How A British WW2 Motivational Poster And A Cult 90s Movie Both Point To What Matters In Life

There are many paintings, prints, and posters hanging on the walls of our home in Colorado. Among them are two favorites of mine. I’m fairly sure, after its explosion into popular culture over the last couple of years, you will recognize this one :

Keep Calm & Carry On was a poster created in 1939 by the Ministry of Information arm of the British Government and aimed at invoking a spirit of resilience, fortitude and ‘stiff upper lip’ in the British populace, as they contemplated the high probability of being bombed in mass air attacks on major UK cities.

Our own copy of Keep Calm & Carry On sits between the kitchen and one of the ways out of our house. It’s meant to be one of the last things we all see as we go out into the world: Keep Calm & Carry On! So I’ve walked past that poster hundreds of times over the last year alone.

The other day, I saw it as if for the first time. I dropped the ‘And’…

As originally written, of course, the ‘And’ connector plays an important role. It suggests that there is a particular way of carrying on in a war. We must carry on; we have to carry on – that’s how we British will demonstrate that we are not defeated by our enemies. But there is a quality of carrying on which is critical. We must carry on calmly. We must carry on with dignity and self-discipline. We don’t run in the corridors.

This is the spirit of British stoicism that I was brought up in. It’s in the collective psyche.

But then, the other day, I saw something beyond all that. If you drop the ‘And,’ you get two distinct worlds.

There’s the world of Carrying On – our busy-ness, our jobs and careers, our social lives, our families and so on.

And then there is the Calm that came before it and will be there beyond it and which is, in fact, always available. We glimpse this Calm when we meditate, practice mindfulness or do yoga. We access it when we truly slow down and connect to Nature. My wife Keri and I experienced it as we sat in our garden the other evening. It’s a quality beyond just ‘being quiet’ as we normally know it. Everything is very still, but it also has an aliveness to it. A vitality.

Most Spiritual Traditions have pointed to this Calm and called it many things. Spirit. God. Consciousness. Unconditioned Awareness. Some call it the Formless beyond form; the Stillness at the heart of the striving; ‘the Peace which passeth all understanding’; the Now, as Eckhart Tolle would tell us, that exists outside of Past/Future anxieties; the One out of which comes the Many. It’s why most places of worship – whatever the religion – are quiet places. It’s always good to sing and dance, but most services start and end in silence.

Keep Calm.

Keep Calm. ‘Keep’ here not in the sense of ‘Don’t forget to..’ or ‘It’s important to…’ or ‘We urge you to…’

But ‘Keep’ as in Honor, Respect or Observe. A little like ‘Keep the peace’

So that’s the world of Calm.

And then there’s the world of Carry On.

For many people, the world of Carry on has a level of anxiety behind it that makes it exhausting. There’s a lot of striving and struggling.

And that brings me to my second poster – which, if you’ve ever joined me on a Zoom or Skype call, you’ll recognize as hanging behind me in my office:

The Big Lebowski is a hugely popular comedy from 1998. It’s the story of a laid-back, hippy type who likes to call himself ‘the Dude,’ but who happens to share the same last name with a local millionaire named Mr Lebowski. It’s the story of how the Dude’s happy idyll of relaxation, whale song and marijuana gets – literally – invaded by the darker regions of the Los Angeles underworld.

And then there’s Walter, the Dude’s bowling buddy, a man for whom everything seems to be a battle and nearly everybody an enemy to be fought. That Walter has anger issues is an understatement. Walter is a Vietnam veteran, and he clearly brought the war home with him. But Walter loves the Dude, and insists on helping him out of his predicament.

As the journalist Andy Greene writes:

“Today, as technology increasingly handcuffs us to schedules and appointments – in the time it takes you to read this, you’ve missed three e-mails – there’s something comforting about a fortysomething character who will blow an evening lying in the bathtub, getting high and listening to an audiotape of whale songs. He’s not a 21st-century man. Nor is he Iron Man – and he’s certainly not Batman. The Dude doesn’t care about a job, a salary, a 401(k), and definitely not an iPhone. The Dude just is, and he’s happy.”

There’s a part of us that yearns for our own life to be as simple and rewarding as it is for the Dude. He has to buy a carton of milk with a 69c check, but spiritually, he seems to have got it sorted. He needs nothing. Everything he could ever want is right here, right now. The Dude, then, is the Keep Calm which is dragged reluctantly into the world of Carry On.

And here I think is the second reason this film resonates so deeply with many of us. We know we need to act in the world of Carry On – and we want to be able to Carry On effectively. Just not like Walter.

Walter is a fiction – based on truth but exaggerated for the comedy – but the truth is there underneath. Walter is all emotional reaction to outside circumstance. He seethes, he sulks, he shouts. He lashes out. And because of all that, his best intentions manifest in increasingly ineffective action. Indeed, more and more of his action gets him further away from his goals. And he finds that the original big goal gets lost, and replaced by a succession of smaller goals that seem to be leading nowhere.

In real life, you’ll know these people too: those who are convinced that if they keep busy enough – active enough, successful enough, rich enough, famous enough – that they’ll finally get what they are seeking. Keeping on pushing, like Walter.

I wonder if we could all ‘dial it back’ a little? ‘Take it easy, Dude.’

Let’s see the Carry On for what it is. And let’s infuse it with that Great Calm. Let’s play with the things of form, as Eckhart Tolle (again) suggests is the best way to treat our work. I love that phrase: ‘play with’! We don’t have to fight with, struggle over, battle against the things of form, like Walter. We get to play with them.

The Dude abides.

The Calm abides too…

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