To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.
-LIFE magazine motto
It’s a different kind of movie, and the responses to it are wide and varied, but whether or not you liked it, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has some fantastic connections to the Christian life (actually, it’s largely a parallel—read on!).
Walter Mitty lived a quiet, unassuming life. He worked in the basement of LIFE magazine, developing pictures and getting them ready for print, most notably the ones from the great photographer, Sean O’Connell . Sean was a legend; Walter was a nobody. That is, he was a nobody to everybody but Sean. The great Sean O’Connell, the legend, thought of Walter as his partner. He trusted Walter. He knew that Walter took great care with his pictures and “worked the hardest to make sure his work was realized.” Walter finished Sean’s work.
The magazine was shutting down, and for the last issue, Sean was excited to send in a photo that he thought captured the quintessence of life, (life itself, and therefore LIFE magazine as well). Walter got the roll of film, but the last photo, THE photo, was missing. Thus began Walter’s great adventure—to find Sean, and to find the photo.
Cheryl, Walter’s co-worker and secret love, had been taking a mystery novel writing class. “Connect the clues, and then scatter them so they seem unrelated”—that’s how you write a mystery. So to solve a mystery, you look for how the clues which seem unrelated actually connect. So Walter and Cheryl began to look at the pictures in Sean’s latest roll of film—a man’s thumb, water with a number’s reflection, and “a good curve piece of …some …kind of a thing” which they couldn’t make sense of.
The photo of the number in the water led Walter to a boat…in Greenland… and as he went to Greenland in search of Sean, trying to solve the mystery before him, he found life. Previously, Walter had a little issue with zoning out. He would suddenly disappear into a day dream, imagining some fantastic, heroic moment, often something borrowed from a movie he had seen. He would imagine having the wit to say the funny thing, the courage to do the brave thing, the strength to stand up for himself, the charm to win the girl, etc. He dreamed of these things, but he never did them—until Sean’s missing negative.
Searching for Sean meant that he had to go places he had never been before, exotic places, places one could only reach by helicopter, or Sherpa, places that were volatile and remote… The further he ventured into life itself, the less he needed to dream and imagine, the less he zoned out. Life became better than dreaming, when it had always been the other way around.
Walter is like us. He felt he was made for more in life but he wasn’t experiencing it, so he found substitutes for the real thing. He filled his need for adventure with other people’s stories, with imagination, with movies. He spent much of his time escaping his life rather than living it. But then, something happens which sets us out on a quest for more. For whatever reason, there comes a time when we have to go in search of the meaning, the quintessence of life. And to find the quintessence of life, we have to find the one who created it. Walter had to find the man who created the photo which captured the quintessence of life. We have to go in search of the Creator of life, of our lives, Himself—the Great I AM.
As we begin to search, we find that like Sean O’Connell, God is hidden, but he’s left us clues. They seem unrelated and many don’t make sense, but we find something and it’s enough to get us started on our quest, and as we go we begin to come alive. Little by little, life begins to be better than what we imagined. We find that the one clue leads us to something fantastic, something interesting. And that leads us to the place where suddenly, we see another clue in a new light, and it makes sense.
The boat clue led Walter to Greenland where he found the man who belonged to the picture of the thumb…and he was ecstatic! He was on the right track; he was where Sean had been! So he asked the man about Sean, What can you tell about me about him? What was he like? Where was he headed? What was he doing? Our journey is the same. We suddenly have context for something which made no sense to us before. We meet others who encountered God and we begin to ask questions, our excitement growing because we are getting closer to Him, and to the meaning of life, the meaning of our life.
Walter did find Sean. And when he did it was much like when we find God. It was literally a mountaintop experience—he found him on the heights of a mountain. It was a hard climb to get there, and even his Sherpa guides wouldn’t go on with him – they had journeyed as far as they could with him, the rest was something he had to do alone. When he finally reached Sean, it was intimate: just the two of them, talking about life, watching for the snow leopard to appear, the “ghost cat”, Walter learning from Sean, gleaning from his wisdom.
Sean didn’t answer all of Walter’s questions though. He didn’t tell him what was on the negative. I gave you the negative. What happened to it?, he asked. He had given it to Walter, hidden in a gift—a wallet he had made for him, and Walter had missed it. Not only that, but in a rage of frustration, he had thrown the wallet away. Sean could have been insulted or angry, not only did Walter take the gift for granted in the first place and missed the deeper treasure within it, not only had he then thrown away his gift (the wallet) but he also threw away his work, the quintessence of life in a photo. His life’s work, and Walter had thrown it away.
We do the same thing to God. He gave us a gift (many of them, actually), and we take them for granted and trash them and even throw them away time and time again. Our bodies, our families, our relationships, our resources, our earth, our finances…we do it over and over again in a million different ways, but the most critical one we overlook, disregard and throw away is the gift of eternal life in Jesus—that quintessence of life. He came to give us life, abundantly, and we miss it, deny it, ignore it, rebel against it. Then, when we come looking for it, wondering why our lives are missing something, we hear the Father say, just as lovingly and graciously and understandingly as ever Sean O’Connell did, (likely with the same twinkle in his eyes), I already gave it to you, what did you do with it? No condemnation, only grace.
Walter wanted to stay, to talk to Sean more, to find out what was on the negative, but Sean wouldn’t tell him. He just chuckled at him. Ultimately that negative wasn’t all important, because Walter was already discovering life. Rather than pointing him to an artifact, he redirected him again to life itself. The mountain guides were below playing soccer, and Sean felt they needed to go join the locals and enter the game. There’s this beautiful scene of them playing soccer together, with the others, laughing and enjoying each other’s company—they were living life, together, entering into it with abandon.
We often don’t want to come down from the mountain. We want to stay alone with God, and we want Him to answer all our questions, but He doesn’t let us stay there. He knows that we need to go back into the world, only this time with Him. He knows that we need to continue seeking for Him, for Life, for adventure and purpose—that it is in so doing that we find the life we are meant to have.
Walter went back home, but he was different. He was confident and awakened. He didn’t zone out anymore….He was a new creation. He didn’t have the answer yet, the image of the quintessence of life, but he knew the person who created it, and that was a start—a start which changed the way he saw things. There was a picture that still hadn’t made any sense to him – the curve thing. He went back home and he saw with new eyes—a piano. The answer had been right there all along, and he hadn’t seen it. He hadn’t seen the wonder in the ordinary details of his life, but Sean had. Sean had come to his home, before they’d even met, and he had taken a picture of their piano.
Sean saw things through a photographer’s eye. He saw beauty in things that seemed mundane and ordinary. He saw life in the details and the must unassuming of objects. Walter hadn’t seen it. To Walter it was just a piano, but to Sean it was a thing of beauty. But once he had been alone with Sean, Walter had changed and he too began to see with Sean’s eyes. He began to see the beauty and the wonder in the details and the ordinary.
When we have been with the Lord, we begin to see things as He sees them. The Lord chose a very rag-tag, ordinary gang of men to be his world-changers. The Lord saw wealth in the widow’s mite, the potential for purity in the women caught in adultery, the makings of a honest man in the thieving tax collector, a humble friend in the murderer who hung on the cross next to him. The Lord doesn’t see what the world sees; He sees the heart, and when we spend time with God, we begin to see things like He does. We see through his lens.
Once we begin to see through God’s lens, pieces of the mystery which once seem unconnected begin to make sense and begin to connect. Just like Walter Mitty, we realize God has been there, watching us, wanting to know us all along.
You know what was in the picture? The quintessence of life? A picture of Walter, working. Walter’s mom had seen the wallet in the trash and saved it. She saved all his treasures, she said (even when he didn’t see them as such). And in that wallet was the picture, a picture of Walter, who Sean had seen and valued before they’d even met, when no one else even cared that Walter existed.
You might have expected, with all his adventures, Sean would have taken a picture of some epic moment, some larger than life experience to capture the quintessence of life, but Sean was the ultimate paradox. He saw life and beauty in the places others missed it.
Jesus is every bit the paradox that Sean was. He worked miracles and told his followers they would do even greater miracles than He had done, calling them to a life of epic proportion, and yet, he exhorted them to be faithful in the little things. He saw life and worship and holiness in the daily moments of the mundane. Not only that, but He sees you and me, before anyone else does. He was reaching out to us, trying to get to know us long before we were aware of it. He came to our houses, entered into our lives because he wanted to know us. He treasured us so much he died for us. He gave His life so that we might have life.
Walter Mitty is us, you and me. God is our Sean O’Connell, and He longs to reveal to the world (starting with ourselves) the person He sees inside of us, the person (people) He created you and me to be. And when we begin to see what God sees in us, our transformation will be no less remarkable and fantastic than Walter’s. Discovering the Lord is a fantastic mystery, an adventure He designed for us, to delight us and transform us along the journey. It may seem difficult, the clues may seem hard and unrelated, but I promise you, as you get started, there will be fellow journeyers on the way, people to encourage you, moments of brilliant discovery and excitement, moments of daring successes, and moments of sweet intimacy with God that will change your perspective and your life forever.
12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. Jeremiah 29:12-13
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29:11
Questions for Discussion:
- What are the ways in which you are tempted to escape life?
- Why might you be tempted to escape life, rather than live life to the full?
- What did you think might be on Sean’s picture, the quintessence of life?
- If someone asked you what was the quintessence of life, what would you say? If you had one picture to communicate the quintessence of life, what would your picture be?
- Were you disappointed when Sean didn’t tell Walter what was on the picture, or was it kind of OK that the question wasn’t answered? Why?
- Do you wonder at the meaning of life, of your life?
- Have you ever sought to know the Lord? Why or why not?
- How can you relate to Walter’s journey?
- Does your relationship with God parallel Walter’s relationship with Sean in some way?
- How did you feel when you found out Sean had been trying to get to know Walter? How do you feel when someone tells you that God has been trying to get to know you?