Monday, January 23, 2012

Apocalypse Now to The Way: The Adventure Awaits

Ever have the experience of let down when you finally visit a famous landmark?  That sense of ‘is that all there is to it?’  That reaction is common and perhaps becoming more common as we get submerged in images and communications about just about every place and everything.  Freshness is hard to come by these days.   Adventure and novelty are essential stimulants for our minds and spirits.  Go back to that visit to a famous place for the first time, the memories you take away from that trip usually are about the people you meet or the weather or the local culture.  That site has been embedded in our minds for so long that often the image is less exciting than the surrounding experience. 

Willard and Kurtz in Apocalpse Now
After a trip to a far off place, it is often a great joy to return home to the comforts and routine of our lives.  It feels good to reenter the known and relatively secure world of home.  Finding that sweet spot of the novelty balanced with the comfort zone is an interesting challenge.  Since we have compiled many years of experiences, it can be especially daunting for Boomers moving into maturity.   The contrast between youth and maturity is illustrated in two classic Martin Sheen movies, Apocalpyse Now and The Way.

A Man on Orders
In each film Sheen plays a man who is charting his own course.  In Apocalpyse Now (1976), Sheen plays Willard who is assigned by the brass to go up the river to take out the rogue officer Colonel Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando).   In this interpretation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, Willard faces all manner of madness set in the Vietnam War, where tribal loyalties carried more weight than any government.  He is assigned to kill Kurtz who has gone rogue.  They have a meeting of minds and he seems to sense the hopelessness that presaged the madness.  Although he understands and we suspect sympathizes with the reasons for Kurtz going off, Willard completes his mission and takes out Kurtz.  He returns to the command and it is implied that the road has been paved for a successful military career.  But underlying his compliance with orders, Martin Sheen’s encounter with freedom and the unknown has clearly changed his world view.  Fast forward to 2010’s The Way produced and directed by Sheen’s son, Emilio Estevez.  Again we see Sheen in the role of a conventional man (in this case an ophthalmologist in Santa Barbara, CA) who has a call to destiny that changes his life.  His twenty something son leaves graduate school to see the world and begins at the pilgrimage of St. James in northern Spain.  On the first day of his two month hike, the son is killed and Sheen decides to take his place. After that decision his life changes irrevocably.    

In both films Sheen is summoned to pursue the unknown through no wish or will of his own.  While on the journey he faces unimagined foes, characters, situations, and inner turmoil.  In the earlier film his reflections are prompted by the external evil of the Vietnam War and a renegade US Army officer, while in the recent movie the loss of his son provokes an inner journey into the darkness of the soul while the characters around him are largely benign.   In Apocalypse Now one can imagine that even though Sheen goes on to success in his career and a conventional life and he is forever changed.    In The Way, Sheen’s character is traditional as indicated by playing golf and working as a doctor for 30 plus years, but this veneer of complacency is broken by his son’s sudden death.  Picking up his son’s back pack, he addresses his grief and steps into a new world.  The film ends with him turning his back on the comfortable life and opting for the unknown and adventure.
New adventures on the trail of life
Seeing  the films as bookends of a typical life helps to illustrate the significant transition of moving into retirement for the counter-cultural generation.  Our formative years were spent in rebellion, creative expression, freedom-seeking, and community.  Then on cue most of us settled down (like Willard) into careers, mortgages, children, and routine, everyday life.  Turning our back on the chaos of our time symbolized by the horror of going up the river to take out Kurtz, our generation became intensely materialistic and self-obsessed.   That phase ends or fades for most of us somewhere around sixty.  Now, the doors to freedom can be thrust wide open and the call of real living can be heard.  This new adventure is not the horror of Vietnam but the joy of friendly, interesting companions and activities found on a new road, The Way.  We no longer need to stay on the roundabout of life that takes us to work and back with an annual two week vacation.  For many the opportunity is there for recapturing the spirit of youth tempered with the wisdom (hopefully) of age.   Places unknown beckon and we may rediscover the youthful spirit of curiosity and discovery.   We can leave behind the ersatz Paris/ Venice/ New York of Las Vegas and get out into the real world.  Sure, go to the tourist sites and then be sure to poke around the nooks and crannies of the side streets away from the monuments.   And best of all, when we are done with excitement we can go home and power up the hot tub and the HD TV.


  1. For those of us who included a family in that middle lifestage, there are whole other dimensions to that transition. The change in focus is even sharper.
    Ironically, how we deal with the transition has a lot to do with how successful we were in the middle stage, at achieving all the conventional success measures that we turned our noses up at in Stage One.
    If we let too much of Stage One ("materialism is bourgeois," "Live in the Now") spill over into Stage Two, we find ourselves less able to indulge the creativity and freedom of youth in Stage Three.

  2. Thanks to carmacounselor for engaging in this discussion. Very astute breakdown of the risks of unclarity in major life transitions. We need to discuss this further. I often see the detritus of youth emerging in old (60+) age. This ranges from the domains you mention to health issues and relationships.