Million Dollar Baby-from Popcorn Theology series by David Fikes (former priest)

by Amy Goodwin on July 5, 2015

Note: This presentation was given close to ten years ago. I recorded it, and afterwards asked the priest, “Can I share this?” He was okay with it, but then I lost the tape. Ironically I came across the tape just a few days ago, so posting it is long overdue. Ironically this message is probably more relevant, moving and powerful to me now than it was back then. SPOILER ALERT. If you haven’t seen the movie, and intend to, please don’t read this. Otherwise read on.

David Fikes: I think it is fair to say that all of life is an overwhelming struggle between the notion of autonomy and community. We define community as a marital relationship, a sexual relationship or a family relationship or a larger community or church relationship…in all we are trying to discern who we are as individuals with our individual personalities, tastes and experiences with who we are in community. In other words, how can we find connectedness with other human beings? We can all define ourselves, but we can’t live by ourselves.

We somehow lose our calling to be in community with God and with other people, so we’ve got to always find ways to make connections with other human beings. So we try to find ourselves in others, so that there is something we can connect to. And we’ve got to be in community with others to hear their feedback, so that we get a more accurate picture of who we really are. That is a necessity. Even if there is a complete sense of self autonomy, you’ve still got to be connected with others to get a true sense of who you are. By the same token, there is a sense of defining yourself by testing a boundary. There is a reason teenagers rebel. Why? Because they have to bump up against that boundary mom and dad set up in order to define themselves and find themselves. It’s a constant ebb and flow between these two competing forces. It never ends. It is a constant notion of trying to discern what community has to say on a matter and what do I agree with and disagree with.

Community standards have got to depend upon individuals who are willing to speak up to influence the community to say there is a standard by which we are going to live. (Or conversely there is a need for individuals willing to speak up and say these standards are not standards by which we should live anymore.)

Let’s talk about Million Dollar Baby. I want to talk about Frankie Dunn. For the first thirty minutes of the movie what did we learn about him? His relationship with his daughter is severed. He goes and talks to the priest about it. We find in terms of his identity as an individual, he is trying to stay in contact with his church community; he is reaching out because he is struggling with that relationship with his daughter. Do we know why? No. We never find out exactly what happened-Whether it was his daughter’s fault or his fault, whether he was a lousy dad. We don’t know what the issue was. We just know that it was something major enough to completely break down the relationship between the two or them. We know that because he is reaching out to the priest. He turns to religion for help, doesn’t he? How do we know that? He goes to Mass every day. Does the priest like the fact that he’s there every day? No. Frankie wants a relationship with the priest. Why? Does he find comfort in that relationship? No. What does he do to the priest every single time? He’s annoying. He says, “Your sermon made me weep.” The priest says, “You’re here just to make me mad.” What is Frankie’s life about? Fighting. How are you going to be in relationship with someone? By fighting. But what was he after with the priest? Some kind of relationship. So he goes to the priest to the one thing he knows he can go to the priest about. Is he really struggling with the Immaculate Conception? No. Why does he do that? It’s a way to get some kind of life coming back from the priest, and it always does. The priest says, “Give yourself a break. Don’t come to mass tomorrow.” So Frankie is reaching out for relationship, and the priest is on to him, yet he always answers his questions. He says, “Did you write your daughter?” Frankie says, “Absolutely. Yes, every day.” And the priest says, “You’re lying.” The priest is the one who is failing really. Frankie is telling the truth here. To his credit Frankie doesn’t come back and say, “No Father, honestly.” But we learn something about Frankie in this. What? He’s constant. He’s consistent. He’s the one reaching out to repair the relationship. We find out he is writing his daughter every day. He is following the priest’s advice. He is reaching out to the community to make contact. And some sense of acceptance is not being gained. The silence is coming from his daughter.

What else do we know about Frankie? He listens to Van Morrison. Why is Van Morrison different from other rock n roll? It is more soulful and more spiritual. It is identifiable and melodic, yet there is always this aura of mystery about it above all of the rock n roll musicians, Van Morrison is one of the mystical and spiritual singer/songwriters of all except for Bob Dylan. Same with him reading Yeats. Frankie reads Yeats. There is some sense of him looking for the deep places where there is mystery in the midst. Yeats was all about that. Yeats is an Irish poet, yet there is a lyricism to his poetry. There is mysticism. There is a deep, spiritual, sensual part to Frankie. There is a sense of poetry within him.

What else do we know about Frankie? First we learn he is the best cut man in the business. That’s the very first thing we are told. What does that mean? He stops the bleeding so they can continue the fighting. Hm…The tension that he lives with in terms of individual vs. community is great. He is caught between-I’m going to stop this first, so I can send him out so he can get hurt worse. When we go back to that inner flow between autonomy and community, the dangers of it, the community begins to tell the individual how it ought to be. Sometimes we agree and sometimes we say no. It is a moving story; it’s a set up between the power of one versus the power of the many. When do the individual needs outweigh the needs of the community and when do the needs of the community outweigh the needs of the individual?

It is simplified with Frankie in terms of the needs of the community are to stop the flow of blood, so the fight can continue. The fighter wants the opportunity to perhaps go out there and win the fight because it isn’t bad enough. Frankie has to be the one to patch him up enough to send him back out. Yet he lives with this. How is it simplified in his personal life? Partially with his relationship with Scrap Iron. What we learn as more and more of their relationship is revealed similarly through the eyes of Maggie is the relationship with Scrap Iron is one where Scrap Irons’s manager got drunk and abandoned both of them. Frankie was the cut man. He was the one that stopped the bleeding and sent him back out there even when he did not want him to go. He had to do it in order to respect the wishes and the autonomy of Scrap Iron. So he had to send him against his own judgment, because he did not have the authority to stop the fight. He maintains guilt about Scrap Iron. Scrap Iron was laughing, because he said “it was hurting him worse than it was me. I went back in and finished the fight. “ Except he went back out and loses his eye. Scrap Iron says, “In 27 years Frankie has not said a word about that. He doesn’t have to. I can see it in his face every time he looks at me.” What does that tell you about Scrap Iron and Frankie’s relationship? Frankie feels responsible for what happened to Scrap Iron. Scrap Iron feels guilty about the guilt that Frankie feels. It was my decision and my decision has now affected Frankie for his entire life. There is some real ebb and flow going between the autonomy and the community between the two of them on that relationship. It’s a tough relationship. They are in community; they are helping each other. They are like an old married couple. At first you can’t tell if they even like each other. You begin to see the depth of the relationship and how they do honestly care for each other. Their relationship has a long history to it.

Back to Yeats, Frankie is reading Yeats, there is mystical lyrical poetry. He finds more comfort for his soul there than he finds in religion in terms of dealing with his relationship with his daughter and also for the great guilt he has about all the people he has healed and then sent back in to fight and that have now gotten hurt worse. We find out he doesn’t like to take risks because he’s seen too many of his risks come back more damaged. Big Willy has to finally sever the relationship with him because he won’t get him a title fight. Why won’t he get him a title fight? Because he doesn’t want him to get hurt. That’s when Scrap Iron says, “You’re protecting him from the title.” And there is where you feel the individual need to protect the fighter versus the community need to have a title fight. ..the fighter’s need and the world’s need. He is battling that. So it is “what is my need” v. “what is the community need.” In this case he loses the fighter because he protects him too much. Into this void steps Maggie Fitzgerald.

What do we know about Maggie? She has an unfortunate family situation. Her brother is in prison her mother weighs over 300 pounds and her sister is cheating welfare. One thing she knew for sure, she was trash. She’s got some fight to her. We find out a little later she was born two pounds one ounce. She came into this world fighting; she will fight all the way through. She continues to fight. She is working on her birthday. Why?? She has nothing else to do. She has no other relationships. She has no one to go home to. She flat out tells Frankie this (boxing) is my only hope. Frankie says he doesn’t train girls. He’s pretending to be sexist. That’s the excuse he gives. What’s the real reason? His male chauvinism notion of protecting the female is really getting amplified here. Here is a female asking him to take risks; that’s more than he can do. She keeps dogging him. And finally he relents. He agrees to manage her just enough to get her going. What is the conversation that finally turns it around for her? She says you’ve already told me I’m too old, I’m too slow. I’m too late. This is all I’ve got. I’ve got nothing to lose. So if I’ve got nothing to lose why not take a risk on me? If I’m willing to take all the risk, it ain’t much a risk for you. In other words, she’s minimizing the amount of risk for him.

Maggie is also one of the people that allow us to learn about Scrap Iron and Frankie’s relationship. She asks questions of both of them. They think they already know the answers to, but we get a little different take on them through her. That’s something we need to understand, through this engaging conversation between the community and the individual. It’s about that in an individual relationship; the community always has a stake in it. There is always a sense that a third party can give you more insight into your relationship than just the two of you. The community brings something to every relationship. That is why the marriage ceremony in the Prayer Book we don’t just get the Declaration of Intent for the male and female; we also get it from the whole congregation. The whole congregation has to consent to it. Why? Because we all have a stake in it.

As Maggie is rising up through the ranks, Frankie declines to manage her in a fight and he gives her over to another guy. The other trainer is taking advantage of the situation; he sets her up in a fight to further his career and Frankie can’t stand that. So here he is caught again in a relationship, wanting to distance himself with autonomy because he doesn’t want to see her hurt and yet if he watches this and remains aloof, she will get hurt. It’s a double bind isn’t it? He really wants to distance himself. What’s the downside of distancing yourself? You hurt yourself by doing that. What does the movie say about boxing? Boxing is backwards, right. It’s the same with relationship. In any good relationship the truth is when you get hurt rather than back off which is natural, the thing to do is to step into the pain. That’s backwards from what we want to do. To get the better hit, it’s not how hard you hit, but how good you hit. Now pay attention to this-he backs up in order to land a better punch. But if you back up too much you are out of the fight. In other words, you’ve got to set some good boundaries in order to stay actively connected as much as you can, but if you back up too much, put up too much of a boundary, you sever a good relationship.

They fight their way across Europe. That is where it kind of loses itself in terms of showing the glamour. She is becoming somewhat of a celebrity. But the movie doesn’t lose focus at that point because that’s not what this movie is about. At first you think it is. You think it’s about their relationship when the movie gets going, but it’s actually about something else. They fight their way across Europe and then they return home. What’s that scene like? Painful wasn’t it? Does the mother support her in what she is doing? No. The community in which she was born has no connection with her at all. The irony is the mother, who is the most laughable character in the movie, says when people hear what you are doing they laugh at you. There’s the sister behind her just snickering. They are shoving her away. There is no connection with her community, her family. There is no connection with who she is or what she is doing. She wants to give them all she’s got. Are they appreciative of it? No. Rather than being proud and supporting her and saying what you’re doing is incredible, they ridicule her. They can’t accept her success which is another indication of their lack of connection.

We’re getting to a big turning point. We think this is just another boxing movie. Here is where Clint Eastwood takes you into the deeper, darker part. Eastwood is taking you into the dark side of what it means to be human. He is not going to keep you in the bright waters of the wonderful relationship of success. He is going to take you into the failure of it and destruction of it.

The other woman knocks her out with a cheap shot and as a result she is paralyzed. There is major damage to her spinal cord. At this point the movie takes a turn into the darkness in terms of looking at the issue of euthanasia. The family, with whom she has no connection, wants her to sign documents to turn over all her assets and the home. Do they care about her? No. Frankie keeps trying to protect her. She says, “This isn’t about you.” She says to her mother, “What happened to you…if you come here again I will tell the government what you’ve been doing.” She severs the relationship at that point and says never come back. Frankie comes back and says what? “Maybe you need to count to ten.”

Maggie asks Frankie for a favor in helping her die. Killing her. The word euthanasia comes from the Greek word “Good Death”. It is to have a good death. There are different kinds of euthanasia. There is passive, when you are on life support, and you are ready to be taken off life support . There is active euthanasia, when you are introducing elements that would help you die. There is physician assisted suicide of the Kavorkian nature, when the doctor will introduce things that will make you die. You may have to be the one who actually pushes the button, but the doctor presides. It is passive in the sense that they introduced things to relieve pain, but the side effect of what they give you is that it hastens your death.

I also need to introduce you to two terms about “life”. The New Testament talks about bios which refers to the physical body, the duration of life and zoe, which refers to eternal life, the divine life uniquely possessed by God. Jesus said, “I came so you might have life and have it more abundantly. The life referred to there is zoe. When the New Testament talks about life with quality, life as a sanctuary, how life ought to enjoyed, it is not talking about bios.

In Christian circles there are two arguments about euthanasia. One is against euthanasia: is that it violates the natural laws of God. Someone else is stepping in and violating the natural desires of God. Life is a gift of God and it is only to be taken by God. These same Christians say that your life is not your own. It’s all about stewardship. In that sense your life is given to you by God and you are responsible for it. They say you must be a good steward of what God has given you.

On the other side there are some Christians who would say God asks us to respect every human being. We say that in our own baptismal covenant. We respect the dignity of every human being. And that includes respecting their desire and wish to a good death. It also says that we should accept the rational decisions to reject dehumanizing treatments that prolong life. We should also accept to refuse treatment that becomes a burden to the community. Because there are some people who know they have a terminal illness and they know with some medication they could prolong their lives for six months or a year. But in that time, they’re going to be a burden on their family, their friends and their finances. And no matter what they do, they’re still going to have the same results, so there are people who chose to say, “I’m going to decline everything. I’m going to ask for something that hastens my death, so I can have a good death.”

These are the two arguments in the Christian world. I know some of you are asking, what do Episcopalians believe? Some believe it violates God; others say God is okay with it. The Bishop comes down pretty strong on this. Good news is in the Episcopal church you don’t have to agree with the Episcopal Church. The reason I know this is I keep up with it in the papers.

Okay, back to the movie…
We are told right before she asks for the favor, he tells her, you are my life blood. That’s what the Gaelic name means. It literally means pulse of my heart. You are my life. You are my heart. You are my love. You are everything to me. The family they discovered in each other is much kinder, much more meaningful to them than their blood family. She is the daughter that he is lost. He is the father who died.

Now this is where I think the movie gets intriguing in terms of raising that issue. Does he want to euthanize her? No He’s trying to find courses she can take. He’s trying to read to her. He’s trying to get her to read. He’s doing everything he knows to try and help her have a life. He’s trying to give her something that is meaningful to him. He says look. Here’s what is giving me life. Yeats. So when it comes down to it, she is the most selfish she has ever been in her life. She asks him to give her what her father gave to Axel, the dog. Does he want to do that? No. He’s saying she’s my life. He’s got to sacrifice who he is in order to do for her what she wants. That is the most sacrificial thing he’s had to do in his life. She is asking him to do this because she doesn’t want to be a burden to him. What’s he supposed to do every day of his life? While she is alive, he has to take care of her. What did he value the most from the get go? His autonomy. She asks him for a favor, the greatest sacrifice of his life and we’re seeing the issue of autonomy vs community at play again.

Back to the argument that both sides of Christians have.: Where we get divisive is when we don’t start looking for a connection between the two. It’s her right to chose autonomy. I want to decide. The other side says no your death affects me. And you’ve got to pay attention to how that affects me. This is part of the reason why suicide is so painful for everyone. Because you don’t have the chance to say how they are affecting you. You don’t get to say you are giving something to me in a way that might give my life meaning, even if that is only a sliver of hope. If you commit suicide, you are robbing me of that conversation. This movie offers to us community. Her family (albeit Frankie) has got to be involved in this decision.

He’s got to be the one to decide. Do I love her enough to let her go? She has to decide, do I love him enough to set him free to go build that log cabin. To find that café. Is it an easy decision? It’s not. If you’ve ever been in that situation you know it’s not. We have to be very, very careful. We’ve always got to consider the individual, but those individual lives are also protected by life in a community. There has always got to be a conversation between the two. You’ve got to work this out. You’ve got to be having conversations with your family, in terms of how you define quality of life. Do you let your teenagers decide the premarital sex issue while they’re in the heat of the moment? No. You need to make the decision when you are one-step removed from that moment so you are making as clear and rational decision as you can.

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