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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Pursuit of Happyness

Yesterday's entry, combined with my post about the 25 conservative films, caused me to think about this movie again. They have been showing this movie quite a bit on cable television, and if you get the Encore! movie channels (free on many cable systems) then you probably have access to this movie. I would recommend catching it, DVRing it, or taping it (if you, like me, still have a VCR!).

I said in the 25 conservative movies entry on this blog that I felt this should have been #1 on National Review's list. I believe the message in this movie is profoundly American, rooted in the steep traditions that we enjoy in this the greatest nation on God's earth. The message is simple: hard work gets you where you want to be.

Even the name of this film screams conservatism. The Pursuit of Happyness (sic). (For those that haven't seen it, the misspelling is purposeful as it is written in graffiti that way on the wall of the protagonist's son's daycare center.) It is noteworthy that the film is not entitled The Right to Happyness, nor is it named The Government Provides Happyness. It is an homage to the Declaration of Independence:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to desolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Such beautiful words! These words make liberals cringe. The protagonist of film, Chris Gardner, even waxes philosophical in the film about why the framers worded it that way:

It was right then that I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence and the part about our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I remember thinking how did he know to put the pursuit part in there? That maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue and maybe we can actually never have it. No matter what. How did he know that?

Obviously, happiness is not unattainable, but have you ever heard someone misquote it to be "life, liberty, and happiness"? I have, and I think they are being deliberate in their misquote. They want people to believe that happiness is something bestowed upon us by the government, that government must make us happy. But Chris Gardner (played wonderfully in the film by Will Smith) has it right: happiness is pursued, not bestowed.

To determine what pursuit means you need to look no further than the rest of this film. Chris Gardner, now a single parent after his wife leaves him and their young son Christopher, takes an unpaid internship with a financial services firm. To get hired he must beat out the rest of his class of interns in drumming up the most business for the firm, and by passing the written tests.

UNPAID. Gardner makes a point of that word in this film. The program lasts 6 months. Gardner's only source of income through that time is selling the bone density scanning machines he invested in years earlier. He is down to his last few and he knows that if he can sell those then he and his son just might make it.

Obviously, Gardner is a go-getter that also has some good fortune along the way. But he also has his share of misfortune. When he fails to pay his taxes, the IRS goes into his checking account and confiscates his money. This causes Gardner and his son to be thrown out in the streets of San Francisco. They end up in and out of seedy motels and homeless shelters.

His struggles are further compounded by the fact that picking his son up from daycare and making it to a shelter before it is full means he has to work less hours than the other interns. Gardner devises ways of working around this by not drinking water, therefore not using the restroom as frequently, and being able to work smarter for the hours he is there. He also starts "cheating" up the call lists to get to the higher profile contacts. This allows him to open some doors for drawing business to the firm that might have otherwise remained closed.

One poignant moment in the film comes after Gardner and his son fail to make it to the shelter in time. They end up in a subway restroom for the night. Gardner holds his sleeping son while holding the door to the restroom shut with his foot. As tears stream down his face the viewer gets the emotional connection of just how deep Gardner's struggle has become.

Struggle is the keyword. It is a word that Americans have become too unfamiliar with. Struggling is not a cause to stop chasing after what we want, it is the REASON to continue chasing after what we want. Gardner could have given up, said it was all too much, taken a lower paying job, and barely made ends meet again. Or worse, he could have turned to the government for assistance. But Gardner understood that part of getting where he wanted to go was the struggle.

I doubt he really wanted to get up every morning, rush to get himself and his son ready, rush to drop his son off at daycare, rush to his internship, work extremely hard as long as he could, rush to pick his son up, and be back at the homeless shelter before it was too late. And then do it all over again the next day. I don't think that was his plan in high school when he was imagining how his life would turn out. Then on Saturdays and Sundays he had to try to sell his machines, or he sold his plasma, or he did whatever he had to in order to survive.

It was all a means to an end. Gardner realized that he wasn't where he wanted to be, that he didn't want to be doing what is described in the previous paragraph forever. He didn't allow himself to get caught up in the struggle and despair of today, which then would have kept him from his goal in the future. A valuable lesson for all of us that struggle now: don't give up just because it is hard.

Some people balk at this. They want their cake and eat it too. They don't want to put in the time, effort, energy, and money to carve out for themselves a better existence in the future. People don't work a full-time job to pay the bills, while going to school in the evenings, and juggle home and family life because it is fun. They do it because that struggle will eventually pay off in the end.

Opportunities are there if we are willing to take them. It reminds me of an exchange I had with a relative during the last election. He said he couldn't vote for McCain because McCain would continue the Bush policies. And if that caused him to lose his UAW job of 20+ years he'd have to move out of the state in order to get another job. Afterward when I was thinking about this I remembered that the Fortune 500 company he works for has offered tuition reimbursement for all 20+ years he has worked there. If he had taken advantage of that all this time he wouldn't have to worry about losing his job, he'd have a degree to fall back on by now.

Would it have been easy to work 40+ hours a week plus take 1-3 classes a semester? Absolutely not. But no one has ever claimed that the pursuit would be easy. In fact, the word pursuit in and of itself implies a struggle. It implies work. It implies tireless effort to constantly push forward. So while it is easier to come home from your job, eat dinner, and chill in front of the TV until time for bed, that isn't going to get you ahead. It will get you lazier, fatter, and unhealthier, but not ahead.

The message that The Pursuit of Happyness puts forward is that you have to have goals and then you have to PURSUE those goals. Another important scene in the movie is when Chris Gardner sees someone pull up to an office building in an expensive car. As the valet takes the car to park it Gardner asks the owner what he does for a living. When the response is "investment broker", Gardner starts looking into what it will take to become just that. And he starts working on the steps necessary to achieve his new goal immediately.

Gardner could have made excuses. Could have wallowed in self pity. Could have thrown up his hands at any point and said he tried. He didn't because he realized that hard work is what attains goals. People in our society today spend so much time, energy and money looking for shortcuts, like befriending rich widows, playing the lottery and other gambling, and searching for get-rich-quick schemes. If they'd take half that energy and put it into real pursuits of goals they'd end up where they'd want to be much quicker.

In the end, after Gardner has achieved his goal, they show him emotionally elated, and Will Smith narrates over the scene thusly: "This is what I call Happyness!" In the end Gardner learns that "happyness" is something that can be achieved. It might be a struggle but we all can get there. Not everyone does get there, but that is what the struggle is for: to separate those that really want it from those that do not.

2 Thessalonians 3:10 For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.

Proverbs 10:4 He becometh poor that dealeth with a slack hand: but the hand of the diligent maketh rich..

Proverbs 6:9-11 How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? when wilt thou arise out of thy sleep? Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep: So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man.


gsimmons85 said...

um, yeah uh the preamble to to the constitution does not talk about why we are breaking from england, nor quote John locke. that my friend is found in the first lines of the decleration of Independence. the preamble to the constitution starts "We the people" so anyway, pay attention in class next time!!!

gsimmons85 said...

seriously though, good job is one of my favorite movies..

LoneWolfArcher said...

Thanks! I fixed it. The funny thing is I know the Preamble by heart. Too funny. Leave it to my history teaching cousin to catch that. Next time you write a dissertation on disk scheduling algorithms I'll proof it for you! ;)