UNITED STATES—Famously articulated by Alfred Hitchcock as the secret to constructing his movie stories, a MacGuffin is the object of overwhelming importance for the characters that drives a story forward while having little importance in overall plot. The briefcase of money and the Big W in It’s a Mad Mad World,” the uranium-filled wine bottles in Hitchcock’s “Notorious”—these are movie MacGuffins. Making my bed could be the MacGuffin that reveals my keys under the sheets.
Seeing the many MacGuffins to be found at every turn in our daily lives will put us in the flow and let us go more cheerfully where our tasks and desires take us.
Maybe a hankering for beer crosses your mind on a warm afternoon like a whim and flicker of desire that hovers on the point of rejection. And that’s where so many people miss out. Instead of embracing the MacGuffin firmly, they create dumping grounds of all the rejected possibilities and invitations. If you embrace a MacGuffin, in this case wanting a beer, you can do so with the foreknowledge it is taking you somewhere, but its importance is going to be superseded by something else along the way, like the microfilm in “North by Northwest.” Who remembers the microfilm?
As it turns out, beer was the MacGuffin leading to this article. My neighbor the German lady was likely to have beer. I’d thought about getting one earlier, when I passed Ralphs, and now I thought about it again when passing the German lady’s house. She had recently come back from a trip to Vancouver, and it seemed greedy of me to visit with the sole purpose of acquiring beer. I hovered on the edge of rejecting the idea because of these scruples. Oh, why not?
I banged on the screen door and called her name. “Come on in,” she said from the armchair.
When I stepped inside the living room was muggy. The ceiling fan was on; the lady was fanning herself and reading a German gossip paper. I surrendered to the MacGuffin and asked if she might have a beer.
“Oh you go into zee kitchen and open zee refrigerator and see for yourself.”
Yes, in the fridge was a bottle of Mexican lager chilled. That was nice, but what hijacked my attention was the Corning Ware pot on the stove, its bottom crusted black, and beneath the gas flame on full. That was why the cottage was so hot. Soon as I saw the flame I turned it off.
At that point the MacGuffin of wanting a beer became inconsequential. Who knows how long the stove would have burned if I hadn’t been there to see it? So my alcoholic whim turned into a circumstance to perform a good deed.
The MacGuffin can take so many forms: asking a silly question, getting a parking ticket, walking down a new street. The MacGuffin can be doing or choosing something that doesn’t make immediate sense. Go with it, for it is not the thing in itself; the MacGuffin unfolds, leading us to something superior and unexpected.
Example: the officer who gave me a parking ticket also told me about programs to help first-time home buyers. If it wasn’t for that ticket I wouldn’t be a homeowner today.
MacGuffins are two sided, as well: many suck on the surface like the parking ticket; others vibrate with desire and its promise of fulfillment, often an empty promise, for when a desire is attained, satisfaction goes poof! Knowing that that satisfaction we lust for is a mirage can make it easier to remain completely indifferent if a desire is foiled, and it gives one the freedom pursue a desire wholeheartedly, and at the right moment, abandon it freely as a new desire hatches.
Tony Robbins points out that endeavors are more important for the qualities they develop in us rather than for the attainment of desires. By embracing MacGuffins as they come and seeing them for what they are, we know that each will fizzle out and gave way to something of greater importance as life unspools and the real plot develops. Further, as we grow in the art of living we can choose to postpone the pursuit of a MacGuffin as well, a really pleasurable one. Take care of the crappy MacGuffins first, assured in the knowledge that they’ll lead to something good, and the alluring MacGuffins will await.
As in a good Hitchcock movie the MacGuffin may help us to experience life more richly as desires propel us and then evaporate, yielding to something wonderfully different. Embrace the MacGuffin!
Grady Miller is author of “Lighten Up Now: The Grady Diet,” and the Hitchcockian thriller “Hostages of Veracruz,” available on Amazon.com Reader mail reaches Mr. Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.