Monday, June 15, 2009

What Billy Elliot taught me about rebellion...and freedom

On Saturday afternoon, I noticed that one of the broadcast stations out of Denver was airing "Billy Elliot", so I DVR'd it so MM and I could watch it later without the kids (which we did later that evening). We had watched it in a theatre about 9 years earlier, when it first came out, and this was the first time either of us have seen it again since. We both really enjoyed it both times, but I think it amazed both of us how much our perspective has changed on the same "text" over the course of close to a decade of growing up and, during the last 5 years, becoming parents.

First, a quick sketch of what the movie is about: a pre-teen boy (Billy) and everyone else in his English coal-mining town are under great stress due to the long miners' strike of 1984-85 and, in his case, the death of his mother and the deteriorating health of his elderly "Nan." Gradually, he realizes that dance can be his artistic outlet and emotional well-spring, but in order to pursue this he must overcome small-town conventions and his father's preconceptions. Eventually, the town embraces his dream, he is able to pursue formal dance education, and-as the movie ends-we see the triumphant (adult) Billy performing the male lead of a major ballet production.

Now, as a (more or less) college-aged, childless man from a small, conservative town, I strongly identified with Billy the first time I saw this movie. I interpreted the story as an homage to teenage rebellion, and saw the father, Jackie, as an instrument of Billy's oppression. N0w that I'm older and have two kids who could both be described as "strong-willed," though, I notice some things about the father's role in Billy's life that I didn't notice before. First, it is clear that everything Jackie did concerning Billy's dancing was sincerely meant to guide and protect his son and, to be fair to him, the dancing appeared in the beginning to be rebellion for rebellion's sake: Billy lied to Jackie about where he was going and never really showed his father that the dancing was important to him in its own right. When Billy finally did show his father just how much the dancing meant to him (by performing for him), Jackie became his greatest supporter...and, amazingly, the rest of the town helped him, doors began to open, and Billy's future became brighter and bigger than anything his small town could provide. In reality, Billy became free not through his rebellion from his father and his town (that is, opting out), but through his efforts and will being joined to those of his family and community - an opting in.

This realization, and even the language with which I have shaped it, is definitely influenced by long reflection on an address to young adults by Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to the United States last April. The Pope discussed a common misunderstanding of freedom as the absence of rules and objective truth -i.e., relativism- and said:
Dear friends, truth is not an imposition. Nor is it simply a set of rules. It is a discovery of the One who never fails us; the One whom we can always trust. In seeking truth we come to live by belief because ultimately truth is a person: Jesus Christ. That is why authentic freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in; nothing less than letting go of self and allowing oneself to be drawn into Christ’s very being for others.
To use the example of Billy Elliot again, compare the success he eventually enjoyed to the path he nearly took by lashing out at his first and most influential supporter, his ballet teacher. At one point, he tries to assert his independence by saying she is just like everyone else in his life, trying to tell him what to do. Putting a strain on this relationship nearly puts an end to his life in the world of dance before it ever really gets started.

This, I think, really resonates with something I've been reading recently in Hold On to Your Kids (a book that I've simultaneously been really enjoying but also, to be honest, struggling to plow through). The authors describe a concept called "counterwill" as an "instinctive, automatic resistance to any sense of being forced." As seen in children my kids' age, it manifests itself in a general "contrariness," or a strong aversion to doing anything not believed to be their idea in the first place. The authors say counterwill is important in the psychological development of fully autonomous people, especially as a defense mechanism during the so-called "terrible twos" and the teenage years - times in which a person's sense of self is most fragile. While this "basic human resistance to coercion" stays with us all our lives (understood in Western theological thought, I think, as "free will"), a truly mature and free person can choose "to be independent but committed also to preserving the attachment relationship...he can afford to heed the other when it makes sense to do so, or to go his own way when it does not."

In contrast, a child in a state of rebellion is not truly free. In the authors' words:
The child's oppositionality is not an expression of will. What it denotes is the absence of will, which allows a person only to react, but not to act from a free and conscious process of choosing... What is strong is the defensive reaction, not the child. The weaker the will, the more powerful the counterwill. If the child was indeed strong in her own self, she would not be so threatened by the parent.
As a mental exercise, replace each instance of the word "child" in the above quote with "person" and replace the word "parent" with whatever you would like that represents those in power, whether it be bosses, the Church, or -in the language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2234-46)- "legitimate authorities." How would the institutions in our country be different if our culture embraced this subtle distinction between rebellion, or "opting out," and what the Pope calls "authentic freedom" in which we are free, yet mature enough to "opt in" to our relationships and communities?

1 comment:

The Red State Ranger said...

I think that culturally, Americans are at the extreme of anti-authoritarian behavior. One way or another, we're all descendants of people who decided at one point that the King is an idiot, and they were going to do something else. Generations hence, here we are, just as bull-headed as ever.