Lessons from "The End of the Affair"

I received the movie "The End of the Affair" from Netflix last Tuesday, but I didn't watch it until Sunday evening. The reason why I took so long to watch it was I couldn't shake off the chilling sense of foreboding every time I thought about putting the movie into my DVD player. My practical sense finally took over and told me to watch it. After all, that's why I pay the fees to Netflix each month, whether I watch a new movie or not. So I fixed my little meal of a turkey burger (all white meat,and it turned out to be rather dry), spinach and green beans, and sat down to a solo "dinner and a movie" date. Hey, it's the best I can do these days.

The first sign of trouble was that I couldn't keep the spinach down, and I kept pausing the movie to dash to the bathroom. I didn't cook the spinach or the turkey burger in enough broth so it was sufficiently digestible for my surgically altered stomach. I won't do that again. I can't have something as innocuous as spinach ruin my own dinner date. I should have at least one nice, relaxing evening a week, even if the food is not to my liking. Oh well, maybe next Sunday.

I have to back up a little bit right here. Since my excursion at Bosch Baha'i School last weekend, I've processing a lot of thoughts and feelings about my relationship with God. I've always believed in God, even though that belief became more tentative when I became a teenager and a young adult. Looking back, I see that I had two prevailing feelings about the Almighty--one was that He was always angry and/or disappointed with me (Baptist upbringing), and I was destined to be thrown in the lake of fire because of my constantly wayward thoughts, particularly the ones concerning the opposite sex. I didn't want to even consider some of my actions because I was certain that even though I played the part of the "good little girl and dutiful daughter" most of the time, the two percent of the time that I "backslid" into Sodom and Gomorrah-like behavior would be much more incriminating than the "sweet Polly Purebread" role that I played.

In a very weird contrast, I also had the impression that God was some kind of gigantic vending machine in the sky--you put in the right amount of currency, which was "good deeds", and you are rewarded with whatever you want in life. I've been trying to understand where I got that idea, and the only explanation is from the testimonies I heard in church every Sunday. People stand up during church service and testify to the goodness of the Lord. He healed someone's sick child, He got another one a new car that was didn't cost a single penny, and yet another got a new job earning twice as much money as the old one. All of these things happened because those people did the right thing-- they believed in the Lord, came to church faithfully, tithed 10% of their paychecks and put money in the collection plate, and listened to the pastor because he was the proper interpretor of God's word for us laypeople. By listening to these testimonies, I began to think that God worked on an almost you-scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours basis. Show the Lord love in the proper manner, and you can have whatever good things the material world has to offer. And if you don't get what you want, it's because you didn't really believe and you weren't wholeheartedly engaging in the previously mentioned activities.

A woman who has been chronically homeless asked to come to stay with me almost two years ago, supposedly to help me out around the house because my mobility issues makes certain tasks difficult (but not impossible, as I have discovered). When I realized that I was doing most of the housework because she was either too "sick" or too busy chatting on her computer, I asked her to leave. As she packed up her belongings, she kept saying that she hoped "God wasn't jerking her around" and would provide her with a permanent place to stay. I was amused by her not-so-subtle attempts to make me feel badly about my decision, an entirely wasted effort since I knew she had been bouncing from one person's home to the next for the past five years. She didn't seem to understand that she when represented herself as a care provider for disabled people, she actually had to do the required work. Anything less constituted a violation of the agreement.

But what was more compelling to me was the idea that she thought God was her personal servant. Of course, she didn't think of it that way because she knew she was a "good person" deserving of God's bountiful graces. That is, if she prayed to God to give or do something for her, it should happen because God loved her (and not me, since I was the evil witch who kicked her out with no other place to go), and a loving parent should do everything to make a child happy. And if it didn't manifest in the way she thought it should, she accused God of "jerking her around."

I laughed at her childish, totally self-centered ideas about the Lord until I was struck by a thought--what if that woman was a mirror of my own thoughts and behaviors? Wasn't I childish and self-centered, just like her? I had prayed for years to make me thin, yet I wasn't willing to put down the food that would make that happen. God was supposed to instantly transform me into a beautiful and shapely princess, a la Cinderella's fairy godmother. I certainly didn't want to deprive myself of all the good food that's available to an experienced and cultured sensualist like me. Wasn't it inhuman to live in agonizing deprivation everyday, the way I did whenever I was on a diet? God wouldn't want me to suffer so mercilessly, would he? A loving and forgiving God just wouldn't do that to His child. So if I prayed hard enough and believed in Him with all my heart, He would grant me my wish and make me thin. And I clung to that belief to the point of almost reaching 400 pounds and an early death.

It was sobering to think that I was no different than that woman who believed God issued dividends for prayers of self-centered desires.

Thoughts of this type have been roiling around in my brain for the past two years, and they have been occurring with much more frequency since I left Bosch. All of this came to a rather disturbing epiphany as I watched "The End of the Affair". The old adage "be careful what you wish for" began to run in a continuous message loop in my head by the end of the movie.

For those of you who have never seen the movie, which starred Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore and Stephen Rhea,here is a fairly accurate plot synopsis:

Ralph Fiennes stars as Maurice Bendrix, a British writer living in 1940's London, who has an affair with Sarah Miles (Julianne Moore), the wife of Maurice's friend, Henry (Stephen Rea). Based on a Graham Greene novel, the film achieves far greater intellectual and emotional depth than this skeletal outline would indicate. Part of the success rests in the fact that both the original author and the adapter, writer/director Neil Jordan, have devised a multi-level scenario that utilizes a number of narrative techniques as the means of revealing crucial information to the audience regarding both the plot and the characters. For instance, the film travels fluidly back and forth in time, spanning the decade of the 1940's, from the initial meeting between Bendrix and Sarah in 1939, through the horrendous bombings of London during World War II to the `present' time of the post-war British world. This allows the authors to reveal the details of the affair slowly, enhanced by the even more striking technique of having the events viewed from the entirely different viewpoints of the two main characters involved. `Rashomon' – like, we first see the affair through the prism of Bendrix's limited perspective, only to discover, after he has confiscated Sarah's diary, that he (and consequently we) have been utterly mistaken as to the personal attributes and moral quality of Sarah all along. Thus, as an added irony, Bendrix discovers that he has been obsessing over a woman he `loves' but, in reality, knows little about.

The authors also enhance the depth of the story through their examination of TWO men struggling with their overwhelming jealousy for the same woman and the complex inter-relationships that are set up as a result. In fact, the chief distinction of this film is the way it manages to lay bare the souls of all three of these fascinating characters, making them complex, enigmatic and three-dimensional human beings with which, in their universality, we can all identify. Bendrix struggles with his raging romantic passions, his obsessive jealousy for the woman he can't possess and his lack of belief in God, the last of which faces its ultimate challenge at the end. Sarah struggles with the lack of passion she finds in the man she has married but cannot love as more than a friend, juxtaposed to the intense love she feels for this man she knows she can never fully have. In addition, she finds herself strangely faithful, if not to the two men in her life, at least to two crucial commitments (one to her wedding vows and one to God) yet unable to fully understand why. Henry struggles with his inadequacies as a lover and the strange possessiveness that nevertheless holds sway over him. Even the minor characters are fascinating. Particularly intriguing is the private investigator who becomes strangely enmeshed in the entire business as both Bendrix and Henry set him out to record Sarah's activities and whereabouts, a man full of compassion for the people whom he is, by the nature of his profession, supposed to view from a position of coldhearted objectivity.

Now, what was it about that movie that had me throwing up my dinner (although my cooking methods are more at fault), teary-eyed and sad for the rest of the night? It's simple. I saw myself in both Ralph Fiennes' and Julianne Moore's characters. Like Maurice Bendrix, I have raged and doubted God when I didn't get my way, and blamed him for things that happened in my life that were of my own doing, not His. How convenient it is to make God the fall guy for my impulsive, obsessive, badly managed life? I don't think I'm being hard on myself, even though I can claim that "I didn't know any better". I've heard in certain 12 step meetings for years that people like me are "too hard on themselves", and that seemed to give me an excuse to go ahead and eat whatever I wanted to ease the pain of my self-flagellation. That line of thinking nearly killed me. Bottom line is I was the one who obsessed on sweets, baked goods and excess quantities of food while at the same time, wanting a close relationship with a man when it has been clear that my number one relationship has been with food. No man has ever stood a chance in getting close to me. I used the excuse that I've had a difficult life to put even morefood in my mouth.

How is God at fault for that? There is no logic in that reasoning. Turning to food instead of God has not been, nor will it ever be, the answer for what has been lacking in my life. But like Maurice Bendrix, I had to nearly die to even wake up to the fact that there might be another way of "doing" life. Maurice was stubbornly determined to see life through his own filtered lens, and make very few deviations from his point of view. His relationship with Sarah, and eventually his own sense of self was shattered as a result. At best, he found a bit of release through acknowledging that perhaps there is a God, but Bendrix felt that He took his Sarah, and therefore his life, away. As a result, Bendrix felt compelled to blame and hate Him, even though the true source of his misery was the assumptions that he made about his life and Sarah.

On the other hand, Sarah was a woman of intense passion, although it was hardly obvious. She was the consummate "good girl", who married a "good man", one who provided stability and comfort during a time where both were threatened by the Germans' bombings of London. She accepted the role of "the supportive wife", as I did when I was much younger. And like me, she felt pieces of herself dying off. She came alive again when she met Bendrix, and her once dismal world became inundated with color and energy. Again, I can relate to that. But she was also aware of God though the modest Catholic teachings of her mother, and sensed that she should be seeking a relationship with Him throughout her life. When Bendrix lived through the bombing of his home through miraculous circumstances, she knew that her sincere prayers had been answered, and she had to make things right with the Lord. She also felt obligated to live up to the bargain she made with God, which was to never see Bendrix again if God allowed him to live.

How many times I have bargained with God to allow to me to do or have something that I passionately desired in my life? Unlike Elizabeth Barrett Browning, I can't count the ways. The bargaining has been endless, and mostly futile. I can't have a thin body while eating pizza and ziti pasta with marinara and mountains of cheese, or chocolate 911 cake with vanilla bean gelato. My metabolism has been thrashed by years of addictive eating and slowed to an absolute crawl, so I am, as the Big Book of AA says, "bodily different from my fellows". I can't eat certain foods and be satisfied with just one small serving like other people. Since that is the reality that I created for myself, I have to accept it and make adjustments. In effect, I've had the mess, so I have to clean it up. I supposed if God created the seemingly endless universes, He could miraculously change my metabolism so that I could eat all that I want and never gain an ounce. But I would also never learn that there are consequences in this world to my actions. That's a hard lesson to learn.

Sarah accepted the consequences of that fervent prayer to God to save her lover's life a lot like I've been accepting recovery--through a lot of grief and restless angst. But when she saw Bendrix again, she realized that she had to take a chance at happiness, even if she would go to hell as a result. I've done that, too. And paid for that decision. A long, dispassionate marriage to her husband seemed like merciless torment, while a short, uncertain time spent with Bendrix seemed the better alternative to walking around in a numb, zombie-like state. She was granted her brief time of happiness, and then she died.

Did God punish her for following her passionate desires for Bendrix and leaving her husband? A traditionally fundamentalist view of the situation would say, yes. She disobeyed God's laws, therefore she was rightfully punished. That position may satisfy some people, but it makes little sense to me. God didn't punish her. She made several decisions that she believed were right at the time, and God stepped aside for her to live out the consequences of those decisions. God didn't create the war that devastated London during World War II. Mankind did that, for many reasons that could be distilled down into pride and ego on BOTH sides. Sarah had nothing to do with that decision, but her life was determined by the circumstances of war. She did the best she could under those terms. But she did have control over her feelings, and she could have been more forthcoming about expressing her discontent to her husband, thereby saving both of them a lot of grief. God had nothing to do her decision to keep silent about her marital unhappiness, nor did He persuade her to have an affair with Bendrix. Eventually, she felt no consolation in living without her lover, and took to walking for hours regardless of the cold, miserable London weather. She caught pneumonia and died. Again, God had nothing to do with that decision to expose her body to the elements, especially during post-war time when medical services were difficult to obtain.

All of this reminded me of the quote from The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh that my Baha'i community discussed at Bosch last week:
O BOND SLAVE OF THE WORLD! Many a dawn hath the breeze of My loving-kindness wafted over thee and found thee upon the bed of heedlessness fast asleep. Bewailing then thy plight it returned whence it came.

Human beings can be very much "slaves" to their passions and desires. It isn't that pleasure should be avoided (The Baha'i Faith forbids asceticism and monasticism) and a life of austere piety should be followed. It's about our attention, our focus on this material world. "All things in moderation", we have been instructed. Yet, we aren't satisfied with a modest portion, in fact, we don't even enjoy it. We want more. Always, always more. Even if more is granted, it's never enough. So we spend our lives pursuing a promise of happiness that is never fulfilled. We can enjoy the good things of life. But we have to realize that the pleasures of this world are transient. They pass with time. The only aspect of life that is everlasting is our spiritual nature, which we discover through communion with God. When we are heedless and don't listen to that soft, loving Voice that will come in and wait for us to turn toward Him for direction, God leaves us to the fates we have created, saddened by what we do to ourselves.

That is what left me teary-eyed and distressed at the end of the movie. I can't afford to write that I hate God, as Maurice Bendrix implied while typing his diary in the first scene. I know better. The difficulties in my life have come about through my stubborn attachment to following my passions. The remedy is to follow God instead my desires.
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