Wednesday, November 09, 2011

old....alone....done for...?

"I know we're all pretty small in the big scheme of things, and I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference, but what kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me?"   -  Jack Nicolson as Warren Schmidt in "About Schmidt"
In the 2002 movie "About Schmidt," Jack Nicolson's character plods through life, keeping things predictable - no deep connections, no deep thoughts, no real pain, no real joy. However, in a rare act of impulse, he signs up to sponsor an African child through a Christian charity, and begins writing the child letters.

After his wife's untimely death (she drops dead in their kitchen while he is out), he decides to take a solo RV trip visit his daughter in another state. During the trip, Schmidt begins to awaken as he lets life happen to him. He chronicles his trip - and his life - in his letters to an unseen African boy.

Like his life, the letters are about one thing - himself. The details he shares are ridiculously self-centric, but it seems like the first time he's allowed himself to think about life and share a part of himself with someone else.

At one point, lying alone on top of his RV looking at the stars, he reflects on his life. He wonders what his late wife really thought of him. Did she love him, or was she just too nice to tell him how disappointed she was in him? In the dark, he asks her to forgive him for not being the man she deserved. At that moment, a shooting star blazes across the sky. We see a flicker of hope, see a light start to come on, slowly, painfully, and we pray he'll just keep moving.

He continues his trip and attempts to reconnect with his daughter, who lives in Denver and is about to be married to a waterbed salesman. Schmidt is forced to interact with his future son-in-law's very gregarious, very messy family. He is definitely out of his comfort zone, probably for the first time in his life. He is concerned about his daughter's marriage and tells her that she is making a mistake. She replies that after all these years, he no longer gets to have an opinion about her life; he can either stay and do what he's told, or go back home to Omaha. He stays for the wedding, and during the reception he placates everyone with a lovely but definitely not heart-felt speech. He leaves the wedding feeling old, alone, and done for - his life hasn't made a difference to anyone or anything.

At the end of this disappointing trip, Schmidt returns home to an empty house and a pile of unopened mail. One letter catches his eye, with its unknown handwriting and foreign stamp. It is correspondence from the sponsored child, written by a nun at the orphanage. She tells him that the boy has been sick, but is now well thanks to Schmidt's donations. She explains that the boy cannot read or write, but that he has drawn a picture to express his thanks and heartfelt wishes for Schmidt.

The boy's drawing shows a stick figure of himself holding the hand of a man beside him - Schmidt. A virgin tear rolls down Schmidt's worn cheek and is followed by sobs. For the first time in a long but isolated life, his story is no longer About Schmidt. He has touched and been touched. Whatever is left of his life will never be the same.

Many of us are or have been Schmidt, living lives of "quiet desperation." When I get discouraged about the state of things around me, I wonder - what have I done to make sure this story isn't just about me?  W
here does it start?  Right here....right now....let it begin with me....