A QUESTION WITH THE POWER TO TRANSFORM

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As a teenager I was a bad-ass, a real shit-disturber. I fought authority at every turn. I broke laws because they were laws.

Any opportunity to display my non-conformity I took, inspired by the anti-establishment material I was reading.  I watched speakers at anti-capitalist talks.  I attended anti-police brutality rallies.  And back in 1988, I marched with my anarchist friends in the streets of Minneapolis, protesting the US’s involvement in El Salvador.

When stopped and questioned by officers of the law – which at one point was unusually often – my response was always chock-full of snark, if not one of full-blown defiance.

Fast forward to 1998.  A decade later, and most of my anti-authoritarian angst had boiled out to evaporation.  I may have still carried a healthy disrespect for authority figures, but in time I was to realize that it was unhealthy devoting any thought to them at all.

That same year American History X came out. 

For those unfamiliar, American History X tells the story of incarcerated white supremacist Derek Vinyard, who takes a 180 in his beliefs and tries to detour his younger brother Danny from making the same mistakes. It is at the climax of the film when Derek’s old English teacher visits him in  prison:

Mr. Sweeney: There was a moment, like this, when I used to blame everything and everyone for all the pain and suffering and vile things that happened to me, that I saw happen to my people. Used to blame everybody. Blamed white people, blamed society, blamed God. I didn’t get no answers ’cause I was asking the wrong questions. You have to ask the right questions.

Derek: Like what?

Mr. Sweeney: Has anything you’ve done made your life better?

This proves to be Derek’s turning point. Likewise, it sparked a turning point for me.

No, I didn’t have a lifetime of racist/anti-semitic programming to unravel.  My discovery was:  Just because I don’t support the way the system operates, it doesn’t mean I have to broadcast my hostility to the very figures that secure it.  

I realized that the times when I was least free were the times when I was butting heads with authorities in attempts to be more free. 

Were my confrontations with authority ever helpful to my situation?  Did my experiences with the police ever give them the feeling of importance they needed to become lenient with me?  Did my attitudes ever result in my favour?  The answer to each of these questions:  Never.

That question which resonated with me for weeks afterward, “Has anything you’ve done made your life better?”, boiled everything down, not only to an extremely simple way of examining my life, but also a beneficial way of continuing it. The path of least resistance is always, and has always been, available for the taking.

If you haven’t seen American History X, go watch it and then come back here and continue reading.  Because I’m about to spoil the ending, which is rather lovely.

Earlier in the film, Danny is assigned the task of writing an essay on the events leading up to his brother’s incarceration. In the meantime Derek manages to get through to him, steering him straight.  Danny’s narration of his essay, wherein he quotes Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, concludes the film:

So I guess this is where I tell you what I learned – my conclusion, right? Well, my conclusion is: Hate is baggage. Life’s too short to be pissed off all the time. It’s just not worth it. Derek says it’s always good to end a paper with a quote. He says someone else has already said it best. So if you can’t top it, steal from them and go out strong. So I picked a guy I thought you’d like. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Is there a line from a movie which has had a powerfully transforming effect on you?

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2 responses to “A QUESTION WITH THE POWER TO TRANSFORM

  1. http://www.dreamsofmemes.com/2011/04/creative-divide.html

    “Regular people spend their lives avoiding tense situations. A Repo Man spends his life getting into tense situations.”

    I was really into the weird, punk-rock, ufo-chasing, distopian, urban-LA sprawl-scape in the film Repo Man as a teen. I related to the disengagement of the characters to the mainstream world around them, and their unwillingness to get regular people jobs and settle for good enough in suburban North America.

    ‘Regular’ people will try to stop you from being creative. “Why don’t you work in a bank?” they will ask, as if selling your soul was as easy and painless as selling ads in the local paper.

    It’s not that these regular people want to crush your spirit per say, they just don’t get it. They have allowed their own creative instincts to waste away so much that they have no inkling that they even existed.

    • Hey Kim!

      I loved that atmosphere in Repo Man as well. And true, it’s also one of those movies that jabs at your sides, reminding you that there’s something inside you that you’re avoiding. And that there’s a more immediate, and personal, approach to living.

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