Imitation of Life

English 105, Engaging Literature: Close Reading with Professor Sanborn is turning me into a prospective English major. Every class is entirely relevant to what I’m thinking about outside of the classroom, especially our discussion last week of the 1959 movie Imitation of Life. The movie begins with the chance meeting of Lora Meredith, a struggling white actress, and Annie Johnson, a black woman who is out of work. Both women have young daughters, so it is logical for Lora to invite Annie and her daughter Sarah Jane to come live with Lora and her daughter Susie.

Over the course of the film, Lora becomes addicted to the pursuit of stardom. She spends ten years of her life starring in play after play, ignoring Susie. She gives Susie everything—nice clothes, a private school education, even a horse—but herself. At the end of the film, Lora realizes that her life is empty. She has finally become what she always wanted to become—a famous actress—but she is completely unfulfilled and exhausted, with nowhere to go. All of the characters in Imitation of Life, not just Lora, spend the movie striving toward versions of themselves in which they think will find fulfillment. They bounce around in their own worlds with a frenzied energy, seeking social accession or career success without being honest with each other or with their real desires.

In a powerful moment in the film, Susie confronts her mother about the fact that she really hasn’t been a mother. Lora falls back once again on her acting skills, pretending that she is a martyr for her daughter. Susie admonishes her mother to finally be real: “Oh, Mama, stop acting! Stop trying to shift people around as if they were pawns on a stage.”

The manufactured world in Imitation of Life, where people orbit around each other without slowing long enough to make any real connection, made me reflect on my own work toward a different version of myself. How is it possible to escape this need to be more, and simply consider what you have now? The drive to some greater existence is a part of life, a problem without an answer. But Professor Sanborn provided an answer: you should attempt to look past the fantasy of your future self and engage with the things and people around you that reflect back more than just your own image.

In thinking about my exchange year in Istanbul, Professor Sanborn’s words rang true. I understood my life in Michigan—my town, school, friends—and was acutely aware of how others perceived me. In Istanbul, a massive city in which I knew nobody and was nobody, it was very easy to exist in my surroundings rather than my head. Watching people on the bus, overhearing conversations, walking down the street alone—I could just watch. I liked that aspect of being a foreigner; in soaking up this new place, I lost some of my desire to be more, because it was simply irrelevant.

Of course, that type of existence, feeling identity-less 24/7, is not feasible or desirable. I eventually found friends and established a routine; the massive city became small. Thus I’m not saying that finding happiness in the present requires you to lose your identity or stop caring about fitting in somewhere. But daily life in Istanbul did teach me the power of simple observation to help me appreciate the present.

And even reflecting on Istanbul is in some ways an escape from my life now, an act of idealizing an imperfect experience that was at times very difficult. In reflecting on our past and comparing it to the present, it’s important to remember that no period of our lives is ever perfect, free from sadness, loneliness, or feelings of inadequacy.

Just as I have been thinking about my past self a lot, I have been discussing with friends the type of people we want to become here. I think all Amherst students feel a need to succeed—it’s that type of upward-bound energy that got us here in the first place. But I need to remember to slow down and appreciate myself as I am now. When I’m with one group of people, I’ll be fully in that experience and not worry about some other event I may be missing. When I’m working on one project, I won’t be distracted planning the next. Everyone carries many versions of themselves: past, present, and future; the key is to incorporate and live from all of those versions at the same time.

In the words of Professor Sanborn, I don’t want the relationship that I focus most on to be with the person that I want to become. Lora’s sacrifice of real relationships in the pursuit of stardom made hers a hollow and stagnant life. But I don’t want her existence. Life is not about the end goal of becoming the most popular, accomplished, or intelligent person who ever lived. It’s the process of slowly stringing together little great moments and pieces of work, living a more mindful existence.