Harold and Maude, now streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime, deals with a timeless issue: the crushing morbidity of precocious young people. When our brains are getting used to being alive, we can’t help but confront some of the hypocrisy and misery we see around us. If you’re sensitive and dramatic as well, everything can seem wonderful and horrible and you can’t imagine how anyone does this life thing.
“A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they are not dead, really. They’re just backing away from life.”
Harold is just such a youth, and his morbid fascinations become his largest occupation. Death becomes his life. He concocts elaborate staged suicides that fail to get a blink out of his own mother, drives a hearse, and goes to funerals for fun.
What he needs, what any youth in this type of situation (usually it’s a bit more metaphorical,) needs, is a good does of wisdom from someone who truly appreciates life. Thankfully for Harold, he’s open to it when he meets 80-year-old Maude, who sees life as a feast she means to devour.
It’s easy to discard something when you think you have an abundance of it. Really, none of us have an abundance of life, even the young. Every moment quakes with uncertainty, and the future, with all of its possibility and dread, is just an illusion. Young or old, all anyone has is this trembling moment as we’re experiencing it, and even that flits away the second we try to clutch it.
Maude’s philosophy of life is to take it as it is and drink it in as much as possible, without getting caught up in traps like worry over humiliation. The word mortified calls to the desire we have to self-destruct when we think we’re being laughed at or judged. How others view us is important to us because we’re social creatures who evolved to care what others think, but we aren’t destined to this tendency. We can, if we choose, not care so much how others are responding to us, talking about us, or whether or not they are mentioning us at all. An added bonus to quietening this anxiety, is that when we are most open about our quivering inner world, we give a voice to others who may feel and think in a similar way but were too scared to speak up.
I was a kid a bit like Harold, and I’ve known so many others who live the myth that it’s the destiny of “deep” and “smart” people to be sad and cynical. We sprinkle our gloom with glitter and wear it like a crown, a marking of our specialness, an emblem of a seer. We use our intellect to carve out elaborate caves for ourselves, too often neglecting the intellect’s ability to seek out all the humbling patterns of beauty and love we can find. Sadness isn’t special. It is a part of our experience that should not be ignored and shunned, but it isn’t a state we should seek out, mistaking it for wisdom.
Sometimes we take this focus on misery and doom as The Truth, as the filter we’re going to view our lives with, and map out a dark path for ourselves. It’s not that I don’t love and appreciate “darkness,” it’s just that I believe Misery is not a suitable place to set up a permanent camp in this world of wonder we life in. In fact, there is no true permanent state for us. We can remain in a single room our entire lives and travel through a kaleidoscope of moods and states of being. Misery itself isn’t an unsuitable place to land for while, but it can become comfortable, familiar, and protective. We can convince ourselves it’s where we belong. Trying to enjoy life can seem scary, maybe because it’s never a sure thing, and enjoyment dissipates like perfume in the air.
Living can seem like nothing but a succession of losses, and we think we think we can protect ourselves by never having anything to lose. Maude’s response to this is not to fight it, but to accept it, to embrace it. To love things we will lose, that is where the sweetness lies. And then, Maude says, we must still “go, and love some more.”
“Some people get upset because they feel they have a hold on some things. I’m merely acting as a gentle reminder – here today, gone tomorrow, so don’t get attached to things.”
Sometimes people tell me I’m too positive in my perspective when it misaligns with their projection of doom. I am not really an optimist, and I outwardly reject idealism (I think idealism is tied to unnecessary pain and disappointment.) Just because I, and many others, choose to enjoy life when we can doesn’t mean we haven’t experienced pain and suffering. It’s just that I know that pain and suffering isn’t everything, and I make a point to remember it.
Happiness is an odd thing. The idea of it is something all of us want, whether we admit it or not, but sometimes maybe we think it’s something it isn’t. We expect it to be this perfect, permanent, and catchable thing. When we can’t ever attain this notion of happiness, we get to thinking maybe happiness itself doesn’t even exist, or at least not for us. We can get so wrapped up in our own world and sensations at any given moment, that when we feel bad we either think a happy seeming person is faking it, or they don’t deserve whatever is making them feel good and appreciate their life. We can be jealous of a person’s smile. Harold and Maude ask us not to be, to go out and snatch a smile from the fibers of the universe for ourselves while we can.
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