Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Worthless currency: Brad Pitt and the rich young ruler

In my last post, I wrote for five minutes on the word WORTH as part of the Five Minute Friday linkup. I didn't give a lot of thought to where I was going with the post when I started writing it, but the distinction between "deserve" and "worth," which I remembered from one of Lewis Smedes' books, seemed like an interesting concept to unpack in five minutes.

Since then, I've continued pondering the word WORTH. I got thinking about currency, and how we make decisions based on what our money is worth or what it will do for us. Ten years ago the Canadian dollar was at par with the American one -- even worth slightly more at one point. Now it's worth 75 cents against the U.S. dollar. Ouch. I've never been a "cross-border shopper," and now I'm unlikely to become one, knowing how little my Canadian dollar will accomplish for me in the States.

Then I started thinking about other, non-monetary "currency" that we try to use, only to find that it won't accomplish what we  had hoped either.

That leads me to one of my favourite movies, Seven Years in Tibet. It's a very interesting story of a real-life Austrian adventurer named Heinrich Harrer, who abandons his wife and young son to go on a mountaineering expedition, ends up in Tibet during WWII, and becomes friends with the young Dalai Lama.

Brad Pitt plays the dashing Heinrich. There's been lots of commentary about Pitt's suitability for the role, how successful he is in reproducing a German accent, the historical accuracy of the film, and so on. But that's all secondary to me. What interests me most about this movie is that it depicts a person who really changes during the course of the story. And a big part of what precipitates that change is the character's realization that his currency is worthless.

Heinrich's fellow traveler, Peter, is a quiet, plain-looking fellow. The two are an oil-and-water mix, and Heinrich is pretty nasty to Peter at times, though they stick together throughout most of the journey. After escaping a POW camp they take refuge in Lhasa, Tibet. One of the people they meet there is a beautiful tailor named Pema. Both men are instantly taken with her.

On one occasion Heinrich tries to impress Pema by showing her photographs of himself climbing mountains and skiing as a member of the Austrian Olympic team. But Pema (who, we soon realize, is far more interested in the unassuming Peter) cuts Heinrich down to size. She says quietly, "This is another great difference between our civilization and yours. You admire the man who pushes his way to the top in any walk of life -- while we admire the man who abandons his ego. The average Tibetan wouldn't think to thrust himself forward this way."

Heinrich smiles, but he is clearly stung by her words. Ever so slowly, the truth starts to dawn on him: the currency he's been depending on for so long -- looks, adventures, awards, ego -- accomplishes nothing in this place. It's worthless.

The beautiful thing is, though, that he allows this awareness to change him. He becomes a tutor to the Dalai Lama and starts to internalize principles of Buddhism like nonviolence, humility, and harmony with all creation. He becomes a different person who can then go home and reestablish a deeper relationship with the son he left behind.

Contrast this with an episode recorded in Luke 18 and Mark 10, when Jesus is asked by a wealthy young man, "What do I need to do to have eternal life?"

Jesus says, "You know the commandments" -- and lists several of them.

The young man replies that he has kept all of these commandments for his entire life. I can imagine he is feeling pretty satisfied at this moment, because it sounds like the very currency he's carrying -- good behaviour -- is what's required. And perhaps he sees his wealthy status as another result of that good behaviour -- a reward for being such a good law-keeper. How affirming it would be if Jesus assured him that yes, works and wealth are in fact the keys to eternal life.

But Jesus goes on, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

I don't think this should be taken as a literal prescription for all people at all times. Jesus isn't saying categorically that selling all our goods is the way to have eternal life; that would be just another kind of "good work" to earn our way.  Rather, I think Jesus is telling the young man that his good deeds and possessions actually won't achieve what he says he wants. Following Jesus requires something different: faith and trust.

 The young man is hoping he can keep on using the currency he's always relied upon, without really having to change. He's not prepared to give everything up and rely on Jesus. As the Mark version tells us, upon hearing Jesus' words "the man's face fell, and he went away sad," choosing not to follow.

I wonder if at some point we all come to the realization that our currency lacks value: our old answers and paradigms have nothing to say to the situation we're in, or our strengths and accomplishments really have no worth in the place we find ourselves.

The question is, do we let this disorienting experience be an opportunity for real change? Or do we allow ourselves to feel a momentary sadness but then go right back to the way things were?

These are the thoughts that going beyond "five minutes' worth of WORTH" led me to today.



  1. Jeannie: speaking as a finance person, I think you grasp a key element of 'worth' or that many people misunderstand to their detriment: something is only 'worth' what you can exchange it for, and not what you are convinced is 'worth' based on what it was 'worth' in another time or place. (The mortgage crisis of 2008 is exhibit 'A' )
    (This hits close to home for me, as a collapse in the 'value' of assets long thought by everyone to be the 'gold standard' caused us to have to put our company into bankruptcy, leaving me some time, at the moment, to do more reading :)

    -Jeff P

    1. Whoa. I see in that last sentence that you're seeking the silver lining; but that is really tough, Jeff. I hope that things turn around for you on that front. And thanks for your great comment. I know NOTHING about finance so I take it as a compliment. :-) I enjoyed writing this piece, esp talking about one of my favourite movies. I get so much out of watching good films. Thanks again for reading and taking time to comment.

  2. Hi Jeannie! I think you know some of my story...when I went through my divorce I realized that my currency of "doing everything right" wasn't enough to save me from trials and heartache. In my thinking, God owed me a good life because I was a good girl who made all the right choices. I'm thankful to say that faith and trust in God is my new currency. I have times of doubt and bitterness when I have to turn to God and place my trust in Him again and again, but I know that He is for me. Thanks for writing this piece!

    1. Thanks so much, Amy: so glad this resonated with you.


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