Last night, I watched the 2009 film Dorian Gray. I wouldn’t generally recommend it for viewing–it’s got some fairly intense portrayals of evil, as well as some overt eroticism, but there are some interesting thoughts that surface in the dialogue.
Based upon the Oscar Wilde novel, the title character is mystically blessed with perpetual youth and beauty, and as a result, allows himself (under the tutelage of a ‘benefactor’) to devolve into a life of decadence. The ugliness of his soul and the sufferings of his mortal life become transferred to a portrait, living him pristine in visage, if not in virtue.
There are some interesting thoughts about the value of life experience, the difference between pleasure and happiness, and the qualities valued by society, but my reflections centered elsewhere.
A number of books present a central character who has been given some extraordinary ability, some physical attributes which take him beyond the realm of normal human capability. Besides Dorian Gray, I think of The Invisible Man and Dr Jekyll, though there are certainly other examples from Greek mythology and elsewhere.
It strikes me that, in each of these instances, the character becomes overwhelmed by his own suprahuman character. In all three instances, the special abilities lead to lives bereft of self-control, saturated by self-gratification, and which devolve into debauchery or other outright violence and evil.
Taken as a whole, I can’t help but feel that these novels shed light on our limited capacity to handle a life consisting of more than we were intended to be. These characters lacked the moral certitude, the self-mastery, and the virtue to be able to rightly steward their magnificent abilities.
Those characters who are able to exert such discipline in the midst of suprahuman ability we tend to term as “heroes”, and they appear in comics and other fictions. But apparently, not all who are possessed of ability beyond turn out this way.
I can certainly remember having day dreams as a child, wondering what it would be like to have special abilities. How would I use them? What would I accomplish? My imagination could run away and be tantalized by so many possibilities!
So why didn’t Dorian Gray fare better? Having the chance to actually live the dream, why was he unable to use his special opportunity for anything but self-gratification and decadent exploration? Honestly, it reminded me a bit of the king of Ecclesiastes, who tastes a vast array of what this life has to offer, and who comes away no happier or better for the experiences.
I believe we were created with intentionality, with specific arenas of capacity, and attempts to push ourselves beyond these capacities send us into a realm where we try to handle–on our own–more than we were ever built for.
Now, I am certainly not lobbying against personal development. Within those natural capacities, I believe we should grow and develop, gaining understanding, awareness, and skill in living well. But coveting what is beyond can only send us into a realm where we are ill-equipped to thrive. We’ve got plenty to keep ourselves busy here, without trying to venture alone into the realm beyond our humanity.
I am also not saying that we should merely be content with where we’re at, nor that we should look around in despondency at the realities of this life and world and accept them as they are. I believe that God provides redemption, renewal, and transformation, which takes us beyond our current state of sullied living into a place of glorious relationship with Him–but even this divine redemption is not a work that takes us beyond our humanity. In fact, it is for just such a glorious existence that we were originally designed.
The characters of fiction point out for me that we are often desirous of being more than we are, and–overlooking the opportunities for growth and improvement that are available to us–we can chase after abilities and qualities that we were never meant to have. And although that chase may be frought with the most egregious of stumblings, still we race on, yearning for that which is naturally unobtainable. The fictional characters that do obtain their aims face nothing but a life of emptiness, regret, and even self-loathing as they discover their inability to manage that which they so desired. They are unable to enjoy the achievement for which they strove because they are attempting to set aside their human nature–and they have nothing of themselves which is adequate to replace it.
Being suprahuman is more than I could handle. But that does not mean I am condemned to remain as I find myself today. There is yet an opportunity to develop within my humanity. That development requires setting aside the tarnished aspects of life, and pursuing the holy and righteous realms.
It is still a journey for which my natural state is ill-equipped, but it is a journey for which God promises to supply all that is needed–the grace, moral fortitude, and wisdom–that setting aside my old self does not mean that I will venture forward into an abyss of attempting to fulfill the self that I have just left beyond. Rather, it is a journey into tasting and seeing the very best that God offers to us as humans, as frail, limited people who are nevertheless redeemable.
For Dorian, Jekyll, and Griffin (The Invisible Man), death was the only opportunity for freedom from the corrupt existence that they carried themselves into. For those of us who live in the real world, Christ’s death is the only opportunity for freedom from the corrupt existence that we were born into.
That is why Christmas is such a time for celebration. The coming of Christ opens the way for us, not to be more than what we can be, but to become exactly what we were intended for, within the realm of our God-given, redeemable humanity.