“People here are funny. They work so hard at living they forget how to live.” Longfellow Deeds.
“At two o’clock this morning, Mr. Deeds held up traffic while he fed a bagful of doughnuts to a horse. When asked why he was doing it, he replied, ‘I just wanted to see how many doughnuts this horse would eat before he asked for a cup of coffee.'” Newspaper article describing Mr. Deeds’s “pixilated” behaviors.
I love old movies; new ones too! Last week “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” was on, and I got to watch the last half of it again. For those unfamiliar, it’s a 1936 movie directed by Frank Capra, whose movies always seem to capture a slice of down home life, regular folks just living the American life. If you want to experience Capra at his best just look out for “It Happened One Night,” “Mr. Deeds…,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Capra is most interested in the average person facing life’s difficulties, often caused by conflict between the greedy and judgmental rich and frugal and accepting small town people. He paints in broad strokes, usually not completely realistically (small town folks can be quite greedy and judgmental too!), but he always makes an important point: life is simpler than we make it out to be, if only we can stop trying to be things we’re not, and just be who we really are. If nothing else, Capra argues for a radical authenticity in how we choose to live our lives. At least that’s my take on Capra.
There’s a great scene in “Mr. Deeds…” that makes the case for authenticity. Longfellow Deeds, the title character, has been brought into court for a sanity hearing. You see, he inherited $20 million and decided it was too much trouble to be wealthy and live in the big city. He began giving away the fortune so he could return to his small town life (the fictional Mandrake Falls) where he had been quite happy. Various schemers do what schemers do best: they plot to upend Mr. Deeds and get the fortune for themselves. They argue that anyone who would want to give away $20 million MUST be insane. And to prove their point they bring in, as their star witnesses, the Faulkner sisters, elderly spinsters who have known Longfellow since his birth in Mandrake Falls. They testify that he is “pixilated” and always has been. Here’s the movie’s definition of pixilated, spoken by one of the psychiatrists who will determine his sanity:
Perhaps I can explain, Your Honor. The word pixilated is an early American expression, derived from the word ‘pixies,’ meaning elves. They would say, ‘The pixies had got him,’ as we nowadays would say a man is ‘balmy.’
Later on the same sisters testify that everyone in Mandrake Falls is pixilated, except them, of course. Eventually Longfellow is exonerated, gets to punch the head schemer in the nose, and returns home with his sweetheart in his arms. Don’t you love happy Hollywood endings!
Why must we be so darned sober and serious all the time! Can’t we be a bit pixilated too? To be pixyish is to be playfully mischievous. To have some fun with life, mostly with our self, not taking ourselves and life so seriously. Sometimes we get so serious, so hung up on “how things ought to be,” that we miss how things actually are. Look around you; no matter how difficult this moment may be for you, and, yes, life can be very difficult, look and see the beauty inherent in this moment, this person, this world. This is the moment we are invited to embrace, to join in a dance with God or transcendence or eternity, however you choose to understand the mystery of this life. Thomas Merton, Catholic mystic, embracer of the dance of life, closed his spiritual classic “New Seeds of Contemplation,” with this lovely sentence:
We are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnities to the winds and join in the general dance.
So my message in this little, silly essay is don’t be afraid to find out how many doughnuts a horse will eat before it asks for a cup of coffee. Don’t work so hard at living that you forget how to live. I think Merton would have agreed wholeheartedly with Deeds: everyone is a little pixilated, if only we have the courage and wisdom to be so.
So I’m off to pixilate a bit now. Watch out, you may find me dancing!