In the film “As Good as It Gets,” Melvin Udall (played by Jack Nicholson) is a wildly successful author of romance novels. He also happens to despise people. His disdain for other people combines with a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder to make him miserable and lonely.
He falls in love with the young waitress Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt). His love for her drives him to be a better man. Still some distance from mental health, he bursts into his therapist’s waiting room demanding medication. He scans the room filled with equally miserable souls and shouts, “What if this is good as it gets!”
I remembered this film when I read two news articles recently. From their own perspectives, authors from Time and from National Review Online both reflected on the state of the American Dream. That dream, they say, involves the idea of upward mobility. And they say that this dream seems to be fading.
|Andrew Wyeth’s Benny’s Scarecrow|
In other words, Americans have believed that tomorrow promises a better day. You might be down on your luck today, but hard work and perseverance lead to improved life circumstances.
My mother and grandparents came to this country through Ellis Island from Austria following the ravages of World War Two. They believed that they could make a better life for their children and grandchildren in this New World. America was the land of opportunity.
Now, people across the political spectrum are wondering along with Melvin Udall, “Is this as good as it gets?” Members of the Tea Party and participants in Occupy Wall Street alike fear that equal opportunity is becoming a thing of the past. They identify different causes and they reach for different solutions, but conservatives and progressives alike seem to be suffering the same frustration and disappointment.
It really boils down to the loss of hope. We Americans have been motivated to persevere through times of trial and deprivation and disappointment precisely because we believed that we could make a better future for ourselves. Now some people doubt this.
I have not lost my belief in the American Dream. But even if I did, I would not lose hope. That is because my hope does rest on my ability to improve my present circumstances. I happen to be optimistic about our ability as Americans to do just that, but hope is something deeper and far more powerful.
Let’s look at Melvin’s question again. “What if this is as good as it gets?” Well, what if?
Life on earth can be filled with many wonderful things. Love, friendship, beauty, good food, meaningful work, and a good dog. And that is only a very partial list.
But even if you had all of these things and everything else you could imagine on earth, you still have to ask Melvin’s question. We long for more than this earth can ever give. We long to be near our Maker, so near that we are never separated or forgetful or neglectful.
All the good and beautiful things we experience on this planet point beyond themselves to their source. To God. And they make us yearn not just for them but for him. At least, that’s our original design.
We cannot earn this closeness through our hard work and perseverance. Upward mobility in spiritual things turns into moral arrogance or despair and self-loathing.
So what recourse do we have? The mercy of God. Jesus Christ achieves for us what we cannot achieve for ourselves. Our hope is founded on him. What we experience now and even tomorrow is not as good as it gets.
God wants more for us. He accomplishes it for us through the Cross of Christ. He makes us a new creation. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
(The image above comes from this link.)