Midnight in Paris [Or The Tyranny of the Possible]

Midnight in Paris

If you really wanted to badly enough, you could be eating dinner in Paris by midnight.  Or you could be standing on top of the Empire State Building, or even walking on the Great Wall of China.

We live in an age of unbounded possibilities.

The sky is the limit, and we are consumed with pursuing our passion, chasing our dreams and seizing opportunities to fulfill our wants and desires. The dream chase is fueled by many things including the mobility of society, the ability to transplant and change jobs, urbanization and the growth of multi-culturalism.  Yet, two of the most significant factors shaping our modern minds and psyches are the influence of the media age and globalization.

When I was a youth pastor I frequently showed my students excerpts from movies like The Count of Monte Cristo or The Mask of Zorro. Both films portray classic scenes in which the would-be hero (think Antonio Banderas) is mentored by a patient, elder instructor in the art of swordsmanship. The scenes usually last around five minutes, during which the bumbling young protagonist—barely able to hold a sword or assume the correct fighting stance—is miraculously transformed into the world’s greatest swordsman.

After the clip, I’d ask students what they’d learned. The obvious take-a-ways were offered up.  “You need a teacher to help you learn,” “Practice makes perfect,” and so on. When they ran out of answers I’d ask them again and they’d look at me inquisitively wondering what I had in mind.

“You learned that you can become a world-class expert in five minutes,” I’d say.

The media age has shaped our perspective, convincing us that there are no limits on what we can do or what we can accomplish. We believe we can be anyone and do anything—all in a matter of weeks or minutes.

At the same time globalization has brought the world into our living room. Have you ever caught yourself wishing you could have several houses all over the world? Distant places, for many Americans, seem like they’re right next door, and globetrotting seems effortless—just a quick search on Kayak or Expedia away.

It took Mark Twain a week to get to Europe by steamship in 1895. Today, we measure transatlantic travel in hours. The fact that for many Americans, travel flows like water can be seen in the following: in 1990 at the beginning of globalization the number of US Citizens holding passports was a mere 11 million. In 2012 it had grown by over a 100 million to around 113 million.[1]

We daily peer into other cultures and see what life is like in other places, and we begin to think that if we ran to the airport right now, we could be anywhere in the world by the end of the day.  Globalization has made many Americans truly cosmopolitan—citizens of the world.

But can the illusion of unbounded possibility negatively effect our pursuit of justice? Do the media age and globalization have a dark side?

The good thing about the media age is that it provides us with a virtual window into the atrocities occurring in many places around the globe. But because of the “Midnight in Paris” mentality that comes along with it, we often buy into the illusion that we can simply hop in and resolve the mess. We see it, we think we know everything about it, and we’ve been trained to believe we can fix it overnight.

A Princeton University study found that in one year, 1.6 million United States church members took mission trips—an average of eight days—at a cost of $2.4 billion. That is a lot of people spending a lot of money to go fix the world. In many ways we need to applaud the positive sentiment in this situation. But we also need to take a critical look to make sure we’re creating deep, lasting relationships and change rather than building a form of justice-tourism.

Ending global poverty or eradicating slavery in our age are worthwhile and noble goals, as long as we count the true cost and don’t make the mistake of believing that—like in movies—we can become an expert swordsman in five minutes.

One of the benefits of globalization is that our awareness of global injustices has expanded exponentially. But we can easily focus our attention outside the boundaries of our own neighborhood, city or country and lose sight of the subtle sins of culture within our own context and place.  In our awareness of great injustices on the other side of the world, we can miss the injustices in our backyard that aren’t as prominently displayed or represented in the media. We can also miss the fact that some injustices that seem far away have actually crept into our daily lives in subtle and hidden ways—slave or sweat shop labor in our shirts or shoes or conflict minerals in our phones or video game consuls.

So what do we do?

The media age and globalization are here to stay, so how do we learn to ground ourselves in reality without killing our imagination or hiding in a cave?

The mid-20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, known as a practical theologian with strong engagement in and focus on social justice, would have had something prophetic to say about living with the problems caused by unlimited possibility.  His practical thinking about the balance between the extremes of the real and ideal, or actual and possible, can be seen as he writes,  “The final wisdom of life requires not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it.”

We see this same train of thought in the prayer he penned at a funeral.  Known as the Serenity Prayer, the opening lines are used daily by millions of people affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
The things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
Which should be changed,
And the Wisdom to distinguish
The one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
this sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Niebuhr’s words speak to today’s justice-minded culture.  His words speak with relevance to personal responsibility and the need to take action within the subtleties of our day-to-day life and relationships.

Globalization stretches our minds, our understanding of reality, and our sense of responsibility.

Balance is found in grounding our contentment in reality and gaining the ability to bridge the paradox of the infinite with the finite; in the ability to live in the tension between actual and potential—realism and idealism. An excited realism keeps us from being tyrannized by the possible.

Contentment requires we grasp hold of the actual state of our life, and justice demands we slow down and go deeper. With all that’s possible, may we wisely use media and the positive side of globalization to love others and create lasting change in a flat and interconnected world.



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