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The Black Knight and the Subversion of Expectation} ?> I knew most of the skits from Monty Python and the Holy Grail before I had ever seen the movie. Thanks to a partial immersion in geek culture during high school (D&D, video games in—gasp—arcades, and Star Trek), I regularly rubbed shoulders with people randomly throwing their hats in the air and yelling, “Run away!” But the phrase I remember most is “It’s only a flesh wound.” It came up in many circumstances—a stubbed toe, an injury on the football field, a tumble down the stairs. As long as the victim was still conscious, you could lean in close and hear him whisper, “It’s only a flesh wound” before rendering his mock death.
Now that I’ve seen the Grail movie more times than I can count, that scene with the Black Knight is still one of the most memorable: the near-invincible foe standing poker straight as he declares, “None shall pass” in his best impression of John Cleese. The honourable Arthur trying to negotiate with the knight, not because he is afraid, but because he does not want to injure this valiant warrior. And the knight resolutely forbidding Arthur from going further. And, of course, the fight, with limb after limb hacked off, blood spurting out as though from a hose, and the knight’s increasingly implausible assertion that not only was he okay, but that he was victorious, and that Arthur’s vacating the scene was only because of the King’s cowardice.
We are all encouraged, at one time or another in our lives, to see the bright side, to look up, to quest for our dreams and reach for the unreachable. We know those inspirational folks who would have us seek for and grasp the Holy Grail—for what is life without dreams and goals to strive for, and how can we attain greatness if we do not quest for it with all of our hearts?
But in the midst of these encouragements, I hear the voice of Arthur’s horse, Pansy (who was wounded—although, after consideration, not mortally) asking, “What if my expectations are not fulfilled? What if I am destined to carry someone else’s junk and clap coconuts together for the rest of my life?” Or I think of the Black Knight, who, if he did not bleed to death, would have to live the rest of his life like Larry the Cucumber—but without the magical ability to play the tuba despite the complete absence of limbs. What then?
There is an ongoing belief among people—perhaps North Americans in particular—that we deserve health, wealth, and longevity. We come at life with an attitude of entitlement, and this bothers me. Why do we feel like we deserve anything?
Many Christians, too, hold to the idea that because we believe and obey God, and God is full of grace and power, we should have a multi-car garage, a vehicle in each slot, a boat in storage over the long winter, a cabin at which to park said boat next to, and a four-wheel drive recreational vehicle. And if we don’t have those things, it must mean our faith isn’t strong enough.
We have somehow been seduced into believing that all of our dreams are attainable and God will ensure we’re healthy, wealthy, and wise.
That’s simply not true. I think, in fact, some of us are destined to be the Black Knight. We raise our swords to slay the enemy and he cuts us down, and for the rest of our lives we live with the “what ifs” that come with that defeat. We live with regrets and with the unfulfilled expectations of our parents, our friends, and, worst of all, ourselves.
So, do we just set our sights lower, admitting that, legless and armless, we’ll never be able to renew our membership in the Guild of Scary Path Barricaders? Sometimes. Sometimes we do need to be realistic about what we expect and what we can accomplish. But other times it’s not our skills or abilities that are in question, it’s the focus of our ambition.
My youngest son is 19 and a waiter. For years he has struggled to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up—as though “grown up” is a final goal to be attained by everyone. Once upon a time he wanted to be an electrician, an engineer, and a professional poker-player. I encouraged him in each pursuit, hoping that he’d find something he wanted to do. But a few weeks ago he had an accident in which he could easily have been killed. And he confided in me that he had had an epiphany, of sorts, while lying in his hospital bed.
“What if I just want to be a waiter, Dad? I can make pretty good money, enough to live comfortably. I do not need to make a whole bunch of money to feel successful.”
I paused at this revelation and then asked, “Are you happy doing what you are doing?”
“I love what I am doing and cannot wait to get back to work,” he replied.
There are many who might say that settling for being a waiter for the rest of his life is akin to being the Black Knight: he will end up crushed and defeated by throwing away his potential to do something else. Why would someone be a waiter when there are mountains to be climbed and heroic deeds to be done?
Some of us are destined to be the brightest, fastest, or best. Some are not. Some, despite all of their training, IQ points, strength, or dexterity, simply will never live up to their potential, at least not the potential identified by others. And some are just clumsy, both physically and socially. We each put ourselves into one of those categories, or let others put us there.
But if my goal is to love and serve others and, as a Christian, to love and serve God, enjoying having a relationship with Him, there is no worry about financial success, fame, or the ever elusive “potential.” There is no questing to be better than or even to live up to anything.
The calling of love and joy removes the stress of guilt, endless questing, and regret from my life. The idea that my life is good and that I can be satisfied with who I am, regardless of what other people think I should be, is true success.
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