I just ordered The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber, one of my favorite short stories. I’ve always wanted to have my own copy. After rereading it - I read it many moons ago for a high school English class - I found I wasn’t as swept away as I remembered being at sixteen (I find that happens a lot when rereading stories I loved as a kid/teenager). But that’s okay. I still like the story. It’s about a man, Walter Mitty, who is married to a domineering woman. To escape from her constant mothering (and that’s putting it politely), he resorts to living in a fantasy world where he is in charge, admired, and looked up to. At age sixteen, I could really relate to the whole idea of a fantasy world.
Like Mr. Mitty, it was the one place where I had any power.
When I was a teenager, I would fantasize about anything and everything. My daily life was either humdrum or full of anxiety so I came up with a way to escape - by entering another world of my own making. I invented mysterious men who would save me from my dull, hideous life by taking me to their castle and treating me as their queen. I dreamed about saving other people’s lives then slipping away, quietly and without reward, until later when someone would track me down and say, "There she is! That’s the girl that saved me!" I spent many hours imagining how I would have handled a situation better, or what I’d do next time to really tell someone off. I fabricated getting justice for all the wrongs done to me. I was the master of my universe. Modest and humble, but always powerful, witty and in charge.
At least in my mind.
I never actually said a lot of what I wanted to say to people who’d ‘done me wrong.’ I never had the self-esteem to stand up for myself. Or if I tried, everything that always sounded so good in my head either came out sounding melodramatic or didn’t come out at all, except in this jumbly mess of nonsensical grunts and screeches. In my younger days, I was very much like Walter Mitty, quiet and insecure. But I was special in my own mind, if not in anyone else’s, and that got me through a lot.
But I didn’t stop with fantasizing alone, and that’s where Walter Mitty and I differ. I actually believed my dreams could come true (well, maybe not the saving others from a burning building part or winning the lottery and giving my money to needy people scenario - after I bought my castle, of course). I worked to make them come true. What good is a dream if you don’t try to follow it? Yes, reality is messy and can really put a damper on what you want to do, but living in your mind all the time eventually grows old. I always believed that there had to be more, and there always was. It may not always have been what I wanted, but it was something more than shadows in my pocket.
I think there’s a Walter Mitty in many of us - that dreamer of big dreams. The trick is take some of that secret life and make it real. Even if it’s only one tiny thing.
Well, I’m off to save a life, give away scads of money, and start work on my castle. And if I see Walter Mitty, I’ll be sure to invite him along…if he’s not too busy in surgery or off fighting wars.