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Walter Mitty's Case For Fiction

In A World Apt For Escapism, Why Stay?

The world is brimming with content. Video games, books, movies, articles, social media posts — there is so much that it can be a drag to give attention to real life. Reality often pales in comparison to what endless media promises: the characters more intriguing, the settings more colourful, and consequences less harsh. This media collective has become so grand, so accessible that it constitutes a world away from reality.

In the spring of 2020, I graduated from university with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies. The final few weeks of my degree were limited to distance learning because of the Covid-19 pandemic. What was supposed to be an exciting summer of career development and post-grad excitement was suddenly cancelled. I went from completing final projects, exams, job interviews and applications, to being stuck at home; the most opportune time of my life had gone stagnant.

The momentum shift left me to cope with mental whiplash. I was lazy and excessive in my content consumption, which left me feeling guilty for wasting time and not being more productive.

Throughout hours of the day, I occupied my mind by delving into video games, TV series, movies, and stories. I read one story in particular that granted me justification and insight about distractions during stressful times.

That story was James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

In 1939, the titular character was introduced to the public. The Walter Mitty archetype has since been known in popular culture to describe sheepish personalities who indulge in unobtainable fantasies.

Credit: Alberte Patenaude (@Jazzy_Alberte)

There are “Walter Mitty”s everywhere. The ability to withdraw from reality into imaginative content by means of storytelling has shaped human hopes, wishes, and escapes for aeons. While Mitty is an exaggerated example of a man who is defined by excessive dreaming, everyday people possess wandering minds that, when given a chance, will abandon the present for the clouds. In fact, as many as 96% of adults experience daily fantasies. It is by this measure that Walter Mitty has become a perpetually relatable character.

The purpose of daydreaming isn’t exactly known, and researchers have theorized that it can serve functions such as insight into one’s experiences, to assist in decision making, and grant perspective into other’s feelings. It is, however, widely accepted to be an effective coping mechanism to deal with internal and external stressors, known as avoidance coping.

Credit: Alberte Patenaude (@Jazzy_Alberte)

Walter Mitty’s fantastical adventures are backdropped against the character’s luckless life, in which he is a timid individual subjugated by the people around him. The juxtaposition of his real-life and secret life shows how important escapism can be, as daydreaming is his only get away from the unwanted stress of his environment. In an afternoon of running errands for his controlling wife, the protagonist’s imagination runs rampant. From being a fierce pilot endeavouring through a terrible storm, to a world-class surgeon who miraculously saves the life of a millionaire banker, to a renowned marksman on trial — it’s all in a day of the (secret) life of Walter Mitty.

Fantasy in the 21st Century

Nowadays there is less rationale for a mind to be as venturesome as Mitty’s. His story was written before the technological revolution, which means that escapism has since taken on many different forms to be almost anything but profound daydreaming. Society has more entertainment and media than ever, and people need not rely on their imagination to step out from reality. If somebody wants to imagine themselves as something else, it is easy to simulate the experience through the plethora of available content amongst various forms of media. Immense catalogues can bring wandering minds to wherever they wish to be, whenever desired.

Content production continues to increase at impressive rates alongside the booming entertainment industries. Over the past decade, the entertainment industry has grown considerably. Video gaming, movie and television streaming, and cell phone usage have all seen an increase in content from year to year. Likewise with books, in which more than a million new books are added to the collective annually.

There is more than enough content to satisfy any fantasy, and large enough demand from audiences to merit the production of anything from small indie films to big-budget video games. This just goes to show many people do not want to be alone with their thoughts. It is a much more palatable coping strategy to get out of one’s head and into a Netflix series, than to venture further into a frazzled mind in search of imagination.

The occupied mind is more accessible than ever.

Credit: Alberte Patenaude (@Jazzy_Alberte)

The extended catalogue of content competing for everybody’s attention is difficult to avoid. The case to partake in avoidance coping is a strong one that is further bolstered by feelings of stress, anxiety, and guilt. Expansive technology has led to greater awareness about societal problems such as climate change and wealth inequality, problems that define the modern generation. Such issues have been linked to elevated levels of mental health conditions, which are on the rise globally.

Not only is an occupied mind more accessible than ever, but it is also more justified.

The portrait of Walter Mitty is completed by a damning truth: his fantasies are, in part, responsible for his timid disposition. The man who misses the cue to go when the light turns green and who drives down the wrong lane in a parking lot is the same man who is planets away in imagination. He drives inattentively, says nonsensical things aloud, and is helplessly forgetful. All of which are consequences of his inability to remain in the present. Mitty’s self-consciousness and lack of dignity make him unhappier than his imaginary self, which in turn gives more reason to avoid reality. He dreams because he is unhappy, and he is unhappy because he dreams.

A Cycle with Momentum

This cyclical nature of avoidance coping is a common occurrence in today’s world. It demonstrates why it can be so difficult for people to escape the procrastination cycle, which is known to negatively affect happiness and life satisfaction. The circular nature of escapism and how appetizing it can be is precisely why it can be a slippery slope.

It is an echo of the great challenges that people face today. In stressful times, escapism is necessary. However, when society’s psyche is barraged by feelings of stress, anxiety, and guilt, practicing escapism in moderation becomes difficult. Mentally, we can only be in one place at a time. Too little escape leads to burnout, and too much escaping leads to a loss of productivity, dissatisfaction, and a loss of self-esteem. The responsibility falls to the individual to practice escapism in moderation, as ignoring other, more important aspects of life that leads to stress if left unchecked.

This is not to say that escapism is a bad thing. Life can be hard for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which can be subdued with avoidance coping. The necessity of which proves that our ability to shelter ourselves from undesirable feelings is a wondrous aspect of the human condition.

Walter Mitty’s mind-wandering escapes are a fictional tale of a healthy coping mechanism gone unchecked. However, his resolution and resilience shine through his meekness. The author punctuates the character finally with a deliverance of solace in the last line of the story, where he refers to Walter Mitty as the “Undefeated”. It is fitting; in a world where people suffer and stress for countless reasons, escapism will always be there as a reliable coping method, and the circumstances are ideal to warrant justification in doing so.

For better or worse our escapes can define us. Fortunately, it is our prerogative to employ them.


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