An Apology to a Polish Refugee

Eight years have passed and I still sometimes wake up in a cold sweat. Another dream.

It’s always the same nightmare. Someone mentions to me that they’re planning to attend my college piano recital that night, and terror strikes. Somehow I’ve completely forgotten to prepare. I hadn’t practiced a single piece of music. Sightreading frantically, I attempt to learn and memorize an hour’s worth of music in one afternoon. Maybe I’ll be able to fake my way through this. Three hours til showtime. Plenty of time to learn an entire Beethoven sonata, right?

For months leading up to my recital, this dream haunted me. Even to this day, I’ll occasionally wake up in a panic thinking my recital is today. Ironically, for all the PTSD induced dreaming, I can barely play any of the repertoire from that recital anymore. It’s not that I don’t love playing the piano, but rather I had a hard time continuing to put the time in to learn difficult repertoire if there wasn’t a “use” for it — be that a grade, a performance, or a degree.

“I’d like to play the bagpipes!” my 3rd grade self declared to my mom.

“Pick something quieter,” was her response.

Seeing how every other instrument known to man would fit that bill, I chose piano. I don’t remember why I picked that instrument. Third graders aren’t necessarily known for rational decision making. For all I know, I probably had seen Little Richard on Sesame Street right before deciding the trajectory of my entire life. Whatever my reasoning, I definitely enjoyed playing piano all through elementary.

And then I got to middle school.

Upon entering 6th grade, every one of my classmates suddenly became good at basketball. Everyone except me. Whether that was genetics, or the fact that my parents wouldn’t buy me a pair of Reebok Pump sneakers, I’ll never know. For the first time in my life, I became conscientious, and cared, that I didn’t fit in. It didn’t help that the local music store I frequented was literally named “Loser’s Music.” (It was pronounced low-sers.) I quickly realized I would either have to become an athlete in a montage-esque amount of time, or really get serious about piano. I decided to take my talents, and my pumpless sneakers, to the piano.

I never stopped enjoying piano, but my attitude towards it definitely changed. Subconsciously, I began a subtle shift in why I played piano. Instead of enjoying music for music’s sake, I began enjoying music for Steve’s sake. My classmates were making a name for themselves using basketball, I would make a name for myself using music. A source of inspiration now became a source of identity. And the thing I had loved and admired became something I used and exploited.

Lenny, the usually gentle giant from Of Mice and Men would often scoop up mice he found to keep as pets while working in the field. He intended only to admire them, but he couldn’t control himself. His appreciation quickly turned into abuse. He’d pet them for a little while, but petting quickly turned into smothering. Lenny would literally strangle the life out of the things that were meant to bring him joy.

If we’re not careful, we too discover that enjoyment can all too easily shift to exploitation. No longer are we enjoying a beautiful thing for it’s own beauty, we exploit it because it makes us more “beautiful.”

When I would sit down at the piano as a music major, I felt the pull. Play this Chopin piece well, and your teachers and peers will respect you more. Maybe my classmates in middle school felt a similar bent. Make this last shot, and you’ll experience real glory. The enjoyment of basketball turned into the enjoyment of the validation it brings. For the filmmaker, a desire for popularity changes his focus toward what stories would most likely go viral instead of what stories need to be told. For every doctor using their abilities to increase others’ quality of life, there’s another doctor using those same abilities to gain status and money.

You see, this isn’t just a phase adolescents wrestle through. Adults, having much more practice, learn to manipulate not just art, career, and calling, but people as well.

In the gritty and all-too-realistic Academy Award winning film, Birdman, we meet Riggan (Michael Keaton), a former actor whose claim to fame was a few superhero blockbusters years ago. He was successful, but still needs to prove himself. Critical praise for his directorial debut on Broadway should do the trick. People will recognize him for the legitimate talent he is.

His quest for affirmation from the people whose opinion really matters causes him to alienate and ignore those who so desperately crave his affirmation— namely, his girlfriend and his daughter.

Riggan: “This is my chance to finally do some work that actually means something.”

Riggan’s Daughter: “That means something to who? You had a career, dad, before the third comic book movie, before people started to forget who was inside that bird costume. You are doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is going to be where they have their cake and coffee when it’s over. Nobody gives
a **** but you! And let’s face it, dad, you are not doing this for the sake of art. You are doing this because you want to feel relevant again…You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter and, you know what, you’re right. You don’t! It’s not important, okay? You’re not important! Get used to it.”

Riggan not only exploited art for his own gain, he did the same to his fellow artists. They were mere pawns to manipulate. But the one person he couldn’t manipulate was Tabitha, the theater critic for The New York Times, whose review could make or break Riggan.

Tabitha: I’m gonna destroy your play.

Riggan: But you didn’t even see it.

Tabitha: That’s true; I haven’t read a word of it or even seen the preview. But after the opening tomorrow I’m gonna turn in the worst review anyone has ever read and I’m gonna close your play. Would you like to know why? Because I hate you and everyone you represent. Entitled, selfish, spoiled children. Blissfully untrained, unversed and unprepared to even attempt real art. Handing each other awards for cartoons and pornography. Measuring your worth in weekends? Well this is the theater and you don’t get to come in here and pretend you can write, direct and act in your own propaganda piece without coming through me first. So break a leg.

Tabitha exploits the exploiter. She’s the most powerful person in the whole movie, but it comes at great cost. She’s a sorry sort — she comes to the play alone, she sits alone, she heads to the bar after the play alone, and she drinks alone. And it’s pretty clear she doesn’t even enjoy theater, the very thing she’s given her life to.

Birdman shows an extreme of what happens when we treat people as commodities instead of those created in God’s image. We see obvious examples in pornography and human trafficking. But we often miss its seedling forms. It might be the colleague who only wants to connect if it would benefit his career. Or perhaps it’s the facebook friend who messages you wanting to “catch up” only to solicit you to enroll in the latest pyramid scheme that’s definitely not a pyramid scheme. [Spoiler alert: it’s definitely a pyramid scheme.]

Art, music, our fellow human beings — even Jesus was a victim of such appropriation.

“It’s time to go to Jerusalem where I’ll be handed over to the chief priests,” says Jesus in Mark 10. “They’re going to beat me, humiliate me, and kill me, and then I’ll rise again.”

Cue what not to say: “We want you to do for us whatever we ask,” said James and John. “Let us sit at your right hand in glory.” The two disciples can only imagine how they’ll gain from his life; they don’t even acknowledge the tremendous act of suffering and self-sacrifice Jesus would soon endure. For them, he was a means to an end.

The tradition continues even today. We’ve basically turned the idea of prayer into the Judeo-Christian equivalent of rubbing a genie lamp. “Jesus, here’s everything I want from you in this life. Oh, and you’re welcome to come along for the ride.” We treat him as a divine rabbit’s foot. Such a stark contrast from the psalm David penned: “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple” (Psalm 27:4). If you could ask God for one thing, what would it be? Admit it — you’d ask for a pair of Reebok pumps too!

If only James and John heeded what Jesus said earlier in Mark 10. Parents were bringing their children to see Jesus, and the disciples assumed he didn’t want to be bothered. But Jesus interjected, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

How do we break our tendency to exploit? Become like a child. Not childish (like James and John), but childlike. Children haven’t yet learned how to manipulate, they aren’t concerned with self-image and self-preservation. But they know how to be awed. They know how to be delighted.

When you watch fireworks you’ll see what I mean. Look around at the children. They sit, mouth open, eyes wide, watching in awe, absolutely enthralled. Then look at anyone old enough to pay a cell phone bill. They’re all intent on capturing the show on a puny little screen, impervious to being delighted for fear of missing the perfect shot. (Be honest, has anyone ever seen a tiny video of fireworks posted on facebook and thought “I have to watch this! All seven minutes! I’m sure it’ll be just as amazing as actually being there.”) If I find myself in awe of God I’ll be less likely to assume he’s there simply to do my bidding.

Children also know how to trust. By default they assume others always have their best interest in mind. As adults, we assume the opposite. Isn’t that ultimately why we manipulate? To gain back a sense of control? We’ve grown accustomed to parrying the ulterior motives of others to the point where we experience the same knee-jerk reaction to God.

The cross tells otherwise. An all-powerful God wouldn’t need the cross if he simply wanted to manipulate us into loyal subjects. He speaks and all creation obeys, he could demand the same from us. But as C.S. Lewis writes, “He cannot ravish. He can only woo.” He woos us by the cross. He permitted those who hated him to break him, so that we could trust the One who loves us to shape us.

That shaping is what the Scriptures call sanctification. It’s different from manipulation. Manipulation is forced change void of love, sanctification is authentic change fueled by love.

The way we cease being manipulators isn’t by God manipulating us in return; that would just further the cycle. We change by willingly submitting ourselves to him, trusting that he has our best interest in mind (the Scriptural theme of repent and believe).

When we actually believe that God has our best interest in mind, we won’t need to exploit others to get ahead. What if we were able to relate not on the basis of someone’s status, or what’s to gain from the relationship, or whether or not it seems like a waste of time? It would be refreshing. It would be, well, childlike. You can be a complete loser (pronounced loo-ser) in society’s eyes and a child will still give you the benefit of the doubt.

When we actually believe that God has our best interest in mind, we won’t need to use our abilities to prove ourselves. We’ll be free to enjoy and explore once again. For me, it’s being awed by how the tragedy-filled life of a Polish refugee named Frederic Chopin could produce beauty out of despair. For Glenn Gould, it was revisiting his interpretation of The Goldberg Variations recorded as an up and coming star in his prime now as a seasoned musician in his twilight. [Sorry for the classical music analogies, here’s a sports analogy.] For Dennis Rodman, it’s stepping off the court and somehow becoming our unofficial ambassador to North Korea.

Your calling and abilities can either invigorate you or crush you as seen in Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, the Olympic sprinters portrayed in the movie Chariots of Fire. Abrahams, unable to enjoy the sport anymore remarked before a race, “[I have] ten lonely seconds to justify my existence. But will I?” Liddell’s outlook was different, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Raymond Carver, Late Fragment
Displayed during the opening credits of Birdman



4th Grade Math & Literacy Teacher: NYC Public Schools | Curious about how faith, social justice, education, and the arts all combine.

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