beauty … or the beast

The Best Advice So Far - Beauty ... or the Beast - Belle and Beast dancing

At the ripe old age of 87, my Nana (now nearly 93), did something she’d never done before in her adult life.

She danced.

*****

Recently, I saw the new live-action film version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (OK, fine, maybe I’ve seen it twice already). And I’m finding my brain churning on several practical considerations posed by what many may have viewed as pure fantasy. So rather than wrestle my thoughts and forcing a post about something else, I figured I’d go with the flow and share one of those personal ponderings prompted by the movie (did you enjoy that alliteration?).

DISCLAIMER #1:

Though it’s hard to imagine anyone who hasn’t yet seen either the original version from 26 years ago or the current remake, and yet who may still be intending to do so, I should give fair warning that light spoilers may follow.

DISCLAIMER #2:

I’ve read and heard lots of others’ opinions and reviews of this film. So if you find yourself wondering, I’ll just tell you right now: No, I didn’t have you in mind while writing this. And if you disagree with what I say below — fantastic. That will, as it turns out, only further certain points, chiefly that agreement should not be necessary grounds for acceptance and community.

DISCLAIMER #3:

I’ve written a few posts in the past where I stated up front, “Some of you may get mad at this post.” And people have responded with the likes of “Oh brother. That was nothing. I thought you were going to dish out some real controversy.” Well, to those of you who are prone to offense, I warn you now … you might get mad. You might even stop reading my blog (though I hope you’re bigger than that). And for those who found my previous warnings to be unsubstantiated … perhaps this time around, you’ll feel satisfied.

NON-DISCLAIMER BUT WORTHY OF NOTE:

I’m also fully aware that many — I can only hope most — of my readers will not find anything that follows to be the least bit controversial or challenging. To you, I can only say, “I’m glad you’re here” (both at this site and in the world).

Finally, keep in mind that my goal here, as ever, is to challenge readers to remember that “you always have a choice” and to consider what new choices might await you, all within a context of kindness.

*****

In the opening vignette of Beauty and the Beast, we zoom in on the prince, in his days before the curse. He is primping for what seems to be yet another ball thrown in his own honor. So vain is he that he invites (or conscripts?) to his soirées only those he himself deigns both beautiful and worthy enough.

Suddenly, in the middle of the self-indulgent festivities, there is a knock at the door. Enter a stooped old woman who offers, to all appearances, all she has in the world — a single rose — in exchange for shelter from a brutal storm. The prince sneers loftily, rejecting her gift and her plea for help. She is not, in his estimation, beautiful nor influential. She offends his sense of what a person should be. And so he intends to exclude her from the ball, to put her back out into the storm.

Of course, upon his second refusal, the old woman transforms before his eyes, taking on the visage of her true self: an enchantress. It is only then — after the prince notes that she has both beauty and power — that he attempts to backpedal. But it is too late. He is twisted into a hideous beast and placed under a curse which leaves him bitter and isolated.

Viewers buy this. They accept the curse as reasonable. They see the enchantress as just and wise, the prince as selfish and foolish, deserving of his plight.

Yet so many people seem to see it all rather differently when it comes to their own attitudes and actions in real life.

In fact, ironically, among the many comments regarding the movie — made with sucking of teeth, wagging of heads, and even sneers of disgust — were expression of deep disapproval that the movie “felt the need to include gays.”

I try — I mean really, really try — not to get into religion and politics. And I’ve done well with that for six years. But this one seems inescapable on both accounts. It’s what’s on my mind. So “here goes.”

(Remember my disclaimer? There’s still time to turn back if you suspect you’re likely to be irked by what I’m about to say.)

*****

Let me ask an odd question. Do you believe the Earth revolves around the sun? If it were 400 years ago, you’d have been imprisoned by the religious right of the day, your very life in peril unless you recanted publicly and said you believed the Earth to be the stationary center of the universe.

Do you support mass murder? From ancient times to the “removal” of the Native Americans, perpetrators have claimed with great conviction, “The Bible says …” that anyone who isn’t … well, us … isn’t on God’s side. They all managed to dig up scriptural support, of course, claiming “It says so right here,” plain as plain can be. And that means we can slaughter, abuse or mistreat others to get what we want. Give it a cool, spiritual-sounding name — “Holy Crusades,” “Manifest Destiny,” “Moral Majority,” what have you — and we’re all good with it, right?

No? Well, how about slavery in America? Good “Christian” folk sat in their pews every Sunday, smiling beneficently during the sermons and shaking hands with the minister on the way out, only to return home and beat, rape or otherwise use their “property” — all of whom were acquired by kidnapping, of course.

Most of us look at slave owners, and we see as clearly as with the prince from Beauty and the Beast how self-centered and wrong they were “back then.” Yet we seem to lose sight of the fact that slavery, like so many backward practices and beliefs before it, was condoned as having been God’s will, supported by His Book as acceptable. Oh, yes. Didn’t you know? Being black was the “curse on Cain” or “the curse on Noah’s son Ham” — or whatever verse or reasoning suited their purpose to continue believing what they wanted to believe. Because you see “it says so right here” … and that makes it all peachy-keen in the eyes of the Almighty.

Really. Is that what “it says” … or isn’t it? Let’s make up our minds.

How about women’s rights? You do realize that women in all biblical cultures, much like slaves, were also property — bought and sold through arrangements between men and for their own purposes, don’t you? Women had no voice. In fact, I can show you verses that “prove” that women should never speak in public any time or for any reason, but that each should only ask her husband’s opinion (or her father’s if she is yet unbought … er, unmarried) in the privacy of their home, after which she should simply adopt his beliefs as her own. What “she thinks” was immaterial, not even a fleeting consideration.

Let’s go back even earlier than that, to when women had to leave town and head to “the red tent” during their periods each month. It’s all in there. I’ll show you if you like.

But don’t lose sight of the facts: those people, in their lifetimes, wholeheartedly believed that their interpretation of things was 100% right and reasonable, and moreover that “God was on their side” regarding these issues and practices.

Even in my lifetime, religious types have adamantly defended the views that hair length for both men (who must not grow their hair) and women (who must not cut it) determined their morality, all while pointing to the Bible and claiming with stern faces and loud voices, “It says so right here.”

Women should not wear pants — ever — and no one should wear denim, because it is “the devil’s material.”

Interracial dating or marriage — heck, even adoption of children from other countries — sorry, not allowed. Something about being “unequally yoked together” meant God was mad about it and we should be too.

And the Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists (everyone except the Baptists) were going straight to hell.

In fact, having seen Beauty and the Beast at all would have been grounds for permanent expulsion from my school, on the basis that movie-going of any type all but guaranteed a wide assortment of lascivious shenanigans. And did you know that a portion of every ticket sale of every movie goes to support the adult film industry?

Yup. It’s true. Finger pointing: “It says so right here.”

You’re chuckling … but I’m not kidding. You may shake your head incredulously that anyone actually believed this stuff; but it was all taught as infallible truth, and anyone who saw it otherwise was punished or shunned accordingly.

From hemlines to hat wearing, beards to birth control, people throughout history and into modern times have gotten their dander up about all manner of lines that left “us” as right and holy, and “them” as sinners who should be converted, railed against or cast out.

You likely see these views and corresponding consequences as ridiculous, archaic. But are you willing to consider that some of your own stands regarding life and people right now — as well as the consequences you may be imposing on others because of them — might be just as silly, however firmly you may believe them to be true?

Do you find yourself feeling disappointed in me? Have I lost status in your estimation as a “good person”? Or are you perhaps angry at me? That’s OK — as long as you keep in mind that the very same “righteous indignation” you feel right now was mustered by those who’ve sought to defend their own beliefs and actions as they murdered the Native Americans and stole their land, kidnapped and enslaved the Africans, and repressed women’s voices throughout history. Perhaps you won’t imprison me as they did Galileo; but will you label me a criminal henceforth in your mind for having asked you to question whether the universe really operates according the rules you’ve always thought it did? That you’ve been taught it does? That at this moment appear as plain as day to be so?

(Am I putting too fine a point on it? Remember, my goal is to challenge in love — but to challenge nonetheless. I’ll like you no matter what you choose to believe, and I trust you’ll do the same for me. )

I can’t help but imagine — even as we look back on the slavers and the pre-suffrage crowd as terribly small-minded and ill-informed — that the people 100 years from now will be reading in their history books about us, about what some people right now today justify in the name of religion; and they’ll just shake their heads incredulously, saying, “Can you imagine that those people actually believed this stuff?”

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Seems to me you can’t pick and choose. Either “it says so right here” for all people, for all time … or … there’s room for an ongoing element of personal interpretation in religion that suits whatever people want to believe toward achieving their own aims at any given point in time.

Mind you, I’m not making a statement about the veracity of the Bible itself, one way or the other. I’ve heard the pious recite often enough, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” I just can’t help but be drawn to that central sentence — “I believe it” — as a condition that history has proven over and over to be nebulous, subject to change, terribly convenient and (at least according to my understanding and experience) extremely dangerous.

Of course, the anti-gay commentary regarding Beauty and the Beast is only one example. How many people today think nothing of an elitist mentality, prejudice, bigotry — general rejection of anyone who doesn’t match their own notions regarding how the world-according-to-me “should be”?

And religion — Christian or otherwise — certainly isn’t the only impetus behind the various forms of egocentrism and hatred in the world. Like watching Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, who believed that outward beauty is what makes a person valuable — or the villagers who simply followed the loudest voice (even if the reasons were as flimsy as “eating five dozen eggs” or being “especially good at expectorating”) — we seem to understand the smallness and wrongness of it all in a story, when we can point the finger at someone imaginary, someone … else. And yet we somehow continue to have a mighty hard time seeing the same in ourselves.

Good thing there’s not an enchantress on every doorstep, eh? How many of us would find ourselves bearing the burden of our own personal curse right now? How many beasts would be found lurking among us?

*****

Remember my Nana I mentioned, who’d never danced before she was 87? Let me tell you why that was.

I can’t help but recall the lyrics to the theme song from Beauty and the Beast:

Just a little change
Small to say the least …

You see, she’d been taught — and believed with the utmost conviction — that dancing was a sin. That “the Bible says so right here.” That a God she wanted to please would be angry with her if she did it, or if she stood by as anyone else did. So while you may think this is a quaint little tale, for my Nana, it was a serious moral dilemma.

The music started and, whereas in the past she’d have left the wedding in silent protest, she sat up as straight as her bent little frame would allow and declared, “You know, I think I might have been wrong about that dancing rule. It seems a little stupid.”

And so she got up and made her way over to that dance floor. And for the first time in a lifetime, she got down. She boogied. She played air guitar. She laughed aloud, surrounded by her grandchildren. We couldn’t pull her off the floor. I can still see her clearly in my mind: eyes sparkling and a gleeful smile on her face, waving her hands over her head without guilt, without a care.

Tale as old as time
Tune as old as song
Bitter sweet and strange
Finding you can change
Learning you were wrong

Funny thing is … she didn’t lose her faith. She didn’t reverse course, suddenly headed for hell in a hand basket. In fact, it was a burden off her shoulders that allowed her to let go of a lifetime of judgment, and to live with more joy and freedom.

The Best Advice So Far: Bittersweet and strange / Finding you can change / Learning you were wrong

And if my Nana can admit she might have gotten it wrong concerning something she’d firmly held onto as gospel truth for 87 years … good grief, can’t the rest of us at least consider, like those throughout history before us, that we might currently be understanding some things wrong?

*****

I don’t blame you if “learning you were wrong” sticks in your gullet. I used to feel the same. Remember, I grew up in the strictest regime of that old religious system. And yet, even in my short time alive, having really looked at and studied for myself what “it says right here” — I can tell you with certainty that it doesn’t say a lot of what I was told it did. The truth is that, for just about any religious view you want to put on the table, I can back the opposing argument from the same book — in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic if you like.

But I won’t. That’s not my aim here, or in life. Rather, it’s to ask you to at least consider that there were lots of people throughout history who, however sincere, were sincerely wrong about what “it says right here” — and there are just as many people right now across the wide world who don’t believe “it says right here” quite what you believe it says.

Most of us can look across a lifetime and say, “I used to believe …” with regard to some things. Good gravy, I hope that is true about you. And yet we still seem to hold onto whatever we happen to still believe right now as flawless, despite the number of times we’ve changed our minds about other things in the past. But ask yourself: if you were wrong then, is it possible that you might likewise be wrong regarding some things now (things about which you may even change your mind in another 10 years)?

If you’re waiting for an angel (e.g., “enchantress”) to appear and spell it out for you, you’ll be waiting a long time. No magical rose or living candelabra is likely to convince you of the error of your ways. But you may very well find yourself a relic, living within the cobwebs and crumbling walls of your own making, shut off from some wonderful people and experiences out here in the real world.

I can’t help but see the prince at the end, finally transformed and wiser, with a new light in his eyes and a heartfelt welcome for all to join his dance.

I should probably mention that I know there are some who will counter with “Well, if you really believe everything you’ve said here, isn’t it possible that your own beliefs on some things are wrong, Erik?” And I can only say, regarding specifics, absolutely. But that doesn’t change the core of what I believe and have always believed:

Worry about addressing your own shortcomings instead of those you perceive others to have.

Don’t judge.

Hate is wrong (however you want to pretty it up).

Love is good.

My faith has become pretty simple that way, whittled down to the few things that seem to matter.

And I’m not suggesting you abandon your faith. I’m simply urging you to stay open rather than rigidly insisting that you’ve got it all down. The deeper I dig, the more I’m sure I don’t.

After it’s all said and done here, all I can do is invite you to at least entertain the possibility —perhaps through a new lens — that there is beauty to be found in places where you may have, until now, seen only beasts.

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