Trust, Obligation and Winter’s Bone
The other night I saw the movie Winter’s Bone, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and richly deserves any of the future honors it’s sure to collect.
The movie takes place in the mountains of the Missouri Ozarks. Ree Dolly is the 17-year-old girl whose father has skipped bail, leaving her to support her two younger siblings and an Alzheimer-addled mother.
If you believe in character development as the mark of a good movie, this one lays down the marker early. As they go to bed hungry, while neighbors down the road skin a deer, her brother asks why they can’t ask the neighbors for some. Ree tells him coldly: “You don’t ask for what oughta be given.” In a sense, the movie consists of challenging that statement with the obligations of kinship and society.
Only in retrospect was it clear that the plot had been foreshadowed in the movie theater itself. It was one of those downtown New York art theaters that fill up on a hot weekend afternoon.
We settled in two seats from the end, and a seat away from a single man, who had another empty seat on his other side. As the theater filled up, a woman sat near us, and then asked, down the row, “Would you all mind everybody moving down one seat?”
I looked at her quizzically. “I’d like to be able to sit with my parents and sister,” she explained, “and if you all move down, we can take the first four seats.” We grumped a bit but moved down. The man now beside us didn’t move.
“Would you mind moving too sir? Please?”
The young man said, “Yes, I would mind, thanks.” I settled into my seat to watch what happened next.
“You see, I’d like to be able to sit with my family,” the woman explained. “Would you mind, please?” Silence. “Would you mind moving over, sir?” she said, more loudly.
“I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again, that should be enough. Yes, I would mind. How many times must I say it?” he said.
The older man, sitting on the end of the row in front of us turned around and said, “You must be from New York, I suppose, not moving and all.” Silence from the man.
“Sir,” the woman, “I’m trying to ask very nicely…” “And you’re still getting the same answer from me,” the man interrupted. “You might want to stop talking about it now.”
Which she did. Though I must say the exchange stayed on my mind through the movie.
And as I said, the movie was about the clash of “Don’t ask for what oughta be given,” vs. the obligations we hold to others. And it made me think.
Here’s where I ended up.
If you never ask, you have no reason to complain when you get nothing. And sometimes you have a right to ask, even on fairly general principles.
On the other hand, there are some limits to asking. As far as I’m concerned, the man would have been within his rights to say, “Look lady, I came here early to get the one seat I wanted to sit in. You came here late, looking to get four seats, and to get them by begging.
“And when you didn’t get them by begging, you proceed to extortion by guilt-tripping. Sometimes I move over. Today I don’t. At the last you should stop it. At best, you owe me an apology.”
What do you think? What do we owe each other? What right do we have to ask? Where are the boundaries? And where are the lines that are meant to be crossed?
Put another way, who can you trust? And how and when do you have the right to ask for trust?
Unless there is something wrong with the seat the guy was being asked to move to, it is hard to come up with a justifiable reason the guy could have for not moving. It seems to me he was just being mean spirited. I think we have a right to expect basic courtesy from others. To me the story says more about the man being asked to move that the person that was asking him to move.
Wow. I couldn’t disagree more with you here, Charlie! I’m with Ed on this one.
Maybe it’s my Midwest coming out, but I do believe the woman had the right to ask, twice, and not get a rude response, and certainly not the diatribe which went on – fictitiously – about getting in early or begging for seats. After he refused twice, she could even have her own fictitious dialog about spilling her drink all over the curmudgeon as she climbed over him into the open seat. (She probably shouldn’t actually do it, though.)
You ask what our obligations are to one another? I think simple courtesy, remembering that we share this time on the planet with other people is not too much to ask. Do the kind thing; it feels good.
I can certainly agree with your opinion of the grump’s right to not have to move, as well as the the woman’s right to ‘ask’ him to do so. I try to practice, and therefore model to my children, The Golden Rule, so I would have been glad to move to make room for others. It certainly wouldn’t have hurt me to do so, it was just one seat over. It’s not like she was asking him to get up and go look for another seat elsewhere in the theater! But, I do feel the woman should have respected his right to retain his seat. He did get there in plenty of time to claim it, and she, obviously, did not arrive in time to do the same for herself. Hardly his problem. She did have the right to ask, but, she should have asked once, politely, and then accepted his answer. This would have left him feeling like the selfish and rude jerk that he might possibly be, and not made her look like the pesky, demanding, self-absorbed twit she made herself appear to be. Many other battles are more important to stand your ground on, a seat in the theater is no place to draw the line. The niceties of manners are not old-fashioned or outdated. They are used to make our world a more charming and comfortable place, for everyone.
I say three cheers for the guy who didn’t move.
If I were he I probably would have detested the woman for asking everyone to move and then I might have moved out of guilt and of some weird connection to the herd instinct. I am sick and tired of self declared “deserving” people.
On the other hand, I think it’s right and proper to ask for the venison.
It never ceases to amaze me how diverse are the opinions held by the readership of this blog, particularly since they all clearly have something fundamental in common.
I guess my take-away is Lance’s; no matter how self-evident something may seem to me, there’s always someone who feels yet another view is equally self-evident, and there’s a lot to learn in understanding why.
Charlie, the episode you report from the movie theatre reminds me of Stanley Milgram’s *other* famous experiment, where experimenters boarded crowded NY subway trains and asked able-bodied but seated riders, with no explanation, to give up their seats.
It is a classic breaching experiment in social psychology: one that that seeks to examine people’s reactions to violations of commonly accepted social rules or norms.
From the outside, it looks like you witnessed a cross-cultural clash: the woman, in her own context and framework, was making a reasonable request, with every right to do so; and the man, in his own context, was suddenly the subject of a breaching experiemnt–to him, the woman was making an UN-reasonable request.
There is no universal right and wrong response when unspoken expectations collide. Of course, as individuals, when we encounter someone whose behaviour is norm-breaking, we can choose to be gracious or hostile, empathetic, or judgemental.
My personal strategy for dealing with situations like the one in the movie theatre:
1. I can always ask for help, or a reasonable favour. My obligation is to ask politely, state my request clearly, accept the answer graciously, and thank anyone who helps me.
2. If I am asking help for someone else, and / or if the stakes are genuinely high, I can be more assertive and more persuasive. (If someone has had a heart attack and I need your cell phone to call for medical help, for example, I’m too small to tackle you for it, but I’m confident that I can quickly convince you to let me make a call on it, and I’ll pull out all the stops to do so.)
3. If someone else makes a reasonable request of me, I want to say yes if I can.
4. If I make a request, reasonable or unreasonable, of anyone else, he or she has no obligation to say yes to me. This is like the "step out empty" of Tai Chi–make a request without emotional baggage or investment in the outcome. (It helps the outcome.)
In short: put it out there, offer much, expect nothing.
I’m not saying anything about the participants of the scene in the movie theatre, or about how other people should behave. I’m saying that this strategy serves me well.