In the legendary opening scene, a slender Holly Golightly in a black Givenchy evening gown eats a Danish and peers into the windows of a closed jewelry store on a deserted Fifth Avenue. She has what she calls the Mean Reds, that terrifying feeling you get when life has been unkind and the future is uncertain.
The Mean Reds are terrible, we’ve all had them. But when they hit, often around five on a cold January morning, we all go to different places and turn to different things for solace. Holly goes to Tiffany’s.
‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ is a 1958 novella by Truman Capote that screenwriter George Axelrod and actress Audrey Hepburn immortalized in a movie in 1961. It is the innocent, optimistic story of a ‘very lovely, very frightened young girl, who lived alone except for a nameless cat,’ trying to find a real-life place where she could feel safe and loved… like Tiffany’s:
‘The quietness and the proud look of it. Nothing very bad can happen to you there.’
I have watched that opening scene, and the whole movie, more times than I would care to admit. In heels, in pajamas, in bed, in the middle of a box of chocolates, in tears. The plot is not complicated, the ending never changes. It might in fact be the most predictably Hollywoodian, realistically unlikely love story out there. And yet, the influence it had on popular culture and the cult following it inspired persist to this day.
The movie was released at a time of optimism and innocence in America, during that blissful moment of respite between the end of the Second World War and the onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy assassination(s), the sexual revolution, Vietnam, and Korea. Its message resonated with audiences, as it still does today: everything will be ok.
Except it never was, is not now, and probably never will be… ok. History, at every level and point in time, remains unparalleled in the creativity it has shown finding ways to slap us in the face. Broken families, broken limbs, broken hearts, broken communities, broken nations, entire broken generations. We have come to expect strife, and we are geared to survive it. We weed out diseases but fully expect new ones to appear. We sign peace treaties and build bridges but do not kid ourselves that either will last. We purchase insurance and draft pre-nups and put savings away for a rainy day, precisely because of history. Because we know it well.
But if we know, why do we still believe it will be ok? Why do we believe, period?
Albert Einstein is (probably falsely) attributed with saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If so, we are the maddest species on the planet. We are certainly the most evolved, definitely the most dominant, debatably the smartest. And somehow, we are also the only species that hopes, against all reason, odds, and facts. We sign those treaties and those marriage licenses. We build those bridges. We watch those sappy movies with the happy endings, we reread children’s stories, we believe.
Which is not to say that we believe the same things: as of 2015 there are more religious doctrines in the world than there are coffee shops in New York City, and more individual beliefs than there are individuals formulating them. Even the choice not to believe in anything at all is a belief in itself. The interesting thing, though, is that all the options, all the religions and philosophies and sects and schools of thought and tailor-made versions of faith, share one common denominator: they exist. We are all driven to find meaning. We all need a reason for life that goes beyond ‘just because.’ That similarity is far more significant than any other of our differences.
What we believe is not as important as why we believe. We were not carved out of the same mold; we believe what we want and we believe what we need. Ancient Chinese medicine comprised more than 2,000 drugs and over 16,000 prescriptions. Its Greek counterpart had about 800. They both cured, because people believed they would. The great Galen himself said that the most successful doctor is the one ‘in whom people have the most confidence.’
Many people died this week, this month, and so far this year because of what they do or do not believe. This post is for them. Belief is an individual human right that is not up for question, debate, or judgment. Its purpose is to keep us breathing and keep us moving, to make us better people. The day it stops doing that, belief means nothing.
I watch Audrey Hepburn walk up and down Fifth Avenue at five in the morning over and over again, because she makes me believe that everything is going to be all right.
‘You’re wrong. She is a phony. But on the other hand you’re right. She isn’t a phony because she’s a real phony. She believes all this crap she believes. You can’t talk her out of it.’
– Truman Capote
Nor should you.