Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Christian Economics & The Secret World of Arrietty

The Secret World of Arrietty, while based on familiar childhood tales and fantasies, is very much an adult film, as is often the case. While I predicted films of 2012 would be about class-warfare, I didn't imagine that such a simple but wholesome view of a capitalist society would present itself with so much dignity and grace, yet The Secret World of Arrietty does just that.
What are the factors leading to an economic interpretation of this film? Primarily it's the presence of "little people" throughout films this year which allows an economic status to be associated with them, e.g., Mirror, Mirror shows Snow White commanding an army of "little warriors," and Jack the Giant Killer shows Jack being the "little person" in the land of giants, and amongst the giant cyclops, Perseus is a little person in Wrath of the Titans; there is also the dwarfs who form Snow White's army in Snow White and the Huntsman and, of course, the Hobbits in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The "little people," then, can be understood as the smallest in society, those who are not the economic giants ruling a capitalist society.
So, in 2012, size matters.
This is a doll's house made for the little people, the Borrowers. It was specifically made for them, the furniture hand-crafted by an English furniture maker and everything works perfectly. When Arrietty's father takes her on her first borrowing, and through this house, he tells her that it's not for them, it's a doll's house, and Borrowers are not toys. Shawn decides to take the custom made kitchen and give it as a gift to the Borrowers; by this time, however, they have decided that they need to move and will not take any of the items Shawn has given them. Why? This plays an important role in understanding the "exchange" that takes place in economics and, specifically, Christianity. At this point, Shawn doesn't understand what a "borrower" is because he hasn't been re-paid for what they have borrowed from him, so to Shawn, he is freely giving them something but he doesn't understand the "exchange rate" that will prompt Arrietty to give him her gift.
But what does a Christian economics mean?
Many may instantly think of G.K. Chesterton's Distributionism, which defends private ownership of property but is against really big corporations keeping the means of production all to itself (it's known as a "third way" between socialism and capitalism). But that's not what I am talking about, and I don't think it's even the conversation needed right now, especially as we are about to get snow-balled with class-warfare films. Rather, The Secret World of Arrietty provides us with a reminder of what it is that the poorest of the poor contribute to our society and not just what it costs to maintain them. This is a clip explaining what "borrowers" are:
I'm sure you're saying, that's nice, but what does this have to do with a Christian economics?
In every work of art, there's an element I call the "God factor," and it's whether or not the universe the artwork creates includes God or not; The Secret World of Arrietty provides two important clues that, in a world where there are people the size of leaves, so, too, there is God. First, the mother prays to God and asks that He protect Arrietty and her father when they go on their borrowing; secondly, the mother's name is Homily, which is what a sermon is called that provides instruction. Arrietty itself is a German form of the name Harriet and means "home ruler," so we have The Secret World of Arrietty existing within the same world that God as we know Him also exists.
Hair symbolizes our thoughts, so for Arrietty pulling her hair back in her clip means that she is disciplining how she thinks, specifically, about humans; that's why it is such a precious gift she gives to Shawn when she leaves, it's not the clip itself, rather, that she no longer "constrains" her thoughts on how humans are, but her thoughts have been freed by the friendship they have shared.
In both the Book of Job and the Gospels, we are provided with an understanding of why there are poor people amongst us: the poor, and those who are in need, bring out the best in us. When, like Job, we see someone in need, and we use the blessings that God has given us to alleviate their sufferings and wants, we are fulfilling Christ's command to "Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect" because then we are loving perfectly, as God loves us. All of us, at some point in time, are in need of something, including love, grace, salvation, forgiveness for our sins, a friend, food, money, clothes, shelter; they are called "borrowers" because they take what they need, and then they return it. Similarly, God gives us blessings on the understanding that we will give Him glory for it in some way: we borrow grace, for example, to pray for someone who will not pray for themselves; we borrow the financial blessings God gives us to pass onto the Church and those in need because He first gave to us in our need. Not returning these things means that we are not borrowers, but thieves.
Shawn is the main character, apart from Arrietty who has come to this house to rest before an important heart operation that he is certain will fail and result in his death. His parents, due to their divorce and the demands of their careers, cannot be there to take care of him so his Aunt Jessica is looking after him. Shawn's parents' neglect of him dehumanizes Shawn whereas Arrietty's parents' care and concern for her validates and verifies Arrietty's humanity; by caring for and protecting Arrietty and her family, Shawn reclaims his humanity because when we recognize the humanity in others, our own humanity comes out, and when we treat others like animals or sub-humans, we lose our humanity. When we do unto others as we would want done unto us, we are the ones who benefit the most.
What is it that the Borrowers return?
It's Arrietty who gives Shawn something more valuable than anything in the world: the will to fight his illness and get better. Before meeting Arrietty, Shawn seemed resigned to death that would result from the failure of his heart surgery either immediately or soon after wards. Arrietty, by her example, gives Shawn hope, and there is no price that can be put on that. But The Secret World of Arrietty gives us a choice: we can look at them as borrowers, that they do serve a useful role in society, or we can look at them as thieves, as Hara the maid does in this clip:
My relatives are found of quoting the Bible verse that "Those who do not work shall not eat," and using that as a basis for their economic and tax programs; we know from the the Desert Fathers that it was the "work of salvation," and the work of the soul that would bring the food of spiritual consolation and wisdom, it had nothing to do with the way society was supposed to create it's social programs. 
The cat Nina and Arrietty as she is leaving to find her new home. The reason the mother always thinks the cat ate her husband is because she thinks the cat doesn't realize their humanity (the cat, in this instance, is a symbol of the fat cats, the wealthy) and they will swallow up everything they can get. As the film progresses, and Arrietty increasingly shows fearlessness, it's because she's more confident in her being, her importance, her place in the universe.
It's not just that Jesus Christ chose to be poor Himself, but the way great people have chose to respond to the poor and validate their dignity and needs: what would the world be like without Mother Theresa? Without St. Francis of Assisi? St. Vincent de Paul? St. Thomas Aquinas is my patron saint, and when I converted, one of the first prayers I learned was when St. Thomas asked God to give him the grace to share with others what God had given to him, and the humility to ask others to share with him what he needed, and I try to remember that everyday.
Spiller, another borrower the family meets. We can say that there is an economic basis to borrowing because just as the family has borrowed, so now they are wanting to share with Spiller to have him for tea and dinner. One might say, how is sugar and cookies essential for survival? Because we all need a bit of the "sweet life" in order to survive and remember that we are humans, not beasts of burden. In a very innocent way, The Secret World of Arrietty is very much a romance between Shawn and Arrietty that reflects their different "class standing," her being from a "lower class" and he being from the upper class. When Arrietty's family leaves, Arrietty's affections seem to move to Spiller next, who--being something of a wild man of the forest--would be on a "lower" economic status than herself, but he still shares with her the berries and his knowledge to get them to safety. We all have something to give, and we all have something we need.
In conclusion, The Secret World Of Arrietty provides us with a unique understanding of what it means to live with others, but also challenges us as to who will "rule our home": either we will be dominated by the thought that the poor are thieves or that they are borrowers who play a special, though mysterious, role in society. When Shawn first sees Arrietty, she drops the sugar cube that her mother requested they bring back; why? When we see someone who is homeless or obviously in need, and our eyes meet their eyes, our souls meets their soul, and either we acknowledge them or we dismiss them, and being used to being dismissed and dehumanized, the borrowers have lost that sweetness from life, their dignity that we all need to survive. Albert Einstein said, "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts," and when it comes to our fellow humans, we must remember that there is not a single person who does not count.
(Below is the closing song and video you might enjoy):