By Christopher Cudworth
There’s a scene in the Ben Stiller movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” where he’s standing in the park with the character played by Kirsten Wiig and Walter completely spaces out. His mind is on something completely different than their conversation. Because Walter is a dreamer.
The James Thurber short story on whose premise the movie is based recounts the semi-heroic life of an inveterate dreamer. The point is there’s a little Walter Mitty in all of us, of course. That’s what makes the story and the movie so relevant to so many people.
As a complete and total dreamer as a kid I especially relate to Walter Mitty. Not all the Walter Mitty has been drained out of me. Some people call what I do “attention deficit disorder.” But that doesn’t really capture the nature of what it means to be a dreamer.
Dreamers can be complete optimists or basically depressive. Dreaming can come from that anxious place where reality is concussive and dry. It can also come from a rich vein of hope and aspiration.
I once dreamed that I ran a 2:26 marathon and it was basically effortless. When I awoke it felt as real as having actually done that race. I believed in that dream. In many ways it was as real an experience as any race I’d ever completed. All of my contemporaries from college raced about that fast. Some faster.
There was just one problem. In preparation for the only serious marathon I ever raced, back in 1985, I made a critical training mistake by running a 20-miler the week before the Twin Cities Marathon. At the starting line I felt washed out and cold. It was 30 degrees. I was wearing only a tee shirt.
Yet my Walter Mitty personality was not to be deterred. I joined up with a group of marathoners running 5:30 pace. The group was led by none other than Don Kardong, 4th place Olympic marathoner and noted running humorist. He was a bit of a hero to me in other words.
So it felt good to buzz along in his company (he’s the tall guy in the red shirt 4th from right…I’m in the red tee and white singlet) and a group of 10-15 other guys shooting to run sub-2:30. It lasted for me through 16 miles when hypothermia took me out of the race. My tongue was blue, as were my lips. I weighed 140 lbs. at 6’1″ at the time. Rail thin. And freezing.
My former college roommate pulled me off the course and my Walter Mitty experience was over. The dream slowed to a walk and a jacket was thrown over my shoulders. But until that point it all felt like a happy dream. All those miles and years of running had poured into that race in some way. Our group chatted and Don Kardong cracked jokes. It’s amazing how communities of fellow dreamers can form like that.
There’s a little Walter Mitty in all of us who run, ride, swim or do triathlons. It’s the dream of bigger achievements that pulls us into dreamland. Living a life that is more exciting than our own. That’s what makes that scene of Ben Stiller as Walter Mitty rolling down and Icelandic road between mountains so symbolic. It’s about a release of the soul. You can view that as sad and delusional. But perhaps you should better view it as inspired.
Living like Walter
I’ve gotten to live out a few of my dreams. Not all of them have been confined to my head. Not of all them were the product of an inattentive, distracted mind. There have been races where I emerged at the front. I have crossed the finish line first on many occasions.
You don’t have to win to accomplish your Walter Mitty dreams, and you don’t need to let others define whether those dreams are worth having or not. Granted I’ve been a critic of some forms of graceless striving. That includes my own as well as that of others. Yet when you go out to view an Ironman or other triathlon, or even a local 5K it is hard not to be inspired by what you see. Everyone in their Walter Mitty world, doing their best.
Wake up calls
But from the time I was awakened in elementary school by a teacher calling my name to give an answer to a question I did not hear, I’ve know that I was a dreamer. I believe those dreams are in many ways the very fiber of who we are. They may not help us pass algebra. In fact they may make us fail. Or lose that promotion. Or cost us relationships. The world demands our attention, but sometimes we fail to give it. Timing is everything.
A few years ago I set up this long bike ride back from Dixon, Illinois to my home in Batavia. The route was well-planned and the country roads it took were awesome. Even though the ride was not spontaneous, it defied a lot of common sense in terms of what people expect from day-to-day behavior. What good was my ride going to do the world? How would it serve the cause of social justice or contribute to a better country, culture or career?
The answer is that is was something quite the opposite. Not an escape from reality, but an enhancement of the moment. There was a purpose in riding from one place to another. It served my soul to do that. That’s what dreams do. They serve your soul. They also serve it up to you for inspection. Consideration. Actualization.
I let my mind drift at times during that ride. In fact there are whole segments of the ride that I do not recall at all. Walter Mitty was steering the bike during those moments. The internal conversation was as real as the external travels in which I was engaged.
Just be still
Looking outside the kitchen window just now, the world appears still. There is no wind. The leaves have all fallen. In my yard they have been mowed into fine particles in anticipation of spring, when I will rake them up and spread them over the garden soil and throw more soil on top of them.
We make our plans, but we dream them into place first. The world turns even when all seems to be stillness and winter. A bird flits into the scene. It captures our eye. It reminds us of a thousand other birds we’ve seen. Then it flies off. Suddenly we notice our heart pulsing in our chest. It was not there just seconds before. The secret life of Walter Mitty runs through our veins. It brings us life. It stirs our brains. It calls us into dreams, and back again. We keep moving from dreamland back into reality again. It’s in our blood.