Today we will be looking at a different kind of scene, one that is far more about the ideas being spoken into existence rather than the characters who are doing the speaking. It is a scene that lives in my head “rent free” and has massively impacted the way I view the world in the nearly two decades since the movie was released.
The film is I Heart Huckabees, which is about multiple people going through different, but related, existential crises. In this scene, the main character of Albert is meeting with his “existential detectives” for the first time. In the reality of the film, there are indeed people who will help you to understand your own life’s purpose by investigating coincidences, relational strife, and the philosophical underpinnings of your beliefs.
One of the existential detectives, Bernard, is trying to lay the groundwork for deconstructing Albert’s interpersonal conflicts by giving him an alternative way to view existence. While Bernard, played by Dustin Hoffman, is talking to a young man on film who is confused about how to move forward with his environmental mission to save the marshland in the face of the crushing weight of big business, he was also talking directly to me in the audience. I felt these words about “The Blanket Truth” deeply in 2004, and they resonate even stronger today:
Bernard is trying to explain through the metaphor of the blanket something that many cultures and even religions have supported. It is the concept of universality as popularized in western culture by the 19th century philosopher, Hegel. Bernard is speaking about a great oneness to everyone and everything, a universal truth that we are all connected, that we are all the same even though we are all different.
And while my 21 year old self understood the basic concept as something vaguely trippy and very cool to contemplate, my 40 year old self feels pretty differently about it.
Today, I see the blanket truth as a metaphor not for the interconnectedness of everything, but as a metaphor for the futility with which we are all trying to separate ourselves, to differentiate ourselves from one another, to somehow create hierarchies and differences where none can or do exist.
If you believe in The Blanket Truth, that we are all one, you must take responsibility for all of the harm in the world because it is you who is doing it and ultimately doing it to yourself. If you see that there is no distinction between the guy who cut you off in traffic and yourself who got cut off, getting angry at him is the same as getting angry at yourself.
But it goes further that that. We must look at the people spewing hate on television or TikTok, as having the same innate value as ourselves. We must see those who are doing the most good or having the most tortured existence, those with the least and those with the furthest excesses our society can provide, we must see them all as one. The distinctions are made by us. Some people are seemingly worth more because of where they were born or what systemic advantages they have been given. And yet, if we are all one, we have a responsibility to every single person to care for them.
And we forget it.
We “miss out on the big picture” as Bernard describes because it is so much easier to keep our distinctions at the forefront of our mind. It is easier to feel superior to those who obsess over the “wokeness” of beer or to separate ourselves from those who are struggling with addiction, convincing ourselves that it was their choices that led them to such a life. But, that isn’t “The Blanket Truth.”
For me, all of these distinctions and hierarchies that we have constructed to keep us all separate can simply be boiled down to the infantile game that ever child plays at some point, where a friend grabs your hand and hits you with it and asks, “Why are you hitting yourself? Why are you hitting yourself?” And to that, I answer, “I don’t know.”
I don’t know why we keep on hitting ourselves. I don’t know why we cannot find a way to come together and create the most good for the most people. I don’t know why we put up with the great disparity of wealth and health outcomes. I don’t know why we think war and murder are ever justified. We keep on hitting ourselves because we don’t see one another as connected, as worthy of being together engaged in the same work of creating more joy and understanding.
But, I want to stop hitting myself. I want to know with certainty that everything I could ever want or be I already have and are. I’ll say it again because I think it is that important. Everything I could ever want or be, I already have and are. And you know what? I think it might just be true.
Thank you to I Heart Huckabees and its director David O. Russell for sharing this concept and making something that will not let me go, even 20 years later. If you have any ideas for more movies that highlight the struggle to become The Detoxing Man, please leave a comment and let me know.