Archives for the month of: July, 2013

So I saw the movie Silver Linings Playbook (SLP) about half a year ago, and I still think about it from time to time. This film is a strong advocacy piece for the mental health community and has served as a real conversation starter on a topic that is often taboo and stigmatized.  In an interview with the director/screenwriter of SLP, David Russell, along with Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro, it was evident that SLP was a labor of love for all of them. David Russell’s son is bipolar, and plays a minor character/comic foil in the movie.  Robert DeNiro, whose father also suffered from mental illness, tears up during the interview — this guy with the gruff exterior has a super soft side!  Russell and Cooper visited Washington D.C. on the invitation of Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Debbie Stabenow, to lobby Congress for legislation to shore up the U.S. mental healthcare system as part of an effort to reduce gun violence. I had really wanted SLP to win Best Picture but it lost to Argo — I haven’t seen Argo and I’m sure it’s great, but was it a labor of love like SLP?

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What I really love about SLP is that, even though the two main characters Pat and Tiffany (played by Georgetown alumnus Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence) are supposed to be the ones who most obviously suffer from mental health issues, SLP is great at depicting how everyone, even “normal” high-functioning people, was a bit whacked out and how their own realities don’t quite line up with Reality. I think this is an overall reflection of how we all have our own blind spots to logic and level-headed rationale; it’s just that some might have more blind spots than others, or are less adept at hiding them.

[SPOILER ALERT]

Pat’s father, Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro), is addicted to gambling, and is a huge fan of (and likes to bet on)  the Philadelphia Eagles football team. He superstitiously points his TV remote controls in a certain direction, believing that this will help the Eagles win games. He sends Pat to see a game (thinking that his son is good “juju” for the Eagles to win), and it’s a disaster: Pat ends up getting into a brawl to defend his brother, the Eagles lose, and Pat Sr. loses his fortune on a bet. Pat Sr. lashes out at Pat, saying that Pat has been spending too much time with Tiffany practicing for a dance competition. Tiffany appears and plays along by Pat Sr’s rules of “logic” about good/bad juju – she starts listing out all the Eagles’ games where they won — and notes that Pat has been practicing with Tiffany all of those times. Then, as the clincher, she observes that Pat’s new motto, “Excelsior,” is the motto for New York State, and the New York GIants were the ones who defeated the Eagles in this last game. Pat’s brother, who is a lawyer, says to Pat Sr., “Dad, she makes sense,” and in the crazy world of football and the Eagles, she does make sense. And she wins Dad over by entering into his crazy version of reality.

So that’s one example of where sense and real life diverge. In this case, it is amusing and endearing. In other cases, it is messy and destructive. This describes the human condition, and. SLP holds it all in tension. In one particularly moving scene, Pat Sr. wakes Pat, and he starts crying (Robert DeNiro actually added the tears — they weren’t scripted), and sharing with his son about how sorry he is for not spending more time with Pat when he was young — Pat Sr. admits that he just didn’t know how to handle his son’s wild mood swings (at the time, undiagnosed bipolar), so he avoided Pat.

Tiffany and Pat fall in love (major spoiler), and it’s not because both of them have somehow become whole and healed of their mental illnesses, but this love occurs in the midst of their gritty reality, which makes their relationship so redemptive and authentic. It’s not a happily-ever-after saccharine ending to a fairy tale where both characters are transformed from toads, pumpkins, beasts, marshmallows, or whatever, into a handsome prince and beautiful princess (even though they are undoubtedly both very attractive people), but it’s satisfying because they are both the same in essence as they were before and yet there is healing and transformation through their joy and companionship, bonded through common pain and suffering.

(P.S. – My commentary here is not doing this film justice, so go see SLP for yourself!)

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I blogged about this a few years ago, and I suppose I’m writing about it again because it is such a strong image for me: I have received the exact same Hallmark card three times, from completely unrelated friends/coworkers and for different occasions (birthday, going away, thinking of you). The main image is a cluster of red ladybugs and off to one side, there is a blue ladybug. So of course the message is that I’m that blue ladybug (any partisan associations with these colors are coincidental).

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But for my whole life, I’ve fought being blue, and have always wanted to be red. Even when I was four years old living in Scotland, I wanted to be five years old because all my friends in my grade were five. At that time, I also resented that my mother could not have been bothered to buy me the exact same uniform that all my schoolmates had — she sort of improvised, down to the red “necktie” that was really a tie attached to an elastic band to be worn around my neck, whereas all my friends had crimson and blue striped ties that were the real deal. Plus throw in the fact that I was the only little Chinese girl in my village. So I stuck out like a sore thumb on many levels. At that time, it wasn’t so bad because it was sort of special in a nice way that I was a blue ladybug: I had three cute little boyfriends (Raymond, Mark, and Gareth, all older men at age five), and I was popular. I also didn’t give a crap about my schoolwork and just winged it (of course, that all changed after my horrible experience with my 2nd grade teacher). I just was.

But needless to say, that was a short-lived golden era for the blue ladybug, and in the decades since then, being blue often appears to be more of a punishment than a blessing, especially while living in DC. At least when I lived in Boston and the SF Bay Area, I encountered more blue ladybugs, so I didn’t feel so different. Here in DC, it’s not that everyone is a red ladybug and I’m the only blue one, but it’s more that there are so many different ladybugs of different colors that I can’t even try to conform to red… I get a bit confused and start conforming to all of the different colors and then I turn into a sort of murky greyish brown ladybug, you know the color you get when you meld all the colors together from child’s paintset and it turns out like yuck!?

So now it’s turning into this ridiculously difficult effort to peel back, or maybe extract is the better word, all the various colors that have been mixed in, that are not authentically me, while holding onto the interesting tidbits I picked up from the various colors and melding them with my blue color, so that the blue is even more vibrant than it was originally… I call that redemption. But at this point, I’ve almost lost touch with what the color blue even looks like… What if the colors are so mixed together that it’s impossible to even get back to the original hue? But all I know is that the journey is about the attempt to get back to blue, even if I don’t quite get all the way there — maybe getting to purple is good enough because at least it shows progress from going from red to blue. 

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” — Luke 15:4-7

I’m reading this passage with a fresh lens. I am growing increasingly convicted that our programs to help alleviate material poverty have to go deeper… We’re just scratching the surface. We tend to help those who want help, who are motivated to get help, who primarily need access to resources and some handholding to use them, because it’s easier and more efficient/effective to focus on them, and it feels more rewarding because serving motivated people produces better results than trying to serve unmotivated people. The term I’ve heard used in social science research to describe this tendency is “cream skimming” — skimming the cream off the top. And because success metrics tend to focus on outcomes, nonprofits gravitate towards these low-hanging fruit because they know that, in a short time, it will produce the impact that they need to keep their funders happy.

But what if we’re also called to serve the hardest to serve? I.e., the cases we write off as impossible because it’s not worth throwing money into a black hole? I think sometimes we sacrifice empathy in the name of efficiency and optimization. I remember a story about how Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health, flew one of his patients to New York from Haiti to get medical treatment — some would argue that it was a waste of resources because that money could have been allocated more efficiently to treat so many more people in Haiti and overall health outcomes would have been better. But if we take away the efficiency lens, this was a life he was saving, a human being, a person, an individual with hopes, dreams and aspirations. Because of empathy, he felt it was worthwhile to invest scarce resources in saving this person.

So this makes me think of the parable of the lost sheep. The shepherd leaves his 99 sheep in the open country to find the one lost sheep. They say that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, so, by that math, 99 sheep in hand are worth 198 sheep in the wild. Based on those calculations, it’s not worth it at all to go out there to find that one sheep. But the shepherd goes regardless, without knowing whether the sheep is even still alive or how far he’d have to travel to find it. A risk/reward calculation does not drive his decision. It’s more of a heart matter. He simply wants to find that missing sheep because he cares about the sheep. His actions defy logic and economists would probably cringe at how inefficient the allocation of scarce resources is.

But sometimes relationships defy logic and efficiency, and being in relationship is not all about maximizing utility, unlike what is espoused by economic theory. If we had ten children and lost one, we would turn over every rock to find that lost one, and not just take solace in the nine children we do have. I love that the gospel of Christ is that crazy and radical that He would risk all to look for the one lost sheep simply because He believes that the one sheep is worthwhile — somehow the picture isn’t complete without bringing that one sheep back into the flock.

I am in favor of some aspects of the professionalization of the nonprofit sector and I believe in the importance of accountability, good stewardship of resources, transparency, and measuring success, impacts, and outcomes. These are all important. But I’m also trying to push our thinking along these lines, before we throw out the baby with the bathwater by saying that the nonprofit sector was doing it all wrong before private sector values began infiltrating it: it’s the idea that sometimes it is not possible to quantify and measure success and progress, and that, in the quest for effectiveness, there may be unintended consequences that may harm our communities and leave some people behind. Efficiency is one goal, but empathy is another goal that is equally as worthy, and they should work in concert to rehabilitate our communities. There needs to be a balance struck between them, in just the same way that neuroscientists talk about the importance of the integration between the left and right brains, where outcomes/goals and the processes, often messy and nonlinear, to achieve them are equally valued.

“He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.”

–Isaiah 40:11