St Stephen Lewisham

Sunday 3rd November 2002

All or Nothing


Last week we went to see Timothy Spallís new film All or Nothing.

Itís a good film, set on a decaying housing-estate in Greenwich not far from us. So long as you donít mind what used to be called "strong language" (effing and blinding to you and me), and being made to think about other peopleís personal problems, then itís well worth going to see it.

Itís about three families living in the same block of flats. Principally itís about Phil, a minicab driver his partner and their teenage son and daughter. One of the other families is a single mother, the third is another minicab driver and his alcoholic wife. Families Two and Three each have a teenage daughter. All three families know each other well.

So thereís nine people, two fathers, three mothers a son and three daughters. They are three families in varying stages of falling to pieces like many others nowadays. The film raises two questions: "How do such people get like this?" and "How can anyone their degeneration be arrested, let alone reversed?"

That they would want to change cries out from the beginnin to the end. Nobody, least of all the sort of characters we see in the film would deliberately choose to be like that: an alcoholic wife, drivers who often fall into debt when their car breaks down, and grown children who hurl obscene insults at their parents, day in and day out; who are workshy and donít even look for a job.

All that holds them together is the fact that the two fathers and two of the mothers do have a job which takes them out of the home and earns them a bit of money. As often as not this money is borrowed by another member of the family. Philís overweight, ugly daughter, does has a job as a cleaner in an old-peopleís home Ė not the most exciting of jobs at the best of times and one which is well below her intelligence. But her brother, a fat couch-potato spends his life on the sofa watching television; the girls from the other two families are only interested in having it off with the boys on their estate.

Matters come to a head when the fat son suddenly has a heart-seizure Ė brought on by being grossly overweight and (which nobody suspected) having been born with a heart-defect. Then, and perhaps only for a short while, all three families get their act together and work in a thoroughly neighbourly way. Weíre left to guess whether their improvement will last. Certainly It would be nice to think so. A sudden shock or disaster, like a serious illness, accident or bereavement sometimes jolts people out of the rut into which they have sunk: sometimes Ė but there is no guarantee.

Nowadays this All-or-Nothing situation happens all over the country. It occurs in families of every race, colour, class and income-bracket, and we all know examples. The question is: What can we do about it?

Itís easy to see whatís wrong. Boredom, lack of self-respect, drugs, recreational sex, and the sheer pointlessness of so many peopleís lives today. Thatís the easy bit. Finding solutions is the difficult one, which is made the more difficult because so many people nowadays resent and resist any help offered them: for Being helped implies a need: and admitting a need suggests failure Ė failure as a parent, an employee, a businessman, a school-leaver or oneís personal relationships.

So letís look instead at whatís right about the situation described in All or Nothing. Things start improving just a little when thereís a serious emergency, in this case the heart-attack because the families started practising the Second Great Commandment You must love your neighbour as yourself.

Itís a curious fact that once, you start looking for things to praise, rather than blame people for, you begin to notice other examples. Philís daughter, paid to do that boring cleaning job, unhesitatingly allows him borrow her wages to repair his minicab so that he can go on working; the single-motherís daughter, once sheís confessed to her mother that sheís pregnant, and decides to keep the baby instead of having it killed by an abortion, brings about a reconciliation between the two of them; the couch-potato son agrees to a regime and diet which will make another heart-attack less likely; and we notice that the next day when he visits his son in hospital, Phil has shaved off his normal three-day growth of stubble and made up his mind to start working early instead of mid-morning; in an earlier scene the two wives take responsibility for their unhappy alcoholic friend.

All such neighbourly actions have a value in Godís sight. If things look bleak in Greenwich itís worth remembering that in parts of India itís quite common for people who collapse in the street simply to be left there to die Ė and the hospitals donít want to know about them.

But thatís India weíre in South London. Having acknowledged that in an emergency Phil and his friends may be found responding in a way that is to be praised and commended, we must ask ourselves the uncomfortable question we dodged a few minutes ago. What makes families, and people, so dysfunctional?.

The answer is that whilst Phil & Co. keep the Second Commandment to love their neighbour as themselves, the very idea that they should keep the First and great Commandment to love the Lord their God with all their heart and mind and soul and strength is simply doesnít enter their heads. When Phil occasionally asks questions of himself and others about the Meaning of Life his fellow minicab-driver suggests that another pint of beer is the best solution.

Their difficulty is not that they "lack religion", as if "religion" were a patent medicine or vitamin that once you get hold of will enable you to enjoy Peace-with-Pay for the rest of your natural life. Ask any experienced Christian and he will tell you that our faith is not a matter of us getting hold of religion so much as Religion (or more precisely, God Almighty) getting hold of us. Once He does, of course, then the only peace youíll get for the rest of your life is the "peace which passes all understanding" Ė which is worth infinitely more than any peace the world can give us. Phil and Co.ís problem is that they. have no idea of what religion is.

If you remove the First and great Commandment (to love God) from the equation, you lose any rational grounds (other than self-interest) for keeping the Second Commandment (to love your neighbour). So itís hardly surprising that the teenagers in All or Nothing are rude to and contemptuous of their parents; lead aimless lives without jobs, without ambitions, without hope, and see sex as a sort of shrimping-net for catching unwary members of the other gender. Unlike their parents who had been taught that things were either right or wrong, (though without understanding why), these children only see things as either "fun" or "boring", which, of course says a lot about their immediate feelings about a course of action, but nothing whatever about the eternal rightness or wrongness of it. Because their parents who learnt right from wrong were never taught why they are so, they canít explain the difference between the subjective (fun-or-boring) and the objective (right-or-wrong)

Remember that old saying "God is easy to please but hard to satisfy"? Well God, no doubt, is pleased when an emergency brings Phil and his friends together to support each other. But thatís not the same thing as satisfying Him.

The Bible tells us over and over again, that it is impossible to satisfy God without his grace and aid. That old prayer which begins O God, for as much as without thee we are not able to please thee says it all. It is only God, through the satisfaction of His Son Jesus Christ who offered himself up as the perfect sacrifice upon the Cross, who can ultimately reconcile us to Himself. Every time we take part in the Mass we are underlining and acknowledging that truth so our first prayer is not "O God I thank thee that I am not like Phil and his friends" but "God be merciful to me, a sinner".

Now, how to convince people Phil that this is true is far from obvious. Given an opening I would start with the two switched-on mothers and the sad-but-diligent daughter who mops the floors of the old peopleís home They have just an inkling that the way you feel about something is not a reliable guide to its real value; one might get somewhere with Phil too if only one could help him sort out the jumble of moral principles rattling about in his mind; just possibly with the ex-couch-potato and his virtuous decision to alter his lifestyle as a result of his close-encounter with death; likewise the pregnant teenager whoís rightly decided to give birth to the baby God has given to her. But no simple appeal interest any of them in "Religion" let alone let alone coming a church will get very far. Get them thinking about virtue and you may be on the right track.

However, lest anyone should think that All or Nothing is totally lacking in the hope of any Christian perspective, it should be said that in the final scene in the hospital ward, when the crisis of the heart-attack has been successfully overcome, there is just one tiny ray of hope. As the camera pans in on the mother sitting beside her ex-couch-potato son lying in bed, we see, that she is wearing Ė for the first time in the film Ė a small golden crucifix around her neck So the real All-or-Nothing-Answer to their dysfunctional lives is in fact closer to hand than any of them realises!

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