Spiritual lessons from Walter Mitty

by Peter Lockhart

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a thoughtful and reflective movie which on its second viewing contained as much enjoyment and insight as the first time around.  Whilst a large part of the message in the movie is the challenge to move from day dreams into new experiences, it was other more subtle messages which stood out for me.  These are deeply spiritual lessons for us.  They encourage us to live more intentionally and to value ourselves.

The first lesson comes from the photographer Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn) who rather than take a particular photo chooses to just be in the moment, to enjoy it, to live it.  Growing up with such quick accessibility in our phones to take a snap, even a selfie, can distract our attention from what we are doing and who we are with.  Yes we can publish our memory on Facebook, but what is our memory – the taking of a photo?  At more than one family, and also many public events, pausing to preserve the moment in pictures has all but destroyed the moment.  Can we drag our eye from behind the lens and beyond our need for perpetual publication and live more fully in the moment?

The second of the lessons which stood out is that however insignificant we might feel in our job or role in life we all contribute.   The character Walter Mitty is a negative assets manager whose job seems to be of little consequence and is derided by others.  The location of his work space is dark and separated from others, apart from his one assistant.  The rest of the workers are in open spaces filled with light.  Yet, as becomes evident in the film, his role is an integral part of a significant machine, whether others can see it or not.  In fact, for the photographer O’Connell it is Mitty who makes his work come to life by caring for and promoting his work.  In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians his description of the church as a body is an analogy not simply for the church but for all of us in life: we all contribute, we all have a part to play.  Remembering this helps us value ourselves and others!

(Spoiler alert! You may want to watch the movie prior to reading on!)

Finally, you never know when you are someone else’s cover story.   The movie culminates in wonderful scene where the photo described as the quintessence of life, the final cover photo for Life Magazine, is a photo of Mitty outside the magazine’s offices working in the sunlight.  Without knowing it he had been the cover story, the example, even the hero for O’Connell.  As insignificant as he may have thought he was, as irrelevant as others treated him, he was an example and hero to someone else.  The reality is that none of us can really know who it is that might be looking at us in this way.  We may not think ourselves worthy of it but it happens whether we intent it or not – we are all witnesses to how to live and what life is about.

As you think upon your own life: Are you able to live in the moment?  Do you see yourself as part of an integrated whole?  And, who do you look to to be a part of the cover story of your life and, even more importantly, who is it that might be looking at you?