I am on a flight, watching a movie called “Liberal Arts.” I am unhappy. The protagonist is playing a young Woody Allen-type, full of self-doubt and with no personal intentions (albeit with less wit). Instead, he runs into people who change his life, while he ruminates and reacts.

This liberal arts graduate has returned to his old college to attend the retirement dinner of his second-favorite professor. He passively meets a young woman who is inexplicably drawn to him. They become infatuated with each other, while I am irritated at his stumbling and foot dragging. Then he criticizes the young woman for enjoying vampire books. He rants about the lack of taste in people who read such trash, trite and trivial books with no meaning.

Yet the movie itself is a vampire book, full of clichés. The cliché is the adult adolescent, a theme all to familiar in movies. That theme is something that offends me, because I heartily dislike “heroes” who are reactive and passive. He drives with his foot on the brake throughout the movie. Three separate characters behave in completely unbelievable ways, courting this annoyingly passive character to bring out his true calling. He is the Reluctant Hero. Joe Campbell has corrupted generations of screenwriters. I don’t think they really understand Campbell.

Which brings me to the point of this posting. Some new research found that people who (1) identify their core values, and (2) write about why they believe in them, why they hold to them, are less defensive and learn more in life.

Would you like to be more effective? Do you want to learn from adverse situations?

We are faced with two competing drives. On the one hand we need to defend ourselves. Life is risky, full of dangers. We know these dangers, or at least we know there is something called danger that we need to avoid. Someone insulting us is someone we must fight.

Yet we need to learn. We learn so as to become more adaptable. Those who don’t will become food for the predators that watch for fools. Our enemy attacks us at our weakest point, but when we eagerly learn from that, our weakness is transformed into strength. Which will it be? Defensiveness or learning?

Imagine this: You are faced with some kind of feedback about your life direction. The feedback is painful. It suggests to you that you are on the wrong path. If you have affirmed your core values (the point of the research), you are more open. Affirmation develops courage. You learn because your defensiveness is set aside. You are not going to be food for the predators.

Here is a news release about the research.http://bit.ly/VXaB9Y

Bear in mind that the values that one is to rank for this exercise are somewhat arbitrary. I would suggest a substitute. If you haven’t ever done this, take the Values in Action (VIA) survey, a questionnaire that will rank-order twenty-four virtues or talents. They include such things as being conscientious, being brave, and being spiritual. Your personal top five are called “your signature strengths.”
Go to www.authentichappiness.org to take that questionnaire. It is free.

The point of the VIA is to identify those top five strengths, but more, to offer you a path. You see, simply knowing your top five strengths actually does you no good at all. But if you “play to” your strengths, if you make a conscious decision to do more of what you are naturally drawn to, your life improves. You gain energy. You develop direction. If you have been plagued by anxiety or depression you will find them receding as the VIA strengths come into the foreground of your life. Write about why you value your top five talents. Then commit to acting on those top five strengths.

Passivity as a romantic lifestyle is why I hate this movie. Passive people who wait for miracles to come into their lives, people who wait for something to transform themselves are missing the point. Only in cliché-driven movies will such ridiculous miracles happen.

We all want to stumble into the burning bush. We all want to be baptizing in the River Jordan when Jesus shows up. We look for miracles. I admit that. I think I have experienced miracles, but only after I have been working really, really hard for a very long time.

In the Bible (a favorite book, one I never get tired of) we find a wonderful story. The setting is right after the Romans have crucified Jesus. The believers are devastated. Two of them are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, about five miles. A man joins them and asks what they discuss with such intensity. “Are you a stranger here, and not aware of all that has happened?” They explain they were followers of a great rabbi who has been murdered by the civil authorities. Yet, they say in wonder, some of the followers claim he is not dead, but alive.

They discuss and walk, coming to an inn where the stranger proposes they stop and eat and rest. As the stranger blesses the bread before them, they suddenly recognize their own rabbi. There he is, before them, and he disappears.

“But we ought to have known,” they say. “After all, we felt an inner burning as he walked and talked to us.”

They have an answer to a question they hadn’t really formulated. But it is not the Liberal Arts question of wandering aimlessly. They were going somewhere when they got the answer. They were moving purposely toward their own goal, when the divine steps into their lives. We can learn from this little story that when we are proceeding on our own mission, the answers come to us. Don’t listen to the philosophy that says miracles happen when we are full of self-doubt. Self-doubt is poison and vision and faith are the antidotes. Create a true goal for yourself; move confidently toward it, and someone will appear who seems to be going in the same direction. And that will make all the difference.