Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, a Surprising Place to find TOB

When I sat down to watch Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, I was not expecting much. I was never particularly fond of the Shrek series and found the first Puss in Boots movie to be mediocre, at best. I would have completely overlooked this latest addition to the franchise had my husband not prodded me to watch it with him after watching a glowing YouTube review from a notoriously critical film connoisseur. Let’s just say, the glowing reviews were merited. I was pleasantly surprised to find it was a visually stunning, morally compelling, family-oriented film that tracked thematically with Theology of the Body!

As an aside, I would not recommend this movie for small children due to the level of violence and some adult humor (e.g., bleeped out language). In addition, it has some rather dark themes. Nonetheless, the film’s merits are many and make it worthy fair for older children and adults.  Warning: If you don’t want the plot spoiled, stop reading here.

While the stage is set with pretty colors and a charming, somewhat conceited, agile, swashbuckling cat, the movie deals with some heavy themes. The plot weaves in themes of abandonment and the desire for love as well as the importance of family, commitment, and sacrifice.  A central focus is how the fear of death can get in the way of our ability to love.

The main character has always been careless with his nine lives. He previously mistook his carelessness for fearlessness, touting himself as a legendary hero. When he comes down to his last life, he can no longer fight with the same reckless “bravery.”  In a duel with death, he is wounded and overcome with panic and fear. His mortality is made real and his existence fragile.

He becomes focused on escaping death and restoring his nine lives as the only way to ensure his future, reduce his fear, and restore him to his former glory. He embarks on a desperate quest to find the mythical Last Wish, to regain his lives before death finally comes for him.

While on his journey, he encounters his former feline love interest, whom we learn he previously abandoned at the altar. He admits that it was the worst decision he ever made and that it was made out of fear. When she sees his newfound vulnerability, her heart softens, and trust is rekindled. Nevertheless, his fear resurfaces and motivates him to abandon her again for the sake of false security. However, in the end, he is able to overcome his fear and choose love. In the process, he discovers himself and even becomes courageous, not reckless, in the face of death. He shows his love that he is willing to risk his very life and face death to fight for an opportunity to spend his last and most important life with her.

This is the very fight we are called to enter when following the life of Christ. He calls us to love fearlessly, to let ourselves be loved deeply, and to be willing to sacrifice our lives for the sake of that love. This struggle to overcome fear and selfishness so that we can love authentically is central to the Christian life. Theology of the Body teaches us that we are made for communion of persons, and this requires making a gift of self. Christ Himself showed us this by pouring out His life out of love for us on the Cross and calling us to follow His example. Indeed, it is only when the love of another becomes the central inspiration for our lives that we find the courage to live boldly, even in the face of death.

In case this wasn’t enough, there were a few other things I found refreshing about this movie. They included several nods to the importance of gratitude and being present to the blessings in life. One character coped with tremendous hardship by focusing on what he had instead of what he was missing. Another came to realize that she had her wish right in front of her all along. I also was pleased to see that the filmmakers allowed the bad guy to be a bad guy. While appealing to our natural desire to see good in all people and give the bad guy a chance to redeem himself, the movie made space for the harsh reality that some people have genuinely malicious motivations and no intention to change. One character even admirably attempts to stimulate the villain’s conscience, but in the end, it became clear that he lacks all sympathy and is solely focused on pursuing power and domination. The profound truth here is that while God extends us innumerable opportunities for redemption, He ultimately respects our gift of free will through which some may condemn themselves. Overall, it was an enjoyable adventure with a surprisingly deep message. 

Made in My Image: Disembodied Communication & Transgenderism by Dr. Emily Dowdell

I have a theory. If you’re trained in social sciences or loosely familiar with statistics, you have probably heard the phrase “correlation is not causation.” But there’s a trend in society, the spike in gender dysphoria and transgender identification, that I wonder about. Many suggest that the sudden rise in popularity of transgender identification is connected to greater openness and reduced social stigma around sexuality and gender. There could be something to that. But what if it has less to do with the acceptance of the belief that sex and gender are separable and more to do with disembodied communication? Is it merely coincidental that it trends alongside increased internet-based communication?

Internet communication, especially through the creation of social media and dating profiles, is reductionistic. It is common for people looking for connection on these apps to peruse and rule out potential relationships based on affiliation, appearance, opinions, and interests placed on a profile. We become accustomed to limiting our understanding of others to these external attributes. Making friends or romantic connections online is more about curating the perfect collection of interest or putting up the perfect picture to attract similar people, than it is about building a relationship through shared experiences. When you add videogames and virtual character customization to the mix, it changes the way people interact and think of themselves. There are so many video games out there that let you tailor your character to look, sound, and move in almost any way you like. As technology continues to advance, it seems that the options for custom digital creation approach only the limits of the imagination. Is it not surprising then, that the body is often seen as a limitation or something to be customized to match internal preferences? When the body is separated from the person and becomes an obstacle to self-revelation, we begin to view it as an object that can be shaped and changed according to my will.

Children and adolescents being raised in this digital environment of crafting their own identities and appearances in a virtual world may think the real world abides by the same principles. In one way, the transgender movement feels appealing, especially to adolescents, because it matches the culture of online communication – that I can make myself into whomever I want and should have complete control over how I appear and am perceived. The pressure of having to determine one’s own identity and know how all of these different traits will be received by others generates significant distress, anxiety, and self-consciousness. Building friendships becomes more about gauging feedback and less about discovering oneself and the other through shared interests and experiences. Theology of the Body emphasizes the unity of body and personhood, affirming the reality that the body reveals the person. From this perspective, identity is a gift to be discovered, rather than created. When our identity is anchored in a relationship with God, who creates us male or female, it is fundamentally more secure and constant.

Human beings are more invigorated when we feel a sense of connection over a common cause or shared interest and belong to a group. Unfortunately, there are downsides to this effect. To preserve the sense of community and protect the ideals that bind the group, the group may suppress dissent, stoke fear of outside information, and focus exclusively on content that supports the group agenda.  When group members hear only one perspective exclusively, their ideas become more entrenched and more extreme.  If you mix this extreme, emotionally driven attachment to the group cause with a sense of anonymity, individuals lose their inhibitions and act in ways discordant with their prior moral sensibilities. This is what we often see in the destructive acts of violence within a mob.  No one individual is culpable for the violence; it is attributed to the group or the movement as a whole.  The Internet encourages this kind of group formation. People get sucked into the power of groupthink and ideology. They lose the ability to connect on a personal level.

I strongly believe that as human beings we are called to approach one another with humility and reverence.  I am very saddened by the ways in which individuals who are questioning or exploring their identity are mistreated, ridiculed, and feel marginalized. I can empathize and have compassion for the experiences of individual members of larger groups feeling oppressed or unseen. However, I find myself frustrated when group identification becomes the focus. Group identification is inherently polarizing. It is as if to offer respect to one group, the other group needs to be completely stripped of all value. Speaking at this group level creates more division and the person is often lost in the mix. That is because speaking in such broad terms can never truly capture the fullness of a person’s experience. Psychosexual development is a deeply personal and complicated process. When we apply broad stereotypes and terms to something so individualized, we lose a sense of the person – who that person is and how that person came to be. I want to create space for difference and discussion. To me diversity is not about dismantling preexisting systems and creating new ones that accommodate for every permutation of human experience. It’s about working together to broaden understanding at the level of each individual person.

Playful Parenting: Bluey as a Model of Child-Centered Play
by Dr. Emily Dowdell

You may or may not yet be aware of Bluey, a television show designed for preschool children. Bluey is an animated series about the playful adventures of a family of blue heeler dogs. The show premiered in Australia in October 2018 and in our home in the summer of 2020, and we absolutely love it.

In graduate school, I learned about the integral role of play in how children process emotions and work through the many challenges they face. Children need play. It is often their only outlet to express the feelings they cannot put into words. Play helps children learn how to share their inner life, regulate their emotions, and heal their wounds. 

In an episode called Daddy Putdown, Chili (Mum) goes to a baby shower and leaves the girls in Bandit (Dad)’s capable hands. Bluey is stuck on missing her mum. Bandit pulls out all the games in an effort to distract Bluey from her feelings. The games only take her mind off them for a little while. Seeing that Bluey is still struggling, Bandit gets down on her level:

Bluey: Please, can you tell her to come back?

Bandit: Okay. [dialing] It’s just that she was really look forward to this baby shower.

I don’t understand it. Why would you want to watch some stinky baby have a shower?

Bluey: Daaad! That’s not what a baby shower is!

Bandit: Yeah, it is. Mum and all her friends go into town and give some dirty baby a wash.

Bluey: That’s not a baby shower! You don’t really think that, do you?

Bandit: Well, then, what is it?

Bluey: It’s a party for a lady who has a baby in her belly!

Bandit: Really?

Bluey: You know that.

Bandit: Are there presents?

Bluey: Yeah! But they’re all for the baby.

Bandit: Ohh! What presents does a baby want?

Bluey: Oh, I don’t know. Like bibs and rattles and stuff.

Bingo: Yeah, and onesies.

Bluey: Oh, yeah. Babies love onesies.

Bandit: And are there games?

Bluey: Oh, yeah. I think so. Like Guessing the Baby Name game and stuff.

Bingo: Yeah, and Pregnant Lady Obstacle Course.

Bandit: Well. There you go. It’s ringing.

Bluey: Wait. Hang the phone up.

Bandit: Oh. Okay… Hey where you going?

Bluey: I think I thought of a game.

Just then, Bluey’s face lights up and she runs off. The show follows her into another room where she reenacts the evenings events, role-playing the mother and casting her younger sister Bingo as her daughter. She coaches Bingo to be sad when she climbs into her cozy coupe to head off for the party. She has all her little dolls set up in a circle for the baby shower and rushes in apologizing for being late. She explains to her dolls that she was late because “Snowdrop” was sad that she had to leave. She then plays out the baby shower. When she returns home in her cozy coupe, she emerges from her play ready to spend time with dad.

I could go on about the many valuable lessons for children and parents packed into these short episodes. If you want to see a mom hit the limit of her frustration tolerance, re-center, and reengage with her kids – watch the episode Sticky Gecko. My personal favorite is Sleepytime, when Bingo dreams about being a big girl… in space!  At one-point in the dream, she flies up to the sun and perches on a nearby planet, taking in the sun’s light. After basking, she says, “I have to go, I’m a big girl now.” She then hears her mother’s voice say to her, “Remember, I’ll always be here for you, even if you can’t see me, because I love you,” with the majestic musical theme Jupiter from Holst’s The Planets reaching a climactic crescendo.

The thing is, Bluey is not just a children’s show. It is a show that reveres the small moments, fills the minds and hearts of children with wonder and imagination, is packed with meaningful life lessons, and can be inspirational to parents and children alike! In another post, I may write about the significance of the portrayal of an engaged father-figure in children’s television, but that’s for another day. It is truly amazing what they manage to accomplish in just seven-minute episodes. Most importantly, Bluey is an homage to the power of play.

Let Dragons Be Evil
by Dr. Emily Dowdell

The heroic protagonist fights the evil dragon and rescues those in mortal danger. We are attracted to these stories and the excitement of the challenge. It can be a source of hope when we struggle in our own battles to see the stark victory of good over evil. In the last thirty years, many children’s stories have drifted away from these themes. Our legends are less legendary, the line between the heroes and villains has become blurred.  But there’s a developmental reason that we need exaggerated all-good or all-bad characters in children’s stories. Children need to be able to recognize what is good and what is bad, to develop their conscience, and it starts in these extremes.

The hope is that child-logic, which tends to categorize in black-and-white terms, is outgrown by adulthood. As the brain develops, it becomes more capable of discernment and critical thinking. With that comes the ability to recognize the multifaceted reality that no one is truly all-good or all-bad. However, the all-good and all-bad characters of our childhood stories help us as adults develop the extreme constructs from which to evaluate others in a more nuanced and compassionate way. Without them, there are no moral absolutes we can no longer appreciate the difference between virtuous and vicious behavior. In a General Audience in 1999, John Paul II predicted that a society with no moral framework would end up in a state of confusion. He said, “Evil exerts a frightening power of attraction which causes many types of behavior to be judged ‘normal’ and ‘inevitable’. Evil then grows, having devastating effects on consciences, which become confused and even incapable of discernment.”

There is an attractive element to retelling the story of the Disney villains in a light that makes them seem more human. These characters become less of a caricature of evil and much more relatable. Perhaps the adults who grew up watching Disney movies felt a sense of pity for the misunderstood “bad guy” or wanted to find a way to redeem the parts of themselves or close others that they saw in these evil characters. I know I did. I imagined that the evil sultan Jafar of Aladdin, while ambitious for the throne, was really out to protect Jasmine from a thief and a liar. I reversed the hero and the villain in this and many other stories growing up to try to make sense of the good and bad in my own story.

I am still extremely sympathetic to a good redemption arc, but I have come to realize that redemption only occurs if we retain a sense of what is good and bad. To suggest that all people are all good all of the time is simply untrue. It does not make space for the terribly evil actions that ordinary people can knowingly, or unknowingly, commit. I have had my utopian fantasies where I live in a world where every person feels completely understood, loved, and valued as they were created. Seeing individuals in my family long for that kind of affirmation, I too long for them to receive it. I want to believe that it is possible to get there. I want to believe in the inherent goodness in every person. But to get there, we can’t ignore the reality of evil. To get there, we have to recognize the truth of each person’s capacity for both good and evil. We must become aware of the good and bad within us and reorient ourselves to the good, again and again. We cultivate a sense of morality in ourselves and our children by encouraging growth in faith, hope, love, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. We tell them stories where the hero defeats the dragon, to give them hope that they can, with God’s grace, overcome the darkness in their own minds and hearts. Because the truth is, the Savior has already won and His kingdom, while not yet in its full glory, is established. So, we fight for the good so that we and those we love can inherit a place in this kingdom.

Image: Saint George Defeating the Dragon by Johan Konig, c. 1630

A Psychological Interpretation of Genesis 2:24
by Dr. Emily Dowdell

“Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

In Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, he begins with Genesis. What better way to tell the story of what it means to be human then to start at the beginning. In the Creation account, it is revealed that man was not meant to be alone, and God created a suitable helper for him. The relationship between the man and the woman was designed to be one of mutuality and complementarity. There were significant differences, yet they existed in harmony and complemented one another.

One of the goals of Christian marriage is to rediscover that original unity between Adam and Eve, through sacrifice, self-gift, and a shared movement toward holiness. Yet often, couples find themselves feeling isolated and alone, experiencing solitude and even despair within their relationships. The idea of marital unity can seem so far off, like a distant dream, when the day-to-day interactions are grating.  In Love & Responsibility, Pope St. John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) wrote:

True love, a love that is internally complete, is one in which we choose the person for the sake of the person, — that in which a man chooses a woman or a woman chooses a man not just as a sexual partner but as the person on whom to bestow the gift of his or her own life. It is put to the test most severely when the sensual and emotional reactions themselves grow weaker, and sexual values as such lose their effect. Nothing then remains except the value of the person, and the inner truth about the love of those concerned comes to light. If their love is a true gift of self, so that they belong, each to the other, it will not only survive but grow stronger and sink deeper roots.  Whereas if it was never more than a sort of synchronization of sensual and emotional experiences, it will lose its raison d’etre and the person involved will suddenly find themselves in a vacuum.

Ideally, when a man and woman enter a marital relationship, they are doing so freely and are able to make a full gift of themselves. Sometimes, however, this is not the case. As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Theology of the Body, in order to give yourself, you must first have some sense of self-ownership.  

Some psychologists like to focus on “the unconscious” in their work and believe that the goal of individual therapy is to bring the things that are outside the person’s awareness into view. These are the therapists that like to ask, “so, tell me about your mother…” There is a sense that if we can become more aware of our true intentions, motivations, and desires, we can make more informed decisions and increase ownership of our choices. To uncover the truth about ourselves, we go back to the beginning, to our origin stories.

When we carry unresolved pain from our past in our unconscious, we can react to our current relationships and life events from a place of fear and self-protection without even realizing it. There is a defense system in place to keep negative past experiences from recurring. It is a very natural process. As a kid, you touched the stove and found out that it burns, and you will never touch it again… In our interactions with our parents as children, we were constantly using them as a sounding board, taking in and adapting to their feedback, and learning how to be. Our parents were not perfect people and sometimes their reactions were not the most reliable. In such cases, we developed beliefs and reactions that may have helped us navigate childhood, but do not generalize well into adulthood. The journey of self-mastery involves untangling the past from the present, recognizing when we’re reacting based on our history instead of the here-and-now. In order to be fully present to the person in front of me, I need to see the reactions that are coming from my own unmet needs or history and make a conscious choice to reorient myself to the person before me. It is a brave and difficult thing to explore some of the dark corners of your story, but once illuminated the fear no longer reigns.

So what does all this have to do with Genesis 2:24? My working theory is that most marital conflict is rooted in an inability to see past an original wound and truly orient to the other person. Maybe I’m reacting to something my spouse said and interpreting it through a lens colored by my past experience.  That coloration, while true to my experience, may affect my ability to see my spouse’s intentions clearly or interpret them accurately. I’ll give you a personal example. My dad was not around very much when I was young.  That generated an assumption in my mind that men are naturally selfish. For a longtime, I had no idea that I even had that assumption, never mind that I was using it to interpret the behavior of all the men in my life.  You can imagine how that filter might affect my interpretation, in moments when my husband would choose to do something for himself, instead of for our family. Thankfully, I’ve learned to identify when that thought-train is leaving the station and choose to reorient myself to my spouse ­– who by the way is incredibly devoted to family – and see that in the moments he’s choosing something for himself, it’s to replenish and rest, to make himself more available to us in the future. What a different reality! So, I like to think that to leave the father and mother and cleave to the spouse, can speak to that process of untangling the past from the present, ultimately restoring the freedom needed to fully commit to loving the person before me in the present moment.

Bringing John Paul II into Couples’ Communication
by Dr. Emily Dowdell

One of the reasons I am excited to be a part of the RWPS team is our commitment to making the philosophy of Pope St. John Paul II and his Theology of the Body more accessible. One area in which we do this is in marital therapy. 

Couples experiencing marital distress are almost always struggling with a breakdown in communication. One or both parties feel misunderstood, and they often find themselves in a power struggle. When couples get locked into these cycles of interaction, they lose sight of their shared humanity, and the love they have for one another. Each person digs their heels into their own individual experiences and demands authority. Many times, the desire for power or authority comes from a deeper desire to be known, heard, and understood at the heart of which is a longing for closeness and a fear of rejection or abandonment. When working with couples who run into these struggles, I often provide this analogy: 

Imagine you and your significant other are standing at the top of a long driveway at dusk. You can’t quite make out what’s happening at the bottom. You see two figures walking past the lamppost and share your observations with each other. One of you sees a couple on a nice evening stroll, the other fears someone is being stalked and in danger.  The two of you argue about who is right, adamant about your observations and opinions. You stay at the top of the driveway and try to convince one another that you really know what’s going on down there. Yet, neither of you have enough information. If we strip away the power struggle, we might have a more balanced interaction. Instead of arguing about who is right, you might be curious about each other’s perceptions. When you seek to understand the other person’s perspective, you might learn that the one who feels fear was once assaulted from behind. The one who saw an evening stroll finds going for walks in the evening romantic. After learning about each other and why you see the world as you do, you might decide to get a little closer to find out what is really going on at the bottom of the driveway.  As you get closer, you could discover that you were both wrong, and it was your neighbor and his son walking their dog. 

In this event, there is an opportunity for the spouses to learn more about one another and their shared reality. One of the beautiful things about the philosophy of Pope St. John Paul II is that he made space for subjective experience without denying objective truth. Some philosophies that aim to honor individual experience can go to an extreme and abandon the notion of an objective reality— we see this in the common phrase “follow your truth” and other mottos based in moral relativism. On the other hand, other philosophies are more rigid about following the rules and impose an objective framework that fails to take into account each person’s subjective experience.  Pope St. John Paul II found a way to recognize the both—and. He affirmed the unique experiences that form our individual thoughts, beliefs, and opinions and asserted that we are interacting with an objective, shared reality. We have a moral obligation to pursue truth and to refrain from treating others as an object, yet we also must respect and honor each other’s subjectivity. 

When we orient ourselves to the pursuit of objective truth — about ourselves and others — in a way that respects our subjective viewpoints, we can experience more harmonious relationships and experience more interior freedom and peace. As in the example above, instead of becoming entrenched in protecting one’s ego, defending oneself and one’s view as “correct” and alienating one’s significant other in the process, we can take a curious stance with oneself, one’s spouse, and the shared reality. In doing so, one might come to realize that, while one’s assumptions about reality were inaccurate, they were coming from a lived experience, thus not invalid. Becoming entrenched in one’s own view becomes problematic when one lacks insight into one’s perspective, presumes to have all the answers, cites assumptions as facts, and refuses to dialogue with oneself, others, and the world.   

If I am approaching a conversation with my husband looking for a certain response — perhaps I am looking for support, validation, or encouragement — and he does not respond in the way I expected, this can indeed be quite disappointing. I might spiral into thoughts about what this means about our marriage or become angry because I feel entitled to the response I wanted.  If instead, I have the awareness to recognize my need, see that I was treating my husband as a source of need-fulfillment, and instead seek to treat him as a person, this changes the dynamic. I can recognize my need, acknowledge my disappointment, and be curious about both of our reactions. I wish I was always able to “put my bags down” in conversations and focus on the good of the other, but sometimes it’s really hard. 

If you or your spouse is struggling to communicate, becoming overwhelmed with strong emotions in conversation, and is unable to be curious — it may be a sign of woundedness and a source of difficulty in your life. There is likely a lot of pain and suffering there, which deeply needs compassion. We are here to help.  By learning to understand yourself and your spouse more deeply, as well as healing underlying wounds that trip us up in our relationships, the RWPS team will walk with you as you seek the healing and growth in your capacity for love. It is also important to remain compassionate with yourself and your spouse through these struggles. We all struggle in our vocations and need the healing power of God’s grace and the support of others to live our vocations fully and faithfully.  In our struggles, we find the prayer of St. Francis a helpful reminder of our calling to seek the good of the other: “O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.”