Count Your Blessings, Not Your Problems
A film analysis about the Pursuit of Happyness starring Will and Jaden Smith, and how the film reflects Catholic Social Teaching.
The Pursuit of Happyness is based on the true story of Chris Gardner: an African American man who escaped poverty to work his way up to becoming a successful stockbroker. The movie demonstrates justice and the right to life through his agape (unconditional) love for his toddler son, Christopher, Jr. The Right to Life states that every person’s life is precious from conception to death. As such, even the poor in society need to be treated with human dignity, so they too have an equal, fair chance at reaching their highest potential. The main protagonist pours his entire life savings into selling the bone density scanners, but his income fluctuates based on whether he makes or loses sales, much to his wife Linda’s dismay.
Because of the financial instability, the following tragedies occur: his alienated spouse leaving them both, the IRS taking all but $22 from his bank account for owing too many taxes, and homelessness. Still in all, his current circumstances do not stop him from creating a better life for his son. He never denies him his right to attend daycare, for instance, because all children deserve a proper education. It gives them not only discipline by teaching them how and why to always do the right thing, but examples of commutative justice, distributive justice, and legal justice all in one environment (even in his secular school).
Commutative justice involves respecting individual human dignity by equally exchanging goods, services, and ideas; such is the case with the father and son unconditionally loving each other, in such a way that each make sacrifices (e.g. leaving school and work early to make a homeless shelter by 5:00 P.M.) to create a better life for the others. Distributive justice involves authority figures ensuring citizens meet their basic needs — like Chris working tirelessly to provide food, water, clothes, and shelter despite living in poverty. Lastly, even though the innocent, little boy does not completely understand why they spend nights at different homeless shelters/subway stations, he demonstrates legal justice by almost always listening to his father. It is because of him honoring his precious life and human dignity, in spite of all their hardships, that Christopher, Jr. will grow into someone determined to strive for a more just world.
A notable scene in the movie is when Chris walks Christopher, Jr. to daycare. The almost five-year-old begins telling a story about a man who is drowning, and how even though boats come to try to rescue him, he declines thinking God is the only one able to save his life. When he gets to heaven, he gets mad at Him for supposedly not delivering on His promise, at which the Lord replies, “I sent you two boats, you big dummy!” Viewers may think the short, fictional story serves as comic relief to offset the film’s series of unfortunate events. On a much deeper level, the cautionary tale shows a person that accepting help not only is a way to trust God to make things right, but to trust people who have been in their shoes before.
Most individuals view their current circumstances as ones that determine their future, which keeps them from being open-minded about controlling their destiny. The drowning man embodied pride despite clearly undergoing challenges. He, in all likelihood, was ashamed of his circumstances because of an underlying fear that outsiders will make fun of his situation. Therefore, the man veneered any negative self-esteem he had with arrogance. Boats were not ideal lifesavers as far as he was concerned (no pun intended), causing him to opt for complete self-reliance even though he claimed to love God. What he should have done is be humble and willing to admit he was struggling. It is not unusual for people to want the Lord to save them immediately from their problems. But the fact of the matter is God does not operate off of instant gratification, nor does he want them to pretend they can handle their issues by themselves. Having them surrender themselves to Him, by admitting they need help, teaches them that improving their situation is a marathon, not a sprint.
Signs steer us in the direction of righteousness, in the form of unique opportunities and people. They might not always be what we expect, but nonetheless taking advantage of them helps us learn we are stronger than we think, which in turn propels us closer to discovering our life purpose. Chris discovers Dean Witter’s brokerage firm by meeting his partner, Jay Twistle, who encourages him to interview for the stockbroker internship program. Christopher, Jr.’s father feels unqualified with his high school diploma but no prior stockbroking experience; the only real assets he brings to the firm (or so he thinks) are that he is good with numbers and people. Yet he impresses Dean Witter during his interview, manages to close deals with high-profile clients, and aces the stockbroker licensure exam — all of which were tasks he felt incapable of achieving. He never becomes overconfident, though. Rather, he remains humble and enjoys soaking up more knowledge about stockbroking from his bosses, who know the business better than he does. Had the main protagonist not accepted help and been aware of his limitations, he would not have become the successful stockbroker he is today.
We have limited knowledge as human beings. By the same token, we must never reject valuable advice from individuals who kindly offer it to us — whether we ask for it or not; God calls on them to teach us not to make the same mistakes they did. So to recap, the story says a lot about how people believe their circumstances determine their future. This closets them from opportunities the Lord presents to them to help, because they would rather go it alone than be weak. However, when we accept help, we show strength by meeting new people who end up changing our lives.
Thank you for reading,
This reflection was originally written for my Catholic Social Justice & Morality class on May 23, 2021.