How To Have A Real Life
Reading James Thurber’s story in high school sent me off on a life of adventure.
When I was 15 years old, I encountered James Thurber’s 1350-word short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, about a man who spent much of his time in daydreams to escape the dullness of his life. In these fantasies, he was heroic, fearless, and competent. Since he was lost in his imagined alter lives much of the time, his wife took charge of nagging him to remember what she considered essential personal care, such as putting on his overshoes and gloves.
The story is humorous, but in some ways, it horrified me. I saw the person I would likely become. Being affected by, then undiagnosed, ADHD, it took all my will to keep still in a classroom each day. I would sit on my restless hands while my mind escaped into imagined worlds. Although it’s been a long climb out since then, reading Thurber’s story was the shock that sent me off. I went cold turkey on fantasy novels right away. The next year, at age sixteen, under the influence of another writer, Jack Kerouac, I hitch-hiked alone across Canada.
Since then, I’ve had adventures all across the planet, including ten trips to the Himalayas. I often wandered alone in the high mountains there, looking for a glimpse of the elusive snow leopard, which became a kind of metaphor for a spiritual search. I finally saw the “Ghost of the Himalayas” in 2010. It was an experience I was able to share with my wife after we had trekked over a high snow-covered pass in Ladakh that had not been crossed all winter. The night before, we had bivouacked under a canopy of stars. Since most of the veil of the atmosphere was below us, the sky blazed with multiples and multiples of lights invisible to the dusty world where humans dwell. Waking from time to time, we felt like we were in outer space. Unlike Walter, I’ve been lucky to find a spouse who has become my partner in adventure.
At age15, I was not yet an athlete. But an active life, training for adventure sports, has since shaped my body and mind. Now at age 70, I could easily surpass my teenage self at many physical activities, like say, rock climbing, steep skiing, or even an aerobic hill climb.
I’m not saying that life should be entirely about hedonistic pursuits. In 2015, I returned to the Himalayas and did some volunteer teaching at monasteries and nunneries. As a climbing instructor, I believe that I have opened a doorway to adventure for many of my young students as an alternative to harmful behaviors like drugs. I wrote a book, Chasing the Phantom, that some people have found to be meaningful for their own lives. I’m still looking for other ways to make contributions.
At the end of Thurber’s original story, it seems that Walter will never escape his dull world, except in his imagination. But in 2013, a film starring and directed by Ben Stiller came out called The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. In the movie version, Walter does break out of his mundane life, goes to the Himalayas, ends up wandering alone in the high mountains….and…wait for it… catches a glimpse of a snow leopard. Go figure.
The takeaway here is not about the strange synchronicity (that sort of thing happens to me all the time) but — that you can do it. If I can have a real life, you can too. When COVID ends, or is at least honestly under control, lose the TV and the video game for a while (I have neither). It’s never too late to make your world real. And I can tell you — it’s pretty fun.
I’m lucky that my wife and I live in the mountains, where COVID has not affected us all that much. But if you are locked in right now, remember it won’t be forever. And when you get out, really get out. And I don’t mean run out and get wasted in a bar. You have a choice over who you become.
Surveys of happiness have shown that having life experiences is more fulfilling than collecting stuff. Many Americans have been bought off with the lie that gluttonous consumption will bring them satisfaction. Check out this Cadillac ad. Even with the move to online shopping, the US still has ten times the per capita space devoted to retail compared to Germany, a country with a similar per capita medium income. That says something. In America, it’s shopping that is the opium of the people. Even here in Canada, the motto on the handles of the carts at a local supermarket read, “Crave More.” This is in red letters right in your face as you push your cart down the aisles. It appears to be a blatant encouragement to engage in gluttony to increase the store’s profits. Will that make us happier? Ironically, craving is considered the source of unhappiness in Buddhism.
A great deal of corporate profit in the modern world flows from luring folks to escape from their lives. I love films and appreciate the art of film making, but there is a big difference for me between watching a one and a half-hour drama and following week after week of various fictional series for years. Watching a TV series is not like reading a novel like War and Peace. The former does not demand the participation and refection of the latter. Critics may go on about how “rich” TV has become, but to me rich is having a real life in the real world. It’s feeling the sting of snow on your face in a howling blizzard, or the warmth of sun after the chill of a cold dawn. It’s the wave of frisson passing through your body while looking at a glacier thousands of feet below your heels while traversing a narrow granite ledge. It’s making love with your partner in adventure after a scary, exhilarating day.
It’s easy to forsake your own life. Losing touch with your body is a part of that. Does eating crappy food really taste that good? How does that stuff feel inside you? Do you like the bloating and the brain fog? Listen to your body. Does exercise hurt? If you really listen, you may find that sitting hurts much more. Be mindful. Be good to yourself. Quit running from the real world. Life is rich. Alternate reality is mostly unsatisfying junk.
I was once lost in a labyrinth detached from a meaningful life. James Thurber, like the mythical Ariadne, gave me a thread to find my way out.
Eduard Fischer, Squamish BC