Disney’s ‘Frozen’ and the Need for Vulnerability

My two-year-old son loves Frozen. He loves the magic and the humor, the characters and the songs. We arrived a bit late to the Frozen scene, meaning I don’t yet experience suicidal and/or homicidal thoughts every time I have to hear “Let It Go.” This also means I missed out on most of the initial social and cultural analysis of the film. However I believe we have a lot to learn from Frozen. It may span just 102 minutes and feature a talking snowman, but it still touches on several important themes and offers compelling insights into the human condition.

Many have posited that the message of Frozen is to just be true to yourself and accepting of differences. While these conclusions could certainly be supported by a casual viewing, I think the true meaning is deeper than that. For me, the most important theme is the need to reject the temptation of alienation and accept our vulnerability.

The film’s sisters represent these two extremes. Elsa is cold and unapproachable. She is an island, a fortress, a mountain peak. Elsa has learned to survive by carefully controlling every aspect of her environment. Terrified of her capacity to hurt others, she shuts everyone out—including her sister—and represses her individuality for the sake of her family and kingdom. But after her powers are revealed, Elsa chooses to abandon her community and indulge in her once-forbidden individuality (As the lyrics go, “No right, no wrong, no rules for me! I’m free!”). She naively assumes that her isolation will keep others safe from her destructive powers. Instead, it affects everyone around her by triggering an eternal winter. When Elsa realizes that her personal liberation has wrought disastrous consequences upon her society, she is so overcome with fear that she creates a monster.

Ana, on the other hand, represents the extreme of human vulnerability. She is warm, trusting, and approachable to a fault. Starved of affection and companionship, Ana is so desperate for love that she is willing to give a complete stranger the keys to her heart; meeting prince Hans on the morning of her sister’s coronation, she agrees to marry him that very evening. Ana is certainly the more relatable and likeable of the two sisters, but at times she seems hopelessly impulsive and foolish. Rushing into every decision with childlike naïveté, she continually puts herself in mortal danger.

So whose way is better? Should we strive to be stoic, isolated Elsa’s or naïve, trusting Ana’s?

Poll a random sampling of small children, and Elsa will likely come out the favorite. After all, she has ice magic! She is beautiful, independent, and (seemingly) courageous! Poor Ana is “completely ordinary” in her own words—a klutzy sidekick destined to be overshadowed by her dangerous and sexy sister. But I would argue that we have more to learn from Ana’s example. We cannot succumb to the temptation of alienation, as spiritual growth requires vulnerability. We have to open ourselves up to others, even at the risk of being hurt.

Before I go any further, let me first confess that I am a terrible person to be instructing anyone on how to be vulnerable. Asking me to explain vulnerability is like asking Donald Trump for advice on humility, or making Lindsay Lohan your AA sponsor. Possessing none of Ana’s natural warmth or openness, I have far more in common with the icy Elsa. I am thoughtful and reserved, which can easily come across as aloof (a classic INTJ, for you Myers-Briggs fans). Emotions make me uncomfortable, so I prefer to avoid them. I don’t like having to rely on other people, or other people having to rely on me. I value my independence and my individual freedom.

I used to be fearless, invincible. Then I had kids. Overnight, the world became a dangerous place. Suddenly it occurred to me that there were in fact bad people in this world who meant me and my children harm. At the same time, I became (slightly) more comfortable in expressing my emotions, and in recognizing and responding to the emotional needs of others. More than anything else, my love for my children made me aware of my own vulnerability. In the words of C.S. Lewis:

Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Is this quote not a perfect summary of Elsa’s selfishness and Ana’s sacrifice?

I would add that to be human is to be vulnerable, as we are created for love. Life is really all about relationships, and trust is the foundation of every relationship. But trust cannot develop behind defensive walls or closed doors. It requires openness and risk. Take the example of bowing, a sign of respect in many cultures. When we bow, we literally expose our necks in a gesture of vulnerability. M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, echoes this sentiment when he writes “There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability; there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community.”

Yet there is a profound human temptation to desire invulnerability, one that recurs over and over again in both literature and history. Just picture the Great Wall of China. Imagine all the wars that have been fought and the millions of lives lost as a result of fear and mistrust, the “preemptive” attacks launched in the hope of obtaining protection. Or for you fantasy types, recall Voldemort’s quest to cheat death by splitting his soul into horcruxes, or Sauron’s forging of the One Ring at Mount Doom. Both attempts to attain invulnerability resulted in untold disaster before being finally conquered by simple acts of love.

The denial of vulnerability and resulting alienation continues to be a big problem in today’s society. In the documentary Absent, Justin Hunt examines the problem of fatherlessness. He presents countless children—many of them now adults—who have either been abandoned or abused by their fathers. Hunt refers to this rejection as “The Wound,” which leads predictably to “The Vow”– a promise children make to themselves to never let anyone hurt them again. But this alienation does not lead to empowerment; it just keeps people from forming meaningful relationships, thus perpetuating the cycle of rejection and pain.

Vulnerability is not weakness, and alienation is not strength. To the contrary, the denial of our vulnerability is a form of weakness and cowardice. It is saying “I am so fragile, and my self-esteem so delicate, that I must protect my heart with walls and bars.” But the protections we gain from these defenses are just prisons of our own making. To choose alienation over vulnerability is to accept a form of spiritual death over a real life filled with both joy and pain.

On the other hand, there is great strength and courage in embracing our vulnerability. It is saying “I know you might hurt me, but I am strong enough to take a chance.” Vulnerability does not mean allowing anyone and everyone into our lives, or rushing into marriage. The wisest thing Elsa says in the whole movie is “You can’t marry a man you just met.” Rather, vulnerability is how we relate to our families and to God. It is chiefly a matter of depth, not breadth.

Not all of us have suffered abandonment, but we have all been wounded in some way. How do we overcome our pain and conquer our fears? How do we learn to trust and love again?

The answer is grace. In The Road Less Traveled, psychologist Scott Peck refers to grace as “a powerful force originating outside of human consciousness which nurtures the spiritual growth of human beings.” It goes by different names in different cultures, but is as universal in its occurrence as it is mysterious in origin. Peck notes that “it is because of grace that it is possible for people to transcend the traumas of loveless parenting and become themselves loving individuals.” Grace is available to us all, but it must be accepted from a position of vulnerability. Instead, many people reject grace in favor of personal quests for power, resulting in alienation from others and from God.

In Frozen, Ana experiences the pain of her sister’s rejection for years, and she is twice critically wounded by Elsa’s powers. And yet she never gives up on Elsa. She keeps going back, with open arms and an open heart. Consider the film’s ending (and I won’t ruin it for those who haven’t seen it). Ultimately, which sister shows true courage? Which force triumphs: Elsa’s magic, or Ana’s heart?

While it is never easy to accept our vulnerability, there is great comfort in God’s love. No matter how deeply we invite Him into our hearts, God will never hurt us. No matter how many times we reject God’s wisdom in favor of our own, He will never abandon us. In opening our hearts to others, we model Christ’s love for us. By embracing our vulnerability, we welcome grace into our lives.

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How to Not Succeed in Life: Nine Things Every Young Graduate Should Know

Tis the season for graduation speeches, when accomplished individuals draped in medieval garb deliver words of wisdom to anxious twenty-two-year-olds. I usually hate such occasions: the sappiness, the clichés, the self-congratulation. I skipped my college graduation and likely would have passed on my high school ceremony too, if given the chance. When it comes to doling out generic life advice, I am certainly no expert.

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But with so many wonderful speeches floating around right now, I thought I would offer up a timely antidote. As you can see from the title of this post, my “speech” will focus on how to not succeed in life. That’s right. I plan to dispense terrible advice, carefully designed to deflate the hopes, dash the dreams, and derail the destinies of our country’s brightest young minds. Why, you might ask? Well, keep reading, and hopefully you’ll see.

Good afternoon, class of 2015! And what a fine looking bunch you are. Today is finally here, the day you will each receive that expensive piece of paper henceforth entitling you to a life of quick and easy success. The hard part is pretty much over, so I suggest you begin the celebration tonight, and continue for at least the next few months. Relax. Rest on your laurels. Trust me; you’ve earned it!

Fortunately for you, I’ve decided to keep this address mercifully brief. After all, I know how short your attention spans are! Still, should you get bored at any time during the next fifteen minutes, I encourage you to get out your smart phones and start scrolling around on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Chances are you will find something stimulating enough to distract you for the few seconds you might have otherwise spent developing a complex thought, or just mentally recovering until something genuinely interesting turned up.

So, here it is. A lifetime’s worth of advice condensed into nine convenient points.

1. First, I want to just remind you that you’re awesome! Thirteen years of grade school and four years of college should have been enough to artificially inflate your self-esteem, but I’m not willing to take any chances here. As Exhibit A, just look at your awesome grades. A’s are now the most common grades awarded, up from 15% in 1960 to 43% now. Think about how much smarter that makes you than your grandparents! Humility is okay, but only when it’s the false kind. Like, “look at me over here; I’m awesome, but I’m so humble about it! Which pretty much makes me double awesome!” Right on, bro.

2. Second, let me remind you that whatever is going on in your life at any given moment pretty much predicts the entire rest of it. When times are good, assume the rest of your life will be nothing but smooth sailing. By no means should you plan for a “rainy day”; those only happen to other people. Don’t bother giving thanks for your blessings. Everything good that comes your way is the direct result of your unparalleled brilliance.

3. On the other hand, should you find yourself experiencing a moment of doubt, much less a major setback, take this as a clear sign that your life is now headed for total and irredeemable failure. You have fallen off the smooth escalator ride of personal advancement, and there is simply no getting back on. Didn’t get the job you wanted? Your boyfriend broke up with you? You feel a nagging sense of discontent, as though something important is missing from your life? I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s rare for people to recover from such misfortunes.

4. Compare yourself to other people about your age, and worry obsessively about what other people think about you, including casual acquaintances and strangers on the Internet. This is best done through the infallible lens of social media. Your friends sure seem happy on Instagram. Look, some of them are even at the beach right now. Or dating someone awesome. Or just landed a dream job in your field. Yep, something is definitely wrong with you.

5. Don’t take risks. After all, you might fail. Instead, play it safe. Put in the standard forty-hour work week, and expect to be rewarded generously for it. After the first month or so on the job, begin presenting your boss with a weekly list of demands to help you strike a better work-life balance. Remember, it’s his (or her) job to accommodate your needs.

6. Take this time in your life to experiment with multiple sexual partners. You’re in your twenties after all, which according to virtually every pop culture outlet means you should be having lots of meaningless sex. Don’t worry about the potential for contracting a sexually transmitted disease, experiencing an unplanned pregnancy, or becoming emotionally involved with someone entirely incompatible with your values. Instead, find someone cool to cohabit with, and just see what happens. You know, nothing serious. This will all be easily explained to your future spouse, should you choose to get a future spouse.

7. Try to live in as narrow a world possible. Don’t deviate from the routine. Avoid travel to foreign countries, as this is both dangerous and expensive (you need your money for alcohol). Also, don’t read books. You read enough books (or started them at least) in school. Instead, pass the time by watching lots of reality TV.

8. Be selfish! Think primarily about your own happiness. Don’t bother trying to help others around you; that’s their business. Surely someone else is taking care of the poor in your community and helping oppressed people throughout the world. You’ve got more important stuff to deal with. Take your family and close friends for granted, and only show up on their doorsteps in times of personal crisis. Don’t bother returning phone calls, checking in, or helping out. They know they can count on you (when it’s good for you).

9. My final and most important piece of advice is this: make excuses for yourself! Do not by any means accept personal responsibility for your actions. If something doesn’t go your way, it is almost guaranteed to be somebody else’s fault. In a jam over who to blame? Just use one of these handy fall-backs: your parents, society, the 1%, inequality, racism, sexism, oppressive cultural norms, Fox News, and/or the Electoral College.

Well, class of 2015, it’s been great. Thanks for listening. You may have noticed some similarities between these nine points and some of the social and cultural messages you’ve already been exposed to. They are the little destructive thoughts and bad habits we are all prone to slipping into from time to time. But the fact that these mistakes are common does not make them any less harmful, so here is my real advice:

  1. Believe in yourself, and take pride in your achievements. Stay confident, but humble.
  2. Give thanks for your blessings and understand that material success is not guaranteed. If you were to lose it all tomorrow, what would keep you going?
  3. Expect setbacks, but try to maintain a sense of perspective when they occur.
  4. Don’t compare yourself to others, especially on social media.
  5. Take calculated risks and be willing to sacrifice for your dreams. The world does not owe you anything.
  6. Think carefully about the consequences before entering a sexual relationship with someone, and don’t cohabit before marriage.
  7. Broaden your mental horizons with plenty of travel and good books, including fiction. If you can’t go abroad, seek out new experiences in your own neck of the woods.
  8. Take time to serve others in your community, but also invest in your close relationships. When you do fall on hard times, it’s not society that will comfort you, but your family and close friends. So make sure you are there for them too when they need you most.
  9. Don’t make excuses for failure; instead use it as fuel to drive your next success.

But first, congratulations! You really do deserve it. A college degree is a major accomplishment, and certainly nothing to scoff at. I wasn’t lying either when I said you’re awesome. So good job, and good luck!