Monday, August 18, 2008

The Impossible Dream

Last night I watched Freedom Writers. It's strange to watch one's own desired life played out in a film. If I had a goal, it'd be to emulate Ms. Gruwell (Hilary Swank) and to be exactly that kind of person, the one who is told by various people that it can't be and then demonstrates how it can be. That's the life of an idealist, but the fulfilled life of the idealist, because she ends up accomplishing her goal. And she ignores everyone who tells her she won't succeed.

But it was a different part of the movie that struck me in particular. It has to do with her relationship with her husband (Patrick Dempsey.) I have noticed this theme repeated in various books and films. There's a dialogue between the two in the film that goes like this:

    Dempsey: I just want to live my life- and not feel bad about it.
    Swank: Well, I'm not trying to make you feel bad.
    Dempsey: You don't have to try!
    Swank: I didn't plan on becoming responsible for these kids...
    Dempsey: Well, who asked you to?
    Swank: No one asked me to-
    Dempsey: --kids!
    Swank: Well, why do I have to be asked? [pause] I- finally realized what I'm supposed to be doing and I love it- When I help these kids make sense of their lives, everything about my life makes sense to me. How often does a person get that?
    Dempsey: Then what do you need me for?
    Swank: You're my husband. Why can't you stand by me and be part of it, the way wives support husbands?
    Dempsey: Because I can't be your wife. [pause] I wish I could make that sound less awful. Erin, you know if you had to choose between us and a class- who would you pick?
    Swank: If you loved me, how could you ever ask me that?
    Dempsey: Erin, look at me- this is all there's ever been to me. This is it. I'm not one of those kids; I don't have any more potential. So you don't want to be here because if you did, wouldn't you be in the classroom every night?
    Swank: That's not true- I want to be here; I love you.
    Dempsey: You love the idea of me.
    Swank: But it's such a great idea.
    Dempsey: [softly] I know.
It occurred to me that this dialogue is an exact replay of an extremely similar one in The Way We Were:
    Streisand: There's something I want to ask you. [drinks a little] I hope this doesn't make me drunk; I want to sleep.
    Redford: Don't drink it like water.
    Streisand: Okay. It's because I'm not attractive enough, isn't it? I'm not fishing, really- I'm not. I know I'm attractive...sort of. But...I'm not attractive in the- I'm not attractive in the right way- am I. I mean...I don't have the right style- for you. Do I? Be my friend.
    Redford: No. You don't have the right style.
    Streisand: I'll change!
    Redford: No, don't change. You're your own girl. You have your own style.
    Streisand: But then I won't have you. Why can't I have you? Why?
    Redford: Because you push too hard. Every damn minute! Look, we don't- there's no time to just relax and enjoy living. Everything's too serious to be so serious.
    Streisand: If I push too hard, it's because I want things to be better. I want us to be better; I want you to be better. Sure, I make waves. You have to. And I'll keep making them until you're...every wonderful thing you should be and will be. You'll never find anyone as good for you as I am, to believe in you as much or love you as much.
    Redford: I know that.
    Streisand: Well then, why?
    Redford: Do you think if I come back it's going to be okay by magic? What's going to be different? We'll both be wrong; we'll both lose.
    Streisand: Couldn't we both win?
    Redford: God, I- [pause] Oh, God, I- [pause] Katie, you expect so much.
    Streisand: Oh, but look what I've got...

So you see there is a theme. There is the underlying theme of the relationship between the idealist and her husband, or lover. And it is simply this; the idealist pushes the other person too hard, whether she does it deliberately or simply by the nature of who she is as a person. The exact same idea is echoed in each of these exchanges. Dempsey tells Swank "You're in love with the idea of me," and she responds, "But it's such a great idea." Redford said the exact same thing when he explained, "Katie, you expect so much" and she said, "Oh, but look what I've got."

The tendency of a person is to look, not only for where they can improve, but for the ways in which everyone around them can improve- how they can grow, become better, achieve their whole self. And generally this tendency is even altruistic, because the idea is that a person is happier when he has achieved his whole self and everything that he might be and desires to be. Such a person glows with confidence and pleasure in everything that he is. So how can you expect Streisand or Swank not to be what they are, not to want to change the world and everyone around them, and bring that kind of joy and pleasure to everyone else? The problem is that they cannot see when other people have already given up. Take Dempsey, for example, who is happy with his job and has no interest in the work required to go back to school in order to become an architect. That's because his attitude is that there is a real world that needs to be pacified, and that's the way the world works. It is what it is. This is the way things go. Suck it up and deal. Because you're never going to get the breaks you need, and it's not worth the time.

That attitude kills the people who are around you who are idealists. It rips apart the fabric of their world, a little at a time. Because to them, it appears as though you are choosing to remain unhappy. And they just don't get why anyone would deliberately choose to remain a mere part of himself when he has the opportunity to be whole. They're in love with the idea of a person at his best, doing everything he wants and should do. They're in love with the idea of a joyous person, a happy person, a fulfilled person. And damn right they're not going to take it when someone says that's impossible, because that's the only thing they cling to in order to stay alive.

I think this is true, not merely of relationships with lovers, but of all relationships that an idealist has. The people who are around them are subjected to scrutiny, usually unintentional, or they feel like the idealist looks down on them, and it's simply not true. Nobody's looking down on anybody. People are just perplexed, confused. Because how can you have the ability and opportunity to reach for something wonderful- and still deny it to yourself? Why won't you believe? Especially because it's not a question of having no one to believe in you. I believe in you. I believe in all of us and in the good that is at our core, no matter how many disappointments we suffer.

I hate how people talk to me, with their statements that suggest this is how everything is, forever and ever. Every so often I start accepting the limited parameters of their world, the world which simply works a certain way and that I can't change, that place where things just are and it's my job to deal with it, no matter how fair, unfair or unjust it is. That world where all I have to do is suck it up. I have no intention of ever doing that, and with God's help, I never will. It is our job to see everything that our world could be, and to partner with God in making it more beautiful. It is our job to hope for the better and to look for the beauty in people. It is our job to forgive the unforgivable, to learn to see people, to stop cowering because we won't dare to believe that we can be the things we wish to be, if only we put in the time and effort. And just because I haven't yet found the way to go about it doesn't mean I can't, or that I won't.

The only thing that makes me sad is this idea found in the literature and the movies, that it's impossible to live with a force of nature. Because who wants to deal with someone who pushes too hard or who wants everyone to live up to what seems- to others- to be an impossible standard?

So yes, you can be extraordinary, or strive to be; just know that you're going to lose people along the way. And it's going to hurt. And you're going to hate yourself for not being able to change enough, and wishing you could, while knowing you can't. Because that would hurt you more.

וְהַשֹּׂרֵף אֹתָהּ--יְכַבֵּס בְּגָדָיו בַּמַּיִם, וְרָחַץ בְּשָׂרוֹ בַּמָּיִם; וְטָמֵא, עַד-הָעָרֶב.


Anonymous said...

I watched these a while back but my impression is that you are being a little too hard on Dempsey. IIRC he didn't know what he was signing up for with Swank and that her passion for teaching would become all consuming. Each relationship is different and dynamic and often, but not always, can reach a new equilibrium, but usually it takes some give on both sides. Make sure the other knows of your passion for the extraordinary, it will likely play itself out in ways neither of you can project.

Joel Rich

Irina Tsukerman said...

Oh my gosh I know exactly what you mean! And unfortunately it has taken me losing people along the way to know that sometimes... sometimes you just don't win all the battles, and sometimes you *can't* force people o accept what you are if they are not ready for that.

M said...

What a post. Wow.

your YUandStern friends said...

"It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him for what he is."

~Hermann Hesse

Chana,based on research,idealists are relatively rare, making up no more than 15 to 20 percent of the population. But their ability to inspire people with their enthusiasm and their idealism has given them influence far beyond their numbers. We don't have to go far to prove this. The amazing work you do on behalf of numerous clubs @YU,your significant contribution to the Medical Ethics Society,your leadership when it comes to supporting the students in need via both your fantastic notes in Limudei Kodesh and Chol,your ability to inspire NCSY-ers and your desire to help those who are in need -are all extraordinary! We are looking forward to all the interesting and positive changes to the content of The Observer once you become the Editor-in-Chief in a couple of weeks. Wishing you much succes!Rock on!

Erachet said...

Because to them, it appears as though you are choosing to remain unhappy.

The thing is - often, people really are happy with their simpler lives. Not everyone strives to change the world. Not everyone wants to be the best there is. Not everyone needs to be an inspiration. Those things are great if that's what a person's drive in life is, but I think the problem with many idealists is just as you said - they can't understand anyone who isn't an idealist. And someone who isn't an idealist doesn't really want to be one, either.

That's not to say I'm not idealistic, because I definitely have my moments. But I know what it's like to be on the other end, too.

Otherwise, though, great post.

rabbi neil fleischmann said...

I was going to go to sleep and got the idea in my head (how do we get ideas in our heads, how much control do we really have in that?)
to look at you blog. I feel that this was providential.

That movie hit me hard the two times I saw it (after school with two different classes)(there aren't many movies that my teenage students and I overlap on, but this is one such). And it was that scene that grabbed me by the soul (and I thought it was just me that was taken by that seemingly minor, seemingly sub plotty exchange).

I was really taken by your take on this - it speaks to my life struggle, to other idealist's struggles that I witness, to the core of it all for me - particularly lately.

I hope I "got" your last line -"And it's going to hurt. And you're going to hate yourself for not being able to change enough, and wishing you could, while knowing you can't. Because that would hurt you more."

I think you're saying in "change enough," that you can only change others so much - and if you push them too much all you accomplish is pulling yourself down.

And that's what you meant by leading into the pasuk you quoted. וְהַשֹּׂרֵף אֹתָהּ--יְכַבֵּס בְּגָדָיו בַּמַּיִם, וְרָחַץ בְּשָׂרוֹ בַּמָּיִם; וְטָמֵא, עַד-הָעָרֶב.


Tobie said...

Did you notice that the ending titles to Freedom Writers mentioned that she taught this group through graduation, and then went off to teach at a private college somewhere? Her idealism made her do great things, but then it burnt itself out- burnt her out.

Not that this is a universal point, nor a counter to any of the values of idealism, but it is nonetheless an interesting one.

Chana said...


You are mistaken. The line reads: "Following some of her students, Ms. Gruwell went to teach at California State University, Long Beach."

Hardly the switchover to a swanky private school that you are suggesting. And not, it would seem to me, evidence of a burnout in the least.

Gavi said...

My wife often says to people looking for relationship advice that you can and should try to influence your partner for the better. However, you have to realise that they may never change, and you must accept them as they are.

A difficult line to walk for any idealist - myself included. This is one of the reasons I do not want to go into the professional rabbinate...

Anonymous said...

You wrote:

I hate that world.......That world where all I have to do is suck it up. I have no intention of ever doing that, and with God's help, I never will.

Hopefully Daddy has a full bank account and can finance your dreams and you'll never have to "suck it up". What if it takes years and years to achieve your dreams. The world is not all about you, spoiled little rich girl.

Some of us have to stand on our own two feet from the get-go.

Chana said...

Anonymous 3:00,

You make a fair point, Anonymous. Certainly achieving one's dreams takes work and effort, and not everyone is born with the same opportunities. I nevertheless find your argument dubious. Are you suggesting that if someone is born poor, they are less likely to be an idealist? I would argue exactly the opposite- if someone is born poor or without whatever it is they want, they would work all the harder to achieve what they want, to move forward, and they would picture a world better than the one they currently inhabit (whether it be materially better or otherwise.)

AK said...

Anonymous 3:00pm, you sound jealous ,petty and sick! Anyone who knows Chana is aware that she works hard to achieve her dreams and gets fantastic results!
What do your nasty comments have to do with being an idealist anyhow?

Stubborn and Strong said...

so what is your answer? So idealist should be marry idealist? Did idealist make other people idealist into non-idealist? like couple from "Freedom of Writing" did husband is turned off by his wife's idealist? or Wife is real idealist and husbusd is not? Sorry a lot of questions but i felt there is a lot of unanswer questions in your post.

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G said...

I would argue exactly the opposite- if someone is born poor or without whatever it is they want, they would work all the harder to achieve what they want, to move forward, and they would picture a world better than the one they currently inhabit (whether it be materially better or otherwise.)

That may sound right in theory but is proven to be just the opposite in reality.

It is more often than not the wealthy, who do not have to worry about 'the mundane', that have the opportunity, the education and the sense of responsibility that more often than not end up as idealists and the drivers of change.

All one needs to do is look to who has historically made up those involved in government to see that this is the case.

--not that it is exclusively their realm.

Anonymous said...

--not that it is exclusively their realm.

exactly the point of ein mazal lyisrael - while the deck may be stacked, we may overcome our "fate" to achieve our "destiny"
Joel Rich

M said...

Unfortunately, I have to agree with what G says. Coming from a family where my parents have to work very hard for a living, I can tell you that when you have to worry about money all the time, you are NOT involved with saving the world. It's not happening. You are simply involved in making sure you can pay the rent and tuition and keep you head above water. I'm not into having lots of money, but I will admit that if you don't have it, your focus is just trying to ***live***- you have no time or peqce of mind to do anything else. and yes, often it means that you have no access to the extensive and solid education from where to broaden and strengthen your idealism. Additionally, your social crowd is not one of shakers and doers either, because, like I said before, that just isn't happening, so you have very little outside support or even awareness of what is out there and what can be done, and what opportunities you do have. It's unfortunate, but it's true. I have to say that we as a generatin were raised to admire the poor and mock the rich, and brainwashed to believe that the poor man is the only one with rights to change the country and ahve a opinion, where, as G pointed out, often the poor man lacks the education and knowledge to make an intellectual, informed, and wise decision. We've grown up with what probably is the renmants of the socialist revolution, with romantic stories of rags to riches and the right of the poor man(think back to half the movies you watched as a kid). If you watched "Maid in Manhattan", you'll see how the senatorial candidate Christopher Marshell's public relationist complains that Marshall has no story- he wasn't a poor guy who worked his way up. It works as a disadvatage for him. And actually in a large wya, the film is about that- how who you are and where you come from is irrelevant. It's possible to change, of course, but you are only exposed to what you are exposed to. If you aren;t exposed to opportunities and advancements and high level achievements, it's very difficult to evne imagine them.

not so said...

I disagree with both G and M.
I'm from Moscow,Russia. My parents live there still. We have no money whatsoever. I attend Stern,work 2 jobs to support myself,learning English/religion and doing very well at school,especially in sciences. I overcame many many obstacles and I'm succeeding.Anything can be achieved if one puts enough work and effort into it. One can get a good education ,research educational opportunities and pursue them as well.

M said...

Not so, I'm not dentying that a person can work himself up. Of course they cna, if they have enough detirmination, willpower, and probably luck as well. But it will be much arder for them. Also, like I said before, many times people frmo economically disadvantaged backgrounds aren't aware of the opportuties available to them. It's great that you come from a place where you are aware of the potentials in life, and are working to achieve them. I have a feeling- tell me if I am correct- that in Russia education and hard work in general are much more stressed and that even if you come from a poorer family you are still encouraged to go out and make the best of yourself. In the end it boils down to what you were trained to aspire to. If you come from the clums, or even just a poorer Spanish or even white family here, you are not spurred to achieve anything greater than a job at the local mechanic or beauty salon.

not so said...

These days there is very little a Jew can achieve in Russia because of political/economic problems. Not much is availabke education wise either. I'm lucky to live in the States and make something of myself.Desire is a powerful thing.One should work hard and succeed-that's my message.It doesn't matter if one is rich or poor.

Join Soda Club now!!! said...

The Rabbi wrote:

I hope I "got" your last line -"And it's going to hurt. And you're going to hate yourself for not being able to change enough, and wishing you could, while knowing you can't. Because that would hurt you more."

I don't get the last line. What does it mean?

rabbi neil fleischmann said...

In reply to the previous commenter, join soda club now, re -

"And it's going to hurt. And you're going to hate yourself for not being able to change enough, and wishing you could, while knowing you can't. Because that would hurt you more."-

I have a new possibility. Maybe it means: As an idelist you will keep trying to change yourself and effect change in the world, but knowing it's endless. yet you try because not attempting would hurt more.