Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Before the beginning of the novel Magnificent Obsession, published by Lloyd C. Douglas in 1929, there is a quotation from the Bible, Matthew 6:3, “Let not thy right hand know what thy left hand doeth.”  The first part of this chapter of Matthew consists of the admonitions of Jesus when it comes to doing alms.  It worth quoting the first four verses in full:

6:1 Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.

6:2 Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

6:3 But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:

6:4 That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

We might have expected that the hypocrites referred to in the second verse, whose good deeds are done just for show, should get no reward in Heaven.  But the first verse implies that even if you do alms out of the goodness of your heart, unless they be done in secret, you will fare no better than the hypocrite.  The secrecy is essential.

There is a spiritual premise underlying Magnificent Obsession. Ultimately, it is Christian in nature. We know this in part because Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger) refers to Jesus at one point in the movie, and in part because it is based on a book by Lloyd C. Douglas, who was a devout Christian. But it is more than that, because whereas everyone knows about Christianity, the particular spiritual principle in this movie seems to be known only to a few, as if there were a secret society to which they belonged. Why it is a secret is not explained, which is hard to understand, because if more people knew about it and applied that knowledge, the world would be a much better place.

The secret principle is karmic in nature, and is explained by analogy with electricity. The way it works is that if you do good things for people without letting other people know about it, and you refuse any attempt on their part to repay the debt, you build up a spiritual charge of good karma that rewards you. If you allow them to repay the debt, the spiritual force is discharged. Most people are grounded, never accumulating a charge, because they allow people to return the favor. If you tell other people about your kindness or charity, the spiritual force will dissipate, as with a wire without insulation. This need to keep one’s good deeds a secret in order to build up a spiritual charge is to be distinguished from the secrecy surrounding knowledge of the principle itself. Even if you accept the former, that still does not explain the latter.

The story begins when the reckless behavior of the rich, irresponsible playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) causes him to lose control of his speedboat.  As a result, a resuscitator owned by Dr. Wayne Phillips is borrowed to save Merrick’s life.  Right after that, Phillips has a heart attack.  Had he still had his resuscitator in his house, he would have survived.  And that it is that Merrick inadvertently causes the death of Dr. Phillips, who we later find out was the one who initiated Randolph into the secret spiritual principle. Dr. Phillips was such a good man that he used up all his income and borrowed against all his assets to do good deeds, leaving his wife, Helen (Jane Wyman), and his daughter, Joyce (Barbara Rush), nothing. Merrick tries to make amends, but Helen is insulted by his efforts to use mere money to atone for the death of her husband. Later, Merrick learns about the karmic principle from Randolph, but he is a bit crude in his attempt to put it to good use. He helps someone out who needs money, and then, figuring he is all charged up with a lot of good karma, tries to make a dinner date with Helen, whom he now has the hots for, even though she is a widow of only a few weeks. In trying to get away from his persistent advances, she is struck by an automobile and blinded.

Presumably, the point of this scene is to distinguish between being rewarded for doing good, on the one hand, and doing good in order to be rewarded, on the other.  In a simplistic conception of Christianity, people that are good get to go to Heaven, and people that are bad go to Hell.  But this sets up a paradox.  If someone is good only because he wants to get into Heaven and avoid Hell, is he not acting selfishly?  The most wicked man on Earth, were he to know for certain the simple formula stated above concerning life eternal, would act like a saint.

A similar paradox arises with karma.  In a simplistic understanding of this principle, good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people.  In the television series My Name Is Earl (2005-2009), the title character wonders why bad things always seem to be happening to him.  He wins the lottery, but while jumping for joy, he gets hit by an automobile, winds up in the hospital, with the lottery ticket lost in the process.  But while watching television, he hears a man talking about karma, and Earl realizes that’s what his problem is.  He as bad karma, on account of all the bad things he has done in his life, though none of them worse than petty thievery.  He makes a list of all his misdeeds, intending to make amends.  No sooner does he make up for one of his sinful acts than he finds he lottery ticket.  And so it goes.  As he makes up for the things he has done wrong, crossing them off his list as he does so, his life continues to get better.

Unlike the principle in Magnificent Obsession, Earl tells all his friends about his list, and when he makes amends with someone he has mistreated in the past, he generally tells him all about it too.  But we have to wonder.  If Earl’s only reason for “trying to become a better person” is so that good things will happen to him, does he really deserve the reward he seeks?

Now, My Name Is Earl was a successful comedy.  And since it was funny, all sins are forgiven.  That is, we are not concerned about the logic of the karmic principle that motivates Earl.  But Magnificent Obsession is a serious melodrama, and so the idea of using the secret karmic principle for selfish ends has to be dealt with.  That is why when Merrick does a good deed thinking it will help him get laid, it must be shown that trying to apply the principle for selfish ends is self-defeating.

In other words, whether the reward for being good is going to Heaven when we die or having good things happen to us in this life, that cannot be our motive for doing good.  Rather, to get that reward, we must do what is good for its own sake, just as if there were no reward.

Thoroughly chastened by having caused Helen to become blind, Merrick decides to go back to medical school, becomes a doctor, and then has to perform an emergency operation on Helen, which saves her life and restores her vision, allowing them to marry and live happily ever after.

If the spiritual metaphysics of this movie is just too incredible to suspend disbelief, it becomes an outrageous melodrama of coincidence. Furthermore, we are appalled that Dr. Phillips did not provide for his wife and daughter in the event of his death. We get the sense of a man who was so caught up in the idea of helping strangers that he neglected his family. But given what he believed in, I guess he figured his spiritual estate would take care of them, on the assumption that good karma can be inherited.

Except for this last part, Dr. Phillips’ neglecting to take care of his wife and daughter after his death, which seems a bit cold and heartless, the basic ideas in this movie can even be appreciated by an atheist.  And by that, I mean an atheist in the full sense of the word, as one who does not have any religious notions at all; for technically speaking, there are atheistic religions, such as Jainism and Hinayana Buddhism.  What we may call extended atheism consists of the following four principles:

  1. There is no God.
  2. There is no immortal soul.  Death is final.
  3. We do not live in just world.  Bad things happen to good people, and the world is full of wicked men that live quite comfortably and will never be punished for the evil that they do.
  4. Suffering is meaningless.  There are millions of people whose lives are full of pain and misery that has no purpose, and that ends only in death.

The atheist, so understood, is under no illusions about there being reward or punishment for being good or bad.  At least, not as a result of some spiritual principle.  And yet, he may come to understand that helping your fellow man can be rewarding, that you are paid back, in a way, for your kindness.

Furthermore, there does seem to be some truth to the idea that telling others about your acts of charity spoils the effect. Instead of continuing to feel good about what you have done, the minute you tell others about it, you begin to feel like a braggart, someone who is taking great pride in his magnanimous gesture. If others see you acting in a kind and generous manner, or if they find out about it by some other means, that is fine.  But if you have to tell them about your virtues, the effect is ruined, and they may even despise you for it.

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