There’s a difference between playing your role and identifying with your role. When you’re in the world and of the world, unseen forces drag you around like a rag doll, a hapless victim of your own critical flaw. When you’re in the world but not of the world, you have shifted your primary awareness from on-stage character to in-audience observer, so now you can see danger lurking from your perspective that your character can’t see from theirs. “Don’t set the gun down, you idiot,” you scream internally. “The killer is in the closet,” you silently shriek. “Switch the cups around again,” you implore, but to no avail.
Even if your character could hear you, they probably wouldn’t obey you. They are being directed by forces not visible from Row J Seat 17; blown by unseen winds, dangling from unseen strings. Even when they know better than to spring the trap, they spring the trap. Why? Because that’s what that character does in that situation. That’s how they’re written. They can’t not. There is no free will inside the dreamstate because there’s no one to possess free will. We’re all just backseat drivers.
Can people change? Sure. We can die out of our juvenile stage and be reborn into our adult stage. Or, we can switch to decaf and lose a few pounds and see what that does, or maybe become a Buddhist or a cat burglar or a connoisseur of heirloom cheese, but change that is not foundational is only cosmetic and can be wiped away with a moist towelette. If you want to redecorate, paint. If you want a new house, demolish.
Think of Benjamin and Elaine sitting on the back of the bus at the end of The Graduate. Watch actor Dustin’s expression go from elation of victory to smug contentment and then to deadpan neutral. What’s up with that final look? Elaine glances at Ben and turns to face forward in a state of profound buyer’s remorse as she realizes she just flushed her picture-perfect life away to feed into this weirdo’s anemic rebellion. Ben’s eyes flick briefly in her direction as he realizes the swashbuckling adventure part is over and it’s all downhill from here. Right in that moment he realizes he became exactly what he was rebelling against, but with a how-I-met-your-mother story he can never tell without getting a fork stuck in his leg.
The impulse – healthy scorn, contempt and discontent – that set Ben on a new path was good, but his follow-through – boinking dad’s partner’s wife – was bad. We can even wonder where the initial impulse to rebel came from; was it organically Ben’s, or implanted by Maya to nip a problem in the bud? (One never truly knows with Maya, does one?) Further blurring the lines is that Maya is not an independent deity but an aspect of Ben, so his failed bid for adulthood was really just a terrible act of self-sabotage. (So maybe one does know.)
Ben’s seed of doubt started creeping in even before we even met him, but it doesn’t take root and break the surface until the fishtank-foreshadowed scuba scene. It can take awhile to process the dark emotions necessary to make a breakout attempt, but at this point, something snaps in Ben and we’re off to the races. When Mrs. Robinson came into his room and asked for a ride home, he didn’t recognize her as the answer to an as-yet unuttered prayer, but after the scuba scene, she appears in his desperate mind as the only glimmer of hope.
Ben’s womb of second-stage birth has now become so crushing and toxic that it’s unbearable. Heaven has become hell and there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. That’s how it’s supposed to work, but Ben only has one avenue of escape, Mrs. Robinson, so he makes the call and so it goes. During the summer of his languid unbecoming, he tries to process his break with the bovine conformity of his parents while still living under their roof. Bad idea. He should have gone further than the poolhouse in search of his new life. He takes his shot and thinks he made it, but in the end, the door slams shut with him on the wrong side.
Until the final seconds of The Graduate, we’re happily watching a romantic comedy full of love winning the day, triumph of the human spirit, carpe diem and all that jazz, and then, right in the final seconds, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, bam!, this comedy has been a tragedy all along. I would call those final seconds of The Graduate the blackest scene in black comedy history because this just became an everyman’s story; no longer a taboo love triangle but a failed bid for freedom. Ben had his shot, took it, and is now much worse off than if he hadn’t. He’s like a happy-sad bank robber who got all the money but is locked in the vault. Ben was breaking with the herd and becoming a human adult, but in the end he digs himself into the rut he was digging out of, with nothing ahead but decades of remorse; divorced in ten years with two kids and ready to restart the cycle. He has burned all his bridges and has nothing but a life-sized NPC trophy to show for it. This is the moment where he realizes he went all-in, freedom or bust, and he’s bust. The house always wins. (Well, not always. There’s hope, but you gotta play a heads-up game.)
That’s not a happy ending for Ben, but it is for Warden Maya because no one escaped and dramatic content was generated. Ben thought he outsmarted Maya, but she didn’t have to lift a finger to slap him down; let that be a lesson to us all. Ben will become a hybrid of their fathers, Elaine will become a hybrid of their mothers, and the cycle will repeat as they stamp out their own clones. Yes, we can change, but not by tweaking the script, (What if I deliver this line with a mischievous wink? Should this be a comma or a semicolon?). You have to burn the script and start from scratch.
To make it a happy ending, Ben would have to stand up, apologize to shell-shocked blast-victim Elaine, and run from the bus like he ran toward the church. He should never look back and never be heard from again. That’s what adulthood looks like and that’s what it costs. That’s what it takes to maintain the open independence of your seas; you have to leap out of the barrel and into the ocean, not seek freedom in the barrel. The poolhouse was a trap. The partner’s wife was a trap. The easy way out was a trap. Ben’s half-assed effort only dug him from one cell to another. Will Ben disappear for everyone’s good, especially his own? No. That’s what both Ben and Elaine realize in the big reveal; they’ve just committed themselves to a life-sentence of solitary confinement and hard labor. Think of Winston and Julia in 1984. “We are the dead,” says one. “We are the dead,” says the other. “You are the dead,” says the hidden speaker. What just happened? It’s like a dystopic marriage vow that ends one life and begins another. That’s what Ben and Elaine both realize on the back of the bus; they are the dead.
As a gentle reminder, all spirituality is a variety of vanity. Waking up, whether in or from the dreamstate, is not a minor rebellion or a grand gesture but a death-rebirth process. It’s not spiritual, it’s developmental; a natural process you should have undergone at the age of sexual maturity but didn’t, so here you are. If you enjoy meditation and satsang and weekend intensives (barely contained eyeroll), that’s great, I wish you the best in all your spiritual endeavors, but if you actually want to wake up in or from the dreamstate, you only get one shot, so go big or go home.