Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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Valor and Sacrifice and Lightning McQueen

July 5, 2024

Steven Garber

They call it Potomac Fever.

For years upon years citizens of all sorts, from America and now all over the world, have come to Washington, DC, wanting to put their shoulders to history, in ways small and large affecting the way things are at home and abroad, “the fever” the metaphorical lure of the city, full of power and glory, even as it is in reality mired in ruin and shame as well.

But after a day in the Capitol, for those who leave for their homes in Virginia, the grand avenues move to the west, passing the Lincoln Memorial, then onto the Memorial Bridge, crossing the Potomac River. On the very edge of the bridge are larger-than-life statues on either side, one named Valor and the other Sacrifice, sentinels for the city they are, reminding those whose days are done to reflect on the work of their lives. Have I this day given myself to the city and the world in ways that are marked by valor and sacrifice? Or have I instead been here for my own small universe of self, my labor this day born of ambition and vanity in service of me and mine?

Having lived in the city for most of my life, I have driven across the Memorial Bridge countless times, day and night, and I always think of the statues, standing so prominently as they are, asking the questions that they do. For years I taught politics on Capitol Hill, giving myself to students who had their own dreams for life and the world, working and working again to nourish in them a longing for more justice, more mercy, more humility.

It was a labor of love, thinking through each year a deepened pedagogy, asking our students to consider political visions and virtues that make for a healthy body politic. They too had to negotiate Potomac Fever, and some understood that better than others. To see oneself with a holy honesty is difficult, perhaps the most difficult challenge of all, prone as we are to self-deception, to lying to ourselves about ourselves— a problem for selves but also for societies.

Drawing on the ancient history of the virtues, we worked very hard to teach our students to see justice as a virtue, a habit of heart that was born of one’s deepest commitments and loves. As C.S. Lewis says for the ages, the virtue of justice is like the one who characteristically hits the tennis ball over the net, raising the racket to its proper pitch, the shoulder moving across the body, sending the ball across the court to land in the just the right place [1]. Because eyes and nerves and muscles have been so trained over time, the person, the racket and the ball have an integrity that makes tennis be “tennis.” Lewis contrasts this with the person who every-once-in-a-while manages to hit the ball over net, arguing that the words character and characteristically are integrally connected, the one forming the other.

For every son of Adam and daughter of Eve, given to our self-deceptions as we are, learning to see and hear characteristically in ways that are real and true and right is as hard as anything that we imagine.

For good reasons, time and again Jesus asked, “Do you have eyes that see?” Knowing that mostly we do not, that mostly we choose to see something other than that which is, wanting and willing to believe lies about God, ourselves and the world, that question threads its way through the teaching of Jesus. Think of the parable we call “the Good Samaritan,” a story for a man who had gotten all A’s but was flunking life, knowing every letter of the Law but missing its meaning. And so Jesus told a tale of a journey to Jericho, asking the question, “Which one had eyes to see a neighbor?” For a thousand reasons of your heart and mine, we don’t, most of the time we don’t. Historically, sociologically, theologically, we justify ourselves, simply saying “I did not see a neighbor,” refusing to see ourselves implicated in the way the world is, and isn’t, the way the world  could be and should be.

If the city of Washington DC has its hidden temptations, ones that make “seeing” oneself as truly responsible for a world beyond self very difficult, the challenge is one for all of us. If the powerbrokers of the capital city of the world stumble over this day after day, resisting the imagery artfully incarnate in the virtues of Valor and Sacrifice, then is it a surprise that this is true for Everyman and Everywoman?

The father of a handful and now the grandfather of more, I have been intrigued by the visionary filmmaking of Pixar, who year after year tells stories that capture the imaginations of the littlest ones among us. Think about their films. “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Monster’s Inc,” “Finding Nemo,” “Cars,” ‘Ratatouille,” “Up,” “Inside Out,” “Soul,” and more and more. They are not all wonders, but some are, honestly engaging the hearts and minds of every child you know.

For example, what is it about “Cars” that makes it the story that a five-year-old wants to see, and see, and see? They not only want to watch the movie, but to wear the underpants required! But simply said, it’s about a race car, a left-behind town in the American Southwest called Radiator Springs, and a grand finale race of the year… nothing obviously about the lives and worlds of the boys and girls who come to love Mater, and even Lightning McQueen. What is it about then? Why does the story draw us in?

I have long been a student of Walker Percy, the novelist and essayist, who once made an intriguing argument that “bad books lie, they lie most of all about the human condition.” Taking the thesis into the universes next door to all of us, he wondered aloud about stories born of Buddhism, of Marxism, of behaviorism, of Freudianism and more, with succinct insight showing why each of these worldviews falls short in offering what is required for a good book, a story we want to hear. I have taken that argument all over the world, even to places like the Beijing Film Academy, setting before the professors and students there that “bad films lie, most of all about the human condition.” When we lie about who we are, about why we are, and about what our lives then mean, our stories fall short. They may sell, but our hearts become less-than, and our world becomes less-than.

What is at the heart of “Cars” is a vision of human life under the sun born of valor and sacrifice, with playful story-telling drawing everyone of us into the slowly-by-slowly transformation of Lightning McQueen, from a car consumed with himself to a car who begins to see that his own truest self is only found in giving himself away for others— with valor resisting the fame that could be his, sacrificing his own great win so that someone else will not lose. The little ones that I love see that, in some honest way they see that, and long to see the story told again.

Virtues are given to teach us the way we are, at our best, because they point us to our deepest selves, our truest selves.

The word “vir” is rooted in the Latin for “man,” in what it is to be a true human being, and therefore the virtues form our hearts around what is most honestly us, image-bearers of God that we are. When we act against ourselves, choosing self over everything else, we become less than we are meant to be; we are diminished as human beings, even becoming less-than-human. We do not flourish, and our societies do not flourish.

Sentinels for the city? Yes, they still are, for all with eyes to see, inviting us to remember to remember that valor and sacrifice, the courage to choose what is real and true right for God’s sake and history’s sake, is the only way to a good life and a good society. When we settle for less, everyone and everything suffers. But if we are willing to learn, if in fact we long to learn, and the glory of the Memorial Bridge seems too far away from our ordinary lives in our ordinary places, then maybe it is Lightning McQueen and Radiator Springs that can be our teachers, reminding us of what matters most wherever we are on the face of the earth.

[1] “The Cardinal Virtues” in “Mere Christianity,” pp. 62-63, 1963 (First Edition).

Much gratitude to Jim Witkowski on Unsplash for use of the featured image.


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