and the life worth living

"...all of those gifts,
they don't mean a g#$d&#! thing.
And this dinner doesn't mean a g#$d&#! thing.
And the Social Security and pension don't mean a g#$d&#! thing.
None of these...superficialities mean a g#$d&#! thing!
What means something - what really means something, Warren,
is the knowledge that you devoted your life to something magnificent.
To being productive...and working for a fine company
- hell, one of the top-rated insurance carriers in the nation.
To raising a fine family, to building a fine home,
to being respected by your community,
to having wonderful,
lasting friendships...

At the end of his career, if a man can look back and say,
"I did it - I did my job"
- he can retire in glory,
and enjoy riches far beyond the monetary kind.
All you young people here,
take a good look
at a very rich man..."
- quoted from the movie, written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor

First of all, your trusty, swashbuckling and ever-so-cuddly LiveReal Agents would like to use About Schmidt to do a little shameless self-promotion:

In a way - the way we see it - About Schmidt is what LiveReal is all about.

Certain ideas we delve into on this web site, like "the unlived life," a "life without regrets," "living the good life" and so on . . . can often sound kind of lofty and abstract - not to mention hokey and touchy-feely - until they're illustrated in a story, where a living, breathing human being lends these ideas a more relevant sense of life and immediacy.

In this way, the story of Warren Schmidt is, after all, almost exactly what us LiveReal folks are working to prevent. It is a story about a life with regrets.

"Ivan Ilych's life
had been most simple
and most ordinary
and therefore
most terrible."
- Leo Tolstoy

The Death ofIvan Illych, a short story by Leo Tolstoy written over a century ago, is the tale of a man who nearing the end of his life, looks back on the life he has lived . . . and sees it revealed for what it truly was: something much more empty, false, and meaningless than he had ever even imagined while living it.

"About Schmidt" is the story of a modern American Illych. Jack Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt, an aging man retiring from work and approaching the end of his life . . . and for seemingly the first time, seriously examining his real, actual situation in a tale that is both heartbreaking and heartwarming.

There are many glowing "movie reviews" available here . . . but the aspects of the film that interest The LiveReal Agents are the questions the movie raises . . .

(warning: spoilers ahead.)

Warren Schmidt has been "successful" and has lived "the good life" in the way that a great deal of modern popular society defines it. Like the quote above states, he has provided for his family as a father and husband, he has faithfully spent 42 years in a "successful marriage," he is somewhere near the top of a corporate ladder, he is a respected employee with loyal friends, and so on.

In a way, he is similar to the character Edward Norton plays in Fight Club - he has done everything "right," in a way - followed the rules, done what he was "supposed" to do, and so, is "successful" . . .

- yet . . . as the story unfolds, he begins to discover that something is seriously, seriously wrong.

". . . all of those gifts, they don't mean a g#$d&#! thing.
And this dinner doesn't mean a g#$d&#! thing.
And the Social Security and pension don't mean a g#$d&#! thing.
None of these superficialities mean a g#$d&#! thing!

The speaker of these words, a man who is giving a toast at Schmidt's retirement dinner, establishes the premise of the movie, something most people find pretty obvious . . . that one way to divide up the world into two is that there are things that matter . . . and there are things that don't. Some things are meaningful, and some things aren't. Some things are real, and some are just meaningless. Some things, such as the "superficialities" - the food, the dinner, the Social Security - are, when push comes to shove . . . meaningless.

But then, the speaker - one of Warren's best "lifelong friends" . . . attempts to give counter-examples of things that actually are meaningful:

"What means something - what really means something, Warren,
is the knowledge that you devoted your life to something magnificent.
To being productive . . . and working for a fine company
- hell, one of the top-rated insurance carriers in the nation.
To raising a fine family, to building a fine home,
to being respected by your community, to having wonderful, lasting friendships . . ."

Sounds reasonable enough . . . right?

Well, maybe not. In fact, in a way, the rest of the movie illustrates exactly how even a life with these things can, at times, prove to be just as meaningless.

Mr. Schmidt, although he can't really put words around it, senses that at some level, all of his friends' fancy words are . . . bullcrap.

Just a few minutes after hearing them, he stands up and leaves the ceremony, lies to his wife in telling her that he's going to the bathroom . . . wanders to the nearby bar . . . orders a stiff drink . . . and sits there, alone.

Even in the very beginning, Mr. Schmidt senses that something . . . something is wrong.

And it's not too long at all before the irony in his friends' speech comes to fruition.

"you devoted your life to something magnificent."

(OK, what? What was it that was truly, really "magnificent"?)

"working for a fine company . . .
one of the top-rated insurance carriers in the nation"

(In other times, it might have been that spending your life serving a company was a noble thing, a way of dedicating yourself to something larger than yourself. Today, however, this is normally viewed more along lines of a human soul transforming into a cog in a massive, impartial, uncaring machine . . . and a replaceable cog at that. The work that Warren left behind, his legacy of his professional career that he carefully packed in boxes and marked . . . was sitting, very soon after he leaves, in the trash, waiting for the dumpster to come and pick it up).

"to raising a fine family, to building a fine home,
to being respected by your community . . ."

(Was he "respected"?

From the retirement dinner at the steakhouse to the frat boys later in the movie who bored out of their minds at Warren trying to share his accumulated wisdom, to his daughter who blows him off several times in the movie . . . polite, falsely-nice conversations, forced smiles covering a dull blanket of irritation and boredom underneath . . . is this really it?

- and did he build a fine home, raise a fine family? Well . . . in his own opinion . . . he failed his wife - the wife who he loved, even while his love for her was buried underneath, as he describes, a daily barrage of irritation. He meets a stranger, and after spending a few spare hours with her, says that he feels like she understands him better than his wife ever did. And his daughter . . . the one who sees him as a nuisance? When he tries to give advice to her about her marriage, her response is . . . "Now? Now you take an interest in my life?")

"to having wonderful, lasting friendships . . ."

(ironically enough, the "friend" who is making the eloquent speech, had an affair with Mr. Schmidt's wife several years before.)

Again, when digging into one of our key questions - "What is the life worth living?" - we soon encounter the inspiring fact that one of the few certainties we have in this world is that in time, we all become food for worms . . .

- But the more inspiring question is to ask . . . before that time comes, how we can live in such a way that we won't have regrets?

Because, as we are all uncomfortably aware of, we never know when the time will come . . . and it may even come to an uneventful end while we're vacuuming up the kitchen floor, and the final words - "Don't dilly-dally!" - are spoken.

"About Schmidt" is, in our eyes, a case study of a person who, in his own eyes, had regrets, and many of them, and did not taste too much of "the life worth living." It is a story about mediocrity, a story about not living your dreams, a story about not realizing your potential, a story about the search for security, conventionality, and comfort, and the dead-ends where that path leads to. Essentially, Warren seems to have gotten a taste of meaninglessness, emptiness, and insignificance . . .

- but in the end, and a little along the way, he also got a tiny, brief taste of redemption.

Yet the story, as dark as it sounds (and as anyone who saw it knows) - wasn't a tragedy.

If the last minute of the movie had been cut out, it would have probably been one of the darkest, most depressing movies ever made. Luckily for us, and for Schmidt, it wasn't.

While Warren's flaws are made obvious throughout the movie, he also develops a subtle but valiant virtue, perhaps his most redeeming quality, which fully blossoms towards the end: his ruthless self-honesty.

The less "painful" option, in a way, would have been for Warren to cover up, and lie about his situation, to "think positive," and "spin" his life into a well-made, happy-go-lucky fairy tale that it wasn't.

Instead, he faces the brutal truth about himself . . . that his wife cheated on him . . . that his friend betrayed him . . . that his job was meaningless . . . that his dreams never came to fruition . . . that he was going to die soon . . . and that everyone he knew and who ever knew of him was eventually going to die as well.

In this sense, he undergoes a kind of death, even before his body died. He went through a kind of moral or spiritual death . . . a realization not only of his own mortality, but of his own emptiness, meaninglessness, and ultimate insignificance.

So, then why isn't this one of the most depressing movies ever made?

Because . . . he not only undergoes a kind of death, as in all great movies . . . but he also undergoes a kind of rebirth.

In the last minute of the movie, Warren Schmidt has, in a sense, a spiritual experience.

A careless and almost haphazard decision made in a random moment of selflessness, where he picks up a phone to offer a few bucks a month to a kid in Africa . . . eventually gives him a powerful revelation of . . . something . . . call it love? . . . real happiness . . egolessness . . . "God"? . . . the Answer to The Problem of Life? . . . "IT" . . . something . . . that, somehow, mysteriously, makes it all - all the meaninglessness and horror of it included . . . somehow, OK. Really, really, OK.

So, what can we learn from this? If "About Schmidt" is trying to teach us something, what's the lesson, the moral of the story?

Perhaps, for starters, this is a message that there is the very real possibility of living a life with regrets. That it doesn't always have a happy ending. That "life," in a way, can be a win or lose game. And in the game of life, it is very possible to "lose."

This may seem obvious, yet many folks seem to live in denial of this (and some even call this denial "faith" - meaning, they have "faith" that everything always turns out great in the end). Yet many, many people - Thoreau said "the mass of men" - live with and end up with regrets - which means, of course, in a more frightening thought, that we might also.

In this sense, "About Schmidt" can serve as a warning - especially as a message to young folks with their lives ahead of them - and an example of what not to be.

But how?

In other words . . .

If we don't want to end up with regrets . . .
if we don't want to end up like Warren Schmidt . . .
how do we do it?

Well, that just happens to be the purpose of this ultrastellar web site
and that is one of the missions of your daring-and-loveable LiveReal Agents...

For starters, Schmidt learns that, in his own words, he "failed his wife."

How did he fail her? What could he have done differently? What should he have done that he didn't? If he "failed" her . . . then what would have been a "success"? If being faithful, if being a loyal husband and father, if providing for his family still resulted in "failure" - then what could he have done to "succeed"?

Well, for starters, this is what "The Relationship Arena" is all about.

Secondly, perhaps in this respect, there is a higher purpose to marriage that Warren Schmidt missed - not because he was a bad man, but because he just didn't know about it, never learned about it, was never taught about it. (Perhaps this is what Barry Long or some other spiritual teachers are trying to teach, or perhaps could be learned with a better understanding of "love"...)

Further, perhaps Schmidt did have a mistaken idea of "success" - he was guilty of believing what society told him . . . while real success in life is . . . something completely different than solely being a good citizen and taxpayer.

Because, after all, why are we here? Is it just to get through the day, not get fired, pay off the mortgage, pay our taxes . . . as Schmidt "successfully" did for so many years?

Evidently, there must be something more to it. Perhaps, in this case, there is a reason why we are here - and our lives need to be about discovering that purpose, so we don't miss it - because if we "miss it" - that's when the whole game becomes meaningless.

And maybe this is what real morality is, without the finger-wagging and preaching . . . it's simply when one person or group of people, having lived their lives, or lived through certain experiences, try to pass on what they've learned - if only to say "this is my story, don't do what I did." If this is the case, then a young person nowadays, if they didn't want to turn out like Schmidt, could work to become truly moral.

But still, where does this leave us? We could always rely on certain platitudes and truisms such as "be true to yourself." Perhaps Warren, out of politeness, kindness, fear, lack of faith in himself, or an unwillingness to rock the boat, never really spoke his mind, and betrayed himself . . . the way he politely held his tongue in his final wedding speech.

(What these platitudes and truisms - such as "be true to yourself" - often ignore is just how extremely difficult it is to do that in real life. The dilemma that Warren faced - of speaking your mind and expressing your true feelings, for example, when doing so would deeply hurt many of those around you that you care about - is not truly solved by any platitude. Self-betrayal is not the answer, yet betraying everyone else isn't the answer either . . . and hence, the real dilemma, or paradox, koan, or unsolvable problem that must be solved, the root of all drama. (and perhaps, this is all part of the complexity surrounding what is described as the ordinary ego).

One of Schmidt's final heartbreaking realizations:

"I am weak,
and I am...a failure."

Schmidt woke up to discover these aspects of himself when he felt it was too late to do anything about them, and he was powerless to do anything about them. The game seemed already over. Perhaps if he had become aware of these aspects sooner, when he was younger, when they were still tendencies or unrealized possibilities in his own life, then things could have been differently. Perhaps he could have deliberately worked to overcome these tendencies, and fashioned himself towards a better ending.

Yet when questions like these are always pursued rigorously - as your valiant LiveReal Agents are prone to doing, and are inviting you to do as well - they typically seem to collide head-on with these familiar yet seemingly incomprehensible words such as "God" and "love" and so on.

Perhaps if Schmidt had had a deeper understanding or realization of these things, then his life would have been different, and he would have escaped the trap of mediocrity. Perhaps if he had just consistently practiced certain exercises in hopes of avoiding these traps throughout his life, things would have been different.

Perhaps . . . perhaps . . .


"Men live on the brink
of mysteries and harmonies
into which they never enter,
and with their hand on the door-latch
they die outside."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

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