We’ve been talking about the Hero’s Journey as a main structure in most stories, and then Your Heroic Life, applying the hero journey to your own life.
An inspiring film that sheds some light on this topic is Defending Your Life. The story focuses on how we are often run by our fears and the importance of overcoming them, not only for this lifetime, but for our whole soul journey. It was written, directed and starring Albert Brooks in 1991, but it has retained its popularity since then.
Daniel Miller, a successful ad executive, is celebrating his 39th birthday and the purchase of a $39,000 BMW. Out on a celebratory drive, he becomes distracted by his birthday CD’s falling on the floor, and he runs into a bus. That’s the prologue.
The real movie starts when he wakes up in a bland kind of purgatory called Judgment City and ushered onto a tram. We see billboards and placards heralding the resort’s various events and attraction. He is numb as the staff checks him into a bare Motel 6 type of room and gives him a white gown (toga-like with a cummerbund). He is told he can eat all he wants and not gain weight, and he later finds the food wonderfully superb.
Judgement City is designed to be like earth (in a conference center kind of way) to make the visitors feel comfortable. He sees the TV channels available in the hotel rooms (including a soap-opera, a game-show, a talk-show, and a “perfect weather” channel); he can visit restaurants, two hotel lobbies, a nightclub, and a miniature golf course; and are told about the recently built mini-malls on the outskirts of town.
He meets his affable attorney Bob Diamond (a terrific Rip Torn) who explains that between lifetimes there is an examining period in a trial like setting. This will determine whether one will be sent back to earth or go onward and keep getting smarter. For example, Bob uses 45% of his brain. Most humans use 3-5%, as they use most of their brain dealing with fears, because that’s what “little brains” do.
In the courtroom, he meets the tough prosecuting attorney Lena Foster (Lee Grant) and finds that each side will show scenes from nine days of his life over the next four days that illustrate their case. She shows him being bullied and not standing up for himself; Bob shows him as a toddler in a crib watching his parents argue, and his loud cries of anguish stop them. And back and forth the attorneys go.
Later, Daniel goes to the comedy club The Bomb Shelter, where he meets Julia (Meryl Streep). They really have an attraction. He finds that Julia is on very good terms with her attorney, and that she has a much better hotel room. He goes to a sushi bar where the cooks ask him how many days he is looking at and they yell out: 9 days! 9 days!
Back in the courtroom, Lena shows him missing out on a chance to invest in Casio. Bob shows him with his wife, who is acting the part of a boss as Daniel refuses to take anything less than $65,00 a year. Lena shows the actual encounter, where the boss offers $49,000 and he says, “Done!”
That night, he and Julia go to the Past Lives Pavilion, introduced by Shirley MacLaine, where Julia sees a past life as Prince Valiant and Daniel is in a jungle running from a lion. He finds that Julia died when she tripped on a chaise lounge, hit her head, and drowned in a swimming pool.
The next day at the courtroom, Lena shows him having an anxiety attack before a big presentation. He tries to get out of it, but he’s pushed onstage frozen with fear. At the last second, the room is emptied for a big gas leak. He joins Julia in her courtroom to see footage of her saving her children from a fire, then going back in to save a kitten.
According to the movie’s metaphysics, fear and stupidity are virtually the same thing. And nearly all of us in the world today are plagued by the resulting inhibitions.
Now spoiler alert! After the trial, he is disappointed when finds that he is being sent back to earth, while Julia is will be sent onward. Bob walks him to the tram and advises him: “Don’t let others get to you. Follow what’s in here” (pointing to his heart).
The ending is immensely satisfying. Daniel is strapped into the tram, when across the way at the next tram, Julia is calling out to him. In a moment of bravery, he manages to get out of his seat belt and open the door. He starts across to Julia, despite being shocked along the way by the electrified pavement. He gets to her door and struggles to open it.
We cut back to see the attorneys watching this happening. Bob says, “how’s that for bravery?” They give the signal to open the doors. Daniel is reunited with Julia and they leave to start their next life together.
There’s so much more to the film than a synopsis can give, with the subtle humor and ease of the story unfolding. I’ve seen this film many times, and as I watched it again a few days, I was touched by Daniel’s vulnerability and could relate to his fear. And the ending brought a near tear in its satisfaction and happiness.
Indeed, fear is one of the biggest blocks to living a satisfying and heroic life. I think most of us would find this trial process excruciating, to view all the examples of when we let our fears take over. I know I would.
There are so many books and seminars on how to overcome your fears. The acronym for FEAR – False Evidence Appearing Real – is sometimes used to affirm the idea that fears are simply a mental choice, and we could instead choose to step out beyond our comfort zones and dare to do what we long to do.
The book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers advises just that: acknowledge the fear but don’t let it stop you. For we cannot wait until we have no fear, but act in the face of fear. In doing so, we find that we are opened to many more opportunities and a greater life.
It’s interesting that Bob Diamond tapped his chest and said to “follow what’s in here.” The word courage is from the French word coeur, which means heart. These words are like Joseph Campbell’s advice: “Follow your bliss.” The hero’s journey is a journey of courage. As we connect to our heart, we are guided forward along our journey to reap the benefits and rewards.
The significance of his final act of courage– which is the beginning of a new life – means that it’s never too late to move past your fears into braver actions. I know I’m taking the lesson of this film to make it a goal to do one braver thing every day, no matter how large or small, which also means being more conscious. How can I move past complacency and mindlessness into greater awareness today? I commit to courage.
I have a passion for stories and inspirational literature.