I love this end scene from the Graduate. If you haven’t seen the movie, you probably shouldn’t watch or read the following…
One of my favorite movie scenes of all time, Benjamin’s derailing of Elaine’s marriage and their spontaneous fleeing from it, is all about how scary it is to actually get what you have long wanted, a person who you had so much riding on, who you were sure would bring meaning and fulfillment to your precarious existence.
In the scene, Benjamin goes to great lengths to get Elaine back, so far as to disrupt her wedding to an accomplished, handsome winning fellow. And he succeeds. They run out, her in her wedding dress, and they flag down a municipal bus and ride away into the Santa Barbara horizon. At first they are out of breath and giddy over what they did, having defied everything their parents expected them to do–get married, work in “plastics,” buy a nice house on an affluent suburb. But not seconds later, the giddiness fades, and they look a bit deflated. The expressions on their face seem to say, What now?
There is an eery prescience in the Graduate, almost as if the writer knew that the Baby Boomer generation that would reject their parents’ ways and ride into the unknown would later reject what they had once been after. The Graduate is a gateway to the hippie era, when many people in Benjamin and Elaine’s generation made the decision to stray from their parents’ way of life and chose a path that they had no point of reference for, primarily because their parents’ existences seemed so unsatisfying. They rejected, at least at first, the imperative to settle into a house, a job, and a marriage and instead embarked on journeys unknown to their parents.
Then in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they began to tack right, settling down, getting on a career track, becoming successful, starting families. Activist Jerry Rubin was perhaps the most famous exemplar of this much ballyhooed Baby Boomer trajectory, from agitator to successful business man. Ironically, his untimely death came not during his turbulent activist days but as an established businessman, hit by a car while jaywalking in front of his L.A. penthouse.
It’s a strange thing that some generations–the Baby Boomers especially–stray from their parents’ way of life, while others, like us Millenials, hew to it. Indeed, most people I know have not flatly rejected their parents’ values. They want a career, a marriage, to own a house or condo, to have kids. I suppose those of us who are staying single into our 30s are carving out a new way, but it doesn’t seem as dramatic a break from the past as was the Baby Boomers experience.
Boomers like Rubin are often labeled hypocrites and held up as evidence for why 60s activism was misguided. And it does seem to me kind of amazing that he made such a dramatic values shift in his life. I believe he is a relevant but somewhat extreme example of this journey. Usually people who are zealous in one direction can go zealous in another. There are many examples of people who like Rubin, were serious lefties in the 1960s and ardent Republicans by the 1980s.
Most of us more moderate people do not make quite as extreme a shift, but many of us do reject some of how we were raised only to later return to those values we rejected.
So does this mean Jerry Rubin’s latter years as a businessman negate his younger years as an activist? Should Benjamin not have pursued Elaine, if it was only going to lead to disappointment for both of them, a disappointment that set in only seconds after they boarded that municipal bus and rode off into the Santa Barbara horizon? I don’t believe so. I don’t think if one ends up in very different circumstances later in life than where s/he was earlier, it negates the earlier choices, nor do I think if one rejects how s/he was brought up, if only to return back to these values later, one was being silly or juvenile or misguided.
We think we know what we want and who we want, and then we get it, and we want someone else. Were we wrong initially? Why didn’t we realize how naive we were to put such a premium on this person or object or career accomplishment we so wanted, believing this could put an end to our unresolved grappling with what it means to be alive?
Free spirits, hippies, people who reject a stable life, people who live by their emotions and bounce around like ping pong balls are often scorned for their naïveté. It is said that they don’t realize how good they have it. But stability seeks instability, and vice versa. I believe many people who had unpredictable childhoods want to find stability in adulthood, while those who had very stable childhoods seek excitement. We want what we didn’t have.
I also believe when we get what we wanted and it leads to disappointment and we can admit it, we can find a certain kind of satisfaction in realizing that life does not have an easy answer, and that thing or person or professional accomplishment we thought would put an end to our restlessness did not, could not.
And more interestingly, that we may want what we want for deep-seeded reasons that have to do more with our insecurities than with the object of our desire.
But we don’t learn this if we simply tell ourselves that any pursuit will just lead to disappointment. Rather than telling ourselves we thought we knew what we wanted but we were wrong, we should remember: life is not about being able to say you were right because you found the best way to live. There is no best way to live, but you sure as hell won’t figure it out if you don’t try.
I say this to myself as much as anyone else, because I used to search in vain for the right way to live. And now here I am, uncertain of many things I once demanded certainty about. I try to convince myself that even if risks lead to disappointment, even if I wind up on a bus in Santa Barbara with Benjamin, the risk was worth it because at least I now know.