Lessons I Learned from Maude

“Film as dream, film as music. No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul.” – Ingmar Bergman.

Few films have affected me in as sustained and meaningful a way as Hal Ashby’s 1971 film “Harold & Maude.”  I was introduced to this film when I was about sixteen years old.  This film helped ignite in me a love of movies, and helped me articulate a great deal of my early life’s philosophy.  I think there are only a few films or works of art that a person absorbs that legitimately changes the whole course of their life.  For me, “Harold & Maude” is with great certainty the film that made the most lasting impression on me.  In this article I will review just a few of the many lessons imprinted on me by the film.  If you haven’t seen this movie, you should put it at the top of your list.  The soundtrack was an all original score by Cat Stevens and the Criterion Collection released a restored bluray edition of the film just recently.

“Harold & Maude” is the story of a young man, born into a wealthy family, who has little will to live.  His one hobby is faking suicide attempts to fill his mother – an annoying and antagonistic figure – with brief terror and disgust.  Harold can’t quite seem to see the point of living, until he meets Maude at a stranger’s funeral.  Maude is a much older woman, nearing her 80th birthday.  Her lust for life is unmatched.  In a given day she goes from posing nude for a sculptor to stealing cars to transplanting stolen trees in the forest.  The life lessons that Harold learns from Maude build an alternative way of living – and ultimately reveals to Harold that life is incredibly worth living.

“Here today gone tomorrow, best not to get attached to things.”

One of the great things that Maude teaches is the importance of living in the moment.  Seeing the inside of Maude’s home (a former train car) populated with some of the most wondrous and fantastical objects is no endorsement of materialism.  Maude is inclined to a kind of minimalism that isn’t interested in literal reduction of possessions in some strict sense but rather emotional and philosophical independence from “things” and the pursuit of “things.”  One could read this lesson as nihilistic, but anyone who has seen the way Maude lives would never accuse her of nihilism.  Her dedication to living life on her own terms and in accordance with the values that she finds beautiful is so intense that she simply doesn’t let emotional attachment to possessions define how she lives her life.  She defines her life through action.

“If you want to sing out sing out, sing out.”

The most famous and clear message of Harold and Maude is about self expression and having the courage to express your voice.  Maude encourages Harold to learn music, to not be afraid to sing, and to express the things he finds beautiful.  Couldn’t we all benefit from this?  So many of us are terrified to express ourselves.  Social anxieties and personal doubts come to limit our willingness to express ourselves in productive and beautiful ways.  We learn to fear rejection.  What Maude attempts to teach Harold is that rejection is besides the point.  Self-expression is an end in itself.  It is a means to self actualization and the enrichment of our lives.  As we express ourselves we make essential decisions about what we value.  We express, in those moments, a love of life and of the moment that is one of the most healthy prosperous experiences we can have.  It is something we learn as children but forget as adults.  One of Maude’s primary lessons is to refuse to lose sight of that essential joy.

“I think that most of the world’s trouble is people who are this yet allow themselves to be treated as that.”

This speech pretty much stands on its own.  In my mind this stands as one of the great cinematic statements endorsing the self as the essential and fundamental means by which personal esteem can be achieved.

Maude: I should like to change into a sunflower most of all. They’re so tall and simple. What flower would you like to be?

Harold: I don’t know. One of these, maybe.

[he points to a daisy]

Maude: Why do you say that?

Harold: Because they’re all alike.

Maude: Oooh, but they’re *not*. Look. See, some are smaller, some are fatter, some grow to the left, some to the right, some even have lost some petals. All *kinds* of observable differences. You see, Harold, I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are *this,*

[she points to a daisy]

Maude: yet allow themselves be treated as *that.*

[she points to all the daisies collectively]

“We have to do something about this Life!”

One of the more memorable episodes of the film occurs when Maude observes an ailing tree on a busy city sidewalk.  “We have to do something about this life!” She declares to Harold.  “Its public property.” Harold responds hesitantly.  “Exactly.” Maude, seemingly oblivious to Harold’s objection.  This is one of the great examples of the movie about maintaining integrity to your code of ethics to the best of your ability.  In a world where integrity is nearly impossible to pursue purely, Maude refuses to compromise her values.  Additionally, it is incredible to watch her passion for life, whether it is her own life or the life of a simple city tree.  They race to the forest to transplant it to a better environment.  We all often have to face the immoral elements of our life.  Do we have the courage that Maude has to right those wrongs?  Not always, but in admiring her example we can become strong enough to right the wrongs that we see occurring around us.

“I communicate.”  “To God?”  “With Life!”

Maude is expressly separate from organized religion.  Still, in the conduct of her life she is incredibly spiritual.  She demands of herself integrity.  She pursues present-mindedness.  She is constantly growing.  She is infusing in the people around her the same love of life and creative force that she herself lives in constant accordance to.  While she never professes commitment to any organized religion one gets the feeling that the conduct of her life is a kind of spiritual practice that is not incompatible with any religion.  She is dedicated to enriching her life and enriching the lives of others through the pursuit of integrity and faith to her values.  I know that in my own life I have tried to always live with that sense of open communication to life – to whatever it means to be a human being.  That level of receptiveness is something extremely rewarding. One gains a firm sense of remaining grounded in your own humanity when you keep that channel open.  The mindful, reflective, observer is capable of learning more about human virtue and vice than can really ever be instructed.

“Many people enjoy being dead, but they’re not dead really, just backing away from life!”

Harold reveals to Maude that he has never really lived life, but that he has often faked his death.  Filled with regrets, tears, and frustration, Harold reveals to Maude the depth of his sense that life hasn’t been worth living – at least until he met her.  In a profound moment of comforting wisdom Maude remarks that many people enjoy being dead.  The statement has incredible truth and strength.  So many of us never start living our lives.  We don’t begin to discover our passions.  I have known individuals who couldn’t tell me what they loved in the world.  To those people, I feel great sadness.  There is so much in life to love – and so much life to live.  Maude’s world is never a boring one because she is a curious and passionate person who has a clear sense of what makes her feel alive – a clear sense of what she values.  I try and always live my life – not back away from it – because of the inspiring example Maude provides.  This means facing fears.  It means pursuing things because they make you feel more alive rather than more sedated.  It means never giving up on your values and integrity.

“Still fighting for the big issues, but now in my small, individual way!”

Maude reflects on her activist youth.  There was a time when she was at the forefront of picket lines, fighting the big battles, righting wrongs, standing for justice.  But those times have passed.  “No more revolts?” Harold asks.  “Oh, my, no – everyday.  But I don’t need a defense anymore.  I embrace.  Still fighting for the big issues, but now in my small individual way.”  Maude lives her life as if everyday were a revolt.  She lives according to her values.  There was a time when she was at the front lines of rebellion and protest but with the passing of years she shifted her strategy to the conduct of her everyday life.  I think we all have to choose very carefully what hill we’d be willing to die on.  There are to many big battles for us to dedicate ourselves to all of them.  Certainly there are some issues we must make a stand on, but for me the much more compelling strategy is the one Maude demonstrates in the film.  The way she lives her life is a more powerful and revolutionary act than many big battles can ever yield.  It certainly wins Harold’s support and dedication.  It is so compelling a strategy precisely because it makes living with integrity the end as well as the means.  In the big battles we commit ourselves to circumstances and actions that are unsustainable in pursuit of some particular victory.  Perhaps this is worth the cost.  It is worth realizing, however, that in Maude’s strategy of small individual revolt – there is no cost.  She simply lives her life as well as she can, and that is enough.

Harold: “They’ll send me to prison!” – Maude: “Well historically, you’d be in very good company!”

At one point Harold’s mother threatens him with the draft.  She is going to enlist him in the army to make him grow up and become a man.  Reporting this fact to Maude, she simply responds – “Well don’t go!”  Maude lives her life without any real fear of authority.  It is as if the state is simply a myth that she has dismissed.  If there are consequences for her living her life as freely as she does than she is willing to accept those consequences – not as just, but as unjust facts of her circumstances.  Maude evokes the likes of individualists such as Thoreau, who spent a night in prison rather than pay to support a war he didn’t believe in.  While this kind of commitment may be beyond the reach of many of us – it is inspiring to see the extent of her liberty.  Because she is free in her mind, the extent to which authority can ever be truly exercised over her is incredibly limited.  Legal ramifications and consequences seem like they would bounce right off of her.  In this regard, Maude seems almost invincible.

“I like to watch things grow – Ah, Life!”

And the most lasting and impacting lesson of Maude’s philosophy is her simple – incredible – constant – reverence for life itself.  In the greenhouse, admiring the sprout-lings she remarks simply: “I like to watch things grow.”  – “They grow, they bloom, and fade, and die, and change into something else.  – Ah, life.”  It is so easy for us to be completely saturated in the miracle of our own lives.  In the miracle of the lives that surround us.  We are all engrossed in a constant process of growth, change, blooming, and death.  It becomes easy to forget this fact.  When we forget it, we tend to become lost.  Moments of reverence for everything around us, and gratitude for everything we have the strange benefit of experiencing is pretty essential to forging a meaningful life.  It is the wellspring that we drink from in order to sustain ourselves and continue this process of growth and change.  “Ah, life.”