There’s a glorious life in each of us that’s waiting to be lived. It’s the crises we face that will either fan it to flame or kill it. That, in two sentences, is “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”. Richard Rohr, in a very good book I’m reading, says “The familiar and the habitual are so falsely reassuring, and most of us make our homes there permanently. The new is always be definition unfamiliar and untested, so God, life, destiny, suffering have to give us a push – usually a big one – or we will not go.” Every story worth telling, and every life that’s done something worthwhile, has been given such a push. It comes, usually, in unwelcome wrappings such as the loss of a job, or infidelity, and getting caught up, or caught, in an addiction. Maybe it’s cancer, the death of a parent, or an accident. The point is that the push isn’t something we wanted, and yet in this fallen world, the painful push over the edge becomes the very thing that enables us to move to new heights; “abundant life” is the way Jesus spoke of it.
For Walter Mitty, masterfully played by Ben Stiller, the push comes in the form of a missing film negative. He’s the “negatives accounts manager” for Life magazine. The last issue’s about to be published, and the company’s just been bought out so that downsizing decisions are being made at the very time a negative’s gone missing. This becomes Walter’s “push”. His safe, familiar world is no longer sustainable, which is what happens to everyone eventually, in spite of our best efforts to keep the wolves of change at bay by building financial and emotional fortresses around our lives. Still, they find their way in, and the crux of our lives has everything to do with how we respond to the unwelcome intrusions of change. How Walter responds is the crux of the story.
Aside from the stunning cinematography (which makes the movie worth the big screen investment), 3 other things offered poignant revelations of the human condition:
The Reality of Ambivalence – There’s a scene when Walter needs to decide whether to hitch a ride on a helicopter, at the onset of a storm, piloted by a guy who’s drunk too much. None of us would say yes under normal circumstances, but these aren’t normal circumstances. Walter realizes that he’s at a crossroads and though the risk of going is high, the certainty of not going is that he’ll fail in his quest. As a result, an internal war ensues inside his own soul between courage and fear, vision and safety, yes and no.
If you think this is just the stuff of movies, think again. Though the stakes aren’t always as visible and dramatic, all of us are fighting these internal wars every day. Just on the way to the movie I had an internal debate about whether or not to have a hard conversation with my wife about a struggle I was facing. “Stay silent. It’s your first night out together in a long time. Just enjoy it.” vs. “You’re playing a game, being dishonest, if you don’t bring this stuff into the light. Speak!” Back and forth, almost in rhythm with the windshield wipers. The voice we listen to in such moments might rightly be safety sometimes, but not always, and if we stop listening and only choose safety we’ll miss transformation.
This, of course, was the problem with Israel when they failed to enter the promise land under Moses’ leadership. They’d become so schooled in choosing safety that when the chance was given for them to move into their destiny they said no, preferring the assurance of risk free living in the desert to the chance at abundance.
The Beauty of Friendship – As Walter fights these battles between courage and fear, engagement and withdrawal, it becomes clear that a critical factor in his choices is the influence of a friend. All of us need people at times who believe in us, or our calling, more fiercely than we believe it ourselves. Such people, such voices, are a gift from God when they appear with encouragement, giving us the strength to continue, or take the next step. That’s why I’m increasingly convinced that encouragement is an important value we’d all do well to nurture in our lives, particularly we who’ve received lots of it.
The hints of Christ in Sean – Who invites us, though circumstances, to come to himself? Who teaches us to see the world beauty in the midst of brokenness, to exalt servanthood over the trinkets of upward mobility, to take time for celebration, relationship, and really seeing? The answer’s Christ, of course, for we who believe. All those qualities, and more, are seen in Sean, the photographer whose lost negative is at the root of Walter’s quest and transformation. Jesus was always building bridges between himself and the world around him, and we’d be wise to look for such bridges too. They exist because artists are seeking to shake us awake and see things that are true about the human condition, and the truth is that all of us are in need of Someone who will help us see ourselves and the world with greater clarity, and who will be both the object of our seeking and our companion on the journey. That we’re in need of such a Someone is a point in this film; that the final answer to such a quest will be found in Christ is, I believe, the grand story of the Bible. Sometimes, though, you need to go to the movies to be reminded of what you already know.