When my eldest son told me he had bought a movie he wanted me to see I had expected some action film or comedy. So I was very curious when he wanted to watch the movie, “The Pursuit of Happyness” with me. This 2006 movie stars Will Smith who plays “Christopher Gardner,” a man who is down on his luck in all aspects of his life. When his door to door salesman job of selling “bone density scanners” to hospitals doesn’t pay the bills, his girlfriend leaves him to go to New York. Gardner pleads with his girlfriend that he can keep their five year old son, Christopher with him. She relents and father and son struggle to survive. Based on a true story, this film depicts Chris Gardner’s pursuit of a dream to become a stockbroker while living in and out of homeless shelters with his young son.
This film is more than about happiness, it is about overcoming life obstacles in order to achieve it.
The one quote from this movie which rang loud and clear for me was when Christopher Gardner talks about what happiness means to him:
“It was right then that I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence and the part about our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I remember thinking how did he know to put the pursuit part in there? That maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue and maybe we can actually never have it. No matter what. How did he know that?”
When this movie ended I could not help myself. I began to sob. I totally broke down in front of my son. This movie was very close to home for me. I could relate to both the little boy and the father. I have not talked very much about my childhood nor about my personal struggles with my son but whatever I told him, he remembered. Watching this movie with him was a bonding experience which required no words. I know now that he understands.
The thing is anyone can tell you things like “Don’t give up” or “Follow your dreams” but they are empty platitudes without meaning unless you see the person’s struggle behind the words. When we see how someone can not only survive but also attain their dream, we take notice. If someone can attain their dream with overwhelming hardship then maybe we have a chance too.
When this movie showed scenes of father and son waiting in line to get into a homeless shelter, I felt a deep wound open up. Much like the boy in this film I am five years old again. I am in a police car being driven to a shelter. But unlike the movie, my parent is not with me. She would go on, alone, to a mental hospital.
This scenario would repeat for most of my childhood and teen years. My mother would have a mental breakdown due to her schizophrenia and the authorities would have to figure out what to do with me. My mother and I were like gypsies. We would move constantly and dramatically (often after my mother would do something “crazy” in the community and someone would call the cops and have her taken away in a paddy wagon) and I would have to leave my home and possessions behind, sometimes even my pets. By the time I was a teen I would live on my own when my mother went to the hospital. I understood how to survive when everything was taken away. I embraced the notion that you can begin again because, quite frankly, I was forced into it. I had no choice but to start life over in new home, a new school, or a new neighborhood.
Books became a refuge for me when I didn’t have any person to rely upon. I especially loved autobiographies. I still have the yellowed and torn copy of the autobiography of Helen Keller who faced her own seemingly insurmountable struggle to survive without vision or hearing. On the day my mother broke down in a public airport, slapping me and dragging me by the hair, I held onto that book for dear life. One Helen Keller quote kept churning in my mind: “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.” If character was obtained through suffering then I was clearly on my way.
School and learning was another escape from both my mother’s madness and living in poverty. In school I could shine. I was told I could be somebody and I believed it. I worked hard. I got good grades. I had an edge many other kids didn’t have. I was hungry. I wanted the chance for a different life. I understood Christopher Gardner’s drive in “The Pursuit of Happyness” as one that can only be gained after life has beaten you down and you are on your knees. I think sometimes falling to the bottom of the well is exactly where we need to be before we can begin to feel the hunger for life. And it is all the more sweet when we succeed at finally obtaining a bit of happiness.
I began college early when I was sixteen. I was still living at home with my mother at the time. We were running out of money despite the fact that I was working sometimes three part time jobs at once and going to school. One Thanksgiving we turned to help from a nearby church. They gave us several bags of groceries including some stove top stuffing and a can of cranberry sauce. We didn’t get to eat Turkey that year but at least we did get to eat.
During my college years my mother’s paranoia was increasing to the point where she didn’t want me out of the house. She would block the door with her body so that I could not leave our apartment. I had to plead with her to let me out the door. One day I was late for class and had to explain. Nobody had known what I was dealing with all this time. I finally broke down and told one teacher about my life. He looked at me in awe and asked, “How are you doing this?” to which I honestly replied, “I don’t know.” When I came home one day to find that my mother had threatened the upstairs neighbors with violence I knew the time had come to do something.
At the same time I was admitted to graduate school I was also looking for a group home for my mother. With her mental history, she would be rejected by many homes before we found one which would accept her. At the same time I had to find a job to support myself. On the very day that I was hired for my first good paying job, I was homeless once again. I had to stay with a friend until I got my first paycheck to pay my rent.
And this is just a fragment of my life. Since then I had to deal with struggling financially, suffering from depression, a miscarriage, infertility, my son’s autism, and now my diagnosis with Multiple Sclerosis. Nobody ever said this would be easy.
The philosophy of real life Christopher Gardner is true. Happiness is never something given to you. You are not entitled to happiness. You are simply entitled to the opportunity to work towards achieving happiness. Life is inherently unfair with hardship and heartaches. We can raise our fists to the sky and curse the universe or we can pursue our dreams the best way we can. That is all any of us can do.
I am a mother, a writer, and now an MS patient