National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 31, 2003

The stars of "Joan of Arcadia," from left: Joe Mantegna, Mary Steenburgen, Jason Ritter, Amber Tamblyn and Michael Welch
Challenge of 'Joan of Arcadia' is our own


On the corner of my street, there’s a billboard for a new CBS television drama, “Joan of Arcadia.” Above a photograph of a young woman, presumably the title character, a line on the billboard reads: “What if you were chosen to make a difference?” Given the title and the question, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the premise. I admit that I’m intrigued and will probably watch at least an episode to see how it plays out. But I already know that I have a problem with at least the ad campaign. What if you were chosen to make a difference?

By merely asking the question, it indicates that to be so chosen is exceptional. I simply cannot accept that. Aren’t we all chosen to make a difference? That whole “chosen people” thing springs to mind.

What if I was chosen to make a difference? I think the more incredible question to ask would be “what if I wasn’t?” Next on XYZ: Watch as contestants compete to see who can make the least difference in the world. You, our home viewer, may win a million dollars if you can live an entire year without having any impact whatsoever on anyone or anything. Oh, sorry, you’re disqualified because you just breathed.

Seriously, is there someone on this planet who was truly put here not to make a difference? Is that even possible? Some of us begin each day with a trip to the gym, while some send another batch of e-mail to a distant friend. Some of us go to work, while some of us do not. Some of us have street smarts; some of us are gullible and naive. Some of us spend a Saturday afternoon picking up trash at the beach while some go to a baseball game. Some of us are lucky to have two pennies to rub together; some of us are millionaires. Some of us have families, while others are on their own. Some of us raise children. Some of us raise each other.

It all makes a difference. To ourselves, those around us, and even those we have never met. (Note to the CBS ad department: Don’t wait for Christmas. It’s time you guys rented “It’s A Wonderful Life” again.) Yes, a national leader is clearly called to make a difference; Joan of Old changed the course of history. And what a blessing it must be to have such a huge impact. But, as the adage goes, size doesn’t matter. A mother reading a bedtime story to her son has an effect on that child’s world that is beyond compare.

OK, maybe the “Is she chosen?” question will be enough to keep us watching the first, maybe even second, episode of “Joan.” However, if the series has any hope of holding our interest, the answer will have to be, “Yes.” After that, the only reason to keep watching is to find out, “What next?” Because it isn’t the fact a person is chosen that makes her exceptional. The question we must care about is: Armed with the knowledge that she is so chosen, what does she do with it? Where does it take her? How does it change her life? How does that affect the ones around her?

Aren’t those the questions we must all ask ourselves? Knowing that we’re called to make a difference, how do we fulfill that calling? How do our lives change once we hear it? Maybe we get off the couch, turn off the television and go do something to help someone else. Perhaps we don’t do anything new, but we just do the same thing differently. With a greater sense of appreciation. A new awareness. A new responsibility. Maybe even a sense of joy that what we do matters. That we matter.

Perhaps we’ll discover during sweeps week that CBS’s Joan is mentally ill. She’s just an ordinary girl; she wasn’t specially chosen by God after all. What then? What about the good works Joan will undoubtedly have performed in earlier episodes? Born out of delusion, are they less miraculous or more?

If Joan isn’t a new saint but just an ordinary kid, does it mean the effort Joan put into changing the world was a waste of time? And that she should be cured? Poor, silly girl, trying to make the world a better place. Good shrink and a big dose of Prozac should fix her right up. (Actually, CBS, you may want to rent “Miracle on 34th Street” instead. Pay close attention to what Santa says when poor Alfred is sent to therapy for helping needy children.)

What about the people who supported her efforts before they decided that she should be locked up? The people who believed that she could and should make a difference? Will they have to be locked up and medicated, as well?

Here’s a dose of reality. The real power in the Joan of Arc story isn’t that she was special. It is just the opposite: that she was ordinary. She was uneducated, ill-bred. She was like Jesus. No, I don’t mean all glow-y and halo-y. I mean she was like Jesus, as in raised in a barn. But she did extraordinary things despite all that. The power of the story is that an ordinary little girl can change the world.

Why should it be remarkable to see yourself as chosen to make a difference? Shouldn’t we all have such delusions of grandeur?

Ashley Merryman is a writer and lawyer in Los Angeles.

National Catholic Reporter, October 31, 2003

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