Tag Archives: pride

A Temple of the Holy Ghost

Vienna Wagner

Vienna Wagner
Notre Dame Vision Mentor-in-Faith (2014)
University of Notre Dame, Class of 2015

I was born a perfectionist.  As an ambitious older sibling, I was always eager to prove myself.  I got straight A’s, played sports, sung in musicals, and competed on the academic team.  I planned to attend an Ivy League college, go to medical school, and make more money than my parents.  Success was my main desire.

I was baptized in the Mennonite Church and believed that I was in complete control of my faith and my life.  I believed that I was strong, but the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.  Instead of depending upon God, I became like the foolish man in the Gospel of Matthew who built his house on sand.

My control came crumbling down during my senior year of high school.  When I returned from my summer vacation, the twin brother of my best friend, who was my high school boyfriend, had transformed into an angry stranger.  Our relationship became physically and emotionally abusive.  He began to flirt with my friends and mocked me for my looks, my grades in school, and my Christian faith.

I could not tell my best friend how hurtful her brother had become, and, instead of turning to God and his love, I retreated into silence.  I ate lunch alone and hardened my heart.  I began to believe that I was worthless, not worthy of God’s grace.  I refused to confide in my friends and family and continued with the motions of my put together, perfectionist’s life.  I focused even more on college applications and scholarship competitions.  I continued to attend church but refused to allow the Word of God to comfort me.  I blamed myself for what had happened and sometimes blamed God.

I was ashamed of myself for staying with my high school boyfriend for as long as I did.  My body became a thing that was ugly to me, something apart from myself.  I did not view my body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.  Rather, my body became the one thing that I could completely control.  Although I was already slightly underweight, I scalebegan to skip meals and exercise at every possible opportunity.  Anorexia became my idol.

As I lost the pounds, my friends complimented me on my appearance, but their compliments only fed my eating disorder and my disordered pride.  As I counted calories obsessively and developed rules for what I could and could not eat, I could not escape feeling disgusted with myself.  No matter how many pounds I shed, I believed that I would never be good enough to be authentically loved, to merit God’s grace.  I lived like a prisoner within my own body.  My life was forcibly focused on school, not eating, college applications, not eating, and avoiding my ex-boyfriend.

Without God, I would have not survived.  Since my baptism, I had taken communion at my local church but had never seriously thought through what it means to take the Eucharist and accept the body and blood of Christ.  As my pastor said Christ’s words of institution, “Take and eat; this is my body,” I began to reflect on the importance of the Incarnation, of God having a body that could suffer like mine.  Through Christ’s death and resurrection his human body was glorified.  Not just Christ’s spirit, but also his human body was freed from death.

As I took the host from my pastor’s outstretched hands and placed it on my tongue, I began to adopt a new definition of beauty.  I realized that my body is a temple where the spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells.  That Holy Spirit also brings life to my mortal body.  I realized that if my body is a holy temple and an inseparable part of myself, then I needed to take care of it.  In light of God’s love I am beautiful.  I am God’s beloved creation that he molded into his likeness.

Incarnation

I decided to stop counting calories and gave up my control over how many ounces I weighed.  I realized that I had allowed what had happened to me to harden my heart and turn it inward upon itself.  I had starved my heart and locked it away.  I made it impenetrable to God’s salvific love.

I told my family and my friends the truth about my high school boyfriend and my eating disorder.  I have learned to not blame God for my suffering, but to see Christ suffering beside me.  I have begun to forgive myself and am learning to rest in God’s grace and steadfast love.

In light of the Eucharist even my physical act of eating was transformed into a sacrament and a participation in the life of Christ.  My body was no longer disgusting to me, and I no longer felt separated from that part of myself.  Although I do not believe that God wills such suffering upon his children, I believe that he has used my pain to teach me how to authentically love.  I have learned to view all of creation, including myself, as an undeserved gift.  There is freedom in living in the love of God’s grace, a grace that I can never earn or deserve.   God cares for me like he cares for the rest of his creation.  I can trust in God, and, with God as my strength, I don’t need to worry about my weight or my reputation.  Only Christ could heal my brokenness.

The Prayer of Another

IMG_0798Andy Miles
Notre Dame Vision Mentor-in-Faith (2015)
University of Notre Dame, Class of 2017

Growing up as an ultra-early riser, I would sometimes awake just as the sun was coming up to catch the early hours of Sports Center for no reason other than to be able to say I woke up before my younger brother – 10 year olds can be competitive about the strangest of things.

But, I was never really first up.  My mother always beat me.

No matter how early I seemed to rosary 2rise, there was my mother, in the den off to the corner, reading from a tattered book, shuffling rosary beads through her fingers: praying.

It’s a tradition she continues to this day.  She wakes up early and prays.  And for so long I didn’t get it.  I would say my prayers, but only to clock in my time, do my duty, my penance.  I’d rattle off a few Hail Mary’s, shuffle in a few Our Father’s, and cap it off with a rushed Glory Be.  What was there in prayer that was so intriguing for my mother, so urgent and important that she would wake up early and pray?

As I got older and delved into my studies more, reading the works of the great theologians, prayer time became thinking time; I would spend my time reasoning through theological issues, trying to come to conclusions, trying to fix my problems with clean explanations.

Sometimes I would marvel at myself.  Here I was exploring the “big questions,” while I remembered the naïve prayers of my younger sister long ago as she went to bed, praying about petty things that happened to her during the day.  I thought there was no way God could be remotely interested in her minuscule problems at school, her spelling quiz the next day.  The God who created the vast space of the universe had time for that?  Certainly not, I thought.

But how wrong I was.

During my second year in college, things became much less simple.  All those problems I had always chalked up as pettiness, problems of no concern to a great all-powerful God?  They were crushing me.  A break-up.  Friends that seemed to have little concern for my problems.  Trouble focusing in class.  Trouble focusing outside of class.  Gossip.  Feeling alone.  I never spoke of these problems aloud.  I certainly never spoke of them in prayer.

I never really spoke to my mother about these things either.  I was never the kind of person who shared things.  But, after going home for a weekend, it was clear she knew something was not right.

So the next week she sent me a text.  All she said was that she wanted me to know I was in her prayers.  That each morning she gets up and prays not some strange impersonal prayer, but a prayer for me, a prayer for each one of her children.  I told her thanks and tried to move on, tried not to be affected.

alarm clockBut something about that image, about waking up to a piercing alarm, about waking up in the cold of winter long before the sun rose, about walking out into the den to pray, not for some abstraction, not to figure something out, but for me?  That haunted me.

A few nights later I broke down.  I woke up in the middle of the night and could not fall back asleep.  All that petty gossip, all those troubled friendships, they were not petty at all.  I muttered in my head all those distressing trivialities that I once thought God could care less about.

I released it all then.  Part of me appreciated the humor of it all.  The same kid who once chuckled as his younger sister muttered to God her worries about who to sit by at lunch the next day sat there distraught about a break-up and college drama.  Part of me was intent to go back to bed that night angry.  I could lie there and bring this all before God and it wasn’t going to change a thing.  It wasn’t going to be fixed.  But, as I dozed off a seed of a thought hit me that would grow into greater understanding over the coming days:  maybe I was finally learning how to pray.

There was not some grand moment of clarity, no sweeping movement of peace.  But after releasing all my concerns, I had the strangest desire to pray for someone else.  Maybe I was finally discovering why my mother could wake up so early all those years.  For the strangest reason, in that moment, the only thing I could think to do was to pray for someone else.

Over the coming days I started to think about how often I had told others I would pray for them.  I used it as a meaningless phrase to convey that they were in my mind.  But had I ever really prayed for them?  Really prayed?  The kind of prayer where you feel such care and urgency that you would wake up early like my mother has all these years?

And so a few days later, I prayed for her, my moMary mother of Godther.  I prayed that above all she could know, despite how little I ever told her, how important she was to me, how she was the model for my faith.  I prayed that for one day I could bear some of her anxieties and worries, for I understood how long she had been asking to bear mine.

I count these days as one prayer in my mind—the first real prayer I might have ever prayed.

It began in bringing forth all my petty problems to God, for there are no petty problems for him.  It began in bringing those to the Cross and not trying to fix them, not trying to figure something out.  Simply allowing them to be.  Simply being in the presence of my God.

It continued as I felt love for someone other than me.  To pray for the person I always thought I was going to pray for but never really had.  This was prayer: an experience of nearness with God that is far from alone, an experience of deep communion and love.  By giving something of myself, my deepest concerns, I began to desire to be something for someone else.  I desired to pray.

God is nearer to us than we could ever imagine, so deeply attuned to the small things, our relationships with one another, and the little pieces of our life.  Was that text from my mother not an answer to the prayer I was too proud to pray?  Though I had not prayed with that level of concern and vulnerability before, the seeds had been there, a prayer was nearly there, for that text struck such a chord in my heart and touched so many worries that I had longed to express.

The response to my prayer, the answer to my problem, was the prayer of another, a sign that I was and am loved.  All those days I was too proud to come before my God with my problems?  Well, God had placed someone in my life to pray that prayer for me.

My problems were significant to my mother, and they were significant to my God.  Absolutely nothing is unimportant to him.  He never tires of our prayers.

And the Nominees Are… The Wolf of Wall Street

Editors’ Note:
In anticipation of the 86th Academy Awards on March 2, we present
a series 
exploring the philosophical and theological elements 
in each
of the nine films nominated for Best Picture. (Caveat: spoilers ahead.)

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

 

Also in this series:
Gravity                                            
Captain Phillips
Her
American Hustle
Nebraska
Dallas Buyers Club
Philomena
12 Years a Slave

 

The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Director nominee Martin Scorsese has built his career creating films that explore the extremities of human existence. In films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, and The Departed, he presents audiences with an up-close and personal look at the seedy underbelly of human existence, and it’s often anyone’s guess as to whether or not his characters will discover their chance for redemption, let alone whether or not they will ultimately take that chance. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese adds another such film to his list of credits. Clocking in at three hours, this film presents an orgiastic, Bacchanalian portrait of life on Wall Street in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Yet in watching this film, it was my own subtle transformation that disturbed me more than any of the drug-addled debauchery, the amoral exploitation of others for financial gain or sexual pleasure, or the ceaseless stream of obscenities (though I did find each of these particular elements disturbing in varying degrees). Wolf 3Upon reflection, I have come to see my own transformation as a microcosm for that which takes place in the characters throughout the unfolding of the story. Simply put, the longer I stared into the banality of evil, the less appalled I was by it; the less appalled I was by it, the less I even noticed that it was there at all. I found that, by the film’s conclusion, I had been somewhat desensitized in one particular arena more so than others, and this arena provides the point of departure for a meditation on the nature of evil.

To say that profanity abounds throughout this film would be putting it much more delicately than any line of dialogue you’d ever hear one of the film’s characters utter. The f-word alone is used 506 times (yes, someone counted), setting the record for a U.S. feature film. This tally doesn’t include any other four-letter words, nor does it include any derogatory slurs that would never be acceptable in civilized conversation. Full disclosure: as a film and television connoisseur, I have heard my fair share of profanity, and even used it on occasion, so this salty language was nothing new to my ears. For me, this familiarity made profanity the least of all the evils present throughout this film, and ultimately paved the way for my desensitization to it. Despite this, there remained something in its pervasiveness and its twisted diversity that was, in a word, shocking. The film more than earned its R-rating within the first 5 minutes. For those familiar with other Scorsese films, his pervasive use of profanity is nothing new; however, The Wolf of Wall Street is different in its incorporation of such language. Profanity becomes an emblem of the excess pursued and celebrated by the characters in the film, and of their utter disregard for the wellbeing of others. Wolf 5Jordan Belfort (Best Actor nominee Leonardo DiCaprio) is initially shocked by the fact that Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), his first boss and mentor, uses language littered with cursing, and I found myself shocked along with him. But as with any vice, prolonged exposure results in reduced sensitivity, and soon Belfort the student became Belfort the master. In this observation lies the kernel of my own subtle transformation: after three solid hours of hearing nothing but a solid stream of obscenities, I discovered to my surprise that I hardly noticed their presence in the dialogue anymore. I had become desensitized to the profanity that, despite my acquaintance with such language from previous films, had shocked my ears only three hours before. Again, as with any vice, prolonged exposure results in reduced sensitivity, until the presence of evil is not only no longer noticed, but no longer even recognized as evil.

Wolf 2This theme of desensitization holds true for the other vices presented in the film: the characters increase their drug usage to the point of nearly overdosing in order to get the same high they had before; they indulge in increasingly depraved sexual activity to the point of practically assaulting innocent women. Most significantly, they pursue money with all the ferocity of wolves, and as their appetites for wealth grow, so too does their heedlessness of the impact their insatiable greed has on their clients, their families, their friends and colleagues, and even the stock market itself. Appetite becomes passion becomes vice, and as the characters’ depravity grows, their awareness of their depravity diminishes in inverse proportion until they have become completely blinded to it.

In tandem with the theme of desensitization runs the theme that vice begets more vice; evil begets more evil. Two significant moments, each reprised later in the film, demonstrate this clearly. First is the aforementioned interaction between Belfort and his first boss, when Belfort was just starting out as a broker. Over lunch, Hanna scandalizes Belfort by describing the drug use and sexual activity he and other brokers endorse in order to perform at the highest professional level. Belfort seems unsure of these practices, but when Hanna begins beating his chest in rhythm and singing a guttural chant later referred to as the “Money Chant”, Belfort is drawn in (see the end of the trailer above for this moment). By joining Hanna in the chest-beating and the chanting, Belfort begins his official indoctrination into the practices espoused by his mentor, and the circle of evil grows wider. Later, the significance of this moment is brought to light when Belfort and hundreds of his employees are standing in the office, pounding their chests and singing the Money Chant at the top of their lungs. Wolf 1They, too, have been initiated into the doctrine originally preached by Hanna, and drawn into the cycle of evil by the allure of wealth and excess.

The second moment that demonstrates this vicious cycle first takes place when Belfort has gathered his friends with the intention of making them his first salesmen at his fledgling brokerage firm. As they sit around the table, Belfort hands a pen to his friend Brad (Jon Bernthal) and instructs him, “Sell me this pen.” Brad, in turn, tells Belfort to write something on a napkin, to which Belfort replies, “I can’t—I don’t have a pen”, thus demonstrating how to create a false demand when making a sale, and thus beginning the education of his friends into the Machiavellian form of manipulative salesmanship that will enable them to rake in the money by selling unprofitable penny stocks to anonymous and unsuspecting clients. At the film’s conclusion, after having served time in federal prison for securities fraud and money laundering, we see Belfort in Auckland, New Zealand, hosting a seminar that promises to make participants better salespeople. He walks up to a man in the front row, takes a pen from his pocket, and hands it to him, saying, “Sell me this pen.” Dissatisfied with the man’s answer, he moves on to the next person, and the next, and the next, and as the camera pans back, we see an auditorium full of eager would-be millionaires, ready to follow Belfort as faithful disciples so that they, too, can amass an exorbitant amount of wealth for themselves. And the cycle continues.

Wolf 4In the end, it’s not the drug use or the debauchery or even the greed that raise the greatest concerns in The Wolf of Wall Street, although these are certainly causes for concern. Rather, it is the way in which the film convicts us of our own propensities to evil. We see in Jordan Belfort the result of desensitization to and perpetration of the cycle of evil, yet we also realize that we, too, participate in both of these realities, albeit to (hopefully) much lesser degrees. In this way, the film serves as a kind of mirror, such that our tendencies toward excess and vice are revealed to us by our assessment of their presence in others. In gaging our own reactions to the depictions of such evils, we are challenged to ask ourselves why (or if) we are disturbed by them, so that we can then ascertain our own relationship to them. Ultimately, The Wolf of Wall Street has the potential to teach us more about the shadow sides of ourselves than of the characters it portrays, and perhaps this is why it has disturbed so many viewers.

Badly Broken: A Spoiler-Free Analysis of “Breaking Bad” as a Deeply Human Drama

Leonard DeLorenzoLeonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Vision and Student Engagement

Contact Author

When it comes to AMC’s mega-hit “Breaking Bad,” there are really three types of people.  The first are those who have just crossed the final threshold of suspense in the series finale, whether they arrived there via the steady and loyal consumption of five years of broadcast or, like myself, via the gorging that is binge watching.  The second are those who are still wandering somewhere in the middle of the show’s vast desert, wondering as they wander how much worse the stress can actually get (and yes, it keeps getting worse).  The third are those who haven’t watched and don’t really know (or care) what all the fuss is about.  This analysis—written just on the other side of the show’s conclusion—is written for all three audiences.  For the first, I am attempting to offer some insight about what we just witnessed.  For the second, I am attempting to provide some possibilities for deeper viewing.  And for the last, I am giving you either a final excuse to definitively pass on the show or some incentive to watch it, depending upon your preference.  For the second and third types, I assure you that this article will not spoil your future viewing even though IBreakingBad obviously have to talk about the show to analyze it.

“Breaking Bad” is simultaneously a simple and complex drama.  The simplicity of the show is held in the interconnected multiplicity of storylines within one overarching story, which, for the most part, generates the drama of the narrative organically (as opposed to other shows which are constantly having to introduce new elements to restart otherwise stalled stories).  The complexity of “Breaking Bad” comes from the depth of its exploration of the human psyche, the moral fabric of communities, and the relationships that bind people together, for better or worse.  This multi-layered, unified drama opens up in three major, interlocking themes, which will guide our analysis: pride, responsibility, and the social nature of humanity.

Pride

If nothing else, “Breaking Bad” is a sustained meditation on pride as the will to reorder reality according to one’s own desire.  Behind all its many disguises, this desire seeks self-perpetuation and self-aggrandizement.  The harbinger of this desire is the “lie,” for what is lying but the dismissal of true reality by the willful manipulation of others through a false narrative.  While there are almost always mitigating factors behind the act of lying, at its core lying allows one of the participants of a human drama to become that drama’s author in some way, thereby assigning other participants new roles with a new script.  For those who have watched even a few episodes of “Breaking Bad,” the pathology of lying is well known as a pervasive element in the story.

SevenDeadlySins

Since the third-to-last episode of the series is likely the story’s climax, it comes as no surprise that the main theme of pride and the correlative action of lying are both restated and definitively interpreted.  The opening scene of the episode finds Walter and Jesse—the drama’s primary and secondary characters, respectively—back at the beginning of their entrepreneurial days as aspiring methamphetamine producers.  The scene is not exactly one that appeared in a previous episode, but nevertheless fits perfectly within the narrative sequence of the show’s early days.  Since a number of storylines will come to a head in this episode, the writers’ used this opening sequence to remind the viewers what is holding this all together.  Waiting for a beaker of boiling chemicals to reach its own climax, Walter gives his former failing student (Jesse) a quick lesson on exothermic reactions: chemical processes that give off heat and whose effects are move in an outward trajectory.  At the close of the scene, Walter steps away to call his wife and offer the first direct lie of the entire story.  Except for the mobile meth lab just over his shoulder, the lie seems rather ordinary as he basically says, “Honey, I’m going to be late tonight because something came up at work.”  Thus begins the chain reaction.

By the fifth season, viewers may have forgotten just how bad Walter was at lying in the early days.  Before that first lie, we see him rehearsing his story; even more important, he justified it to himself based upon his particular circumstances.  There would always be justifications and before long others would justify their own complicity in his corruption, whether knowingly or unknowingly.  Seen from the distance of five seasons (or less than two years within the show’s own timeline), that first lie now reveals itself as an initial, awkward move to recast events according to a desire to manipulate reality.  As his pride grew and hardened, Walter’s lies became more “natural” and more engrained.  Paradoxically, the more Walter reworks his reality, the stronger the force of destiny surrounding him becomes.  With each passing episode in each passing season, the air of inevitability grows ever stronger.  The more power Walter accrues through the willful LastJudgmentwarping of his reality, the less free he actually is to control his reality and wield events to fit his desire.  More and more, the destiny he constructed controls him.

The title of this climactic episode also discloses something essential about the show’s meta-theme.  The writers’ borrowed its name from the Percy Shelley poem, “Ozymandias.”  The final third of the poem reads as follows:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far way.

With the almost obsessive attention given to Walter White through more than 60 episodes of “Breaking Bad,” it is easy and perhaps fitting to think of Walter as this “King of Kings.”  If, however, we consider how Walter’s own freedom has slowly evaporated into the encircling gloom of destiny as the heat of his pride steadily increases, we might ponder more deeply who inscribed these words on the remnant sculpture Shelley depicts in this sonnet.  With the passage of time, the reaction that started with a simple lie and a heart of mixed motives has now brought about a reality that seems inevitable in retrospect.  The one who tried to sculpt a reality for himself is now rendered an artifact of that very reality.  The King who outlasts all kings is that hardened destiny born of pride.

If this destiny is the child of pride, then Walter nourished this impersonal despot from infancy.  He fed it the envy he reaped from gazing upon the accomplishments of others.  He offered it outrage from an ongoing sense of being cheated.  He suckled it with fury for his under-appreciated genius.  As his pride grew from a singular lie to a pattern of lying to an unending urge for control, he finally glimpsed what his desire had become: a compulsion for empire—that is, for the unbridled aggrandizement of himself as undisputed sovereign of his realm.Empire

Responsibility

With a character as central to a story as Walter White, it is tempting to place the genesis of the drama in his own psyche.  Part of the brilliance of “Breaking Bad” is that it does not easily allow for this contraction.  What the viewers see through both the sequence of events and the ultimate interconnectedness of these events is that even a colossally dominant figure like Walter is not a monadic entity.  He is not just himself.  The choices he and others make throughout the course of the drama are constitutive of Walter’s total embodiment.  Though the events of this particular show take place in a highly charged crucible of time and space, there is also a claim here about universal human personhood: we are responsible for our choices just as we make manifest in our very selves the responsibility others have for their choices.

Each character in this story—including and especially Walter White—both lives in and contributes to a certain reality that both orders the character and is ordered by the character.  As with any story, the characters inhabit an order that is already established before we meet them.  They exist in a certain socio-historical setting replete with pasts of pains and joys, successes and sorrows, and possibilities realized and unrealized.  What this drama does better than most (all?) in television history is show how these particular characters—and again, especially Walter White—shape their previously preordained milieu through their intentions, actions, interactions, and failures to act.  Each of them comes to change not just on account of some interior disposition—whether given or chosen—but through the tension found between their interior disposition and their exterior relation to their environment, especially their relationships to one another.  What the viewer comes to see is that what holds together in each person is more than what each person knowingly holds.  To again refer to the key chemical term, their choices set off exothermic reactions Exothermicthat reach outwards to others even as others’ choices reach out to them.

This means that the full view of each individual person surpasses what one can see by looking just at the individual.  One cannot know Walter White or Jesse Pinkman through psychology alone.  Indeed, each character is involved in the construction of an economy, one in which all share.  This economy houses transactions in terms of blessings and curses, mercies and deceptions, kindnesses and lies.  Of course, there is also a tremendous amount of money, drugs, and power in circulation.  Each one of the characters’ chosen actions—regardless of the degree of freedom involved in their discharge—creates a shared reality in which the choices of others are conditioned.  While no one inside the story sees all of these connections, the viewer does (or at least ‘can’).  From the other side of the screen, the viewer is able to see how the historical expressions of the characters’ disparate desires extend who they are into the lives of others.  Certainly, Walter White (or Heisenberg) exists beyond the limits of his physical body, but so too does Skyler White, Hank Schrader, Jesse Pinkman, and all the other major characters in the drama.

Therefore, each character’s personal responsibility extends broadly in all directions.  For those who might be interested in questions of judgment and redemption, the field of vision required to level judgment and evaluate prospects for redemption is almost infinitely vast.  For sure, each person’s responsibility outlasts the action itself; in fact, responsibility endures even after one’s own lifetime since the full measure of one’s choices continues to unfold well after one’s deaths (this is a general statement rather than a statement about any particular character: again, no spoilers here about who does or doesn’t die).  Once a choice ratifies an interior desire and is discharge into the shared economy of persons, that person is at least to some extent responsible for the consequences, for good or for ill.

Social Nature

What we see in “Breaking Bad” is that the bonds between people are conductors.  What one person does or wills reaches out through their relations into a broader network: a social network.  The familial community at the center of the drama discloses this truth in acute fashion.  As one person curves his will inward to suit his own purposes, he affects and influences the rest of the members.  It is not just the consequences of Walter’s pride that spread; pride itself spreads.  Under the strain and stress of one person’s in-curving concern, each member of the network begins to abide in a new reality, one in which the rule of pride is infectious.  Whereas we were introduced to this family as a community of mutual concern—for all intents and purposes—we watch them slowly deteriorate as the dilemma and deception Walter introduced makes it impossible for others to care for him—or one another—authentically.  Even before Walter’s lies are uncovered, the lies separate him from authentic participation in the community.  This distance causes uncertainty and even fear, causing the other members to recoil in anxiety without even knowing what it is they fear.  Corrosion seeps into otherwise unperceived places, compromising even the best of intentions.

Family

That these persons are connected and that their connections act as conductors are both givens in the narrative.  This makes the corruption of one person even more dangerous because it means that the other persons in relation to him are interiorly affected in addition to being exteriorly influenced.  Yet, for all the ways in which this social nature compounds the crisis of pride, it also remains an implicit grace.

On the one hand, even the man at the source of the corruption—Walter White—is unable to exercise an absolutely evil will because of the ties that unite him to others.  Without his connections to his children, his wife, and even to Jesse Pinkman—for whom he develops an almost inexplicable paternal fondness—Walter very well may have purely willed his selfish way regardless of the consequences.  As corrupted as his care becomes, he does care for these few others and thus is never able to will pure destruction.  This enduring grace ultimately thwarts his success at building his empire, at becoming radically evil.  (If those who have seen the show think of the times when Walter either could have or tried to “get out” of the “empire business”, one will see how his ambition is at least distracted because of his connections to others.)

On the other hand, this social nature is an implicit grace because just as pride was communicated through the network, so too is sacrifice communicated.  Viewers see moments of mercy from even Walter and Jesse beginning in the early episodes.  Certainly, these mercies are communicated socially.  The problem is that the crisis of pride has reverberated so strongly that these mercies call for greater ones in order to endure and have lasting effects in the corrosive economy.

“Breaking Bad” clearly shows that the social nature of humanity works to communicate corruption, but the show also quietly implies that this network would communicate blessing.  This social nature impedes Walter from willing definitively—in a single instant, like a fallen angel—his identity.  His choices always enter into the social network just as they are always conditioned through it.  His pride will move through the network so long as his pride festers, but his own sacrifice might also become the source of healing for his wounded family albeit without the power to immediately right every wrong.

The Singular Question

Of course, it is pride that drives this chaotic narrative from beginning to end.  The show’s drama builds as pride’s leavening effect is first unleashed and then progressively gathers strength.  St. Paul knew this well in his own communities: “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens all the dough?” (1 Cor. 5:6).  Through the highly concentrated drama of the particular circumstances of “Breaking Bad,” we see the truth of this statement.  The hidden possibility of redemption thus runs alongside this accelerating tragedy, with the implicit invitation rising to the surface at key moments through Walter’s conscience, his relationships, and his occasional exhaustion, as if to say, “Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:8).

The question of the entire series is, thus: Will Walter White perpetuate his pride—that addiction to controlling his reality that serves as leaven and chemically induces the growing certainty of the tragic destiny—or will he hazard himself in a sacrifice of truth and humility where he releases control, thus removing the leaven, come what may?

If you, like me, watched through to the end of “Breaking Bad,” the unfolding drama of that question is what I think we witnessed.  If you’re watching now, that’s what is taking place.  And if you haven’t seen any of this, that’s what you’re missing.

Follow Leonard DeLorenzo @leodelo2.