One of my favorite short stories is James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” I still remember when I first read it as a teen, alone in my basement, finishing up my literature assignment late one afternoon. I was enthralled. I would reread the piece a dozen times over the next several days in delight.
Thurber’s tale is really a portrait. Very little action occurs in the story. There is no crises, no climax, no real experiment in living. Walter Mitty simply exists in the story, slumping through his morning errands with his wife’s shrill nagging in his ear.
I said very little action, because Mitty actually believes there is considerable danger and suspense in his life. Inside Mitty’s active imagination, he is the hero of the high seas, the operating room, the court room, and the Royal Air Force.
James Thurber’s Walter Mitty is a giant in his own mind, but nowhere else.
This past Christmas, Ben Stiller gave us his own interpretation of Walter Mitty. Building on Thurber’s portrait of the meek yet aspiring Mitty, Stiller examined what would happen in a true crises. If Walter Mitty faced a real threat at home, at work, and abroad, would he — could he — rise to the occasion?
Now, this is where you may not agree with me. Different viewers may interpret Ben Stiller’s message differently. I originally thought Thurber’s story was about the henpecked husband. My husband understood Stiller’s interpretation as for the middle-aged man. But Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of my all-time favorite movies because of what it says about the power of the introvert.
A true introvert, you see, is not defined by his lifestyle, his family size, or his friend list. An introvert, strictly speaking, is one who creates primarily internally — thinks first, builds later — and is energized by solitude [as opposed to an extrovert, who is most creative outwardly — thinks aloud first — and is energized by interaction with others].
Walter Mitty is a classic introvert, both within Thurber’s tale and Stiller’s interpretation. He has a rich imagination which is rarely shared, and he ponders carefully his actions and relationships.
What Ben Stiller teaches us, though, through his main character’s crises and travels, is the all-important lesson every introvert must learn:
To accomplish our greatest dreams, we introverts must reach outside, take that risk, and lead. We must lead ourselves, then lead those we love, and only then will we find fulfillment.
In demonstrating this truth, Ben Stiller also makes a great commentary on the true power of the introvert in a culture that celebrates extroversion. I found this message refreshing and encouraging.
Introverts, take heart. You have far to go and much to do. Take that first step this week.
And Extroverts, bear with us. We’ll make it yet.