Digging in Deeper: Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

“Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their efforts. For if either falls, his companion can lift him up; but pity the one who falls without another to lift him up.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

One of the things that has always made Americans different from the rest of the world is our fierce spirit of individualism. This has long been one of the identifying hallmarks of our culture, and in our own myths and mythologies, one of the virtues we celebrate above all others. Just think through our most popular heroes and the stories we tell about them. They all include some element of someone going on a long journey or overcoming some great challenge all on their own. While nearly the entire rest of the world is much more community-minded, we try and do things by ourselves. A Netflix show we have been watching now for three seasons puts this on display while at the same time offering a reminder that doing life alone isn’t always sunshine and rainbows. Let’s talk this morning about the hit series, Virgin River.

Netflix has invested a lot of money in its content creation. The last annual report I heard was that it was somewhere north of $6 billion. That’s a sign of just how many screens they’re reaching, yes, but more importantly for the moment, it means they are able to produce a lot of high quality content. Good writers, directors, actors, production crews, shooting locales, and the like all cost money. Media content is generally very much a case study of the maxim, “you get what you pay for.” As a result, when Netflix produces a television series, it’s usually pretty well done. Virgin River is no exception.

The show is another attempt by the media giant to scoop up a bit of Hallmark’s audience by doing what they do only better. While I don’t think they’ll succeed in stealing any of Hallmark’s viewers, they are certainly creating the same kind of content with way more convincing story lines, a whole lot less cheesiness and predictability, and, because it’s Netflix, at least a bit more edginess.

Virgin River is so named because that’s the fictional town in Northern California (all the filming, much to my disappointment upon discovering this, is done in the Vancouver area) where the series is set. The series opens with a young nurse from Los Angeles named Mel moving to the small, rural town of Virgin River in the beautiful Northern California (that is, Vancouver) wilderness, in order to escape some pain in her life back in the city. She does so in response to a help wanted ad for the local doctor’s office which the town’s mayor (and the doctor’s estranged, though eventually reconciled, wife) has posted without his knowledge. Mel’s big city expectations make for some amusing culture shock as she adjusts to life in her new home. Eventually she meets Jack, who owns the local bar and restaurant, and the two main characters are set for the series.

Given that we are three seasons into the show, I’m not going to try and catch you up on what you’ve missed if you haven’t been watching. Instead, as I watched episode seven of season three last night, something caught my attention that I want to unpack with you this morning. As I began thinking about this thing through the lens of the rest of the series, it dawned on me that this is one of the major themes of the whole show. Jack and Mel broke up at the end of the episode. Relax, it’s a Netflix version of a Hallmark series; they’ll get back together eventually. The ultimate reason for the breakup, though, was that Jack has some really significant issues he’s working through in his personal life and doesn’t want to be a burden or impediment to Mel’s getting what she wants out of life as he works through them.

Now, the whole pitch from him is made to sound very noble in his own mind, but the sharp viewer notices immediately that he’s just being an idiot, and a selfish one at that. One of Jack’s vices throughout the series is that he tries to shoulder all of his own issues so that he isn’t a burden to anyone else around him. As the series has gone on over time, it is becoming more and more clear the damage this tendency is doing not only to himself, but to the people around him. As American viewers, though, we don’t notice this right away. We don’t notice it because it is what so many of us do in our own lives. It is what so many of us do in our own lives because our culture has trained us very well in the art and even importance of doing this very thing. If you have issues, don’t let those issues burden the people around you. Instead, work them out and move on. What a very American thing to do! The trouble is, sometimes our issues are more than we can handle and we wind up being a burden anyway. Jack is becoming a rather obvious example of this.

As I got to thinking more about Jack’s commitment to individualism, a couple of things occurred to me. First, Jack’s not the only one struggling with keeping things to himself. The character who plays the doctor, has a medical condition that will eventually cause him to go blind. Rather than sharing this news and getting the help he needs to transition his medical practice to a new doctor, he’s been trying to keep it all to himself and sneak around trying to hire a replacement without anyone knowing. Meanwhile his vision is getting worse and worse. A young man in town named Ricky is wrestling with the decision to join the Marines while at the same time trying to manage a relationship with a spoiled, rich girl from Los Angeles who is gradually learning the world doesn’t revolve around her, but he doesn’t want her or anyone else in town to know about his plans. Another character, Lilly, has stage four pancreatic cancer, has refused all treatment, but was trying to avoid having to tell anyone about it – including her grown daughter who lives with her mom to help manage their family farm and take care of her infant sister – so that she isn’t a burden on anyone else. Jack’s sister, a new character in season three, is hiding from issues in her recent past that are causing present pain, but she doesn’t want to share. There are several other characters who are all doing the same sort of thing in different ways. Everyone in the town has issues and doesn’t want to share them with anyone else. The driving sentiment is nobility and putting others first, but the real heart of the hesitancy is selfishness and an unhealthy embrace of this very individualism we’ve been talking about.

At the same time, Virgin River is an incredibly tight and loving community. There is not a single member of the town who would not willingly give up everything they have if it meant helping a neighbor in need. They love each other fiercely. They’re all up in each other’s business. They regularly make sacrifices to serve one another, sometimes whether such a thing is needed or not. They may not have any big city amenities, but they have a sense of community and a pace of life that leaves you longing to live there with them.

Now, take these two different observations about the town of Virgin River, and put them together. They have both an incredible sense of community and an incredible commitment to individualism. The dichotomy here will almost make your head spin. Except, how many of our own communities are just like this. We try and do life all on our own, but in community. We want relationships that are deep and meaningful, but we want to have them without being vulnerable or open about the issues we are dealing with. We’ll share some things with other people, but only the things that don’t require much from us in terms of our depending on them. Our deeper desire is to be able to do life on our own.

This desire can play itself out in the form of a person going off by himself without any other people around to help. That image is best captured in the frontier woodsman of our nation’s adolescence. It was captured a bit more recently in the 2007 film, Into the Wild. The main character’s walking away from his privileged life to wander through nature is made to seem very romantic, but the conclusion I couldn’t escape making at the end of the movie was how utterly selfish and, frankly, foolish, he was.

Most of us, though, don’t do life by ourselves in quite so dramatic a fashion. In fact, we’re rather surrounded by people. We are part of communities and have relationships. Maybe you live in a community, like I do, that isn’t so different from Virgin River in its small town glory. But just because we are surrounded by people on all sides, doesn’t mean we don’t still try and do life on our own. We simply do it on our own with other people. What this looks like is put on display by Jack and the other characters of Virgin River. They are all involved in each other’s lives. The town gossip mill runs at high capacity most of the time. And yet they all have their secrets. None of them are particularly sinister secrets, but they are burdens they won’t be able to carry on their own for long and which will eventually impact the people around them in profound, often painful ways. This pain and frustration could all be avoided if they – and we – would just be more willing to pursue true community with one another.

True community is different and harder than simply having a lot of people around. It requires us to be more vulnerable and open about what’s going on in our hearts and minds than most of us are comfortable with being. It requires us to wade into the messes of the people around us with gentleness and humility. This does not mean we are busybodies and nags, but we are willing to help share burdens when that is needed. It requires us to be honest both with the people around us and with ourselves. Fooling ourselves into thinking we can handle on our own issues we really can’t handle on our own isn’t making us less of a burden to the people in our lives. It makes us more of a burden because while we are being dragged down by whatever weight has been tied around our ankles, they are having to take up the slack we are leaving back up on the ship. If we would instead open up and let them in, they could shoulder the burden with us and we would all be better for it. Or, as the Teacher in Ecclesiastes put it, “Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their efforts. For if either falls, his companion can lift him up; but pity the one who falls without another to lift him up.”

You and I were not made to do life on our own. We were made for community. That doesn’t mean a bit of individualism is a bad thing. There are some burdens we do have to bear on our own. But there are many others that we not only don’t have to, but we shouldn’t even try. This is all what Paul was getting at near the end of his letter to the churches of Galatia: “Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone considers himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Let each person examine his own work, and then he can take pride in himself alone, and not compare himself with someone else. For each person will have to carry his own load.” Carry what you must, but share what you should. This balance takes time and practice to get right, but your life will be all the richer for it when you finally get it. Start practicing. You’ll be glad you did.

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