Thoughts on Manhattan

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 C├ęzanne, 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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