Lessons From the Movies: 'I was born a poor black child.'

In the comedy classic, “The Jerk,” Steve Martin begins his sad tale with the famous line, “I was born a poor black child…” He isn’t kidding. The film revolves around the life of a pale-skinned, white-haired man who firmly believes he is something he is not, despite all evidence to the contrary. The lie has very little practical value, however, as almost all of his actual behavior is driven by his true nature, not his view of himself. Put simply, no matter how black he believes himself to be, Steve Martin cannot sing the blues.

This is, perhaps, one of the most interesting things about human beings: Our unique capacity for deception. Not the deception of others. Most animals are capable of that sort of deceit. No, it is the ability of man to deceive himself that is so remarkable, and not just the ability, but the proclivity to do it. Like Steve Martin’s character in the film, man seems ever determined to create his own definition of himself based not so much on what he is, but on what he would like to be. This self-image certainly has some effect on what a person does, but strangely, it almost never changes or constrains what they actually are. Despite his efforts to be what he believes himself to be, what he is almost always dominates him. The inner-white-man always emerges if you will. While the human mind seems perfectly capable of believing two mutually exclusive things at the exact same time, it is perhaps only able to consistently act from one of them.

Examples of this inner-human conflict seem to be everywhere, and they manifest themselves in the culture all around us, obscuring our ability to perceive who we actually are. A man who elevates another man above the reach or criticisms of his peers through hero-worship or demagoguery is clearly acting from an intrinsic religious belief, but quite often the people who do this consider themselves to be the most secular atheists around. They aren’t, of course, any more than Steve Martin is black, but that fact seems perfectly lost on them because they believe their own lie about themselves over reality.

Likewise, most of the people who identify themselves as anti-establishment individualists are almost always the ones voting for more government intervention, more government control. They believe they are against ‘the man,’ but they almost never meet a problem they don’t think should be solved by, well, more ‘the man.’ People who claim to love the poor almost always favor policies that prevent the creation of wealth and jobs, the only two things that have ever consistently elevated men out of poverty. People who claim to be the most tolerant are almost always hostile to any opinion other than their own. People who believe themselves to be the most color blind and supportive of racial integration seem to be most in favor of holding people to different standards of accomplishment and conduct based on the color of their skin.

The list is endless, and it seems that the distinction between self-image and reality is never a subtle one. Rather, what a person believes about themselves is often so fundamentally at odds with who they naturally are that the person they see in the mirror may in fact be the antithesis of their true self. Perhaps self-image then is actually a defense against having to confront who we really are.

To the Christian, this concept is as old as time itself. God made Adam and provided him with all things, even access to Himself. Man literally wanted for nothing. All that God had created was his. Of course, this was not good enough for man. Rather than accept the beauty that he was who God made him to be, man sought instead to be what God was. “You will not die,” said the enemy, “you will be like Him.” Even though Adam knew God, knew his greatness, knew that he had made all things, provided all things, had power over all things, Adam yet believed himself to be God’s equal, or at least worthy to be. We all know how that one turned out: Not well. For the Christian, it is only when man makes recognition of who he actually is, and who he isn’t, that he can come to see the value of what God has done for him in Christ. Trying to be like God never worked.

And perhaps that is the lesson to be learned. Who we actually are may not be who we want to be, but lying to ourselves about it doesn’t change the fact. Instead, it blinds us to our own faults ensuring that we never deal with them, just ignore them. In “The Jerk,” Steve Martin, at the behest of a family that loves him, begins a journey to discover who he actually is, not because who he is is perfect, but because it’s him. He stumbles along the way, slams up against his own limitations and flaws, but in doing so, he is able to grow and change. In fact, he becomes more of who he desires to be when he stops pretending he isn’t who he is. It’s a rough and tumble ride; life always is. Let’s face it, there are people out there who just don’t like cans. But it is clearly the journey we were meant to take, and no true progress, individual or societal, is ever based on ignoring reality.

Our Founding Fathers were unique in that they knew their limitations. They didn’t subscribe to the lie that they and all of the rest of mankind were good, but rather took a firm look at the reality of their limitations and sought to create a form of government that considered and could respond to their flaws. It is a form of government that constrains man’s ambition, puts checks on his power over others, but that removes the constraints on man’s potential for growth and self-improvement, and self-betterment both philosophical and financial. It is a form of government that, as has been often said, unlocks the human potential in unimaginable ways, and creates an environment where one man pursuing his own interests can create waves that cause all of the ships on the ocean to rise with him. We ignore their wisdom and self-honesty, and our true nature, at our own risk, for self-governance and self-betterment are not possible for people who do not know themselves truly.

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