20 September 2011

Common Threads

I’ve completed screening the second and last season of Joan of Arcadia, the CBS television series that aired in 2003-4, or somewhere in those years.  I’ve written about Joan of Arcadia earlier, but I am clearly not finished with it.
I have enjoyed viewing this show again: I recall watching it weekly Friday nights with the children when it broadcast originally, and I’m not sure what inspired me to look at it again now, but I am pleased that I chose to do so. The children are presently following the episodes along with me though this time not at my side. Nevertheless, we talk about the individual episodes, and often find in them relevance to our lives. Even as I wrote ‘relevance’ I recognized that the word I originally intended to use describing the relationship between the show and our lives was ‘connection:’ the issues which the show explores and not simply issues of what do in life but why to do things in our lives. The show deals with interesting philosophical one doesn’t normally see on mainstream television.  The episode “Common Thread” concerns connections: God, this time a young girl not a little older than Joan, tells her, “All creation shares a common thread, like your scarf, Joan. How you use that thread becomes the pattern of your life.”  Such is never the theme of Seinfeld, or Friends or any of the ubiquitous Law & Order series that appears regularly the screen.
Joan of Arcadia was one of the few shows on television that dealt regularly with serious philosophical issues. For the two years that the show ran Joan received regular visits from God—who was always just one of us—who told her to do certain things—perform certain acts—that were not part of Joan’s regular life. She learned over time to trust that God’s lead would involve her in difficult, complex issues, but that her engagement in events, painful though they often were, would deepen her understanding of life and make her strong. The show was filled with pain and joy, and there were never any simple or easy answers in Joan of Arcadia: the questions were always interesting.
I remember watching the final episodes in 2004. In the last two episodes a character, Ryan Hunter, was introduced who too, had received visits from God, but unlike Joan, chose not to follow any of God’s suggestions but to assert his free will and do whatever he chose. “”My life is a gift? Thanks,” he says, “You can’t take it back.” When Joan asks if Ryan minds that God might be upset by Ryan’s response to God’s direction, he says, “I just don’t care,” Opposing God, Ryan acts out his rebellion destructively, vandalizing a church and burning down a synagogue. Nevertheless, he becomes also a well-respected citizen of Arcadia with ownership of the newspaper, friends on the police force, and membership on the local school board. He is a worthy opponent to Joan whose faith in God offered her strength, understanding and faith.  I think in the third season Joan might have been tested by the appeal of Ryan Hunter to resist God and to go it all alone: the Ayn Rand approach to life, I think.
I dreaded meeting Ryan Hunter again. Throughout the program Joan learned faith and strength, but with the appearance of Ryan, Joan’s faith would be severely tested and she sorely tempted. I think learning faith is easier than having that faith called into question. And now that the show has ended I wonder about my own faiths.
But it interests me that in the penultimate episode “Common Thread,” Ryan leads Joan’s ex-boyfriend Adam to safety down the mountain during a ferocious storm. At the cabin at the mountain’s base Ryan meets Joan who he knows has also talked to God. And in the midst of the storm at the bottom of the mountain, Ryan says, “I wondered why He wanted me to go hiking on a day like this.” Despite his claim to absolute independence, Ryan had listened to God; he was there to find Adam and meet Joan. In this episode the assertion that “connections exist before we are aware of them and they’ve always existed and always will” suggests that even the rebellious are part of the common thread that is humanity, and that the illusion of total free well on which Ryan Hunter has based his life is only thatan illusion. We are all connected, even the evil, and any dropped stitch affects the whole scarf. It need not be God to whom we ascribe causation; it is enough to know that we are all connected and one cannot move without affecting someone somewhere.  It is hubris to believe that we may act as if we could ever act alone. Emmanuel Levinas tells us that violence is be found in any action in which one acts as if one were alone to act. Joan of Arcadia consciously enacts this philosophy though it is not Levinas they quote. But then, what other television show regularly and seriously quoted Hegel, Kiergegaard and St. Augustine, Heisenberg and Einstein among others. What other television show takes its viewers and their lives so seriously. I miss this show and the attention it paid me. 


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