“Searching for Sugar Man” and the Law of Three

imageI recently watched the Oscar award-winning documentary, “Searching for Sugar Man.” Walking in knowing nothing about the film, I was immediately taken by the storyline of the search for one of the most talented rock musicians of all time. The discovery that Rodriguez had not actually killed himself in the middle of a concert in the mid-1970’s, but was indeed still alive came as a joyous, even spiritual, surprise to me.

With no preconceptions, I experienced Rodriguez’ re-discovery with the same sense of wonder, as a music critic comments in the film, as “if Elvis had been resurrected from the dead.” Searching for the source of these elevated feelings, I came to agree with commentator Nick Sievers that the film is “deeply emotional, almost religious. Rodriguez as holy pilgrim, Christ-like. Banished and forsaken, lost in the wilderness, then resurrected and triumphant in return.” Like Sievers, Rodriguez’ reception by adoring South African crowds brought another messianic image to mind: Jesus’ Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem.

Why was I, as far from a rock music connoisseur as one can imagine, so taken by this film? What was the reason that I was reaching for spiritual metaphors in a film not overtly religious in any way?

imagesNot long after seeing the film I began reading Cynthia Bourgeault’s new book, “The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three: Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity.” All of a sudden it became clear: the Rodriguez story is a parable of what Bourgeault calls the Law of Three. In contrast to easily observable binary systems of thinking (e.g., light vs. dark, male vs. female, Democrats vs. Republicans, yin vs. yang) in which dominance oscillates pendulum-like, the Law of Three, Bourgeault claims, is the universe’s secret dynamo for producing quantum leaps of new possibilities.

The Law of Three is aimagesimages fundamental esoteric teaching brought to the West by mysterious Russian spiritual teacher Georg Gurdjieff in the early 20th century. According to this law, every conflict contains three forces: affirming, denying, and reconciling. Most conflicts remain unresolved, however, because the subtle third force, while present, is often unrealized.

In the film, the affirming force is Rodriguez’ prodigious talent, while the opposing force is his poor record sales in the US and his ignorance of his popularity in South Africa. Without any reconciling energy, the denying force became ascendant, and Rodriguez drifted into obscurity.

Then in 1997 a South African record salesmen, Stephen “Sugar” Segermen, and music fan, Brian Currin, separately sought to discover Rodriguez’s fate. Their search represents the third force of reconciliation. In classic Law of Three style, this unforeseen new infusion of energy reconciled Rodriguez’s talent with his difficult life situation, creating something original, or as Bourgeault predicts a fourth force: a genuine unsung rock-n-roll hero known more for his innocent long-suffering than for even his brilliant, if attenuated, music career.

imagesThe film’s power is illustrated  during poignant interviews with the new-found Rodriguez, who remains palpably and almost painfully self-effacing, despite having every reason to be angry, regretful, or bitter about a corrupt music agent or just his bad dumb luck. Like the story of Jesus’ resurrection or the Buddha’s enlightenment, by film’s end viewers are swept away by the joyous conclusion that a remarkably gifted man, who gave his life over to working class employment to provide for his three children in Detroit, is rewarded with not only public recognition of his considerable talents, but also an understanding that he played a role in the defeat of South African apartheid.

Rodriguez’s return to South Africa is a miraculous spectacle to behold. Like Bourgealt’s description of Law of Three outcomes, one is overtaken by “surprise, satisfaction, elegance” as he and his family step foot in South Africa for the first time to a celebrity’s welcome.  Reflecting on this unlikeliest of rock fairy tales, Brian Currin explains: “[My search] started me on a quest, that just seems to be continuously having happy endings.”

Watching “Searching for Sugarman” is a clear illustration of Bourgeault’s Law of Three. The film reveals that third-force reconciliation typically brings more than just personal redemption, but more importantly it throws down a metaphysical gauntlet that perhaps reality is kinder than we assume: sometimes the meek do inherit the earth.


To learn more about Cynthia Bourgeault’s teachings at a spiritual retreat in Assisi (and see some lovely shots of Assisi in May), click here.

To see a video a colleague and I made interviewing Cynthia Bourgeault in Assisi, click here and scroll down the page for the link.

The power of humility is the focus of Frank Bruni’s September 21, 2013 op-ed in the NY Times, “The Pope’s Radical Whisper.”



About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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8 Responses to “Searching for Sugar Man” and the Law of Three

  1. Pingback: “‘Searching for Sugar Man’ and the Law of Three” | Contemplative Society Blog

  2. Judith Simon says:

    My husband has been deceased a year now…and this is very different living without his physical presence. I feel this is now my New Life and I, too, am reading Cynthia’s :”The Third Way”…and this is such a great application in ‘Sugar Man.’ Now, as in all things, I continue to be open to what is yet ‘to come.’

    • Cynthia’s work came at just the right point for me, too, as I had pursued the “kingdom of God on earth” view of social justice for some years and, despite its many many benefits to myself, my students, and to people in our community, it didn’t answer all of my/our questions. Her teachings and stories helped me to understand or perhaps enter into a imaginative relationship with the world of spirit. Now I’m starting to slowly see with new eyes, as in the case of Sugar Man, and finding myself awaiting “mercies that are new every morning.”

  3. Pingback: The legend Rodriguez | Soundtrack Of The Youth

  4. Watching Sugar Man so far, and seeing the character of Sixto Rodriguez and how unsuccessful he had become in the USA, strengthens further my point of view that success not only comes with talent, but also with a bit of luck.

    Sixto Rodriguez, according to the documentary, had everything. He was a master at songwriting, and perhaps even did it better than Bob Dylan. He was very good at singing, and was able to bring out emotion in even the toughest. He looked the part, and was able to amaze even Hollywood producers. But yet, he wasn’t successful. The question is, why?

    Perhaps it was his name, or perhaps he was simply in the wrong time period. We will never know. What we do know is, he was not accepted and brought into fame by those in society at that time. The name of Sixto Rodriguez didn’t catch with people’s minds. Nobody noticed his album.

    It’s been an age-old, mysterious question for advertisers and companies all over the world. What makes consumers want something? What do buyers want? What catches their eye?

    If Steve Jobs had been born in 2006 and not 1956, he would have been a failure. Tech would have already bloomed, and Apple would not have been able to face up with the competition. The same case can be argued for King Charlemagne of the Holy Roman Empire. If only he had been born 500 years later, he would have rivalled Leonardo Da Vinci as a Renaissance Man.

    I suppose it doesn’t really matter whether you become famous or not – it does matter to an extent whether you are accepted by society or not, but as long as you know who you are, it shouldn’t be a problem. I am sure even before he was discovered, Sixto Rodriguez already had his own personality. He went and sang in bars in the corners, spreading his music around. He already knew who he was, and I believe that he also knew who he was even after his downfall.

    Currently, as I watch the film, I begin to see an image of Rodriguez emerge.


    As a side note, when the investigator was looking for Dearborn, Michigan, I was thinking: “Why doesn’t he just go on Google Maps?!”. I was also surprised at the Atlas, something I have not used for such a long time.

  5. My “Service, Society, and the Sacred” class watched “Searching for Sugar Man” recently. The comment above is Jon’s thoughts after watching the first half. Below is Jon’s comment after finishing the film. This was a particularly insightful comment:

    “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” – Matthew 5:5

    As I began to reflect on “Searching for Sugar Man” and Rodriguez’s story, this quote came to mind. This biblical verse in fact sums up Rodriguez’s life in one sentence – Rodriguez was so meek, so humble, leading a virtually unknown life in Detroit. And yet, halfway around the world, he was seen as bigger than Elvis Presley in South Africa. One thing that really struck me was how Rodriguez didn’t feel angry at all with his failed rise to fame in the 1970s – he truly didn’t play music for the fame, but instead to express his point of view, to put forward his perspective.

    But putting it in context, Rodriguez must be one in a million. Why aren’t there more people like Rodriguez out there? Why do stories like his come by so rarely?

    The answer is simple – satisfaction. Many of the poorest in society lead lives extremely similar to Rodriguez’s. The difference is that they aren’t satisfied. The poorest always look up to the rich and say “I want to be there. I want to be Bill Gates. I want to be Steve Jobs”, but in the process destroy who they really are, and what they really want to do. The yearning for money corrupts anyone who indulges in it, and the poor especially. While the others are disgruntled, trying to get rich, and struggling to climb the social ladder, Rodriguez just sits to one side, playing his music, perfectly content. We tend to encourage the poor to try to rise up the social ladder. Some do, but at the end, who makes the most contribution, and touches most hearts? Rodriguez.

    There are four types of people in the world:
    1. Those who are arrogant but DO NOT have the potential to achieve what they say
    2. Those who are arrogant but DO have the potential to achieve what they say
    3. Those who are humble but do not have the potential to achieve what they say
    4. Those who are humble but DO have the potential to achieve what they say.

    In my opinion, these ranks increase in superiority, starting from 1 and the lowest to 4 at the highest. Those who are arrogant and overestimate themselves easily lose out at the end – their lives will become like Willy Loman’s from “Death of a Salesman”, forever dreaming but never achieving. Those who are arrogant but do achieve, individuals like Bill Gates (who was notoriously narcissistic), are one step above, but still are not able to open up their hearts to others, and becoming satisfied with little (it is arguable that Bill Gates has become very charitable lately, but that is another topic). Those who are humble but do not achieve are on their way to becoming one step higher – even though they do not become successful in the modern sense, their hearts are compassionate and teachable, qualities that enable them to adapt and absorb quickly. Even though they lack achievement, they will never lack friends.

    The last type of people, those who are humble and do achieve, is the most beautiful, elegant, and commendable type. They are those who touch other people, but expect nothing in return. They are able to improve quickly because they are teachable. They are able to break the obstacles of life because they are willing to go through hardships. Individuals who are humble but have potential are the strongest – and Rodriguez was of this type.

    We often tell people not to be satisfied, and to continue striving for more. This is definitely true to some extent. But sometimes, it is better to be satisfied with nothing, than to try to gain anything.

    Since I started with a bible verse, I will end with a bible verse:
    “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” – Mark 8:36

  6. Pingback: Envisioning the Expanded Self: My Favorite Books and Videos of 2013 | Social Conscience Education

  7. Pingback: “Christianity’s Hidden Driveshaft:” Cynthia Bourgeault’s “Law of Three” as Trinitarian Template of Transformation | Social Conscience Education

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