Hot tears spatter my bare chest as a recline against the oversize pillow, sitting half naked with my feet dangling over the edge of my undersize bed. I shudder and shake with the convulsions of some absurd action between sobbing uncontrollably and laughing hysterically. Unashamedly, I admit that this is not the first time a film has moved me to tears, but this feeling is altogether different from anything I have experienced. Shielded from the world by my Bose headphones, the credits of the 2013 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty roll for one song, two songs, and then three. Despite my constant attempts in my normal life to carry myself with the cool confidence espoused by silver screen heroes, this moment is in no way film-worthy. Despite that, it was a moment in which I did not fear the ever-present eyes and ears of those who were just on the other side of my open window.
If you have never seen Walter Mitty, I urge you to go find it now. If you have found your way to my blog, you probably share the spirit of adventure that this film perfectly captures. After reading the first blog of a fellow traveler who cast off from his stagnant life last spring, I decided to make time to watch the movie again. After tossing and turning on my stiff mattress for an hour (a dance that has become a Sunday night routine), I decided to pick up where I had left off earlier in the day. Throughout the course of those two hours, scene after scene resonated with something that I knew had been stirring deep inside me.
Right from the beginning, we see the frumpy Walter Mitty in his unattractive short sleeve oxford and tie as he deliberates over sending a “wink” to his new coworker on a fictionalized eHarmony. Finally finding the resolve, he clicks. Nothing. It doesn’t work. After a few more attempts, he finally gives up and heads off to work. This situation precipitates our introduction to the recurring injection of the snotty antics of Patton Oswald as the eHarmony phone representative, Todd Maher. In their first conversation, Walter “zones out” as he has a prolonged daydream of action hero stunts to rescue his crush’s love from a burning building. Throughout these first few minutes, we see not only Walter’s painful ordinariness, but his dreams of grandeur and exceptionalism. A recent post from Mark Manson hilariously catalogs the reasons we all desperately crave this kind of greatness and the reasons that, in the end, we should accept our place among the average. I hope I am not the only one to identify so strongly with both the feeling of anxiety in sending a message to a stranger or even the mindless zoning out as I envision something I wish I could do at that moment. Although I typically do not like Ben Stiller as an actor, in this film that he also directed, I found myself involuntarily placed in Walter Mitty’s shoes.
For the first thirty minutes, we must endure Walter’s painful subjugation under a new management staff of bearded douchebags. Finally, at a point of helpless desperation (assuaged by the fact that I had seen the film once before), we get our first taste of incredible storyline movers that feed our need for grand adventure. As Walter leans defeated over his desk, he looks at a picture on his wall of the legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn). In what is the first unreal event that happens outside of Walter’s daydreams, the picture comes to life as Sean beckons Walter to come find him. Inspired and entranced, he does. An inspirational montage later, we are in Greenland, the North Atlantic island country that has “eight people in it.” (Yes, it’s a country. It gained its independence from Denmark in 2009.) This obvious juxtaposition between Walter’s ordinary predictability with his extraordinary spontaneity should be an inspiration to all of us. Especially in this globalized, interconnected world of the twenty-first century, even the simplest of us laypeople can jet off to a far-away land for a small fee.
Although Walter has taken the crucial first step of casting off into the world beyond his borders, many of his shenanigans arise as he learns that on his own, he is helpless. What I think may be the most important lesson from this film is fact that Walter is rarely alone on his adventure. He is often wholly dependent on the good will of others, being rescued multiple times. From a drunken helicopter pilot to a crew of Nordic fisherman to a couple Afghani men whom he “rented.” In one of the final scenes of his adventures, he acknowledges this, paying well-deserved respects to his mother. When Sean asks how Walter found him (hiding out on a random ridge in the upper Himalayas), Walter responds, “My mom.” As he had been trekking on his own for many kilometers, it would have been easy for him to tell Sean how much effort he had put into his search. Recognizing that none of this would have possible without the continued support of all of those who have been with him since the beginning and those whom he has met along his journey, he pays due respect. This fact is crucial to remember for any traveler. Whether it be a random lady in the subway station who translates for the station attendant or a couchsurfing host who asks nothing but cleanliness and common courtesy in exchange for free lodging and an invaluable experience, the life of travel reminds us that we are inevitably interdependent.
In contrast to the independence that many of us have learned to associate with strength and masculinity, Walter’s dependence does not make him weak, but immeasurably strong. The decision to cast off from his perfunctory life is not only a transformation of values but a transformation of confidence. Whereas in the beginning he was constantly the victim of cocky superiors, at the end of the film, we get to see a collected and confident Walter Mitty, who does not shy away from a challenge to stand up for what he believes is right or take a jab at someone who could learn a lesson or two about civility. From the man who was too afraid to send a “wink” over the internet to the man who casually chases after the same woman when he sees her at the bottom of the stairs, Walter’s adventures have given him the courage to face the challenge of personal interaction that so many of us fear. For anyone who followed the beginnings of my blogging earlier this year, you’ll remember my horridly anxious experiences with trying to start a conversation with a stranger. Though I was successful on a few occasions, the fear won out on many others. Travel breaks down these walls. It is not even something that we must learn over time. It comes with the journey. On the very first day of my travels, I approached multiple strangers to ask questions. After an afternoon of wandering San Francisco with my second cousin, I returned to my couchsurfing host’s house to find a group of guys standing in front of the door that I was fairly sure was his. Since I did not meet them when I first arrived, I was tempted to just keep walking and wait for them to disperse before continuing my search for the apartment. Instead I decided to stop and ask if I was in the right place, which was fortunate for them because those were my host’s friends, and I had the key to the front door! Within the next week, I would have sparked conversations with countless new strangers, each with only a fraction of the anxiety I had felt when forcing the exercise back home. It is the recognition that we are wholly dependent on each other that frees us from the dependence on our own anxiety.
By the end of the film, we feel as if we have been on this grand adventure with our average yet bold hero. Despite the salient way the film relates to the average person, the scenes of adventure that we suppose are real in Walter’s adventures are highly implausible. From the unlikely ease with which Walter fights off sharks in North Atlantic and runs dozens of kilometers to a volcano to the sheer absurdity that Walter would just stumble upon the guy he was tracking in a brutally inhospitable region of the world probably spanning hundreds of square kilometers, Walter’s adventures are just too epic for real life.
Or are they? Perhaps the literal depiction of events were only possible on a Hollywood set, but maybe they needed to be so exaggerated to evoke in the comfortably seated audience the feeling of global exploration and discovery. For those who have trekked abroad, particularly in undeveloped areas of the world, you’ll know that even the smallest of events can elicit the highest sense of euphoria. Though I have only tasted a small piece of the adventure I hope to live, I know that feeling, and that is what led me to the absurd situation in which I found myself at the beginning of this post. Though a trek through the crooked peaks of the upper Himalayas in warring areas of ungoverned Afghanistan may be quite unrealistic, it is equally as unrealistic as moving abroad for most Americans. When I first watched the film, it was the same for me. Now these grand adventures are not daydreams, they are legitimate pieces of my life plan. It was this realization that sparked an elation in me so intense that I could not contain the howls of agonizing hysteria.
That is why, if you have ever dreamed of a life without borders, filled with adventure, lost deep in the unknown, I urge you to cast off. Break free of your stagnant life. You need not drop everything as I did. As any responsible adult, I understand that bills must be paid and responsibilities must be stewarded. However, like our hero, maybe wild jaunt into the unknown will add not only epic stories for your new resume but meaning in a life of repetition. When the opportunity presents itself to seek out a new adventure, like a flash of lightning briefly illuminating a dark horizon, do not shy away. Instead, let the lightning guide you.
“To see the world, things dangerous to come, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of LIFE.”