The One Thing

In my previous post, I talked about “Rosebud,” the sled that represented the unrequited desires of Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ classic film, Citizen Kane.  I’ve been thinking a lot about metaphors for the deep yearnings that push and pull us through life, for good or ill, depending on whether they’re wise or foolish and if we know what they are.

Another of my favorite movie metaphors comes from the 1991 comedy, City Slickers. Three middle aged men, looking to reignite the passion in their lives, sign up for an old west style vacation that includes a cattle drive.  Things go wrong of course, and the dude ranch experience becomes a fight for survival, with nasty villains, a stampede, and raging rivers.

One night, after chasing stray cows into a canyon, timid Mitch (Billy Crystal) opens up to Curly (Jack Palance), the hardened trail boss.  Curly turns out to be wise as well as tough, and tells Mitch he needs to discover and follow “the one thing” that matters most in his life.

The one thing

Another phrase I love for our one thing, is “throughline,” a screenwriting term that was coined by Constantin Stanislavski, the great proponent of character acting.  A throughline propels the protagonist through a story.  It’s the core motivation that carries the hero from scene to scene and through all the gains and setbacks.

“Throughline” is great as a metaphor because it’s expected to change, just as our “one things” do in life.  Frodo initial goal is to carry the ring to Rivendell and place it in more capable hands, but just as in our lives, inner and outer events alter his goal.

Because of the election season, I recall the same dynamic in the life of Jimmie Carter.  In 1980, his goal was a second term as president.  After a resounding defeat, his life’s “through line” changed and deepened.  He threw himself into humanitarian work and extensive diplomatic travel and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.  I read two books of his theological reflections and realized that Carter’s “one thing” is a dedication to Christian values that transcends what you usually hear from politicians still trying to get elected.

“Thread” is another common image for the one thing we use to chart our course in life.  In the Greek myth, Ariadne gives Theseus a ball of thread to find his way out of the labyrinth after slaying the monster within.

Ariadne and Theseus by Niccolo Bambini, Italian. Date unknown. Public domain.

I’ve already quoted my favorite thread image on this blog, but will do it again.  It’s William Stafford’s poem, “The Way it Is,” 1993:

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow.  It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

There may be people who know from the start what matters in their lives, but for the rest of us, there’s a lot of trial and error.  Awareness of “time’s unfolding” is what gives such reflections their force.  What is the one thing or few things I truly care about?  Is there any question more important than this?  Next time I will write about a man whose entire life is an exemplary answer.

2 thoughts on “The One Thing

  1. This is a wonderful reminder to re-examine where we are going and why. Thanks for including Stafford’s perfect poem. It’s well worth repeating. Oh, and thanks for reminding me about City Slickers. Maybe I’ll watch that again. It’s good for a lot of laughs and a pretty good cry.


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