If you know the James Thurber short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, you know fantasy is a major pastime for the story’s main character. Elaborate fantasies that keep Mitty in a drab life of little.
Ben Stiller’s recent movie treatment, however, starts with this fruitless fantasizing but leads us to the power of transforming imagination and trust the end of the movie Walter Mitty travels from being stuck to unstuck.
Mitty is a hyper-organized, quiet employee, who works in photo receiving within the large storage library at declining Life magazine. His title, negative assets manager, can be taken two ways: as a real role at Life but personally as the manager of his negative assets. Those include: high-level shyness; passivity; lack of passion to follow his own dreams; day-dreaming to the point of trancing out; and, inability to see his own worth. These are not terrible negative assets but just the sort of characteristics found in many stuck creatives. Enough to hold him, and us, back.
His early fantasies show Mitty as action hero, creative genius, and great lover. But those drop away quickly as Mitty is thrown into a situation where he is under pressure to take action and leave his storage room.
He must move onward, but he still lacks the motivating power to do so. A co-worker, played by Kristin Wiig, seems to be only the girl of the boy-meets-girl formula, but she is more that. She is his muse. His attraction for her draws Mitty into the world, out of the shadows and his fantasies.
Getting to know her requires Mitty to take chances, to push himself beyond his comfort level, to take what may come. He needs these skills throughout the remainder of the movie as the scale of his life booms grander.
His muse, gives him the shield and the energy he needs to go fully on his great travels. Kiig’s character explains a recurring element of Stiller’s movie, David Bowie’s song, Space Oddity. In a great scene we see shy Mitty electrified by this song and Wiig’s image and we can’t but also feel this powerful release from stuckness.
> Practice: Do you have inspiring images? If so, bring them back to vividness. If you don’t, take another look at movies, books, music, places, that have moved you to creativity or inspiration. Still can’t find any? It is o.k. to go in search of one.
At last released, Mitty can now fully launch out to track down the one person who can solve his work problems, a great photojournalist who travels to the world’s very dangerous locations. Mitty must walk into dangers. At first, shy Mitty seems so much smaller than the daring photographer. Soon we see, by traveling and taking chances, Mitty has grown to be a co-equal.
Walther Mitty trusts. He trusts that travel and pushing himself to manage the obstacles of travel will crack him open to a greater life. A rational person, cautious person would say this is all absurd. There are no muses. No reasons to take chances. Visualization will only disrupt life, not add to it. Trust in the unknown and unseen is crazy.
> Practice: You have trusted before. List the times and instances you have trusted; don’t overly focus on the results of that trusting but the trusting itself.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty reminds us in a beautiful and compelling way, that trust frequently pays off. Life gets bigger and more important when we get off well marked paths and try new trails. It won’t be easy, but it will be stimulating and broadening.
Mitty is different at the end of the movie, of course. But something unexpected awaits him back where he started. He gets to see that his years of slow, quiet, quality work in the negative assets library had made him a hero of sorts and an unsung creative shaping the experience of millions. He was Life magazine, the greatest photojournalism publication in the world.