The Thing I Like About …

(spoiler alert)

Oz the Great and Powerful: when she refuses healing magic.

In this tale from Oz, the fledgling “wizard” Oscar unwittingly betrays the lovely Theodora, who ends up being transformed into the green-skinned angry wicked witch we all know and love. Her sister Evanora offers to change her back to her lovely original appearance, but Theodora says no, shouting that she would rather show Oscar forever what “he had done to” her. She embraces her notion of betrayal, her scars, and her anger, and she becomes vengeful and full of hatred born from pain.

Why would she do this?

Why would she decide to be ugly and angry and bitter and evil, when, with a simple spell, she could have been returned to herself? Why would she choose to keep the ugliness close to her, and to abandon what she was before Oscar came into her life?

I suppose for the same reason the rest of us do that.

We want the people or events that hurt us to feel bad about what they’ve done.

When we’re growing up, we’re told repeatedly that the things we’ve done wrong should be things we “feel bad about.” In a way, therefore, we’re told that “feeling bad about” something is the way to make the thing better, the way to show that we’re really good people after all, the way to make amends.

But when you say it out loud like that, it doesn’t really make any sense.

Feeling bad about the mistakes we make probably is a sign that we’re really good people after all … but how bad are we supposed to feel, and for how long, and for which kinds of mistakes? Really, ultimately, it’s not about the feeling bad; it’s about being sorry, and saying sorry, and making amends as best we can. But how is Oscar supposed to do that, when Theodora has decided to focus on the feeling bad?

Both for herself and for Oscar, she has put the emphasis on suffering – his for hurting her, and hers in order to remind him. She also wants to remind herself of her mistake: she trusted. She wants to make sure she feels far too bad about that “mistake” to be tempted to make it again. And she wants to make sure Oscar feels as bad about it as she does. And no one ever gets to be truly sorry, or make amends, or be forgiven, or make things right.

Theodora – and so many of the rest of us – choose instead to embrace our suffering, our scars, our hurts and betrayals, our mistakes and imperfections … purely for the purpose of punishing others and scaring ourselves onto a different path.

But either Oscar cares about what he’s done, or he doesn’t. If he does, then there’s nothing to be angry about. If he doesn’t, then he’ll never care about – or even notice – her suffering anyway. Either way, she’s keeping that suffering for no reason, for no purpose, and in the end she’s the only one who feels bad about any of it. In the end, she’s only punishing herself.

We have that choice at every turn. We can hold onto our pain and our anger and our betrayal; we can struggle inordinately to prevent any kind of pain from happening to us again. We can carry our green skin and our wickedness with us into the future to “punish” those who “made us this way” – and we’ll succeed, because we are the ones being punished, and we are the ones who made ourselves “this way.”

Or …

We can let it go. We can say the spell that returns us to our original selves, and accept the magic of healing. It won’t mean we don’t hurt, or that we forget what happened. It won’t mean that we ourselves don’t make mistakes. We’ll still be expected to learn and improve, to suffer, to forgive when we really don’t want to. We’ll still have all the memories with which to make better choices in the future. But we won’t be punished, and we won’t be bitter and vengeful and angry and lost. Those who care about us will be able to make up for their errors and set things right, and those who don’t care about us won’t be marching next to us every step the way for the rest of our lives.

We’ll be our original lovely selves again. We’ll be free.

The Thing I Like About … [spoiler alert]

Maleficent: the part where she tries to take back the curse.

In Maleficent, the title character has plenty of reason to be upset with people. Her heart has been broken by someone she had trusted completely, and she blames his transformation into a jerk on the corrupting aspects of the human world (well, of course, so does the audience, since one of the movie’s themes was on how far humans can fall from their better selves in their search for security, wealth, and power). Maleficent turns her back to the world, and freezes her heart, and looks on creation with a bitter eye. We’ve all been there – and if we had had the magic ability to wrap ourselves in a bubble of thorns, so many of us would have done it. We’ve all been there – and even if we never acted on it, we imagined vengeances and retributions upon those who shattered our trust.

So Maleficent curses Aurora to get back at Aurora’s jerk father … and she says in this pompous, swirly-magical voice that she curses Aurora, and that no power can undo this spell.

But Maleficent watches Aurora grow up, and becomes attached to this girl. She realizes that not every human is corrupt, and that she has let her personal pain affect a loved one – she has herself become someone who hurts others, the crime about which she had been so angry in the first place. She regrets her anger. She decides to undo what she has done.

But the echo of the pompous, swirly-magical voice fills the room – no power can undo this spell – and Maleficent’s attempt to reverse the spell fails. In her bitterness and sorrow, she’s allowed herself to become as cruel and uncaring as the one she sought to punish – she’s become as evil as the jerk who betrayed her. The things she allowed herself to do while in the grip of this heartbreak had consequences that eclipsed anything the jerk had done, and which reached farther out than any emotion could justify. Her actions while in the depth of shock and despair had created a problem she could not fix.

We’ve all been there.

After failing to reverse the curse, Maleficent shifts quickly to making the best of the situation as it is. She commits herself to Aurora, to protecting her as she “sleeps” forever, to doing what she can to mitigate her actions and to show her love, however tardy, however useless. In the depth of new shock and new despair, Maleficent chooses love.

Let’s all try to get there.

The Thing I Like About…

The Untouchables:  the part where Oscar tells Eliot Ness that he thinks they can bust Al Capone on tax evasion charges.  Eliot looks at him as though he’s insane, and asks him, “Try a murderer for not paying his taxes?” Oscar tells him, “Well, it’s better than nothing.”

When people do something wrong, we want to punish them – especially if the something wrong they did was to us or to someone we love.  We want revenge.  We want to know that the wrongdoers will suffer something similar to the pain they caused, and we’re willing to spend a lot of time, money and energy to see that it happens.

But this can take a toll on us.  We may spend all of our emotional energy trying to punish someone, inadvertently  allowing that wrongdoer to hurt us again, every single day that he or she pre-occupies our thoughts.  We as a society struggle with this, trying to define “justice” and strike a balance between forgiveness and revenge.

Eliot Ness was charged with stopping Al Capone from hurting people.  In the end, Capone was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to prison where he died of illness – for all intents and purposes he was stopped from hurting people.  But the conversation between Oscar and Eliot highlights an important question:  Is that enough?  Is it enough that Capone was put away? Is that “justice”?  Does it matter whether Capone was convicted of murder, since nothing can bring the murdered back to life anyway?  Does it matter what reason existed on paper to put Capone in a little box for the rest of his life?

Oscar tells Eliot that “it’s better than nothing,” and he’s right.  If they hadn’t prosecuted him for tax evasion, Capone would not have gone to prison at all.  He would never have paid any price for the suffering he caused, and that doesn’t sound like justice by any definition.

I think Oscar is trying to show Eliot a different way to look at his mission: to focus on the outcomes.  The outcome of Capone’s actions was that people got killed; the outcome of Eliot’s actions was that Capone went to jail.  It isn’t just that “it’s better than nothing.”  It’s that it is in fact justice – the kind that doesn’t muck itself up with revenge or forgiveness or questions.  The bad guy did bad things, and the good guys put him in jail.

And that’s good enough.