for the change in the dad. But of course that's not really the point; love is what overcomes this father, just as the Bee Gees sing in the ad's refrain: "You don't know what it's like to love somebody, to love somebody, the way I love you." And of course we Christians know that "God is love" (1 John 4:8) and His son is Life (John 14:6). So if we're looking through a glass brightly, we can find the song and the acting and all of the other elements of the video leading us to God.

The father's scream is the eucatastrophe of which Tolkien wrote so beautifully—the sudden joyous turn that somehow comes as the fruit of apparent disaster at the end of a fairy story. I discovered this concept in college and in that moment a thrill of hope ran through me. It is the essence of the Paschal Mysterythe Resurrection coming from the Crucifixionas this Mystery is experienced in the microcosm of ordinary family life. These two parents have sacrificed themselves day in and day out for the sake of their little family. Theirs is a white martyrdom of everyday life, and we know that through the fight comes the glory. The wife's heart is filled to the brim by her husband's response as she takes his cue and is then able to celebrate wildly with him. While I watched the ad over and over again, the eucatastrophic sensation that my newly-reverted self once knew was back, and this time more profound than ever; for I am more in love now. I have more to love nowmy own husband and our two little children. I thought of the line from Les Miserables, "To love another person is to see the face of God." Bless you, Coca-Cola, for this spontaneous act of beauty.

This was exactly what I need to start the new year. I had gotten too bogged down by the agony of every day life with a four-year-old  and a one-year-old (both very "active") and I needed to be reminded of the ecstasy there to be found, as well: the sweetness, the fun, the rewards of very hard work. I was reminded to be grateful for the gift of my sons and their unique personalities and to mortify the selfish desire to return to the retrospective ease of pre-parenthood that I too-often mourn. I'm reminded of something a friend of mine wrote in a caption under a photo of her husband and children pillow fighting which read, "Family: It's the only life."

 As Pope John Paul II said in his Letter to Families
 The contemporary family, like families in every age, is searching for "fairest love". A love which is not "fairest", but reduced only to the satisfaction of concupiscence (cf. 1 John 2:16), or to a man's and a woman's mutual "use" of each other, makes persons slaves to their weaknesses. Do not certain modern "cultural agendas" lead to this enslavement? There are agendas that "play" on man's weaknesses, and thus make him increasingly weak and defenseless.
With this commercial, Coca-Cola seems to reject those modern cultural agendas by promoting the "fairest love" of family life. (Here's what they have to say about it on their own website.) The final shot of the mother and father holding and rocking their son is even like a modern day echo of the Holy Family cherishing their hidden little life together. I might not go out and pop open a Coke right after watching, but I do want what I see.

On this first day of 2014 which is also the solemnity of the Holy Mother of God, I pray that I may better imitate Mary who observed the unfolding moments in her family lifethe poignant, the painful, the majestic, and the mundaneand "kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart" (Luke 2:19). That is my New Year's resolution: that a life better examined may yield greater joy.

If you would like to read more about this ad, Aleteia has an interesting piece about it. If you have ever thought you're "not a kid-person," drop everything and read this. And if you're looking for some blogs that regularly touch on family life, a few of my favorites are Time Flies When You're Having Babies, Catholic All Year, Carrots for Michaelmas, and of course there's Conversion Diary and I Have to Sit Down. They each have a great blogroll if you want even more.

What are your thoughts? I'd love to hear from you! Also, I just added those little buttons for Gmail, Blogger, Twitter, and Facebook on the bottom of each post. Share the love! ;)

Next topic: Winnie-the-Pooh Day (January 18th)