I recently watched the Academy-Award nominated movie “Whiplash”, written by Damien Chazelle, and immediately after its’ ending I had a synthesis of thoughts which have been brewing in my mind for some time. They all center around our ideas of “success”, or “accomplishments”. I warn anyone reading, I spoil the entire movie in what follows, so if you want to watch the film, don’t read on.
The plot of “Whiplash” centers around an aspiring young drummer, “Andrew”, who is pushed to his physical and psychological limits by an obsessive and abusive instructor, “Fletcher”, whose dream it is to give the world the next great Jazz musician. Fletcher literally slaps, throws chairs, and screams at Andrew as his instructor. After Andrew is kicked out of the school, he gives up drums, and anonymously testifies against Fletcher’s abusive methods. Months later, he finds Fletcher playing at a Jazz club and the final scene of the film has Andrew returning to play with Fletcher at a Jazz competition, where he unleashes a spectacular display of his abilities (ironically fulfilling Fletcher’s obsessive dream).
During the film Andrew loses touch with reality, he becomes prideful, himself obsessive, and loses the friendship of a young woman he is interested in. Yet, despite this, and despite Fletcher’s abusive tactics, something in me was exhilarated at seeing that final scene. I wanted to cheer Andrew on, despite the remaining disdain for Fletcher, and this is where the realizations hit.
A part of me felt motivated, intense, desiring to do something more with my life. In a twisted way, Fletcher & Andrew’s relationship tapped into a part of me which desires to be pushed, disciplined, formed into the best possible person I can be. Seeing Andrew accomplish his goal, in a defiant display, left me wanting to draw up my list of life-goals, the plan of action, and to execute. Then, I remembered something Andrew said in the middle of the movie:
I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was. (source)
When the words come out of Andrew’s mouth, we see they are twisted in some way. Yet, out entire society exalts people who live this way. What matters is that people talk about you, not whether you loved well, or had integriy, or what your family thought of you. What matters is if you invent a technological innovation to “benefit humanity”, not if you were faithful to your wife. So far as Jesus is concerned however, it is worthless to gain the world but lose your soul (Mark 8:34-37). Worthless.
An additional cultural observation is that what prompts Andrew to testify against Fletcher is that a prior student of his had committed suicide, and his testimony was meant to prevent Fletcher from ever doing that again. The irony of this being in a film is that the list of famous actors committing suicide is very long, and while there is no literal instructor yelling at these actors to obsess and lose themselves in their career, it seems as though the reality is uglier: we are “Fletcher”. The multi-billion dollar industry only exists on our indulgences, and the list of casualties to our raving desire to idolize will most likely see no end. The additional irony of my writing this while after watching the film is not lost on me, this is a thought which I only had while writing the post.
So, when I finished the movie, and had a rush of narcissistic motivation to “become something”, I’m incredibly grateful that God slowed down my heartbeat, and the Holy Spirit reminded me of the words of our Lord “the last will be first, and the first last” (Mt. 20:16). I’m not going to live to be remembered, I’m going to live for Jesus, become one with him in his suffering, to love other more than I love myself, to accept insult without retaliating, to speak out against injustice, that by some means I may attain the resurrection of the dead. Christians are not called to be the best at everything we do, rather, we are called to be like Jesus. That this will result in excellence may be, but maybe not. That it will lead us into the Kingdom of God however, is unquestionable. “they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Rev. 12:11).