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Old Embers

Pollyanna Sees the Light
By Fritz Spencer
Nov 23, 2014 - 12:07:34 AM

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In every life, light alternates with darkness, and if we are patient, the winds of life will chase the leaden clouds away, unveiling a sky of purest blue. But what if our leaden days outweigh our golden days, and the scales of life tip slowly downwards, down, down, down, towards the looming darkness?

The principle "Know your enemy" is not limited to warfare. Surely, when storm clouds threaten, there must be a sword sharp enough to cleave the darkness, revealing the shining path before us. But the enemy in this case is poorly understood, and hence, few people take up the right weapon.

Let us be mindful at the outset that the belief that evil outweighs all the good in the world is a doctrine of atheism. The Christian view is that this is "the best of all possible worlds" and that evil has no real existence, but rather is an absence of good. The evils which befall mankind, poverty, starvation, illness, crime - alas, all the contents of Pandora's Box! - are nevertheless experienced as pain, and pain is very real. Yet with God's help, these same evils can always become an occasion for goodness.

That the answer how to meet the sorrows of life should be found in a movie for children seems improbable; and I am confident that most people will dismiss this claim as ridiculous. The movie Pollyanna, made by Disney in 1960, has no dancing puppets, no velvety creatures with fairy wings, but instead gives a realistic portrait of human life which is depicted with the greatest philosophical profundity.

We ought to leave aside our preconceived notions about the name "Pollyanna." It is after all a name we call those who are persistently and annoyingly optimistic. The movie is quite different from the book by the same name by Eleanor H. Porter. Rather than teaching the virtue of positive thinking, Pollyanna in the movie challenges her fellow man to think on a higher level. Adopted by a rich aunt, and given a home in a palatial mansion, Pollyanna is a living example of the virtues of simplicity and poverty. She softens the stern preaching of her village pastor with a message of Christian charity. She urges her neighbors to see in every setback, illness, and disappointment the opportunity to find something good; and this she calls "the Glad Game."

The "Glad Game" is the legacy of her poor missionary father who after laboring long on the mission field died in dire poverty; and it is a good legacy for a father to leave his children. It is the outlook on life transmitted to us from the Stoic philosophers through Christianity. The philosopher Epictetus said:

"Can advantage be derived from all things? Yes, from all!'Is my neighbor bad?' Bad to himself, but good to me. He exercises my good disposition. This is the Wand of Hermes. Touch with it what you please, and it will all be gold."

Ah, but positive thinking, and the teachings of the pagan philosophers are not enough; and here the movie departs from the shallow optimism of the original book, and the deep mystery of this tale begins.

Pollyanna meets with a horrible accident; and tellingly, the tragedy in this sunlit movie, in which sparkling sunlight is such a powerful metaphor, befalls Pollyanna at night, after Fourth of July-like festivities complete with marching bands, flag waving, noisy carnival side shows, and splendid fireworks. That suffering should arise out of joyful celebration and that joy should arise out of suffering ought to give us pause for reflection.

Will the optimism of Pollyanna hold out in the face of cruel misfortune?

It is enough to reveal here that a small American town is redeemed and ennobled by Pollyanna's suffering. This most profound movie, which most people will pass by, teaches that the best weapon against misfortune is not a shallow optimism which denies the reality of evil. Instead, the sword which cleaves the darkness around us is the reciprocal love between God and man, and faith in His divine will. By submitting to His will, we deepen our faith, and thereby draw down to us and to those around us the essence of God, which is love and mercy; and this in turns enables us to rise up like doves towards the sun of God's love; and in doing so we, the townspeople, and Pollyanna are made whole.

Fritz Spencer


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