Neil Caffrey: A Case Study on Expectations


USA’s White Collar finished its Spring season last night with its usual aplomb. This season saw Neil Caffrey on the verge of his much wanted freedom. After (finally) helping Peter catch Keller and recover the treasure (which Mozzie had stolen earlier), the FBI had initiated a hearing dealing with the remaining 2 years of his sentence. The season finale, Judgment Day, brought the meeting to order.

SPOILER ALERT.

The hearing brought out Neil’s friends and enemies and precipitated a showdown between Neil and DC Art Crimes over Neil’s theft of a painting 5 years prior. Agent Kramer, whose prize CI betrayed him in the past, and Peter debated the trustworthiness of Neil. Kramer, who was determined to keep Peter from repeating the past, hoped to catch Neil red-handed, get him sentenced to 25 more years, and forced to move to DC to serve out the rest of his sentence working for him. When Peter and Sara foiled that plan, Kramer appeared at Neil’s hearing determined to arrest him on trumped-up charges and continue with the DC move. All this action served to set up a choice for Neil, stick around, stay straight, see his chance at freedom lost, and be forced to work for Kramer; or he could flee the country with Mozzie and collect the bit of treasure they had stashed away.

Though placed in stark relief at the end of the episode, the entirety of this season had discussed this issue: could Neil change and under what circumstances would that change flourish (or if no change, what would bring out the true Neil. Or again what events might thwart that change and bring a reversal). In the showdown between Peter and Kramer, Peter laid down his operating theory on Caffrey: treat Neil like a right-acting adult, giving him freedom and he will surprise you with his goodness; treat him like a criminal and he would remain, just that, a criminal. In that sense I would argue that the final moments of the episode reveal the wisdom of Peter’s assessment.

This lesson which I will call the Burke Doctrine marked for me an important life lesson struck home my junior year of college. That summer I worked with a youth group in theBirminghamarea. I took over a class of unruly students and was a counselor on several trips. On my first Sunday, I looked at these charges (some of whom had reputations as being unteachable) and laid a bargain on the table: I expect you to act like adults in my classroom; unless you let yourselves down I will treat you like adults. I, then, preceded to treat them like adults as promised. Throughout the summer they did not let themselves down. We learned together and at the end of the summer I held a celebration for them: my way of rewarding their choice to be excellent.

I learned, then, that people rise up to the challenges you place before them. In that sense the Oprah wack-job who teaches the Rule of Attraction is right that you often get what you expect.[1] It is to some degree a matter of perception: our brains are conditioned to see the world in the ways we train it to see. Therefore expect goodness and our brains will find it (where ever it might be); or expect badness and our brains will find it (where ever it might be). This expectation and perception of it work a positive (or negative) feedback loop into our lives (between us and others) which in turn strengthen our perceptions. Our perceptions, then, shape our reality. How many times have you had that friend, you know, the one for whom everything goes right (or nothing goes right). I don’t know how many times I have resisted the urge to scream at a muttering frustrated friend, “the only constant in your story is you. Everyone can’t be out to get you (some, perhaps, but not everyone). If everyone in your life is problematic, perhaps then, you and not they are the problem. Change you and you change your situation.

Sure people will not like you. Some people will want to hurt you. But you cannot let these few people change how you respond to the world. This is thought process behind Peter’s question to Kramer, “when did you stop believing in people?” This is the challenge to life and it is the challenge behind what people call the golden rule. Treat others well and they will react in kind.[2] Find the good in others, reward that which is good, and that which is good will grow. Over time that good will overcome the obstacles placed in its way. However, call out the bad and the bad will come out to play.

This has huge implications for life: want to change your spouse, reward the behavior you desire (or treat them like idiots and see the idiocy grow); want to see your kids behave in a certain manner, expect it and reward it; want to see your community change seek what is good and grow that good. More than that it has become the hallmark of my approach to evangelism, rather than taking a place on a soapbox and condemning those around me; I come alongside others, I ask God to show me the existing goodness in their lives, and I seek to encourage that goodness. I encourage. I cheerlead. I praise. I seek to water the goodness, and I choose to ignore the bad.[3] I feed the good impulses and seek to starve out the worst parts of their person. This does not lead to dramatic, sudden changes and conversions. It is slow work, but I am content to take the long view knowing that the winds of future stand behind my back. However small it may be, where there is goodness, beauty, and truth, there is God. And He is moving towards a moment in time when all that is good, beautiful, and true will be rewarded and brought into all fullness.

There is a story about Desmond Tutu, the South African Bishop. He was leading a protest meeting against Apartheid, and in the middle of it the army arrived. They took positions surrounding the room. It was a show designed to humiliate and intimidate; yet this Bishop was not cowed. He stopped preaching to the congregation and began preaching to the gathered soldiers. “Join us,” he yelled, “We stand on the side of history. We stand in the ongoing tide of change overtaking our land. History is moving us towards change. Goodness and mercy will prevail. Join us and prevail with us.” This sermon was set upon the hope of Christian doctrine: the knowledge that theKingdomofGodhas come upon us. It has broken out amongst us, it is sweeping us up, and eventually it will wipe the land clean. Justice has come, is coming, and will come in fullness. Mercy will overcome. Love will win out.

If you are out there holding people back, then you will not succeed. If you are out there condemning others, your words will not come true. If you desire to keep women, Hispanics, Blacks, or any other group in their place; they will squirm out of your grasp. You cannot win. Why I am confident in this; because the God of the universe is at work. He is planting. He is watering. He is growing His kingdom. He is calling out the good and He will see it to completion. Join him and see the good triumphant.

Or you can persist in calling out the evil in the world and others. You can look for it and you will find it. You can work to grow it, and eventually it will choke you out. You will find yourselves, like Agent Kramer, standing on the courthouse steps ranting about untrustworthiness and dooming yourselves to a lifetime filled with disappointment. Choose the good. Follow the Burke doctrine.


[1] He is also wrong in assuming that you will the event into being. It is not a matter of control and does not work for all things. People are free agents and will do what they will (what at work is a change in us that allows us to respond to our environments in new ways- not necessarily change them).

[2] Once again this is a broad generalization not proved by goodness; nor disproved by badness. It is not foolproof. It is not 100 percent.

[3] Within reason.

 

The hearing brought out Neil’s friends and enemies and precipitated a showdown between Neil and DC Art Crimes over Neil’s theft of a painting 5 years prior. Agent Kramer, whose prize CI betrayed him in the past, and Peter debated the trustworthiness of Neil. Kramer, who was determined to keep Peter from repeating the past, hoped to catch Neil red-handed, get him sentenced to 25 more years, and forced to move to DC to serve out the rest of his sentence working for him. When Peter and Sara foiled that plan, Kramer appeared at Neil’s hearing determined to arrest him on trumped-up charges and continue with the DC move. All this action served to set up a choice for Neil, stick around, stay straight, see his chance at freedom lost, and be forced to work for Kramer; or he could flee the country with Mozzie and collect the bit of treasure they had stashed away.

Though placed in stark relief at the end of the episode, the entirety of this season had discussed this issue: could Neil change and under what circumstances would that change flourish (or if no change, what would bring out the true Neil. Or again what events might thwart that change and bring a reversal). In the showdown between Peter and Kramer. Peter laid down his operating theory on Caffrey: treat Neil like a right-acting adult, giving him freedom and he will surprise you with his goodness; treat him like a criminal and he would remain, just that, a criminal. In that sense I would argue that the final moments of the episode reveal the wisdom of Peter’s assessment.

This lesson which I will call the Burke Doctrine marked for me an important life lesson struck home my junior year of college. That summer I worked with a youth group in the Birmingham area. I took over a class of unruly students and was a counselor on several trips. On my first Sunday, I looked at these charges (some of whom had reputations as being unteachable) and laid a bargain on the table: I expect you to act like adults in my classroom; unless you let yourselves down I will treat you like adults. I, then, preceded to treat them like adults as promised. Throughout the summer they did not let themselves down. We learned together and at the end of the summer I held a celebration for them: my way of rewarding their choice to be excellent.

I learned, then, that people rise up to the challenges you place before them. In that sense the Oprah wack-job who teaches the Rule of Attraction is right that you often get what you expect.

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