Friday, February 13, 2015

What Walter Mitty Taught Me About Mindfulness

I don't watch a lot of TV and I don't remember the last time I sat in a movie theater, so I really didn't hear too much or see too much press about one of Ben Stiller's best movies, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty".  I don't know if critics loved it or hated it.  Were there rotten tomatoes?  Thumbs up? I dunno!  What I do know is that this is one of the best movies I've ever seen.  Spoiler alert:  I'm about to tell you all about it. Sort of.
Walter Mitty seems like the most boring person in the world.  He looks like a pen salesman.  And he's apparently a stalker obsessing over a coworker on a dating site.  He doesn't have the guts to actually talk to her and ask her out, so he secretly lusts after her online.  Sigh.  He secretly lusts after a lot of things and gets caught up in his own imagination and daydreams all too often. 
Too often for his own good, in fact.  He gets in this little "zone" where he's oblivious to everything around him as he dreams up scenarios with various people.  He stands up to a bully at work in front of his peers.  He saves a three legged dog from an exploding building.  But mostly, he just fantasizes and creates ridiculous interludes with the woman he secretly loves. These distractions keep him from actually living in the present, they get him in to trouble, and they make him miss key details going on around him.  And though he's good, no, great, at his job at LIFE magazine overseeing some of the most crucial and important pictures shot by an amazing photographer, he "loses" a picture. THE picture.  The very last picture.  The last picture that will grace the last issue of LIFE magazine.  

Sean, the photographer, played by Sean Penn, is off in some remote part of the world and had sent Walter the last picture, via negative, with the gift of a wallet.  Sean had said that the negative was inside the gift, but it was nowhere to be found. Walter assumes that the negative is with Sean and the only way for Walter to find him is through a few random pictures.  Walter can't let LIFE suffer.  He has to find the last picture.  And in yet another daydream, Sean beckons him to come find him.  Walter, knowing that his job and LIFE are on the line, musters up an ounce of courage and actually talks to Cheryl, the woman of his dreams, and asks for her help.
As she tries to help him, Walter is finally able to spend some time talking to Cheryl and her son.  But, instead of enjoying his time with her, he's fantasizing about their life together or some profound display of affection for her.  He's zoned out again dreaming about what it could be like instead of just enjoying what it is.  Eventually Walter learns that Sean is most likely in Iceland.  In one insanely impulsive moment, he decides to go after him.

After a series of events, he finally figures out that Sean might be on a boat in the middle of the ocean. The only way to reach him is to hitch a ride with an incredibly drunk helicopter pilot who is delivering radio parts to the boat.  After fantasizing about Cheryl singing to him, he narrowly manages to jump into the helicopter as it is taking off.  As they approach the boat, Walter sees that there is nowhere for the helicopter to land on the boat, and he's going to have to jump.  Not realizing that there is a smaller boat on the other side of the helicopter for him to jump into, he launches himself into the water, loses the radio parts, and even has to fend off a shark.  No, this is not in his imagination.  This is reality!

Don't worry, he fights off the shark and lives.  And then he learns that Sean is not on the boat but was recently dropped off in Greenland.  Though he's lost the boat's radio parts, they're kind and take him to Greenland so he can further pursue Sean.  As he gets to Greenland, he learns of Sean's destination and sets off in pursuit.

The country is beautiful, but almost entirely desolate.  Nobody is around.  Anywhere.  He finally reaches a hotel, meets some kids that don't speak English, and trades his Stretch Armstrong doll for a skateboard.  The kids quickly depart with their anxious parents, and Walter finds the hotel owner packing up his car.  The owner helps Walter understand that Sean had been at the hotel but had left on an airplane about 30 minutes prior to go photograph a volcano.  The owner tries to tell Walter not to go, but Walter doesn't listen and set off in pursuit, again.  But on a skateboard.  Down a very steep hill.  And it's quite possibly my most favorite scene in the movie.


Walter has gone through quite a transformation from the beginning on the movie.  He doesn't look like a pen salesman anymore.  But he seems to change even more as he's speeding down the hill on the skateboard.  I couldn't find a good video...I so want you to watch it.  Sorry.

All the while, the hotel owner is chasing after him and when he meets up with him, he tells him that they have to evacuate because the volcano is about to erupt.  But then, Sean flies overhead on the airplane.  So close, yet so far.

The volcano almost swallows them up in a cloud of ash, but after coming to safety, Walter learns that he has to get back to work.  He makes it back to LIFE, still without the picture, and winds up losing his job.

Back in his boring apartment, and in a moment of utter frustration, he throws away the wallet Sean gave him, and in a conversation with his mom, he learns that Sean had visited her, let her take pictures with his camera, and she tells  him that he's in Afghanistan with warlords.  Again, Walter takes off in pursuit.  He will not fail LIFE.

After enduring more adventures, Walter eventually finds Sean on a mountainside attempting to capture a picture of an elusive snow leopard.  They have a profound conversation...profound to
me...and Walter learns that Sean had placed the negative inside the wallet and that he was actually sitting on the last LIFE cover.  Walter hurts his feelings and tells him that he threw it away and he doesn't have it anymore.

Walter comes back to New York, again, and in a scene with his mother, she returns his wallet and tells him that she always keeps his little knick knacks.

As you can guess, Walter does not fail LIFE and gives them the last cover picture.  And he doesn't even look at it!  He has no clue what it is.  Oh, I should probably mention that Sean calls this picture his "greatest work".  So this is a pretty crucial picture that is the "quintessence of LIFE".

Some time passes and he runs into Cheryl.  As they're walking down the street together, she reminds him that the final LIFE came out that day.  And they're completely surprised when they see what the cover is:  Walter.


As they walk away from the newsstand, Walter grabs Cheryl's hand.

Now, what did this teach me about mindfulness?  Walter is the perfect example of someone completely ignoring the present.  Anytime you're dreaming or wanting something different, you're living in the future.  And the future is not real.  It is not reality.  It is not truth.

It was only in that unrealistic fantasy that anything of importance, or anything exciting, happened to Walter, because he was too out of touch to make it really, truly happen.  Though it wasn't the blatant mission of the movie to teach mindfulness, it was amazing to watch Walter become more mindful and to see the daydreaming fade along with his old life.

There have been things in my life that have caused me to "daydream" like Walter.  I have fixated on one particular experience for over a year now and I have dreamed up every possible scenario, alternate ending, and future almost as often as Walter dreamed up his own alternate universe.  I didn't want to be like Walter and only live life when I closed my eyes.

Let me tell you, you see a lot more when your eyes are open.



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