Christian Counseling: The Walter Mitty Phenomenon

The fictional character was created in the 1939 short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. He is a rather timid protagonist with an overactive fantasy life who is ineffectual in his earthly life. The story resonated with people then, as it does today. Who does not ask if there can be more to life than what one has, sees or experiences? Whether or not there is something beyond ourselves? The story's popularity led to the idea of the Walter Mitty Phenomenon, which refers to a person who fantasizes about a life much more glamorous and exciting than his or her own. 


The Walters of the world are never content nor satisfied with what they have. They feel the need to escape the unfulfilled life they live. The "grass is greener," "just one more dollar" and "Mr. Right is waiting for me" thinking predominates. Scripture puts it this way, "Nor are the eyes of man ever satisfied" (Proverbs 27:20b). It can be due to greed, lust and the need for never-ending security that lead lost souls on a quest for that which is unattainable, as they do not really understand what they want or need. It is an itch that can't be scratched, a longing that cannot be met and a thirst that is unquenchable, which every human being, born or yet to be, sharply experiences. 


As the Walters of the earth would likely testify, living in one's head and not in reality is a much safer and pleasurable place to be. As has been said, "Fantasy is better than reality." But it is ironic for Mitty and some others not to find success in their own world of imagination, since one has complete control over the outcome. It is important to know that engaging in fantasy can be tragic, but is also necessary. Tragic in that excessive fantasizing prevents living life. As Henry David Thoreau once fearfully wrote, he didn't want to find at the end of his life that he had not yet lived. Yet, fantasy is a forerunner of success. Creativity and advancing ourselves personally and our culture begin with fantasies; that is, ones that are useful and productive; that lead to action. Indeed, there is a point at which we do not and should not settle for what is, but are lifted up and carried forward by the winds of possibilities of what could be. 


What is it that people crave, are blindly obsessed by, yet rarely ever get? Material things only temporarily satisfy, glory is fleeting, power corrupts, knowledge puffs up, control is illusory and feelings of love are fickled. Are all fated to see life as Solomon--vain, without purpose, and concluding life's best is finding some pleasure in a lover and satisfaction from work? Is that all there is? Is there nothing left but daydreams? Perhaps then we, as Walter Mitty, should conclude our lives by proudly and courageously facing our own imminent death, which, for him, was a fanciful firing squad without a blindfold. However, we are fortunate in that there is something more, something that does satisfy.


The vain life described above is a life without God. What every person yearns for is connection with others, which cannot be complete without a relationship with God. In Him we find community, truth, structure for living, peace for our souls, forgiveness, an breakable bond, a family to belong to, a secure future, and unconditional mercy, grace, acceptance and love. Being born to spiritual life seriously satisfies the human itch, longing and thirst. In good measure and in reality we Christians may live the Walter Mitty life--we are perfect in Christ, gods, heirs to the kingdom and will rule with our brother and Son of God, Jesus. Is that life exciting enough for you? Can you learn to be content with what you have and the life you live? That is, unless God is truly calling you to live differently, in which case you need to be bold and take hold of that life. It is a matter of discernment and self-control to be content, while still seeking to be your best self and live the life you imagine.


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