Secret Lives: Walter Mitty and me

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

To see the world, things dangerous to come to.

To see behind walls, draw closer,

to find each other, and to feel. 

That is the purpose of life.

Oh, what ponderous words permeate Ben Stiller’s little film.

Did I say “little?” This movie is about as small and subtle as an Icelandic sunrise, and it’s been on my mind ever since I watched it a few weeks ago. Every frame is slathered in sumptuous cinematography, and its soundtrack seems to beckon from the heavens. The movie’s message is blunt and to-the-point: see the world, seek adventure, and leave drudgery behind. It’s a spectacle, to be sure, and it tries hard (arguably too hard) to push all the right buttons and trigger an emotional response usually reserved for a good (and manipulative) Nike commercial. Characteristics like these often produce endearment or revulsion from an audience — sometimes both — and this flick’s mixed reviews certainly reflect that.

Well, it resonated for me. Maybe for you, too. Or perhaps, like many others, you found it cloying, overly stylish and sentimental, which I can understand, too. Whatever. I don’t really care, but my reaction to the movie was so strong that I feel compelled to explain.

I don’t think the film is Oscar-worthy, really. Nor is the script, acting and direction without flaw. That’s not my argument. So why has it stayed with me for weeks? Sure, I have a predilection for travel, which is a central theme, and I’ve always had a soft spot for stories of adventure and self-discovery. Then there’s also the protagonist’s relationship with photographers (he manages the film negatives at Life Magazine), which reminded me of some of the really amazing people that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with over the last few years. The movie soundtrack is pretty damn good, too, but all these elements still don’t account for my elation near the end of the movie.

And then it clicked.

It wasn’t what was in the movie, but what was missing at the end. You see, the hero of the movie compensates for a boring life (or what he considers a boring life) with frequent and crippling bouts of daydreaming. Without warning, he plunges into his imagination — often at inopportune times — to live out fantasies that depict him as brave, confident and adventurous. By the end of the movie, however, he has left his comfort zone and struck out into the world, and as he does, his time concocting fantasies dissipates, and his time actually living takes over. Reality simply becomes more interesting.

I know it’s a stretch, but I relate to that. I hadn’t fully acknowledged it until now, but I suffered from some acute Walter Mittyism myself, especially once the Japanese salaryman lifestyle I was living staggered towards its 10th year. You might think living in Tokyo is all bright lights and big excitement, but the truth is that day after day, I sat in a cubicle like any office worker anywhere, and I stared at a screen more hours than I can count. I had a life outside work and family time, but most days were spent simply trudging from home to office and back.

Depression had its fingers in me too, and like Walter Mitty, I often delved into a fantasy world in my mind to distract myself. I was never a “gray piece of paper,” as Mitty is described. Nor did I sink into incapacitating daydreams so outlandish and over-the-top that simply stopped what I became frozen in place. That said, I did long for a different reality, in ways that you might only share with a therapist.

Once we left on this journey, however, all those fantasies stopped. I still daydream, as I think everyone should, but now my daydreams are about possibilities, not escapism. My reality now has my full attention.

My home and my office are now one, and I still spend hours upon hours in front of screens, doing lots of the same work I did when I was chained to a cubicle. So don’t get me wrong: my problems aren’t over. In fact, I now have budgeting and family drama in forms that I’ve never had to deal with before. So what changed?

What changed is my environment. I stepped into the unknown. I’m in a new place navigating new territory, and something about that has allowed me to focus on the life that I’m living and not dwell on some silly product of my imagination. I don’t know if this will last, but while it does, I will be grateful to be consistently in the moment I’m in, and with the people I’m with. With all that, who needs a secret life, anyway?

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