When I was going through the MAPP program, one of our assignments was to watch the Wizard of Oz movie — Judy Garland, Somewhere over the rainbow, and all — and to write an essay exploring character strengths based on what we saw.
I suspect that Sherri Fisher’s article in Positive Psychology News Daily, Professor Marvel: Valuing Children’s Strengths, grew out of this assignment. I’m going to post a slightly edited version of mine as a follow-on to yesterday’s post about the Oz books.
This rather a long essay for a blog, so I’ll put the conclusions first. Then you can decide whether to read any further.
- Strengths can be used in ways that are morally questionable as well as morally valuable. The same strengths that made the Wizard of Oz helpful, he used as a con man earlier in the story.
- People carry their strengths with them, but are not necessarily in the right situation to use them. Like Scarecrow down from the pole, a change of circumstance can set strengths free.
- Mirroring back strengths to people is a powerful way to reinforce them.
- You can recognize strengths in people by observing them in action. A questionnaire is helpful, but not necessary. Perhaps the VIA questionnaire serves the same purpose as the diploma, heart and medal did, that is, it gives an aura of authority to observations about strengths, making them easier for people to believe.
The Wizard of Oz, both the book and the subsequent movie, is a story of four characters searching for their heart’s desires, which they eventually find within themselves. The tension in the story comes from a classic struggle against evil (the wicked witches) and uncovering deception (the wizard as a charlatan). The wizard conflict is particularly interesting, since the wizard is not a simple bad man. In addition his deception, he shows kindness and perception. I loved this book, indeed the whole series, when I was a little girl, and my son loved them as well at the same age. I found the movie more frightening than entertaining when I first saw it at age 5, possibly because of the creepiness of the wicked witch. But I reread the book many, many times.
The five primary characters (excluding Toto the dog, who seems to be the instigator of all the plot twists) are Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tinman, Lion, and the Wizard of Oz himself. Each demonstrates a set of strengths. Each of the first four makes a deep self-discovery.
Dorothy is an exemplar of bravery, persistence, fairness, hope, and especially love. She is courageous in defense of others, defying the lion in defense of Toto, defying the Wizard in defense of Lion, and defying the witch in defense of Scarecrow. She persists in her quest maintaining a high level of hope even after her first disappointment encountering the Wizard. Her sense of fairness shows up when she scolds the Lion, “You ought to be ashamed … when you pick on things smaller and weaker than you,” and when she scolds the Wizard, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, frightening him when he came to you for help.” Dorothy learns that love is central to her life. She chooses the grayness of Kansas over the color of Oz because she learns how much she loves Auntie Em and how much Auntie Em loves her. She both helps her comrades and accepts help from them, practicing the strength of reciprocal love.
Initially, hanging on a pole, Scarecrow is living a life totally unsuited to his strengths — he cannot scare crows away at all. But Dorothy removing him from the pole gives him a chance to discover his strengths: open mindedness, perspective, curiosity, leadership, and kindness. He claims he cannot make up his mind, but he is able to tell Dorothy how to take him off the pole, and he is able to decide which direction to take. His perspective and kindness show up in his frequent encouragement of others and in some of the practical suggestions he makes, such as tricking the apple tree into throwing apples for Dorothy to eat. He does not suffer from hunger, but he understands that Dorothy does. He also knows many words for positive emotions, including “tenderness” and “love,” though it is unlikely that he encountered them often while hanging on a pole. His curiosity shows up frequently, such as when he asks the gateman in Emerald City, “Nobody has seen the great Oz – Then how do you know there is one?” Kindness shows up in his willingness to help Dorothy, “I’ll see you get there whether I get a brain or not.” By exercising his strengths, he demonstrates leadership that causes him to become the ruler of Oz after the Wizard leaves. People look to him for answers.
The strengths of Tinman are not as well presented in the movie, but from the book I remember integrity, kindness, fairness, and citizenship. He thinks he has no heart, but he is actually encumbered with such a soft heart that observing pain in anyone else causes him to weep and then lock up. He is always willing to use his axe in the defense of weaker ones, and he puts the good of the group ahead of his own personal needs. There are times when others must urge him to exercise greater self-regulation so that he can continue functioning without needing constant oiling. In the course of their adventures, he shows love and concern for all the others, and they show love in return. He already had a heart.
Lion is somewhat different, a character whose strengths are working against each other when he is first encountered. His humility and prudence conflict with his personal ideas about valor: as a lion, he believes he should be afraid of nothing, but his good sense makes him recognize danger. Unfortunately for him, this creates a self-defeating vortex. The more he recognizes things to be afraid of, the more cowardly he behaves physically, which makes him under-estimate his own valor a bit more, which lowers the threshold of things that make him afraid. He has a very low threshold indeed when first encountered, “I’m even afraid of myself.” Over the course of the movie, he acts bravely in spite of fear by coming to Dorothy’s aid when she really needs him. These experiences reverse the spiral, allowing him to learn more that he does have the strength of valor and that it is his understanding that is wrong. Courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to control it. Lion’s gratitude and appreciation for beauty make him appealing. Appreciation of beauty is a characteristic that separates him, a flesh and blood creature, from the Scarecrow and Tinman.
The final character, the Wizard of Oz is an interesting blend of bad and good. Back in Kansas, he is the traveling magician who uses whatever information he can furtively gather to show people he knows unexpected things, often to trick them. In Dorothy’s case, he puts his observations together with his social intelligence and kindness when he tries to make Dorothy understand how Auntie Em will feel if Dorothy runs away. He displays considerable humility when his charlatanry as the Wizard of Oz is detected, and he is very aware of his own limitations. In the scene where he hands out the diploma, heart, and medal, he shows social intelligence and kindness by mirroring back strengths. Valor is not one of his strengths. A brave man would not have sent Dorothy to get the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West. He either hoped never to deal with her again or to have her do dirty work that belonged to him as the ruling Wizard of Oz. All in all, it lends depth to the story to have a character that is such an interesting blend of strength and weakness.
Dorothy learns that she has her heart’s desire right in her backyard. Scarecrow and Tinman change circumstances and become able to exercise their strengths and then learn to recognize them. Lion uses his experiences to reverse a downward spiral and come to a more realistic self-appraisal.