Being everything to everyone
Set in the 1920s and 1930s, the 1983 mockumentary and comedy film Zelig
is about Leonard Zelig, a nondescript man who has the ability to totally
transform himself chameleon-like to that of someone near him. While
mingling with the rich at a party, Zelig sings their praises in a
refined, snobbish way, but in the kitchen with the servants, he, in a
thick working-class class lingo, seethes indignantly at the fat cats.
One moment he is a renowned actor, the next a learned doctor; then a
baseball player; and after that the son of a famous jazz musician.
When Zelig is admitted to a hospital, he is treated by a woman
psychiatrist, Eudora Fletcher. She tries to heal him of his strange
disorder. Under hypnotism, she discovers that Zelig has no personality
of his own. So strongly does he yearn for security and approval from
others that he physically changes to assume the personality of the
greatest ego near him.
Through sheer perseverance and love, Eudora cures Zelig, but not without
complications. She elevates Zelig’s self-esteem so high that, for a
while, he swings to the other extreme: he is violently intolerant of
other people’s opinions, no matter how simple! In psychological terms, we
can say that Zelig is switching from the defence mechanism of
identification to that of aggression.
Eudora, in due course, realizes she is falling in love with Zelig.
Through the media, both doctor and patient become famous. Ironically,
this very fame is what separates them. In fact, the same society that
made Zelig a hero, then destroys him. Numerous women claim that he
married them, and legal proceedings ensue. Zelig’s disorder returns as
he tries to fit in once more, and he disappears.
In due course, Eudora finds him in Germany working with Hitler and the
Nazis before the outbreak of World War II. On seeing Eudora, Zelig’s
memory returns, and together they escape in a war-plane. When Eudora
faints in the plane, Zelig, mimicking her flying skills, flies back
across the Atlantic upside down. Back in the US, he is welcomed as a
Those familiar with the Maha,parinibbana Sutta (D 16) will see what a
remarkable parallel the Zelig story has with the Buddha’s declaration on
how he fits in perfectly with the “eight assemblies,” that is, those of
the nobles, the priests, the householders, the recluses, the Four Great
Kings, the Thirty-two Gods, Mara’s host, and the host of the High God
“Ananda, I recall having approached such an
assembly of many hundreds, assembled with them before, and conversed
with them before, and engaged in discussion with them before. Whatever
their complexion was then, so was my complexion, too. Whatever was their
voice then, so was my voice, too. I instructed, inspired, roused and
gladdened them with Dharma talk.”
Is the Buddha here being a Zelig personality? Appearances, of course, can
deceive, but here the Buddha’s actions and their effects are just the
opposite of what Zelig does. The Buddha is clearly not a hollow
attention-starved personality. Indeed, he is the awakened one,
well known for his love of peace and solitude. The Buddha is a supremely
compassionate and effective teacher. Indeed, while Zelig tries to reach
up and out to what he sees as the desirable qualities of
the greatest egos near him, the Buddha skillfully reaches down
and into those who will benefit from his wisdom.
The lesson here is clear. We can never be truly happy, not to say normal,
by merely trying to collect and clothe ourselves with what we see as
success or happiness in others. Simply put, we are then simply not
ourselves. We may have a social, professional or outward personality,
but this can never be permanent. We must fill ourselves fully with
happiness and goodness: this is what we truly are, or, at least, what we
really would like to be.
Often enough, our external lives distract us so that we completely
forget to fill ourselves up internally. Instead of looking outwards, we
need to look within. We need to look deep enough and carefully study what
wholesome qualities we really have, especially qualities that are of
mutual benefit to others and to ourselves. We need to do this before the
walls of success we have built around us collapse, or the floods of
reality overwhelm us. It might just be too late then.
The best way to fill our inner true selves, to live fulfilling lives, is
to feel inner peace and enjoy inner beauty. We need to get to know
ourselves really better. If not, we will Zelig-like keep looking for
approval from others and patterns to mimic. The reality is that we are
painfully hollow, helplessly trying to echo and enchant others.
Ultimately, this never satisfies us because this is not our true self.
We need the courage to be, to be true to ourselves. Only then we can be
true to others. In the Buddha’s teachings, we have thus become true
A very happy new year and many more to come.
Piya Tan ©2012