The other night I saw the award winning film, The Artist, which portrays the relationship between two actors during the 1920s, one a popular silent film star, the other an up and coming young starlet from the innovative “talkies.” A major theme of the film is the relationship between pride and pity, exemplified by the two main characters. First, George’s life begins to spiral downwards when the people demand more “talkies.” He stubbornly refuses to make the transition from the silent screen to the audible screen. As he loses his fame and fortune, he is continually confronted with the cause of this loss, his pride.
But as George is declining, Peppy is rising. She watches George’s demise and tries to save him from despair: She supports his final movie, she purchases his goods that are being auctioned off, and she takes him into her home to care for him when he hits rock bottom. Her actions are rooted in pity: She feels sorry for George as his career unravels, and she is trying to help by appealing to his previous life. Peppy gives George attention to counter his loss of fame, and she purchases his goods when he can longer afford them. Sadly, her pity becomes smothering. As much as she tries, Peppy is not helping George but only stifling him.
Toward the end of the movie, George lights his house on fire in a fit of rage and despair. Peppy visits him in the hospital and takes him home to nurse him back to health. Unfortunately, George does not receive her well-intentioned actions in the same manner. Her actions do not communicate love, but control. Wanting to escape, George flees to take his own life. Realizing this, Peppy rushes over to George’s old house to find him. A turning point for Peppy, she risks her own life in driving through the city to find George. She places herself in harm’s way for the chance to save George, and it is the first time Peppy is acting for the good of George.
Throughout the entire movie the viewer gets the sense that Peppy’s actions toward George are possessive. From the beginning, George’s actions are quite transparently prideful. On the other hand, Peppy’s actions of pity conceal her pride until she turns her focus away from herself and toward George. When this happens, we can look back and see that Peppy’s previous actions have an ulterior motive, that of controlling George. The difference, in the end, is that she is not acting to possess, but rather that George may possess himself. Peppy’s actions move away from herself and towards the other. Her pity has been elevated to mercy.
One who acts out of mercy is concerned with the good of the other. This is how God acts with us, his children. He created us out of love and holds us in existence in that very same love. To assure us of this love He sent His only Son into the world so that we may have eternal life (Jn 3:16). To continue to unite us to Himself He sent the Holy Spirit to be with us. Each person of the Trinity loves us and has a relationship of mercy with each of us. God has granted us access to Himself not that He may increase in greatness but to unite us to Himself. All of His actions are concerned with our well-being. He gains nothing by creating and redeeming us: It is not for His profit but for ours, so that we might be eternally happy with Him in heaven.
This is why we beg God to be merciful to us. Psalm 51 eloquently sates, “Have mercy on me, O God , according to your merciful love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (PS 51:1 RSV). God turns His gaze toward us, unlike the possessive focus of Peppy, to allow us to posses ourselves. God’s mercy grants us the freedom to live fully as He has created us, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.
Image: Nicolas Poussin, Christ Healing the Blind