I am watching the epic and tragic and brilliant story of Revolutionary Road again this weekend. I have a great appreciation for the intensity of the movie (as I have been told that I am an intense being) as it touches upon fundamental issues of life, purpose, and meaning. Each of these have profound reverberations on the people around us, too. This is where there is beauty in life when acted upon, or loss and dismay as is the case for Kate Winslet’s and Leonardo DiCaprio’s characters in the movie.
On the surface it is a love tragedy. Yet, wrapped in layers and layers, the movie is an illustration of walking the road less traveled (as M. Scott Peck calls it. A book that I would like to revisit this year, after more than a decade of being untouched). It is when stories of love, family, work, career, art, travel, journeys, passion arise. So many factors that they can cause a lump in a throat because they are too much to comprehend. Yet, it is not about the comprehension but the ability to act or decisively choose (in such a way that choosing sometimes feels like plunging) in spite of all the unknowns. In our hyper-intellectualized time and the delusion of logic, we attempt to know everything before acting. This set up is an impossibility. As we cannot know all that we need to know (nor can we know all that there is to know). To wait until all information is adequately known results in paralysis.
This delay of choosing, or inaction, at pivotal moments in life is what resonates for me in Revolutionary Road. Contrary to the revulsion or sadness that many others felt about the movie, I was drawn to it. I appreciated the darkness. It is a stark telling of what is far more common than I believe is acknowledged. Furthermore, it is an indictment of what happens when the pursuit of professional success trumps personal relationship.
The road less traveled requires walking through a doorway of choices, of choosing the less common, less appreciated and less understood choice(s) especially when these lesser knowns are frowned up or objected to by society, writ large or one’s inner circle. Every day there are moments when we have to choose (what are called choice points). Even when we decide to not act, we still make a choice. Life is chock full of possible choices and our choices impact not only other people and circumstances around us, but impact the remainder of our life.
Too often, we cower to the pressures of what is normal, what is acceptable or tolerable to family, friends, coworkers or to other people we perceive as being in our same social order. Perception is a dicey thing because it is our individual ideas of who we consider as being like us and being with us. Yet these we can trap ourselves and deny life-giving choices because of what the very same people want. Sometimes it is that we accurately see others as they are, and correctly understand what choice they want us to make; there are other times where our perception is mistaken and the very people we care about and care about us wish for us to make decisions that are more freeing. However, we may not because we cannot see (or hear or understand)) that that is what they, too, want for us. These are some of the ways of how we can trip ourselves up and become trapped. A paradox about being social beings is that we defer to others even when that is not in alignment with our inner self. When we repeatedly do so, we establish a pattern that can make it harder and harder to listen to the inner wisdom of intuition because we seek the counsel of others’ voices, even when it drowns our own voice.
For six years of the last decade, I waited for others’ permission to make choices that were mine alone to make. I come from two strands of families, where masculinity was defined as fitting within certain social structures and social orders. The lives of both of my grandfathers looked very different, yet each created families and built professions that placed them in contexts where their choices affected others — at work, in their home, in their extended families. While I cannot know what it was like to be fathers in their time, I reflect upon what their lives were and how they have profound reverberations two generations later.
Part of my attraction to this movie is that I was on a path that mimicked the path/s of the primary protagonists. For five years, I had limped along my path, stumbling. My feelings of being unseen and unheard were reaching a peak when I watched this movie. I could see a version of the movie’s storyline playing out in facets of friends’ lives and relationships more easily than in my own life. Yet, it was a story that resonated with me because it was foreboding — even when placed in an entirely different time and place than my own life.
I remember not being able to situate the movie setting the first time I watched the movie. The clothes and cars offered some glimpses, but it was not until I was far into the movie that I understood that this resonated deeply with me even though it was placed some 50 years earlier.
By placing Revolutionary Road in (what I believe is) the 1950s, I am reminded that the midcentury American Dream was not working for plenty of people at that time. Even for the people purportedly benefitting from that Dream, according to the dominant social narratives, which in this story is a white, middle-class, suburban family. The challenges shown in the movie — of responsibility, success, love — are timeless. The pressures to conform span generations; some conditions change with time yet the existential nature of life transcends decades.
At the time, I could not see the parallels to my life (circa 2008 or 2009) when I first saw it. In hindsight, i believe that I could feel a resonance, though. Years later, I now suppose that there will repeatedly be phases in life that can mimic this storyline. We may forever be on a path where forks in the path require that I choose one or the other. There are innumerable instances where I could choose something contrary to my inner self because of collapsing to social (or familial, professional, cultural) pressures. Grappling with the path that I am on and the choices to make may cease only when becoming free.
Despite the patterns and shaping that comes with repeating the same action over and over again, I have a delight that a different choice can be made.
One definition of what it means to be human: to suddenly choose something contrary to all the things that one has been prior to now.
For years, I have been astounded by attempts to simplify and therefore deaden what it means to be human. There have been formidable professional and economic pressures that choose systematization over spontaneity. It is core to the economic tenet of specialization, that long term partner of the endless growth demanded by capitalism. This growth is also a reckless growth as it prizes growth over wellbeing. In other terms, it chooses quantity over quality. Such brutal force is not nurturing to countries (pushed to focus on a few cash crops or a few products for export) nor individuals (pushed to repeat the same motion in manufacturing, or to do a segmented piece of work in services of white collar industries). The end result of a forced, narrow focus is the opposite of fulfillment and meaning.
Such brutal force, when seen through an economic lens, would be better described as abuse than specialization. It depletes life, denies flavor, substance and diversity. It trumpets homogeneity in a world that depends on heterogeneity. It squashes life when confining humans to repeated action even though evolving relationships and learning are fundamental to who we are.
Similar pressures and delusions have consumed educational institutions by placing greater value on testing than on learning. This, too, chokes the life out of students, out of learning, and pedagogy. Rather than investing in what gives life and causes us to flourish as humans, policy and budgets are correlated to metrics even though we are not machines. In our attempts to understand and to prove progress, certain elements have chosen false proxies as a way to define who we are and our experience.
Choices are the doorway to liberty.