Message 122, Gathering Goes to the Movies, “Paperman” and the Laws of Attraction, 2-17-13paperman

(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, UCC, All Rights Reserved

In advance of listening to or reading the message, please watch the short film video “Paperman”, the subject of this message.  Click here to watch and scroll down to then play the video.

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I don’t know about you, but I found the short animated film entitled “Paperman” to be sweet and charming.  I can’t fully explain why I feel that way – perhaps I like the film because it evokes a sense of nostalgia for a seemingly simpler time, or because it is a silent film and I resonate with art that tells a story without using words.  I also identify with the characters – two sweet, slightly clumsy, attractive people who are eager to find love and all the joy that it can bring.  I also like the animation in the movie – simple but richly detailed with an artistic flair that does not diminish the realistic depictions of trains, busy streets, drab offices and the innocence of its two main characters.

Indeed, one of the hallmarks of this film is its groundbreaking combination of hand drawn characters merged into computer generated images – or CGI for short.  The animator’s flowing and expressive lines are not only integrated into the CGI, but are also adopted by computer software such that many of the character drawings are a combination of artist and computer.  This new art form may revolutionize animation by using technology and the nuanced expression of an artist’s hand.  That is one of the reason’s why “Paperman” was nominated for an Academy Award in the best animated film category.

At any rate, as I said, I can’t put my finger on why I like the film.  My affection for it likely says more about me than it does about the movie, its story or its animation.  In my appreciation of it, I bring something of myself to that attraction equation – my own personality, experiences and outlook on life.

And that idea of attraction seems to be one theme in the film.  What is it about the young woman Meg that catches the eye of her admirer George?  Is it just her looks – her Bambi like doe eyes, her trim and lithe figure, her endearing clumsiness, the cant of her smile, her implicit sense of humor?  We don’t really know why he’s attracted to her but we quickly realize that George is immediately smitten.  Once he spots her again across an urban chasm, George will do anything to reunite with her.

During a recent radio psychology talk show about love at first sight, many listeners called in to tell their stories of immediate love.  Interestingly, all of the callers with stories to tell about love at first sight were men.  Only one woman called in and she forcefully shot down the idea saying it does not exist – that men mistake love at first sight with lustful attraction.  Whatever it is, George is clearly enamored with Meg.

How do we make sense of the laws of attraction?  Why are we attracted to our friends, lovers and partners?  What lights up our brains, our hearts and, yes, our lust when we find we are attracted to someone?  What roles do chance and fate play regarding whom we meet and perhaps fall in love?  Are we mere puppets dangling from the strings of fate or biology – destined to meet and unite with whomever is swept our way and somehow turns our heads?  Or do we, much like George, also work to influence and change the winds of chance and biology?

After discussing much more serious movies the last two Sundays, I want to consider today a more lighthearted film.  I hope to examine the spiritual dimensions of attraction and destiny in the drama of “boy meets girl”, or “boy meets boy” or “girl meets girl.”  How do the multiple forces of attraction, reason, and fate influence us?  Do we have a choice in whom we are attracted to or are there other, more complex factors involved like our genetics, past experiences and even fate?  Most importantly, what lessons are there from the laws of attraction for how we act and speak throughout our lives?

Writing over two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato said that humans are governed by three distinct influences.  We are governed by our reason, by a spiritual desire to be connected with something greater than ourselves and by our physical appetites.  Mostly, he wrote, we follow our reason but, on occasion, the two lesser desires, as he called them, also govern our actions.

For many religions and, indeed, for us, this begs the question as to whether our free will minds influence our actions.  Can we freely choose to whom we are attracted?  As we just saw, George did not do a lot of thinking when he was immediately drawn to Meg as she stood near him on the train platform.  He saw a girl who was attractive to him in many ways, but it is doubtful he thought much about it.  Strong emotions and visceral responses stirred within him and he was head over heels drawn to her.  It was not a conscious decision.  Indeed, it appears he could not help himself!

George was obviously physically drawn to her beauty.  He also liked her smile and her apparent sense of humor – how she found it amusing to have planted a lipstick kiss on a piece of paper.  Intuitively, George liked what he saw not just on a physical level but in her dress, demeanor and probable personality.  All of the factors that drew her to him were deeply planted in him by his genetics, upbringing and past experiences.  He did not think about why he liked what he saw.  He just liked!

That fact, that we are not governed by our reason in the law of attraction but by deeper and more irrational forces, has particular resonance for me and for many gays and lesbians.  The debate over what influences sexuality has not yet been settled but it is clear that none of us make a mental choice about the gender to which we are physically and emotionally attracted.  It simply happens.

Recent science points to the idea that a mixture of genetics and upbringing influences our sexualties.  Some scientists have identified a particular area of one gene that suggests a cause for same sex attraction.  Others point to slight differences in gay and lesbian brains to account for same sex attraction.  Still others have shown that changes in maternal hormone levels during pregnancy can influence sexuality.  And others point to abundant anecdotal evidence that says upbringing by a domineering mother or a distant father can influence gay sexuality.  Most scientists believe all of these factors play a role in determining human sexuality.  Importantly, however, there is a majority consensus by psychologists and other experts that none of us – straight, lesbian, gay or bisexual – are able to consciously or unconsciously choose the deep seated core attractions we feel.  We don’t conjure them up from our rational thinking and we can’t forbid them from our emotions.  They just happen and, much like in George, we are powerless to stop feeling them.

Over the last decade, a scientific group called “deCode” has thoroughly examined the human genetic sequence and identified hundreds of genetic markers for conditions such as diabetes, alcoholism and metabolism rates.  What this study is also beginning to show, however, is that genetics are not absolutely determinative.  We might be prone to be diabetic but we can affect whether or not we eventually suffer from the disease by our eating habits.  In other words, our genes don’t totally dictate our health destiny.  Our own rational choices combined with destiny and biology work together.

And that is clearly relevant in matters of attraction.  Just as the film “Paperman” showed us, there are a combination of factors involved in whether or not George meets Meg again.  Yes, it is purely by chance that George meets Meg and that his office is directly across from a building where she is.  But, George has to then make the decision to do something with what fate has given him.  Even with his multiple attempts to catch her eye again, fate plays its tricks to conspire against him.  The wind diverts his paper airplanes, a bird crashes into one, another sails into the trash can, still another lands on someone else’s desk.

The amusing story of George’s efforts is that, once smitten, he does almost anything he can to meet Meg again.  He is persistent even to the point of likely losing his job all because of one brief interaction with a woman who deeply stirred his feelings of attraction.  In other words, simple attraction is not enough.  Fate creates the opportunity but he must seize it.

Indeed, George lives true to the words of William Shakespeare when he had his character Romeo utter the famous words, “Oh, I am fortune’s fool!”  Much as with Romeo, fate conspired to have George cross paths with Meg and then be deeply attracted to her.  George is fortune’s fool in his pursuit, but only to a point.  He does not allow fate to determine his destiny.  He persistently acts so that his one fortunate meeting with Meg will not be forever lost.  As an implicit message in the film, fate gives us a chance but it rarely repeats itself.

John Galsworthy, a famous English novelist and nobel laureate in literature, once said that, “Life calls the tune, we dance.”  And that is exactly how George reacts in “Paperman.”  If he is to meet Meg again, if his feelings of love at first sight are to be fulfilled, if the tale is to end sixty years in the future as a forever after love story, then George must figuratively dance to whatever tune fate and biology played for him.  To use a recent analogy, binders full of women will not open up everyday to drop a beautiful girl next to him.

Dr. Laura Berman, a contemporary commentator on relationships, says that for us to meet the opportunities that fortune gives us in finding a friend, partner or spouse, we must first be specific about the qualities that deeply stir us.  We should not hide behind what we think we want or what we believe we should want.  We must be honest with what we truly and deeply want.  And that has resonance for those of us who have had to come out of the closet and admit to same sex attractions.  It took me a long time to understand this fact.  I was not happy until I confessed to myself the truth of my inner attractions.

Gays and lesbians should be given the freedom to come out when and how they personally feel best.   Even so, coming out is a truly liberating experience.  As Jesus said, “The truth will set you free.”

Next, we cannot allow fate to set the course of our lives.  How much energy do we put into the equation for determining our happiness in life or the person we befriend or fall in love with?  We must act in ways that give a nudge to the hand of fate.

Dr. Berman also says we should learn to embrace empty spaces in our lives.  As humans, too often we feel a need to fill a void we perceive – in how we furnish our homes, in long pauses during a conversation or, in our search to find friends and partners.  Empty things scare us and so we work to fill them up.  This is something I am still learning.  I must be comfortable and happy just with myself.  Only then can I be comfortable and happy with someone else.

Finally, Dr. Berman asserts that the law of attraction throughout our lives is defined by the fact that similar things attract similar things.  If we are happy, engaged, curious, confident and positive people, we will attract similar reactions and attitudes from others.  If we are angry, bitter, depressed and sad, we will likely attract the same.  This holds true for how we interact throughout our lives with friends, partners and spouses.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Love, and you shall be loved.”  We have a strong say in how our life destiny plays out.  We help to create our happiness.  We must take what destiny hands us and then do the work necessary to build a life of joy and fulfillment.

Despite that fact, circumstances in life can and do tear us down.  Much like we discussed last Sunday with the story of “Les Miserables”, life is often painful and harsh.  Cruel people or difficult circumstances hurt us and often prevent us from finding the happiness we seek.  But, we also saw how Jean Valjean in that story constantly worked to redeem not only the lives of others but his own life too.  We cannot give up on life.  We cannot allow hate or misery or past mistakes to define who we are.  Redemption and resurrection are ALWAYS possible.  Just as science is proving, fate and destiny need not have the last word.

And that is also, ironically, a message from “Paperman”.  George redeems his missed opportunity encounter with Meg.  He is doggedly persistent.  He remained hopeful and determined.  The same must hold true for any of us.  Fate, destiny and biology do their best to order our lives.  Other people conspire to define us and set in stone whom they believe we are.  But we can, and often do, overcome all of these forces.

Whatever causes George to be attracted to Meg, whether it be fate, destiny or his own inner feelings, the humor and moral focus of the story is George’s persistence.  Even when all seems lost, when the last paper airplane with Meg’s lipstick kiss on it is blown away, destiny and persistence still work hand in hand – George does not give up but defies fate and rushes out of his work to meet Meg in person.

This is one of the great spiritual mysteries of life – how one second in time can alter the trajectory of our lives forever.  We often wonder in amazement how that can be as we also ponder how life would be so different had a fateful event not occurred.

Rarely, however, do we focus on how our own actions worked alongside our destiny.  We are not, as I asked earlier, mere puppets on a string.  All of the great and powerful forces of the universe work together, without our input, to shape who and what we are.  They help determine our lives and whether we find success or suffering.  But, we are not without power and ability to affect them.  Indeed, we are the gods and goddesses that ALSO shape our destiny and the future of our world.

I hope that all of us might act a bit like George in the film “Paperman.”  To the people whom destiny has brought our way, to our friends, family members, spouses, partners, lovers, and even total strangers, let us fling upon the air currents our paper airplanes of hope and goodness.  Life may set the tune, but we will dance on the wings of love…

I wish you, here or listening online, much peace and joy.