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  • Writer's pictureAtomicRakshasi

Walter Mitty and the Perils of Maladaptive Daydreaming

When I was in primary school, an English lesson hit me a little deeper than usual. It was the story of Gauri the Dreamer, generically known as The Milkmaid’s Dream. Gauri milks her cow early one morning and on the way to market, begins to think about how she would multiply her fortune when she sells her milk. She’d buy chickens with the profits from her milk business, the chickens would lay eggs and she’d earn even more money. Because of her inattentiveness, she trips and falls and drops all the milk, thus shattering her own future.

I was eight years old and already fantasizing about my brilliant career, already world-building and spinning stories and dialogue and making movies inside my mind. I thought fate had dealt poor Gauri a rough hand, and honestly, her plan to expand her fortune didn't sound so bad, but it also made me incredibly insecure about my dreaming. After all, adults knew better, and they said dreaming was a bad thing. What actually got you your fortune was not dreams and fantasies, they repeatedly said, but studies and hard work. I tried, but like Walter Mitty, I was constantly zoning out and living in two worlds.

It was a coping mechanism that too often, even though they help us through the various tough knocks through life, turn into addictions in adulthood if left unaddressed. You can go backwards and fit this sequence of events on pretty much every adult fixation. As deliciously addictive and as harmless as it may seem, daydreaming does betray us. It makes us observers of the life we could have led if we were present, wholly present, in our reality. If reality allowed us to bend the laws of physics, so much the better. It is an escape, it feels good, and it is our very own Matrix that we have no wish to leave.

I’m not talking about visualization, which usually goes along with planning your day, month, or next move. That is conscious dreaming and excellent use of our God-given abilities to imagine things. No, I’m saying the first time you started daydreaming a little too much was probably because reality turned harsh overnight and the people around you might have become unbearable. Daydreamers are a product of their environment, like it or not, and their brains are providing them with an outlet.

"Maladaptive daydreaming (MD) is defined as extensive fantasy activity that replaces human interaction and/or interferes with academic, interpersonal, or vocational functioning." (1)

That certainly seems to be the case for Walter Mitty. In the original story, he enjoys his fantasies, defending them against the intrusion of reality, but in the movie, he has a crippling feeling of shame attached to it, with full knowledge that it is stagnating his life. The truth is, he lost himself to his daydreams along the way. His fictional persona draws on the photographer he idolizes, repairing his flawed, socially awkward personality with a flashy action-flick version (after all, the fantasy is passing through us, it can be as gaudy, exotic and as extravagant as we like). He doesn’t know what he’s actually capable of, so he clings to his backroom job, never raises his voice and switches to his secret life at the slightest sign of stress.

Sound familiar?

The problem with identifying with the fictional version of oneself is that it's never been tried and tested or hammered at the anvil, so it is fragile. We fantasizers know this, thus the secrecy. The more addicted we are to MD, the more we are an observer of what we could have been. We form our identity from the stylized version of the self that isn't real, so we don't really know what we are, but we sure as hell want to be.

So the real question is, who is Walter Mitty? The movie follows his journey out of his self-indulgent fantasies, from observing himself in fictional scenarios to thriving in a material one. Better yet, he uses his MD as a stepping stone to the material world, braving the elements (nature’s harshest teachers) in the process. All it took to trigger this transformation was a missing negative, and a bit of help from his love interest, the dual balance of discomfort and comfort catalysing him into motion. The adults were wrong, the lesson is always in the journey, not in a momentary lack of judgment and spilt milk (besides, Gauri the Dreamer might have been just another story to keep little girls from getting too ambitious).

No wonder this movie has a small but loyal following of MD addicts. David Bowie’s ‘space cadet’ song is bountifully overused, however, I’ll forgive that, because this movie hits close to home. Ever have a group discussion on dreams or MD and this movie is brought up instantly. It’s a form of bonding for people who don’t know each other and have never met, but are ready to commune endlessly on the topic. What’s more, it’s a treat for the eyes that one would least expect Ben Stiller to put together. It surmises, correctly, that the antidote to the crippling hold of MD is not to try to stop it in its tracks, but to try to experience the very same fantasy in one’s own conscious plane. To be present using every last one of our senses; the very same sensory overload that drove us into this coccoon when we were too tender to take on the world.


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