I have always believed that classic television shows can serve a higher purpose beyond the entertainment derived from them. Like any work of art worthy of our respect, they have something to teach us as well.
During its five seasons, The Twilight Zone presented dozens of issue-oriented stories, including some effective but occasionally heavy-handed allegories about war, racism and intolerance. For me it was the subtler stories that struck a deeper chord, none more so than “A Stop at Willoughby.”
Fade up on Gart Williams, a media buyer in New York, sitting amongst other executives in a boardroom, anxiously tapping a pencil. He has just lost a major account, much to the chagrin of his oppressive boss: “This is a push-push-push business, Williams, all the way, all the time.”
Gart leaves the office on the verge of a nervous breakdown that’s been building for a long time. Headed home he falls asleep on the train, but when he wakes he finds himself on a 19th century rail coach. The snowy November evening has been replaced by bright summer sunshine, as the train stops at an idyllic small town called Willoughby, circa 1888. Gart wakes up, and dismisses the episode as a dream.
At home his pressures do not subside. “I’m tired, Janie. Tired and sick,” he says to his unsympathetic wife, who coldly ponders how she could have married such an over-sensitive loser.
Back at work, the stress resumes unabated – angry clients, constantly ringing phones. The next night, he once again hears the conductor call “Next stop, Willoughby.” This time, he gets off the train.
This being The Twilight Zone, there’s an unexpected zing at the end. I’ll avoid spoilers for anyone who somehow missed this episode during the last 54 years.
In 25 minutes, “A Stop at Willoughby” paints a complete and perfectly rendered portrait of a man who spent the better part of his life doing something for which he had neither affinity nor desire. He sublimated his true self to pursue a lifestyle that was never important to him, to achieve prosperity that brought no satisfaction. Now he’s at the end of his tether and willing to grasp at any lifeline, no matter how fantastic.
I can’t prove it but I am certain that when this show first aired, someone living Gart Williams’ life for real decided to hop off their self-destructive carousel, and to start spending more time doing what he or she loved. Hopefully, after a half-century of syndication and videocassette and DVD releases, many others have been similarly inspired to recalibrate their priorities.
The demands on Gart Williams’ time were stifling to him – and this was in 1960! How much faster is life moving now? How many other electronic devices are commanding our attention, not only in the office but at home and in the car and even when we’re supposed to be with our friends and families?
If anything, the lesson of “A Stop at Willoughby” is needed now more than ever: We are more than our jobs, or at least we are supposed to be. And if the world insists on moving at a certain speed, we don’t always have to keep up with it. It’s a lesson we are never too young or too old to learn.
Unfortunately, many of us have to make compromises, if not for ourselves than for those we love. But we don’t have to be compromised. We can find the proper balance between work and family, one that results in peace of mind and a soul-deep contentment.
This blog is one of my stops at Willoughby. It’s something that will never pay my mortgage, but I do it because it makes me happy.
Find your Willoughby. Even if you can’t live there, make sure you visit often enough to take a piece of it with you wherever you go.