by Susan Giffone [author, academic]
I don’t know about you, but when the subject of Christmas comes up, a lot of people tell me that they plan to spend the holiday with their extended families. And yet, very few of them seem happy about that. It seems Christmas with family falls somewhere on the emotional spectrum between paying bills and giving birth to conjoined triplets. No one has said to me, “I can’t wait to go home for Christmas because my family is so warm and inviting, like Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.” In an age renowned for tolerance, I find this distressing. Agape love, the queen mother of Christian ideals, is easily understood by everyone, from the most eminent psychiatrist to the simplest simon, to be the soil in which humans thrive. Everybody loves unconditional love. Why is it so hard to give?
Everybody’s Fine, the latest offering from writer/director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine, Nanny McPhee), shows viewers vividly what can happen when we see and accept one another as we truly are. Specifically, it addresses the problem of the high expectations of some parents for their children, and what can happen when the children fail to live up to the family standard as defined by dad.
Parenting involves not only nurturing, but teaching and modeling right behavior and attitudes. As any parent will tell you, there is no such thing as a values-neutral upbringing. Whatever our values, we feel passionate about them and endeavor to pass them on to our children. But what if our children grow up and don’t share our idea of the right way to live? What do we do with our passion then?
Everybody’s fine is exactly the way Frank Good feels about his four children, who have all grown up and moved away to various locations in the US. We watch as he takes great pains to host a big barbeque for all of them and their families at his home in Connecticut. When one by one they cancel, the recently widowed Frank decides to take a long overdue road trip to visit each of them in turn. As the movie unfolds, we see how Frank’s sons and daughters have withheld information about the less-successful areas of their lives in order to keep from disappointing him. This film can be enjoyed on several levels: the feel-good story of a prodigal dad, a classic American road trip, a visual treat (Jones used the brand-new Panavision Genesis camera, which enabled him to shoot scenes with natural light, giving the film a unique look), and, finally, as a challenge to parents to love their grown children without reserve and without condition. Ironically, this is harder than it looks. Don’t we want the best for our children? Or, to put it another way, if right is good for you, and you choose what is wrong, how can I accept that and still say that I love you?
Frank discovers that his happily married daughter is not, the son he thought was a conductor is content to be merely a member of the orchestra, and the daughter who is a dancer in a Las Vegas show is has an illegitimate son and a not-so- glamorous job. Another son has found success as an artist, but this is overshadowed by self-destructive tendencies. Ironically, Frank’s only ambition was to be a good father. Like many men of his generation, this meant working hard, paying the bills, and pushing his children to succeed. Viewers will undoubtedly recognize their own fathers, or themselves, in Frank, who, the children later complain, answered his their phone calls with brief inquiries about their health, and then passed the phone to his wife with a curt, “Here’s your mother.”
Indeed, Frank’s wife Jean, seen only in photographs, is a strong presence in the film, the traditional linchpin of the family. In losing her, they have lost their center. She is the one with whom the children shared their real lives. And, we learn, she has colluded with them in keeping Frank in the dark, presumably in order to protect him from harsh realities. In a sense, she has treated her husband as if he were a child. Jean’s approach upends the Victorian “two spheres” idea, in which women kept the house, raised the children, and were protected from the outside world into which their tougher, more worldly husbands ventured daily in order to bring home the bacon. Jones seems to be implying that the factory in which Frank spent his work days was actually a safer, more predictable place than the world of honest relationships with flesh-and-blood people. Frank seems ill-prepared for failure, cursing at a missed golf shot and fussing at Robert for smoking cigarettes. Jean has protected Frank all their married life, and now she is gone he will have to venture into the scary world of brokenness, discord, disrespect, and questionable moral behavior. How will he make it? Is truth too painful?
Robert tells his father frankly, “Me being a percussionist and having an occasional cigarette isn’t good enough for you? I’m not disappointed, but you obviously are.”
Disappointment with our children can turn into judgmentalism. David Kinnaman, in his 2007 book unchristian, writes, “We need to move beyond expecting people to behave according to our expectations, and instead try to help connect them to God’s purposes.” He further quotes Mike Foster, founder of XXXchurch.com: “Christian insulation and a safe life are not what you and I signed up for when we said we would follow Jesus. He was never insulated from people’s pain, and he sure didn’t keep to safe places. He engaged with those who were being crushed by their mistakes and bad choices… He hung with the not-so-perfect people of the world and showed them what Christianity is all about.” Unfortunately, as parents, we often forget that this applies to our relationships with our grown children. Our passion to teach them right from wrong can become anger with them when they don’t measure up. Such anger can be poisonous.
As often happens in real life, a medical crisis forces everyone in the family to finally, gingerly, go there. One by one, Frank’s children tell him the truth about themselves and their lives. The result is to bring the Good family dangerously, authentically closer. Frank forgives his children for not meeting his high expectations, and they forgive him for pushing them. And finally, Frank concedes, “I should have listened to you more carefully.”
Viewers who listen carefully to the truth wherever they find it will walk out of theaters and put their cell phones to good use calling their own family members.
Jones observes, “Modern life takes up so much of our time. I think we’re all guilty, probably, of not ringing up our parents. Pretty much at all the screenings, people said the same thing: ‘I’ve got to ring my mum, I’ve got to ring my dad, I’ve got to ring my brother, my sister.” One journalist reported to Jones that he and his wife had stayed up all night talking about how little time they spent with their families. They rearranged plans to be home for Thanksgiving.
Remove the Stumbling Blocks
We should not merely spend more time together with our families: we must also communicate honestly. This takes an amazing amount of grace. It is hard to wait to be asked to express one’s true thoughts, and still harder to word those thoughts in such a way as to give grace to those who hear. He who said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” also said, “Go, and sin no more.”
We must not only communicate honestly: we must also create a place where everyone is loved without stipulations. It is difficult to admit that we cannot force our grown children to accept our standards. But there is freedom in releasing them. Romans 14: 13 commands Christians to “not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this–not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.” We should focus our attention not on the failures of others in our family, but on that which we can control: our own behavior and attitudes. Ironically, embracing our children as they continue to make mistakes can actually help connect them to God’s purposes. When we get out of the way, they can deal directly with Him. Such a release is risky. What if they fail?
We Can Love Successfully
The closing scene in Everybody’s Fine shows the entire extended family happily assembled around the dinner table. Frank’s dream has finally been realized. I’d like to think that if we visit the Good family a year later, we will find them laughing, quarreling, making up, teasing, and watching with glee as the baby take his first step. And comforting him when he falls. The family is the training ground for life. It is here that children learn how to give and receive love. As parents and elders in the community, we are called to show them how, as God, through Christ’s example, shows us how. And as we walk along, he doesn’t guarantee a pain-free existence. Our children may indeed fail. As our lives are bound up with theirs, it will hurt. To hurt is not to fail: we can successfully love those that God has given into our families. He promises to walk with us. Indeed, Immanuel means “God with us.” Merry Christmas. ExileStreet
Susan Giffone is a staff writer for MovieMinistry.com, and is based in the New York City area.