The Spurlock Exercises

In the spirit of St. Ignatius, the Super Size Me director takes viewers on a 30-day spiritual reality retreat

Morgan Spurlock gained fame and an Oscar nomination by becoming a human guinea pig in the documentary Super Size Me in which he ate nothing but McDonald’s meals for a full month. His newest project “30 Days,”(which just finished its 2nd season) is a six-part documentary series that takes the conceit of his debut film to a deeper level by launching real people from very different backgrounds into unfamiliar territory and. capturing not only their strange situations, but also some deep and life changing attitude shifts.

In season one (now available on DVD) the seminal episode focused on poverty as Spurlock takes a page from Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed, and subjects himself and his girlfriend, Alex, to live on a minimum wage salary for a month. They live in a home with no furniture, eat a lot of rice and beans (cheap), and when one gets sick and the other injured, they wonder how they will pay an expensive hospital bill. All told, they don’t do badly until the hospital bill kicks in—shedding light on the continual problem of health care for the working poor in this country. While it seemed rather “convenient journalism” that both needed to make a trip to the emergency room (Morgan, for a work-related wrist injury and Alex for a urinary tract infection), Spurlock certainly highlights a serious social blight in America that needs our immediate attention.

Odd Couplings

Later episodes from season one focus on a homophobic Midwesterner taking up residence with a gay man in San Francisco’s notorious Castro district and a Muslim community in Dearborn, Michigan inviting a man to live and pray with them despite knowing little about the Islamic faith and associating the religion with violence and terrorism. In both episodes viewers get to see the walls of bigotry falling over time. It takes some time for both men to lose some of their deep-seated prejudice (the homophobe nearly gets into a fight at a gay bar and while exploring Islam the housemates quarrel over the violent actions espoused by certain members of the Islamic faith and the general public’s suspicion of all Muslims as terrorists). In the end, the scrutiny with which both subjects explore their hatred leads them to a more sensitive and critical re-adjustment of their own views. Returning home is a challenge for both men, whose families and friends have certainly influenced their beliefs up until now but the greater shock comes when the two begin to stand up and respectfully defend the “others” they had previously slurred.

Spurlock’s wisdom in this series is found in his ability to show how powerful that “other reality” can be. And like Ignatius, Spurlock shows us what happens not only when we seclude ourselves from our comfortable way of living but also when we test our ingrained certitudes and force ourselves into “a situation of opposites.”

Season two debuted with what was possibly Spurlock’s most profoundly eye-opening episode. (FX aired the 2nd season this past July and occasionally reruns the series. Check your local listings.) He pairs an anti-immigration minuteman who gets his kicks stopping Mexicans from crossing the border and places him to live alongside illegal immigrants. Spurlock opens not only his subject’s eyes to the horrors of poverty but also all of us with shocking scenes of life in poverty-stricken Mexico and the struggle for illegal immigrants to “make it” in America any way they can. George, his subject, doesn’t yield to the raw emotion of the situation openly. But one has to wonder what kind of emotional roller-coaster lies beneath the surface.

The Spurlock Exercises

Five hundred years ago, St Ignatius had a similar 30 day experiment in mind for the Jesuits. The “long retreat,” required of all Jesuit priests, teaches one the value of stepping out of one’s usual humdrum experience to more critically examine life in a somewhat secluded environment for 30 days. Over this period of time, the very raw and vulnerable parts of ourselves get examined and we come to a new way of looking at our lives beyond the busyness of our everyday activities.

Spurlock’s wisdom in this series is found in his ability, to show us what happens not only when we seclude ourselves from our comfortable way of living but also when we test our ingrained certitudes and force ourselves into “a situation of opposites.” The grace of “30 Days” is the witnessing of humanity in all its forms, with all its tender brokenness—not only do we see disheartening social ills but we witness both the stubornness of those who struggle to allow their head to yield to their heart and the peacefulness of those who grapple with their prejudices and admit their shortsightedness.

And like Ignatius, that one change is what Spurlock is banking on.