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Ethics Goes to the Movies

Theater, Hollywood, and prime-time television have long been obsessed with dramatic ethical dilemmas which hook audiences. From the earliest known and best loved theater, engaging characters have been obsessed with questions such as “to be or not to be?”, “to marry for love or for honor?”, and whether “to do the right thing but for the wrong reason?”

One can find films and TV shows about almost every branch of ethics such as business (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Arbitrage), medicine (Patch Adams and Ben Casey), sports (Any Given Sunday and Concussion), and journalism (Absence of Malice and The Post). Indeed I am aware of ethics professors who have identified over two hundred films which focus upon moral dilemmas.

But which ones show us the virtuous way out of ethical dilemmas? What movies would you want your children to see to find their role models or what might be called their “ethics exemplars?” To my view, there are several biopics and documentaries which have captured people of great character at their most vexing moments as they faced seemingly “no-win” moral quandaries. It seems an important part of our indigenous spirituality to face intense ethical challenges with integrity so I’d like to cite a few films which point toward a moral north star in case you missed them.

These are just a few of the ethics “classics” in which a leader’s integrity was tested and a history-changing decision was made under great pressure:

1) Madiba: The five part made-for-TV biopic about Nelson Mandela.

2) Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce’s quest to end the slave trade in Europe.

3) He Named Me Malala: The story of the brave girl who faced the Taliban and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

4) Gandhi: Attenborough’s Academy Award winning tribute to the Mahatma.

5) Queen Esther: Far Away and Long Ago: The teen queen whose decision prevented genocide.

6) John Adams (the HBO version): Adams’ vexing dilemma which brought peace despite enormous public pressure for war.

7) Good Night and Good Luck: Edward R. Murrow’s TV showdown with

Senator McCarthy.

8) Invictus: Mandela’s famous rugby event fraught with racial tension.

9) Brother Outsider: biopic documentary about civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.

10) The Letters: Mother Teresa’s work and world based upon her private letters.

There are many other important books, film, and TV programs about taxing ethical decisions including perhaps the most difficult of all time–President Harry Truman’s decision about whether to drop a nuclear bomb and thus open Pandora’s Box for humanity. People of all races, professions, ages, and faiths have faced life-and-death decisions which make for high drama and often for good box office. War films, westerns, melodramas, biopics, courtroom dramas, and even comedies are often based upon a “lesser of two evils” or “greater of two goods” plot in which the audience is held in suspense until an agonizing decision becomes history.

It is important to note that the ethical choices which become immortalized in books and movies such as those listed above help us to see our own lives. We all face ethical challenges—whether to put our parents in nursing homes; whether to enlist in the military; how to vote on controversial issues; whether and when to report relatives and friends who are breaking the law; whether to use guns; at what age to condone sex, drinking, and full freedom by our children; whether to end the life of a parent on life support; how to report taxes; whether to support our children if they avoid the draft; whether to take a stand in office politics; whether to oppose or support capital punishment—the list seems endless.

Because ethical decisions are ubiquitous, media which champion people of integrity and the tough decisions they made are helpful in showing the way through to victory in times of darkness. Indeed the most recent movie about Churchill was entitled Darkest Hour and it makes him the poster child for perseverance, as does the even more recent film Unbroken which focuses upon a war hero who would not bend despite sustained enemy torture.

Ultimately, the camera-in-our-heads must turn toward us. Although some of us may never face life-and-death decisions, we nevertheless are constantly faced with moments where we must choose between being self-serving and being of service to others. We also encounter many moments behind closed doors in which we might behave differently if we knew we were being observed. And we all face decisions which have benign or malignant consequences for the others in our lives who breathe our “second-hand smoke” so to speak.

So when ethics goes to the movies I don’t perceive such film as just entertainment. We are shown potential role models and exemplars whom we can emulate or ignore. And we may also choose to recommend such films to our children, our classes if we are teachers, our friends, relatives, congregations, employees, colleagues, and, if we write blogs such as this one, to our readers.

Media of Awakening

Although films and TV programs are often divided into the well-known genres of comedy, drama, horror, action, etc., I have long been interested in renaming some genres with more pro-social spiritual terms such as the “victory” (see blog posted on June 22, 2016) and “awakening.” What makes the “awakening” genre unique is that throughout the plot, at least one character is rising to a higher awareness in consciousness and then acting upon that new vision. He or she, in effect, “awakens” to a higher truth and then life changes.

In one sense routine films and programs showing mini-awakenings are a dime a dozen: Hollywood characters who learn from their mistakes, who figure out how to sustain relationships, who heal life-long wounds with their parents, and who mature with age are commonplace in mainstream media. And there are also many characters who deliberately go on a pilgrimage or quest to heighten their self-realization and find peace of mind. These include trips to India (think Eat, Pray, Love), to Mecca (think Malcolm X), to Thoreau’s famous pond (think Walden), and most recently to Cape Cod (Year by the Sea).

In the latest feature, Karen Allen (yes, the same Karen Allen from Raiders of the Lost Ark thirty-seven years ago!) becomes an empty nester mom who needs some down time to find herself after her husband sells their home and her son is married. Her “mecca” is a small home on an island off Cape Cod and her unintended “gurus” are the eccentric mix of local characters who help her awaken to a sense of self-reliance and transcendence.

When she arrives in her new home, Joan (Allen), has no sense of her next steps and describes herself as “a boat adrift at sea with nothing to steady me.” But each natural venue and villager she befriends seems to teach her something; like the fisherman who, when asked if he is lonely all those long days at sea, replies, “no, the real loneliness is not knowing who you are.” Joan is forced to contemplate this homespun wisdom because her own awakening is in fact to her own latent identity. Once she can hear herself think, listen to the rhythms of nature, and surrender to a higher order, she begins to act like a new person.

Once this recovery of her original childlike identity becomes seminal to her experience, everything morphs for Joan–her self-confidence, her ability to help others, and her awkward, distant relationship with her husband. We discover that, although she is not fully awakened at the end of the film, she has awakened to the process of awakening itself. Thus she is posed to make future breakthroughs and to know a full life.

In her own words she learns to “welcome vulnerability” and to “ride the tide.” Ultimately, when her best friend, another Joan named Joan Ericson, is staring at a tombstone, Ericson sums it up for Joan by noting that on tombstones there is a dash between the date of birth and the date of death. “It’s what you do with the dash that matters.”

In one sense, Year by the Sea is the director’s love letter to Cape Cod, emphasizing the beatific seascapes and local color of Eastern Massachusetts. In another sense the script is about a character’s elevation in consciousness through a season of deliberate meditation like that of Thoreau at Walden. But as with Thoreau, Joan realizes that she was not trying to escape so much as seeking to discover. In her words “I was not running away from something but rather running to something.”

So it is with awakening. We are not so much fleeing the nightmares and illusions embedded within sleep as emerging into the light of a fresh day. Awakening means discovering a new order and genuine identity.

We are not so much running away from the false as running toward the true. And it does not take a year by the sea to awaken, it only takes a consistent passion for the reclaiming of one’s primal spirituality.

Join us for Primal Spirituality 1a and 1b – Blessing and Understanding

Learn to connect to the first two gateways of Primal Spirituality in our Primal Spirituality Course!

For two transformative weekends at beautiful Sunrise Ranch, you’ll learn the enlightened principles of emotional and spiritual intelligence to open the first two gateways of experience – Blessing and Understanding.

These courses consists of clear presentations and powerful experiential exercises to lead you into knowing your Primal Spirituality. Led by an experienced team of teacher-facilitators, these courses will help you on your journey to becoming on the outside what you are on the inside—a being of great wisdom and love.


Primal Spirituality 1a – Blessing – May 10-11

On May 10-11, we’ll be opening the first of the seven gateways – Blessing.

Blessing is the flow of Universal Love through the emotional body. Blessing connects a person to others and to the circle of life all around them. It also connects the human experience to the source of love, wisdom and life within each person.

Blessing heals the profound disconnect people feel from themselves and the world, which causes internal discord, disillusionment and low self-esteem. Blessing leads us to feel peace, confidence and joy.

Blessing isn’t an experience you can think yourself through, though once you know the formula, you can consciously allow it to transpire.


Primal Spirituality 1b – May 17-18 – Understanding

The gateway of understanding allows a person to see what most people can’t see – the inner landscape of the human experience. This gateway is all about having a conscious understanding of people’s experiences including your own – to see emotional experiences without judgement.

Understanding brings spiritual intelligence – a awareness of the powerful creative forces that drive the human experience. When you understand these forces, you can harmonize with them and guide them masterfully for optimum results.

The gateway of understanding includes being understood. It includes the ability to let your guard down and be vulnerable to yourself and others. It is the willingness to expose your emotional experience to yourself, so you can understand yourself and gain emotional intelligence.

Understanding is an antidote to emotional disconnection. When we become a compassionate witness to the human experience, a closed heart opens up.


How will your life change after you participate in these courses?  

If you want to overcome subconscious resistance to your fulfillment and happiness…

Embrace the courage to fully be who you are…

Engage the deepest desires of your heart and unleash your brilliance…

Then you need to register for Primal Spirituality 1a and 1b now!


Pricing and details

The Blessing course is May 10-11, and the Understanding course is May 17-18. You may choose to attend one or both of the courses, with a discount if you attend both. Lunch is included and accommodations are available here if you’d like to experience an overnight stay at our gorgeous location. Pricing is as follows:

  • 2-day event: Early Bird $225 / Regular $275
  • 4-day event: Early Bird $350 /Regular $400


Alternative payment options

We believe that money should never stand in the way of getting the spiritual education you desire. That’s why we offer worktrade as well as scholarships to our courses. We also offer non-profit rates for our accomodations.

To make reservations or discuss alternative payment options, just reach out at 1-877-786-0078. Don’t wait – limited spots are available.

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