I have spoken before about one of my favourite movies, About Schmidt starring Jack Nicholson. Maybe you saw it some years ago. I think it’s a great movie. The film About Schmidt looks at the life of Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) as it unfolds following his retirement as assistant vice-president and actuary at Woodmen of the World insurance company.
Warren’s job has been to predict the death of the clients for this insurance company. The movie opens with him sitting in his office, surrounded by files packed in boxes—his life’s work—and waiting for the minute hand to reach 12. When it does, he turns off the lights and exits into the rainy night. The scene shifts to his retirement party at a steakhouse. He has reached retirement age, and his work has finished. At the dinner, Warren’s young replacement tells him during his remarks to stop by and visit him in his old office—he might need his advice.
But when Warren does this later, he is ignored and sees his boxes of files on the loading dock, going either to storage or the dump. Back at the dinner, Warren is commended for his ‘productive’ life, a man rich in accomplishments, but he knows that it is all a lie and that he is really ‘poor in spirit’ and so excuses himself to go into the bar for a drink. So, the question for him really is, “How is life to have meaning when work is taken from you?” It’s a hard question to ask, especially for those who are workaholics, and spend days and nights at their work.
Warren has no clue about what to do with himself and spends his time playing games and watching TV. One day while viewing his TV, he hears about sponsoring a child in Africa for $22 a month and signs up. He begins writing to his six-year-old foster-child Ndugu, and shares in his letters his deepest feelings and thoughts which he has not allowed himself to admit to anyone. In the letters he complains about his wife and is then filled with remorse when she dies suddenly.
He has one adult daughter but is alienated from her over her engagement to a seemingly no-good waterbed salesman. He takes off on a ‘road trip’ to the places of his past which offer little comfort and solace. Other efforts to ‘find meaning’ through relationships fall short and his attempt to stop his daughter’s wedding fails. However, through all of this, Warren is beginning to get in touch with himself as his letters to Ndugu reveal.
By eventually choosing to support his daughter and stand with her, even if she is making a mistake, we see that he is beginning to succeed at the level of ‘being’ and not ‘doing’. He has chosen an act of unconditional love. This is brought to fulfilment in the final minutes of the film as he journeys home and receives a letter and gift from Ndugu. “Dear Ndugu,…What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. None at all. Hope things are fine with you. Yours truly, Warren Schmidt.” But he has made a difference—to Ndugu.
The boy’s picture represents an acceptance of Warren’s friendship from a long way off, and a reciprocation in the only way the boy knows how. One writer says about this scene: “Though life’s loneliness and boredom prevail, Warren has been able to seize the day, to love another. While his job at Woodmen had taught him how to manage death, it had not prepared him for how to live. This was a more difficult lesson, yet one small boy could teach him…Schmidt does not have to do anything; it is enough simply to be who he is.”
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This movie reminded me of the OT book Ecclesiastes—written by King Solomon in his old age—which is about the search for life’s meaning: What is worthwhile in life? Like Warren Smith, King Solomon is a self-confessed workaholic who lived for today materialistically: “I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees…” (Ecclesiastes 2:4-6).
He tried to find deep meaning through accomplishment and possessions. But when he realised that he could not ‘take it with him’ he says, “My heart began to despair over all my toilsome labour under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:20). Achievement may satisfy in the short run but it does not last for the workaholic—the one addicted to work.
I think we can learn that striving to achieve will not bring happiness. Instead: value relationships; find satisfaction in the daily routine; hold onto things loosely. These are the antidotes to workaholism. The Ecclesiastes writer said: “So I realized that all we can do is be happy and do the best we can while we are still alive. All of us should eat and drink and enjoy what we have worked for. It is God’s gift” (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13).