Present Tense

It is a truism that the past informs the future. And that both inform the present.

These tenets are prominently displayed in the all-American stories of Arthur Miller’s timeless play Death of a Salesman and Academy Award-Winner Robert Redford’s memorable movie The Legend of Bagger Vance based on the 1995 novel by Steven Pressfield.

But let’s start with another classic, Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass – reintroduced in theaters earlier this year thanks to a James Bobin remake – for it punctuates the power of time travel (real or make-believe) to solve modern-day problems. Along the way the film serves up a treasure trove of life lessons, as most memorable classics generally do.

What are they? According to fairytaletraveler.com, they include the following.

1. Go through the “Looking Glass.”

Follow your impulses and see where they take you. Alice doesn’t play by life’s conventional rules. Taking chances may lead to unexpected rewards.

2. Once you know whom you are, you shall succeed.

When Alice figures out whom she is, she conquers her challenges. The sooner you figure out you, the faster you can adapt and move forward.

3. Be silly and whimsical and have some fun.

This tale showcases silly and whimsical like no other. Unwind and let loose every so often.

4. You might find advice in the most unexpected places.

Alice gets advice from a tripping caterpillar with a chip on his shoulder who asks, “Who are you?” You never know whose advice might be just what you need.

5. Always find time to help your friends.

Alice takes the time to help the Mad Hatter (who is depressed over losing his family). Being selfless and genuine will help you succeed in any aspect of life you choose.

Great takeaways one and all.

But there’s a final one that seems particularly resonant when it comes to the trials and travails of the key characters in both Death of a Salesman (Willy Loman) and The Legend of Bagger Vance (Randolph Junah), respectively.

6. Believe in the madness and the impossible.

Everything in Alice Through the Looking Glass seems impossible, but it comes to pass that it all makes some kind of logic in the end.

In Willy Loman’s case, his beliefs are impossible, and for Randolph Junah, his – ultimately – become possible.

As in Lewis Carroll’s fine work, there are lessons galore, covering everything from vocational identity issues to family dysfunction and mental health. Of course, running parallel to these scripts are important themes related to positive risk-taking, achievement, integrity, grit, focus and flow.

Taken in their entirety, these two magnificent works of art – when viewed through the prism of modern science – reveal essential truths of the human condition. They point us to the importance of living in, and for, the moment … all the while paying close attention to those we love and wish to protect.

David Lawrence, co-founder and chief collaborative officer at RANE (Risk Assistance Network & Exchange) and an aficionado of the play and the movie, says, “Not only are the stories in Death of a Salesman and The Legend of Bagger Vance examples of great writing and direction, they give life, perhaps quite literally, to renewed efforts around diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions.”

And, according to David’s colleague, psychiatrist Michael Lesser, M.D., executive director, medical and mental health at RANE, such identification and intervention can’t come a moment too soon. He says, “The earlier that psychiatric disorders can be diagnosed and treated, the better the outcome for those suffering.”

So, what are we talking about here?

Let’s start with the woebegone world of salesman Willy Loman. While it’s not entirely clear what he sells, or to whom he sells it, what is clear is that the roots of his unhappiness (likely seeded by a poor career choice) spread far and wide, undermining not only his own mental health but also the stability of his relationships with his wife Linda and his sons Biff and – ironically – Happy.

Their story is one of unmet dreams, betrayal and the loss of identity in the service of pretense, conjuring up images of psychologist Carl Rogers’ “ideal” versus “real” selves and, more recently, Mary Pipher’s “authentic” versus “false” selves.

Moreover, the unhappiness and tragic demise of Loman by suicide highlights the bipolar disorder that consumed him.

Over the years, efforts have been made to identify lessons embedded in the life and death of Willy Loman. They include the following.

· Luxuries aren’t worth taking on debt.

· Don’t live in the past.

· Running from your problems won’t solve them.

· Stay faithful to your wife.

Willy did all but the last.

Flash forward 46 years and Steven Pressfield brings us the similarly moving tale of Randolph Junah, a talented golfer who at age 16 wins a national amateur championship. Experts peg him to become one of America’s most successful players on the professional tour. Adding luster to that bright future is his love affair with Adele Invergorden, an attractive daughter of a wealthy developer.

Life is good.

But then World War I arrives and Junah enlists and ships off to France. While fighting German soldiers, he experiences the death of all the other members of his company. Junah returns to the United States “psychologically devastated” and lives a life of drinking and gambling, far removed from Adele and the privileged world he had once known.

Through a strange turn of events, Junah eventually reenters Adele’s world as a part of a golf match she stages to save from creditors a resort hotel and golf course left to her by her father. Skeptical given his years away from the sport, Junah initially demurs – not wanting to face the sport’s two most accomplished competitors. Over time, however, Adele and others persuade him to play.

With the steady guidance of Bagger Vance in the role of caddy, Junah embarks on a roller-coaster performance, first falling almost hopelessly behind and then rebounding on day two of the tournament. With some sage advice from Bagger (stop worrying about winning), Junah finds his “flow” and begins to excel. Unfortunately, his growing confidence soon begets overconfidence and, once again, he falters.

In the end, after another surge, a three-way tie results and Junah is viewed as a heroic figure.

As with Willy Loman before him, it is now clear that Randolph Junah suffers from mental illness, most likely the result of the carnage he witnesses in war. Post-traumatic stress disorder, for a time, destroys his life until he rediscovers a game that gives him purpose and wise coaching that gives him peace.

In his story, too, lie lessons of importance to all. Chief among them is the role that “mindfulness” can play in achievement and how overthinking – even absent mental illness – can obstruct accomplishment. To that point, University of Chicago professor Sian Beilock’s book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To points to the role of stress and how paying too much attention to a task at hand can actually hinder optimal performance.

It is no secret that today stress is prevalent, diagnoses of mood disorders high and suicides epidemic. Yet we can take some comfort in knowing that timeless classics such as Death of a Salesman and The Legend of Bagger Vance remind us why attention must be paid.

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