A charming tale for over-achievers

I thoroughly enjoyed watching Disney’s latest animated musical, Encanto. It’s colorful and clever (there are flowers and yellow butterflies everywhere, which recalled for me the magical realism of Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Márquez and his Love in the Time of Cholera, even though it’s been ages since I’ve read it), the voice cast is fantastic, and the music is from superstar composer of Hamilton fame, Lin-Manuel Miranda. But what I found most compelling was the story’s powerful message for gifted and indispensable over-achievers, who remain burdened by the imposter syndrome, such as ourselves. I’ll try to describe what I saw without ruining the story for those who haven’t seen it yet.

The protagonist is the fifteen-year-old Mirabel Madrigal, one of La Famila Madrigal, the patrons and protectors of a remote village tucked away in the Colombian mountains. The villagers settled there to escape the armed conflict that forced them from their homes. In their flight, a young mother, Alma Madrigal, escapes with the lives of her infant triplets while losing her husband Pedro who turns back to face their attackers. Following Pedro’s sacrifice and in the presence of Alma’s tears, the candle that she carries miraculously bursts forth with a light that blasts away their pursuers, lifts mountains around the fleeing refugees to protect them, and creates along with a whole village of buildings a sentient house – La Casita – in which Alma raises her children. The candle, which burns in perpetuity at the house, further grants each of the triplets, and their children, with a magical gift on their sixth birthday. Thus, little Mirabel’s older sister Luisa has superhuman strength, while her oldest sister Isabela conjures growing flowers at will. Yet, for Mirabel there has been no gift, prompting her to take on the identity of her grandmother’s greatest disappointment. 

Still, Mirabel remains devoted to her family and desperate to matter in some way. Her efforts to do so threaten to be the whole family’s undoing (I won’t go into details) and result not only in the discovery of her shamed-and-estranged uncle Bruno (We don’t talk about Bruno) but also in the confessions of her over-achieving and seemingly perfect older sisters! It turns out that Luisa feels the weight of the world on her shoulders and fears that she can’t measure up, while Isabela longs to express herself in something other than roses and isn’t in love with the man to whom she is engaged but feels obligated to maintain appearances at all costs!

Their gifts have become their prisons! Their honor constantly threatens to shame them!

The magic aside, this seems to be a common human experience. We have our gifts and with those gifts we make our contribution and a name for ourselves. Yet, at the same time, that very giftedness drives us to ever increasing achievements even while our awareness of our own limitations threatens to reveal us, not as the achievers that we seek to be, but as shameful frauds or even failures. The wisdom of Encanto is in the discovery that this power to shame is only conquered when the threat of shame is admitted and met with love and acceptance. 

The Gospel according to Matthew presents the account of a Roman centurion who appealed to Jesus for a miracle of healing. In Luke’s account of the same event, the leadership of the community argue that the centurion, because of his reputation for generosity, is worthy of this favor from Jesus. Matthew’s account sticks with the centurion’s own self assessment. He knows the traditions of the community, that he is an outsider. He says “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed…”

While not guilty of some failure, the centurion knows that he has nothing to offer Jesus. He can only depend on Jesus’ graciousness. It’s a sure graciousness and that assurance gives him the freedom to be honest with who he is.

In the name of Jesus,

Pr. Jim

Jan. 19, 2022

Rev. James A. Wetzstein takes turns writing weekly devotions with Rev. Katherine Museus Dabay at Valparaiso University, where both serve as university pastors.