Updated on 03.31.09

Thoughts on Manhattan

Trent Hamm

Several evenings ago, I was looking for a movie to watch when I stumbled upon the end of the Woody Allen film Manhattan. A single scene there has stuck in my mind – one in which Allen attempts to piece through why his life is worth living. Bill Joy actually described this scene quite well in an essay for Wired:

Do you remember the beautiful penultimate scene in Manhattan where Woody Allen is lying on his couch and talking into a tape recorder? He is writing a short story about people who are creating unnecessary, neurotic problems for themselves, because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe.

He leads himself to the question, “Why is life worth living?” and to consider what makes it worthwhile for him: Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Potato Head Blues,” Swedish movies, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, the apples and pears by Cézanne, the crabs at Sam Wo’s, and, finally, the showstopper: his love Tracy’s face.

Each of us has our precious things, and as we care for them we locate the essence of our humanity.

Why is life worth living for me? I carried that question around for a bit and made something of a list: my wife’s half smile when I make a corny joke, the rocking chair in the basement with a great book in my hand, my son crawling up on my lap with the purpose of looking through a pile of family pictures, The Joshua Tree, my daughter spinning around in circles and falling to the floor while shouting “POCKET FUW OF POSE-EEEES!”, a just-finished essay that turned out well, a slice of homemade pizza, jumping into a pile of leaves… that’s a big taste of my list.

A few things worth noting. First of all, the things on that list, for the most part, don’t involve spending any money. Second, my list ten years ago wouldn’t have been all that different – sure, there wouldn’t have been references to my children, but things like successful writing and homemade pizza and my wife’s smile and a great book and The Joshua Tree would have been there then, too. These things touch some core of who I am – not just right now, but always.

There was a time, not too long ago, when I believed variety was the spice of life. Buying new things and trying new experiences were the keys to lifelong joy. What I found, though, is that constantly chasing the new thing didn’t bring me the happiness I expected. I might be happy for a while, but eventually I would feel the need to seek something else – a new rush – and I would only extremely rarely find things that lifted me as high as those key things I had already discovered.

Then my son was born, and I discovered that life often hands you those great meanings – you don’t have to chase them. You don’t have to keep buying albums to discover your Joshua Tree. You don’t have to keep eating at expensive restaurants to find your homemade pizza. You don’t have to keep buying furniture to discover your comfortable chair.

Instead of using my time, money, and energy to chase a mix of good and bad things, I’m using my time, money, and energy to make sure I can always enjoy the great things.

At the end of the movie, Allen chases down his love Tracy. He realizes how much energy and time he’s spent chasing other women was simply wasted – what really mattered to him was already in front of him. He just had to see it.

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  1. Jonathan says:

    I definitely agree on the Joshua Tree factor. However, I would lean more toward Achtung Baby. Thanks for the post. Keep up the good work!

  2. 444 says:

    I think you and your family should chase a few more things down. You are comfortable – and you know how not to blow that – so now, don’t get into a rut.

  3. IRG says:

    Trent writes:
    “I’m using my time, money, and energy to make sure I can always enjoy the great things.”

    “always” is one of those words to be very careful with. Life isn’t about always. (sigh)

    Trent is in the early days of his life and it’s great that he has such an appreciation of how much he truly has in his life and has gratitude. I don’t doubt he’ll continue with that in the future.

    But life changes and it often is very challenging to enjoy the “life we have” in the moment, especially if the people we love, for example, are gone or are in serious trouble. Enjoy the now, but know that the “now” is always in flux and subject to change, lots of it. What you love and enjoy the most now may yet provide your greatest challenges and outright misery. (Thinking of the challenges of parenthood.)

    It gets a lot tougher in life the longer you are around (cause we do get attached to people and how things are, as well as stuff). You only really learn what you’re made of after you’ve come through trials and tribulations (and life is more than not having enough $$$, although that can often dominate our thinking when we consider what is challenging, or not). Real joy? Knowing that you will make it through, one way or another, because, you already have.

    444 makes a good point, about not getting into a rut. Complacency.

    Although it may take many people a lifetime to get to a life that works for them as well as Trent’s does, so early in his life, being in the “comfort zone” can be a self-limiting trap.

    (These days few are in a comfort zone due to economy, but on basic level, with family and friends, yes.)

    Comfort and relative stability (non-financial) can be used as a foundation that allows one to experiment and try other things in life, knowing that if they fall and/or fail, they’ll have a “cushion” to bounce back. People who care no matter what.

    But for many, the comfort zone becomes the status quo that they then work like crazy to maintain (nothing stays the same, though). Often to the detriment of their soul and spirit.

    Sometimes we get cozy even in our relative unhappiness, accepting that “well, this is how life is.” And we accept a life that is less than full or eclectic than we might experience.

    It’s not what you do when your life “works” (or even when you accept how it does not work), it’s how open you are to a changing world and to fully developing your own “being” in the service of life and others. How far will you “go” into your life?

    Being a good parent is so important and that alone can consume people (sometimes OK and needed, sometimes not so good and not needed). But then one moves on and you take on different roles and different aspects of yourself. If you’re lucky.

    What gives me joy? Knowing that I don’t have to choose to live in the past. To not judge, myself or others. To know that opportunities exist where I can’t even imagine them. That life is a lot bigger than me and my needs. That although life can sometimes take a lot of work, in every moment it gives back far more than we ever can put into it.

    And on days when things are really tough, just the feel of the sun and the wind on my body makes me remember, as I hear my heart beat, to just let it go and enjoy what I have.

    Suze Orman said something the other day on Oprah after talking to people who had lost a lot financially. She said something like, “You have to stop thinking about what you had. And focus on what you have.” Otherwise, you’ll be miserable and in pain forever.

    Well, that’s tough for folks who are now living in tents or their cars. But for most of us, that’s doable. Forget about what you had–the job, the cars, the houses, the stuff. It’s gone, maybe never to be replaced.

    You’re HERE now. End the suffering by giving up what was, and moving on from RIGHT HERE.

  4. A. Dawn says:

    It’s worth living because it gives opportunities to help those in need. Also, it’s worth living because gives a chance to do my part to make Earth a better place to live.
    A Dawn Journal

  5. Heather says:

    I’ve not been on this sight in a while and it’s good to come back to this article. Very true Trent! So what if you’re young; never let anyone criticise you for your youth. We have to make the most of whatever phase of life we’re in so no matter what happens, the best is in front of us, not behind us.

  6. Angela says:

    I love this post because I’m a big fan of the movie Manhattan, and particularly the scene you describe. I love the way you keep referring to Joshua Tree- I once drove a good friend crazy because I kept playing the tape over and over on a road trip.
    I think I give my husband the same half smile. He makes a lot of corny jokes.

  7. Jude says:

    I don’t find that life *is* worth living, not that I’m checking out immediately. A few moments of joy here and there don’t make life worthwhile. A life-long pattern of despair makes life worth leaving.

  8. In no particular order: the start of the baseball season, my wife’s face, a good cigar on a summer evening, my kids, the NCAA tournament, my wife’s eggplant parmigiana, my good friends, autumn leaves, Sam Adams Lager – I could go on and on. The message is this: there’s more good than bad, be grateful for the good things you have.

  9. J says:

    Maybe you don’t have to chase it, but you at least have to keep up. And I disagree heartily about variety not being the spice of life.

    – Your kids are going to grow up and move away. This doesn’t mean you can’t treasure their moments when they are small, but one day they will go away to school, work and have families of their own. If course these are generally good things, and will bring their own joys with them.

    – For books and music, the reason to listen is to find the next Joshua Tree or the next great book. Fortunately, looking for these types of things is made considerably easier by things like your library and Internet radio services that can deliver all kinds of new music for free.

    – Your comfortable chair is going to need to be replaced sometime. There might even be a more comfortable model available when the time comes.

    The problem is that life is not a snapshot, it’s a continuum of events. Ten years ago would you have believed that you would be a full-time writer? Or did you have to chase down that dream and work for it?

    I guess I’d say that I find what I am comfortable with, but I do make efforts to seek out new experiences and challenges when I can. Life is too short not to give anything a shot at least once.

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