Comedy, tragedy, and the dancing life

les cunliffe –

I just finished a weekend binge on downloaded episodes of the British TV show “Doc Martin.” It’s a quirky comedy, funny and poignant, and many of the characters are so annoying that I want to tear my hair out, but there’s something about it that draws me. Yes, it’s larger than life, artificial and overdone, as TV comedies generally are. But it sketches in high relief the dysfunctions shared by the families, small towns, and congregations that I’ve experienced and struggled with over the years, so I feel in it the typical push-and-pull of ordinary life.

Everyone in the small village in Cornwall that is the center of this TV comic drama is torn between the need for relationship and community on the one hand, and the need to be relieved of and to defend oneself against that same community’s mix of intrusive, gossiping, judging, caring, accepting, taunting, demanding people and their all-enveloping arms. Almost no one recognizes or respects other people’s boundaries. People make fun of each other, ridicule the stranger, and try to tear down anyone who stands too tall or apart. To watch it feels like being back in high school. (That, for me, is the crazy-making part.) Yet when someone is genuinely hurt, the community rallies to help, and there are a few consistently kind people who express the best that community has to offer.

At the core of this story is the “Doc,” whose brilliant, self-confident, prickly, rudely truth-telling, non-Cornish presence offends the community and draws out its ire and ridicule, but whose extreme competence in the medical arts and deep commitment to caring for the genuinely needy wins them over. He is as flawed in his own way as the community he struggles against. He is disconnected from his emotions, from understanding and empathy, and from the ability to give himself in intimate relationship. Then there is the gentle woman (“Louisa”) who wants to love him, whom he finds himself loving almost in spite of himself, and the painful frustration of watching them as they try to connect but constantly miss and anger each other. They are unable to cross the chasm of buried pain and patterns of distance that he in particular has built up around his life.

Thank God it’s a comedy and we are drawn to laugh. Otherwise it would only make us cry.

But that’s how life is for many of us: it’s a struggle. We are drawn to love, want to love, want to be loved, but our efforts are twisted and the threads of community are either broken or, conversely, woven into thick ropes that oppress and contain us. In many ways, I think that what makes life such a struggle is that we want to be both free and connected, both loved and loving and we don’t know how to negotiate the tension between those two polarities. Between each polarity (loved vs. loving… free vs. connected) lies a moving boundary. When life has wounded us, it becomes very hard to know how to find that boundary and how to live in the tension of give-and-take that is life-in-relationship.

So where is God in all this? The answer, for me, is that God is teaching us how to dance in that space between, how to dare to move into that space, to take the steps, to feel and respond to the needs and desires of the other and to know our own needs and desires. God is teaching us (those who are willing) how to give willingly and how to receive gladly. As we do the dance in our relationship with God, we are learning to know when to say to each other “yes,” or “no, not that,” or “turn around, stay with me.”

What relieves the pain of the “Doc Martin” story (whether on TV or in life) are the moments when people do connect, when somehow something breaks open the deep truth of the heart and that truth shows itself to the other person. It happens sometimes in a word, or a look, or a spontaneous act of trust and self-giving. The truth that surfaces then never comes in harsh, self-centered speech. It comes in the language of the soul, always gentle at its core. It comes in the few simple words the heart most wants to say and hear: I love you. It comes as forgiveness freely and unceremoniously given. It’s in the look that lets one’s feelings show in the eyes and that sees the other person with genuine regard. I guess that’s why I couldn’t stop watching. I kept waiting for that to happen.

I pray, for you who may be reading, that this may be a day of truth and love when your soul speaks. God bless you and “the space between” where you are dancing.

Author: Linda Robinson

Writer, Christian contemplative, concerned citizen.