Monday, January 03, 2011

Big fish, small fish

While Swift wrote "Gulliver's Travels" to comment on the society of his day, the movie starring Jack Black tends to focus more on the character of Gulliver himself.

Black's Gulliver has everything he could possibly want, being the king of his own empire of... one. He has his own apartment in trendy Manhattan, his own steaming cup of Java every morning, and has risen through the ranks in his publishing company to be the Head of the mail room. The biggest fish in the tiniest pond is Man Mountain Gulliver.

True, success is not easy to attain and we want to maintain that sense of accomplishment as long as we can. But holding on to small successes could mean sacrificing bigger dreams. Gulliver hopes for a much grander abode and pines for his crush of five years, but the cliff-side mansion is beyond his salary to afford and he can only  admire his crush from afar, believing that there is an impassable barrier between his station in life and hers.

Gulliver's successes as the literal giant in Lilliput are likewise impressive, rising to the rank and commensurate privileges of General of the Lilliputian army in record time by leveraging on his one advantage, his size. Oh, and another advantage: shameless plagiarism. So Lilliput is really a parallel of his life in the real world.

But his inadvertent trip to Brobdingnag, the land of giants, opens his eyes to the truth of his insignificance and powerlessness as a person. By being contented with easy successes, he simply crumbles under a real challenge and loses everything -- autonomy, dignity, identity -- everything.

Human life is nothing but a series of challenges. When we're at the top of our game, when we seem invincible, when we can manage any problem that comes along with a dismissive wave of a hand, what we have is not the enjoyment of our success but the settling in of stagnation, ennui and stasis. We're always looking for the next big thing to overcome, even if it means risking our stability and current state of equanimity.

Athletes savour their success but leave their trophies on the shelf to risk failure by testing themselves again in the new season. Career people seek promotion and greater responsibilities, though the work becomes more difficult and there's always the chance that they'll be stretched beyond their abilities. The risk of failure is what drives us on to the next stage of growth. Being fixated on a past success is like admiring a trophy without moving on. That's why they call it "atrophy".

Gulliver, of course, learns this life-lesson, bouncing back from his setback with a help from his little friends. As far as OUR little friends go, the PM says, despite doing well so far they "must continue trying to do better". Some people will see this as putting more pressure on our students. The reality is that although seeking out new challenges to overcome may be a risky proposition to our fragile egos, it's the only way to grow.

No comments: