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Examining Our Nation's True Grit: Can We Change Our Minds?

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And the Oscar for best performance by a politician goes to... When it comes to debating performances, this is a chock-filled week. Yesterday provided the most interesting cultural bookends. America started the day full of anticipation for the Academy Award nomination announcements. We ended it full of anticipation for the President's State of the Union address, an event so pregnant with enforced civil demeanor this year that the term "civility" is the buzzword of the moment. It turns out that the juxtaposition of those two events is more apropos than not.

As someone who has never identified with John Wayne or even the character Jeff Bridges portrays in the current Coen Brothers' version of the film True Grit, I find it striking that the courage of conviction, attitude and tenacity of Bridges' marshal may be closer to our collective American character than we think. Actually, it may be closer IF we think and dare to actually change our minds and open our hearts on the matters for which we have been closed and self-righteous.

I will never forget the description that a twelve year old boy offered during a therapy session about a wonderful conversation he once had. He told me, "It's the best because you get to change your mind a little and the other person does the same thing." In this modern world, people change their minds or positions based mostly on political correctness as opposed to reason, which takes a kind of courage that we too often lack. Our culture as a whole is not all that welcoming of confusion or ambivalence, the states which are most conducive to the experience of change.

This is the truer grit, so to speak, for our times.

Without minimizing the importance of the matters presented in the President's speech, by way of metaphor on our need to be willing to admit confusion and ambivalence about gritty matters, I'd like to share a recent pop culture experience.

It was with some apprehension that I went to see the film True Grit, even though I was armed with the thrilled recommendation of my son, the movie buff, whose opinions weigh more than just a little. Even so, since I had recently seen the Broadway show, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson from which I exited feeling the blood of Native American genocide on our hands, when I went to see True Grit, I was prejudiced with a distaste for the wild wild West and the violence and grandiosity it often represents on screen.

I was resentful and averse, both viscerally and morally, to the rampant violence and of taking "justice" into one's own hands as well as the spectacle of public hangings. True Grit is a story about a girl who wants vengeance for her father's murder. She wants to see the murderer humiliated and hung. Geared from the start with her charm, fierce determination and a precocious vocabulary, I didn't like her, and I didn't like the character of the debouched marshal played with obnoxious magnificence by Jeff Bridges. I didn't like either of them, although I suspected I might just come to like him despite myself. And that annoyed me. Watching Jeff Bridges kick two Indian children off their porch (literally), not once, but twice, made me determined to set my dislike in stone.

I wasn't a happy camper as I sat through the movie to its finish, leaving me with an inner dialogue of discontent that took me some time to process. I resented this movie and the characters whom I had actually come to like and more than just a little. The scene where the marshal carries the girl to the point that his legs give way, and he lands as if begging for mercy with his last breath was nothing less than heartbreakingly gorgeous. The character burst my heart open, and having already heard Matt Damon tell the girl that he had misjudged her and hearing her do the same was, for me, a climactic moment that struck a note for possible peace.

Amazing grace. That's what it was. And as I watched President Obama speak before Congress last night, I couldn't help but think about that scene. Two stubborn people admitting out loud they had been wrong. Two hard-hearted people opening their hearts to one another.

That's my takeaway even despite myself and my own internal argument which I couldn't seem to solve and which left me uneasy.

I am also left to wonder: If we -- our leaders, media types and ourselves -- stop with the superficial Academy Award performances of civility, whether we might finally be able to really see and hear each other and our commonalities despite our diversity (including diversity of opinions).

What would happen if we dared to peek out of the caves of our embedded perceptions? I wonder if we might dare to change our minds or see that they change all by themselves.

That would mean hearing and creating new dreams (and challenges like President Obama offered) rather than only praying to the ones we have already rehearsed.