Gran Torino and the Process of Spiritual Alignment

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According to every spiritual tradition, we as humans, human nature, are divided – we are divided against ourselves (our truest Self), and we are divided against the Divine.  This lack of unity is in fact more characteristic of our “normal” reality than our Essential unity.

Understanding this division in us is crucial to recovering our Essential Self and becoming the people we were made by God to be, where we experience the highest level of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment.  The process of spirituality is about recovering and reclaiming our true Self and re-connecting with God.

According to the experts, we all are seeking specific needs to be met (based upon our upbringing and subsequent woundings).  And there are primary underlying feelings associated with each of those needs.  This primary need with its underlying feeling is what tends to drive us and motivate us – it describes how our ego tends to manifest itself when it doesn’t get its need met.  And therefore knowing this helps to give understanding about what we’re battling against and what we need to deal with in order to learn how to live out of our true Self.

OUR CHIEF EGO IMBALANCES AND DEFENSES

Let’s look a bit more closely at this triangle of circles so we understand what it’s describing.  There are three basic needs that all of us tend to gravitate toward and seek more of:  autonomy (the need to protect our “personal space,” to be given our freedom, and maintain a felt sense of self), attention (the need to be validated in meaningful ways, to feel valued, to maintain a personal identity), and security (the need to find a sense of inner guidance and support, to be able to know the future clearly enough to survive and be cared for).  Each circle then reveals the default response or defense mechanism that kicks in when that specific need isn’t met adequately:  no autonomy … anger and aggression manifest either toward self or others; no attention … feelings of being unvaluable, shame, a sense of being defective are manifested; and no security … feelings of insecurity and fear emerge.

According to experts, we all experience all of these at various times, in various ways, and with varying intensities.  But we tend to have a primary default – our most common, easy-to-go-to, natural defense mechanism when our primary need isn’t met.  These responses are the “artificial fillers” of our personality – imitations – ways we try to get our needs met that are not flowing from our Essential Self but rather from our wounded self.  So rather than helping us, they actually hinder us from receiving what we really want and need.  This causes the lack of internal and external unity all spiritual traditions describe human nature experiencing.  So every tradition has developed various spiritual practices that help a person come to greater alignment and congruence with their True Self – tools to practice, disciplines to engage in that facilitate spiritual development toward becoming the people God designed for us to be.  Spirituality, then, is the intentional process of becoming who you truly are (your Essential Self) rather than the imitation.    Spirituality is about your true Self connecting with God and reaching your ultimate potential as a child of God.

APPLICATION:  Circle the word in any of the three circles which you feel most protective of in your life right now, or most defensive of – your gut reaction.  Which word describes what drives you the most – what you’re truly seeking and feeling as you go through life’s experiences these days.

A Contemporary Story

Let’s notice how these dynamics are played out and experienced in the story Gran Torino which came out in 2008.  The movie Gran Torino, starring Clint Eastwood, describes the weather-beaten yet poignant story of Walt Kowalski, an aging retired auto worker at Ford Motor Company in the now industrial graveyard of Detroit.  In the beginning, the film has the feel of a requiem. Melancholy is etched in every long shot of Detroit’s decimated, emptied streets and in the faces of those who remain to still walk in them.

Sort of like Walt’s life.  A veteran of the Korea War of the 1950s, Walt has been watching his “world” drastically change through the years into something he hardly recognizes much less feels a kinship with.  Everything to him is falling apart all around – the neighborhood has been taken over by “aliens,” foreigners – “Chinks-Gooks-Swamp Rats” he shamelessly calls all of them, no matter what country they’re from in Asia.  In reality, his neighbors are Hmong, the hill tribe people in Laos who allied with the US troops during the Vietnam war and then had to flee when the North Vietnamese took over.  Many of them fled to the US and settled in communities like Walt’s.  But to him, they’re still the “enemy” who don’t belong here!

He has just buried his wife and he’s basically estranged from his two sons and their families who have come to “put up” with a father and grandfather who seems crude, gruff, and uncaring.  So he pretty much lives his life alone with his dog Daisy.

And alone with the central metaphor of Walt’s life, his cherished pride – a pristine 1972 Ford Gran Torino.  He has invested all of his desires in this car – it represents to him the best days – the past – when life was more predictable, more secure, more unified, more white, success was everywhere, everyone had a chance to make it if you just worked hard enough.  The glory days.  People were patriotic then!  Like he has hanging on his porch, everyone flew the Stars and Stripes to show their pride in life and country.  So he pours himself into keeping his Gran Torino in spotless, perfect condition.  It’s his refuge from the painful, disorienting reality of this new world.  And it’s his artificial filler, his imitation self.

Interestingly enough, the writers of this movie have portrayed Walt as the Everyman who represents all of us in some ways.  His ego defenses are being threatened – he’s desperately seeking SECURITY (the safe and predictable and comfortable ways of the past).  But the changes in his personal life (losing his wife, estranged from his kids, and isolated from his Ford company past) and the radical changes in his environment (the gangs terrorizing the neighborhoods, the foreigners with their strange and distasteful customs who have moved in next door and up and down HIS street) have all threatened this security.  So he’s reacting in FEAR – inside he’s not sure how to really cope with FEAR – so he defaults to what he knows best:  prejudice, resentment, portraying a gruff, swearing, beer-guzzling, smoking hardass to everyone (including his family).

He’s also desperately seeking AUTONOMY – just leave me alone and let me live my own life!  Don’t try to tell me what to do or manipulate me or try to control my future (if you’re my kids and grandkids)!  Don’t encroach on my space!  Get out of my yard and my life!!  So he threatens his neighbors away from his yard no matter what their acts of attempted kindness and neighborliness; he threatens the gangs by pointing his Korean War U.S. Army-issued rifle in their faces; he growls and scowls at his kids and refuses to engage; he berates and castigates the local Catholic priest who keeps coming by to check on him because of a promise he made to Walt’s wife before she died.  His anger pushes him and empowers him to shove everyone away.

But in very poignant ways shown in the story, Walt also seeks ATTENTION – deep inside he doesn’t want to be alone, he simply doesn’t know how to go about connecting meaningfully.  He’s being driven by SHAME, which is ultimately unveiled in the movie when he finally reveals his painful war-time past.  The images of killing young enemy soldiers continues haunting him like ghosts from his past.  And as he gets older, he begins to realize that he’s failed as a parent, too – he’s treated his kids poorly and now he’s reaping the consequences of estrangement.  He’s a prisoner to his feelings of shame and doesn’t know how to get free.  So the only way he knows how to get ATTENTION is by being gruff and difficult and downright mean at times.

Walt Kowalski has built some strong, powerful defenses to his ego.  He’s really alone and in slavery to his misguided attempts to experience life – he’s caught up in the only way he knows how – and in a sense, he’s simply living out his life until he dies a very lonely and angry old man.  Every once in a while, he breaks into a coughing fit and begins to see blood coughed up.  After finally going to a clinic for blood tests, he informed he’s dying of lung cancer.  With no one really around him anymore because he’s driven them all way, he’s having to face an isolated and painful ending.

Is there any hope for a man like Walt Kowalski?  Is the Gran Torino all there is?  Here-in lies the power of this contemporary story, especially in light of this Season’s theme of death and resurrection.

APPLICATION:  So go back to the word you circled in one of the three circles.  Spend a few moments reflecting on why you chose that word.  What examples in your life or in your experiences illustrate that word for you?  How is that word manifesting for you?  What’s the “Gran Torino” in your life that you’re using to protect your ego and that represents the “safe place” or default for you?

In my next blog post, we’ll take a look at what it is that ultimately brings Walt Kowalski to a kind of personal transformation and how that applies to our lives, especially in our spiritual journey of alignment and development into who we were meant to be.

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