Friday, November 25, 2011

Corner Gas and the Need to Belong

My favourite TV show of all time is Corner Gas, that much beloved Canadian sitcom that entertained us for six seasons with the ordinary yet hilarious lives of the residents of Dog River, Sasketchewan. No matter how many time I watch the episodes (I have lost count by now), I am always delighted at the show's witty dialogue, uproarious situations, and eccentric characters. There's something comforting about Corner Gas, like going back to your parent's home after years of being away, and finding that your old room is just as you left it.

Perhaps because theology is my stock in trade, I am always looking for a spiritual source for my joy and satisfaction in the details of earthly life. My pleasure in Corner Gas is no different. What is it about the lives of these normal people in a small Sasketchewan town that I find so... beautiful? What makes that ordinariness so wonderful?

A piece of dialogue from the first season of the show offers some insight. In the introductory scene, one of the main characters, Wanda Dollard, is sitting at the counter of the gas station where she works. Because this is a small town in the middle of nowhere, she doesn't have much to do, and so she is reading, not a magazine, but a textbook.

A customer enters and the following dialogue takes place:
Customer: What's that, quantum physics?
Wanda: Yeah, I've always been fascinated that light could be a particle and a wave. I was gonna study it in college, but then I got interested in biochemistry. And then on a whim settled on liguistics with a minor in comparative religion.
Customer: Wow, how'd you end up in a place like this?
Wanda Dollard: The last girl quit, can you believe it?

While some of the humour of this exchange is lost without the nuance that good actors can deliver, the inner irony of the joke is evident in the writing. Of all the career heights Wanda could scale, the work she most wants to be doing is that of a CSR at a rather dull and dingy gas station in a town of a 100 odd people in the middle of the prairies.

Dog River is a place in which nothing happens. It's boring and dull. No one in the outside world knows or cares all that much about it. It is not the centre of anything. And yet, for all that, the people of Dog River are not only content to live there, they wouldn't live anywhere else! What makes the show truly funny with repeated viewings is in the characters' irrepressible conviction that this nothing little town is really the best of all possible worlds.

Of course, Dog River is an idealized vision that finds predecessors in other fictional Canadian small towns, such as Leacock's Mariposa from Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. At the heart of the vision, though, lies a universal human need that far exceeds the need to discover, acquire, achieve or succeed: the need to belong.

Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche, once said that the human need to belong is greater than the need to be loved. It's a bold claim, but one that bears itself out in observation. Consider how many battered spouses endure their marriages simply because they cannot imagine belonging anywhere else. Consider how many young people join gangs or popular groups, not because they are well treated, but because they feel at home with those people.

In fact, the need to belong is ultimately spiritual in nature. Our inner drive to find our own versions of Dog River—places, relationships, communities in which we can find total acceptance and peace—derive from a deeper desire to find our hearts' true home in God Himself. St. Augustine famously said, “Almighty God, you have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in You.”

When this yearning for our home in God is not met, we seek all kinds of substitutes. We may endure abusive relationships and gravitate towards cults and sects. Many of us are already inclined to find solace in virtual pseudo-communities like Facebook. Or we may strive through social and political action to realize the Dog River ideal of belonging in our own neighborhoods and towns. But unless we find the real Source of our yearning for home in our Creator, our fundamental loneliness and restlessness will continue to consume us.

The Gospel offers us the way back to true belonging. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was not merely an exercise in legal-spiritual debt management. More than just dying in our stead, Jesus died in our place—that is, He died just as we do—so that He could bring us back home to God. With the Cross and the Resurrection, we are no longer far from God, restlessly seeking our belonging in Him. Rather, He has put His Kingdom within us (Luke 17:21) and single-handedly brought us back to where we belong in His Presence.

Our challenge is to give up our restless search for belonging in the many substitutes that cannot and do not satisfy, and to realize that in Christ, we truly belong, which means simply that in Him, we are loved, accepted, embraced without reservation. In Him, we are at home, once and for all. Our only task—the task for the rest of our lifetimes—is to accept the fact and live accordingly.

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