Is My Happiness My Own?

Posted by Melvin Bray on March 16th, 2013 filed in Useful Perhaps

I watched the movie Looper this past week.  It stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the kid from 3rd Rock from the Sun, who apparently likes sci-fi) and Bruce Willis as Gordon-Levitt’s character’s older, future self.  I initially dismissed it as “typical,” because of the ending.  However, this morning, having not been able to sleep pass 5:00, I have a somewhat new take on it.

It seems to be based on this notion of one’s future being a tyrant over one’s present. You can find the whole plot elsewhere. Suffice it to say that Willis’ character, Future Joe, comes back in time and attempts to take the lives of 3 children because one of them, Future Joe doesn’t know which, will grow up to become a mysterious character called the Rainmaker and initiate a series of actions that results in the death of Future Joe’s wife, the woman who found him morally bankrupt and gave him a reason to be a better man. Even if he must himself die on the day the Rainmaker’s men come for him, he wants his wife to live. Admirable indeed. Gordon-Levitt’s character, Present Joe, saves the last child, the one who actually would have grown up to become the Rainmaker, by ultimately taking his own life, thereby eliminating the existence of Future Joe and (here’s the head rush) precluding the circumstances that turn the last child into the Rainmaker. It’s like that Brotha Ali verse from a few years back (Freedom Ain’t Free):

I’ll kill the devil wherever he resides.
Even if he’s hidin’ in me, he’s gotta die!

Giving my life, whatever its worth, to save an innocent–making the ultimate sacrifice–is boring to me, even a bit self-aggrandising and glory-seeking. Now, resurrection, on the other hand, that’s interesting–having to live beyond the moment of “sacrifice”. But this movie is about neither. It is about moral agency. It’s about recognizing that my future or present happiness isn’t a morally neutral divine right. There is some–maybe all–present and future happiness, comfort, ease, opportunity that comes to me as a cost to others outside of myself, and perhaps I have some moral responsibility for that. Now that’s interesting too!

I’ve been applying for different types of fellowships to put myself back in the game of social entrepreneurism at a different level. The vision I believe God placed in my heart 19 years ago was always bigger than I personally had the skills or connections to accomplish. That is why I’ve had to dip in and out of it over the pass 16 years. I’d carry the ball as far as I knew how, then would have to lay it down for a while and go learn some more, acquire more assets to leverage on the vision’s behalf, give the vision time to mature.

So here I am coming up on 40, and I finally know enough people who know enough people who can help me make this thing happen. They aren’t any smarter or more driven than the people I was blessed to know 16 years ago. They just have a different set of resources and relationships. It’s like that book Who Moved My Cheese? by Spenser Johnson that was so popular in the late-90s. The people I’ve come to know in recent years are folks who tend to know where cheese is at any given moment and have the resources and relationships enabling them to access it.

So here’s the question for me: Who does it cost for me to access the cheese; whose place might I be taking, or who is excluded because I am deemed more acceptable in this particular moment… and does it matter? I can stand at a distance and critique those who by birth or conniving or sweat-and-tears knew where the cheese was before me and didn’t bother to tell or told only those with whom they had affinity or made the threshold for admission too high for me to reach or had the means by which to make their own cheese…. The harder thing is to examine myself. Were Future Melvin or his children’s children able to come back in time, they perhaps wouldn’t care about the cost, only the benefit, but I do. The only moral sense (which is not quite the word) I can make of embracing the opportunities I see on the horizon is with the commitment to leverage the privilege it will afford me on the behalf of others by drawing others into it.

Notwithstanding, there are definitely other ways to hold such opportunities. Ways that exclude others, not maliciously, but exclude some nonetheless. Does it matter that continued exclusion lacks malice? Even if no one bore any hard feelings toward others because of race, gender, nationality, origin, religion or sexual identity, if those same people remained en masse for the most part to be underrepresented in the places where cheese is found or made, is that type of exclusion any less harmful. And how should one (or groups) react to being repeatedly harmed? At what point should they move to stop the harm from happening?

The part of the movie I left out earlier is that the Rainmaker came after Future Joe because Past-Present-Future Joe for the next 25 years is a mob hit man, called a looper, who on Future Joe’s original timeline had not succeeded in killing the last child but had killed the child’s mother. So when the child grew up and became the Rainmaker, he wasn’t just coming after mobsters indiscriminately, he was specifically coming after loopers who might have been the one who took his mother’s life. Is that any more wrong than the crime, the exclusion, that was perpetrated against him? Had Present Joe not finally stepped in to include the child, even at the expense of his own future happiness, I imagine that people in Future Joe’s world would have been flabbergasted at the Rainmaker’s lashing out against their loved ones, these former loopers who had now gone straight. Are we equally as blind as to believe that those who have been historically systematically excluded from our cheese making systems and structures have no cause, no rationale when they finally lash out at us?

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I want to live a life of worth.

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