Big (1988), directed by Penny Marshall

Big posterFor many years I would take my ninth and tenth grade classes on a week-long trip to Washington, D.C. and New York City. Once someone asked me if I ever got bored seeing the same sights year in and year out, and I responded that I did not. Why? Because every time I go on the trip I see the same places, but with the eyes and excitement of a student who has never been there before. Washington and New York become the Grand Canyon every time we make the journey.

The ability to experience the same thing over and over again and yet to feel as if one is seeing it for the first time is a poetic sensibility. This is the core theme of Big, a comedy that makes a serious comment about being an adult but seeing the world from the perspective of a child. Wordsworth writes about it in his poetry when he says that “the child is the father of man.” I explain to my students that this means that as we grow older, we should still maintain a childlike appreciation of nature. This is the message of his classic poem “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” in which an old man experiences the joys of nature as he walks through the woods and discovers a field of flowers dancing in the radiant sun.

Twelve year old Josh Baskin wants very much to be older, to be big. He cannot get the attention of a girl he likes and he is turned away from an amusement park ride because he is too short. In frustration, he makes a wish in front of a mysterious fortune telling machine and, lo and behold, it is granted.

The next day, he wakes up as an adult. Scared at first, he does not know what to do. Even his mother sees him as a stranger who has kidnapped her beloved son. Until he can figure out a way to get back to his normal life, Josh decides to enter the adult world temporarily. Fortunately, he finds a job at a toy manufacturing company, and his childlike understanding of what toys would appeal to children makes him a marketing genius to the owner of the company. Within days, Josh is promoted to a senior position, and soon finds himself the object of adoration by many of the company’s employees, including an attractive female executive, which makes life very complicated for him.

How Josh handles being an adult when he is really only a child makes for many comic situations. But behind the humor, Josh is still only a child who misses his mother and he yearns to return to his previous life. Big captures the ambivalence in Josh’s feelings, and gives us a window into the good things that can happen if we can keep our childlike perspectives alive even as we grow older.

Jewish tradition tells us that we need to keep our youthful perspectives on life as we age. On a daily basis, the prayer book reminds us that God renews the world every day, and that is the way we should see nature every day. Moreover, the traditional Jew states a blessing when he sees an ocean once in thirty days, when he hears thunder and sees lightening, when he bites into a piece of food. Nothing is taken for granted. There is even a blessing after visiting the bathroom, in which he recognizes the marvel of how the body works. Josh Baskin’s story is a fairy tale, but its message resonates in real life: stay young on the inside as we grow old on the outside.

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