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“I could have been a contender. . .”

  Those words, after forty years, have become a cliché for the failed hopes of thousands of people. Muttered by Marlon Brando in the movie On the Waterfront, they have struck chords in those of us who sense that somehow we have missed the train—he said, “I could have had class. . . I could have been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

Nobody else could have made those words immortal, as Brando did, in spite of the fact that his career was, at the time, “on a roll.” The character he played, the younger brother of a union organizer, would have been forgotten, but for those words. They epitomized the agony of the “didn’t quite make it,” person who had dreamed of what life could be. No doubt, an American dream.

The screenplay was written by Arthur Miller who, ironically, was blacklisted from motion pictures because he was identified as a communist, and so it was officially credited to Budd Shulberg. Who it was that wrote those particular lines is not clear.

Heroes come in a culture that reveres them. In the 1940s, America had its share of heroes, celebrated (and sometimes created) mostly in Hollywood movies. By the mid-nineteen fifties, when On the Waterfront was released, we’d had our fill of heroes. Or, perhaps, we’d had our fill of the Hero filling the screen of our local drive-in theater, reminding us how far we would have to go to be one. High Noon, the Gary Cooper Western of a couple of years earlier, portrayed the not-so-heroic hero, the one whose integrity stood between him and Evil, and who was not so certain that he was up to heroism, but who had “got to do what a man’s got to do.”

As one who grew up in that time of beginning-to-question, I wonder, even now, how much more I would have done with my life if I’d been born ten years earlier and been forced to prove myself in the heat of battle. As a teen-ager, I lived in the fantasy world of war. John Wayne was my hero, my idol, my role model. He, just like me, had few words to say, but he had the guts to accomplish anything.

Gary Cooper was a little embarrassing to me. In an earlier picture, Along Came Jones, about a peaceable kind of cowboy who was mistaken for a fearsome gun slinger, Cooper proved his worth (at least to the female lead) because he was a dead shot. He didn’t have to be arrogant about it. But as much as I admired him, he didn’t fit my image of a hero.

Gregory Peck, my second-most hero-like movie star, was the intellectual of the bunch. He could even be the bad guy in Dual In the Sun, that pretentious, rather awful, film without losing his status, at least for me. He was still a hero.

And what was I—ever? “A big frog in a little pond” was how one person described me. That’s probably all most of us could ever hope for—to “be a contender.” There aren’t many winners, but a lot of contenders. There aren’t many Budd Shulbergs, even fewer Arthur Millers or Tennessee Williams.

These days, winning a place on Donald Trump’s team will get you fame for a few months, as will beating all the other contestants on An American Idol. If you are into sports, you have a one-in-a-thousand chance to become somebody.

What is the measure of a person? Aside from fame or wealth, how does one know when he or she has arrived? Or could? America is not the place we think of when we hear Thoreau’s phrase, “leading lives of quiet desperation,” yet many of our people do just that. Movies and television continue to offer us comparisons to our lives, not all (thank goodness) heroes and glory.

The most recent issue of The Atlantic celebrates its 150th anniversary with a number of viewpoints on “The American Idea.” However the world sees the United States these days, Americans still tend to see it as the land where anyone with the will and the perseverance can make it. It’s true that for most of history, in most of the world, that belief was rare. It’s also true that in America, whether a hundred years ago or today, the exceptional individual is, well, exceptional. Still, we encourage the young to dream of what they might become. For most of us, I suppose, by the time we realize that we’ll never quite make it the way we once dreamed, we’re mature enough to take it in stride and get on with whatever life we actually have in hand.

The other day I happened to watch a part of a daytime television program, “Oprah,” in which the host was interviewing the daughter of Donald Trump. At one point, this multimillionaire television personality asked this multimillionaire businesswoman, daughter of another multimillionaire, “How did it feel to you, growing up in such ah . . . an . . . environment?”

All of this watched by millions of people, the vast majority of whom could only dream of such a life. One thinks, “If I had grown up in that kind of environment, I, too, might have been a contender.” For the definition of success, whether in heroism or in the accumulation of assets, relies more on the end result than it does on doing what it takes to get there. But how many people would watch a television program about an ordinary person who happens to enjoy what she is doing, planting a garden or raising a child or rebuilding an old car in the garage? We don’t dream of being ordinary.

Maybe that’s the crux of it: we don’t dream of being but of becoming. We don’t dream of doing something that gives us satisfaction. If other people don’t know of us and admire what we do, maybe we aren’t successful. A “contender,” by definition, has beaten other people at whatever it is he’s doing. Being “somebody” means being somebody who stands taller than others in the vicinity, who hits more home runs or makes more money.

The American Dream is a competitive dream. William James, one of the greatest psychologist-philosophers of the modern era, said, a hundred years ago, “The exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess Success is our national disease.” Perhaps, on a large scale, the culture benefits from having its members scrabble to the top of the pile; the successful have more influence on the growing edge of the culture. On an individual scale, a lot more people experience failure. Only a few people ever win the lottery; the rest simply contribute to it. But nobody ever buys a lottery ticket and says, “I’ll make this contribution so that somebody else can be rich.”

To refuse to play the game is to withdraw from the herd. One falls back onto one’s own resources for satisfaction. Happiness, at that point, depends not upon competing with others for fame or wealth, but upon doing what one loves.

As psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi says in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, people are most happy when they are in a state of flow, of “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost.”

Being a hero, or even a contender, could become irrelevant.

 

Donald Skiff, October 31, 2007

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