In the film Magnificent Obsession (1954) Rock Hudson (as Robert Merrick) and Otto Kruger (as Edward Randolph) hold two of the starring roles. The story begins by showing how self-absorbed Robert Merrick is. One day Merrick comes to Randolph’s house late at night totally drunk. The next morning as Merrick is trying to deal with his hangover, at what Randolph must see as an opportune time, he discusses with Merrick the idea of personal destiny.
A clip of this short conversation can be seen on YouTube:
In this clip Edward Randolph asserts to Robert Merrick that he can “establish contact with the source of infinite power” and thereby fulfil his personal destiny.
He uses an electric lamp as analogy: The lamp is designed to give light, but until the switch is turned so that the lamp is connected with the electric generators at the power plant, it cannot do what it is designed to do. But, when it makes contact, it will do what it was meant to do, i.e., give light.
How does a person establish contact with the source of infinite power? Randolph directs Merrick to be of real service to people; find people who need help and help them but always in secret. Never let it be known and never ask to be repaid. Keeping it secret is the most important part of the belief. If the electric power lines are not protected by insulation, the power will be dissipated. The same thing goes for us. Keeping good deeds in secret is like insulating the power of your personality.
Randolph asks Merrick, “Isn’t there anything in the world that you need that you haven’t been able to get in the ordinary way?” Merrick’s reply, “Not a thing…except I’d like to square myself with Helen Phillips. But if I help some poor joker, why does it follow that she’s going to listen to me?” Randolph replies, “I think you will be surprised as what follows after trying this way of life.”
Merrick says that if it as simple as all that he will certainly give it a chance. Randolph retorts, “It’s not something you can just try out for a week like a new car you know.” If Merrick thinks he can feather his own nest with it, he should just forget it! Besides, this is dangerous stuff. One of the first men who used it went to the cross at the age of 33 (an allusion to Jesus Christ).
This conversation is the turning point in the film and becomes the basis of the essential story question answered by the film, i.e., the magnificent obsession. If Merrick uses Randolph’s advice, will he be able to square himself with Helen Phillips? Will he truly succeed like Randolph promises? It takes a few years of Merrick using Randolph’s advice, follows his obsession to serve (primarily Helen Phillips) in secret, but eventually the story question is answered. He squares himself with Helen Phillips and he gets much more in the process.
Assign students to watch this short clip from the film or show the clip in class. Engage in discussion using the following questions as the starting point:
• How do you react to Edward Randolph’s analogy of the electric lamp and the connection with infinite power?
• Do you believe that each person has just one personal destiny?
• As you understand the biblical idea of calling, how true to this idea of calling is Edward Randolph’s belief?
• In what way is selfless service to others, done in secret, the way to understand or employ one’s calling? Do you agree with the analogy of having to insulate yourself from the accolades that might come from serving others in order to continue to have the power?
• Why must selfless service be done in secret in order for it to have the power that Randolph describes?
• In the film story, the acts of selfless service that Merrick does (not shown in the clip) are in addition to his usual work as a surgeon, yet nothing is said in the story about his work as a surgeon fulfilling his destiny. It is the things that he does outside his work that fulfils his destiny. Is this an accurate way to portray the biblical ideal of calling? Couldn’t one argue that his work as a physician also had the potential of fulfilling his destiny?
• Isn’t there a risk that selfless service of the kind that Randolph describes will invite more requests for service and in the process encourage people to take advantage of you?