back to the future

Exit 178. So why don’t we get it?

I took a week off.  Sorry.

A few days ago, I was with some friends trying to get into the Christmas spirit.  We watched all three of the Santa Clause movies.  I had only seen the first one, and it had been many years.  The main character, Scott (played by Tim Allen), does not always see eye-to-eye with his ex-wife and her new husband, and their conflict is starting to affect their son, Charlie.  Santa Claus dies on Scott’s property, accidentally falling off the roof.  Because of a clause in a contract (get it, it’s a play on words; the name Santa Claus is not actually spelled with an E), Scott has to become the new Santa Claus.  The following winter, when Scott’s appearance begins to change into that of a fat old man, the stepfather becomes convinced that he is suffering from some massive delusion of being Santa Claus and gets his custody taken away.  But this is a family-oriented Disney movie, so there is a happy ending, of course.

Two more movies with these characters were made some time later.  The second movie focuses on the search for a Mrs. Claus and Charlie being put on the Naughty List for being a rebellious teenager.  But it was the third movie that really got me thinking.  Scott has now been Santa for twelve years, and he and Mrs. Claus are expecting a baby.  Jack Frost, tired of being forgotten among the other holidays, tricks Scott into magically going back in time and not putting on the Santa suit the night that Santa fell off the roof.  Jack puts on the Santa suit instead, and Scott returns to a world very different from the one he left.

Early in the movie, when Jack Frost first mentioned the existence of a way to turn back time so that Scott never became Santa Claus, I turned to my friends and said, “Which movie came first, this one or Shrek Forever After?  Because they basically have the same plot.”  (For the record, Santa Clause 3 did.)  Scott finds out that in this alternate timeline, Jack Frost has turned the formerly secret Santa’s workshop into a very public amusement park, where tourists bring their children every Christmas.  The elves are now bored and cynical employees, the reindeer are attractions in a petting zoo, and parents are reminded to spend more money to show their blatantly ungrateful children that they supposedly love them.  Upon seeing the portrayal of this horrible alternate timeline, I said, “I want to add to what I said earlier.  Both Santa Clause 3 and Shrek 4 are basically the same plot as Back To The Future Part II.”

But alternate timelines where a greedy and selfish person becomes powerful and turns something wonderful into something ugly didn’t start when Biff Tannen stole the DeLorean.  Forty-two years before Back To The Future Part II, something similar happened in It’s A Wonderful Life, when George Bailey sees an alternate Bedford Falls in a world where he had never been born.  And, without the alternate universe aspect, stories of greedy and selfish individuals making the world a miserable place have probably been around as long as storytelling itself.

So why don’t we get it?  Why are there so many greedy and selfish people if there are so many stories like this out there?  And for that matter, why are so many wealthy people in the film industry making movies that show the dangers of greed while acting greedy and selfish themselves in their personal lives?

For one thing, usually greedy people are making others’ lives miserable, not their own.  The greedy villains in these movies always have their empires toppled in the end, but real-life selfish people probably just don’t think it will happen to them.  And all of this really comes down to the fact that human beings are broken and fallen and just generally capable of all sorts of destructive behavior.

I’ve been there before.  There were Christmases in my childhood when I threw a tantrum over the one gift I didn’t get.  I’m not proud of those moments.  I still have times as an adult when I lack gratitude.  I have so much that so many in the world would love to have, but the mention of the one thing I don’t have makes me just as pissy as the bratty children at Jack Frost’s North Pole.

I can’t change the world by myself.  I cannot singlehandedly fight all the influences that feed people’s greed and selfishness.  The burden is too great to bear.

But I can do my best.  And I can change myself.  And both of those are better than doing nothing.