I 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?
Not 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 a 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.
The 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.”