The Breakfast Club, a critically acclaimed and enormously popular movie made in 1985 by director John Hughes, features five high school students serving a Saturday detention together that ultimately changes their lives. The movie was chosen for preservation by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Perhaps the wisdom of The Breakfast Club escaped the Library’s notice.
The characters in the story are Andrew, a competitive athlete who bullied a weaker boy in the locker room; Claire, a popular and pampered princess who skipped school to go shopping; Brian, a brainy nerd caught with a flare gun in his locker that he was intending to use to kill himself for failing shop class; Allison, an outcast who shows up only because she has nothing better to do; and John “Bender,” a rebel caught setting off a false fire alarm. Their antagonist is the assistant principal, Mr. Vernon, who attempts to shame them by assigning them to write an essay about who they think they are.
In the first part of the movie, tensions exist among all five students and with Mr. Vernon. The teens each have vulnerabilities hidden behind the masks of their social identities. When bad-boy Bender retrieves his stash of marijuana to get the group stoned, the masks come off, revealing the painful dramas behind their misbehaviors. As they open up to one another, tensions are replaced with understanding, empathy, acceptance, and unlikely new bonds. When the time comes to complete Mr. Vernon’s assignment, the group elects brainy Brian to write an essay speaking for them all. The iconic line that concludes his essay and reveals the movie’s wisdom is this one: “. . .what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basketcase, a princess, and a criminal.” This line reveals a lot about the nature of the human mind.
Psychologists since Freud have recognized that the subconscious mind is populated by a number of subpersonalities whose differences are often in conflict with one another. Freud’s subpersonalities included the primitive id, the harsh superego, and the rational ego attempting to maintain the peace. Today’s most popular model of subpersonalities is Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems (IFS), in which he describes a larger cast of characters who require a type of internal family therapy to get along with one another. Regardless of where a collection of different personalities is found—within a family, within the subconscious, or within society—the wisdom for healing their divisions is the same.
In order to heal a family, psyche, or community, divisive judgements need to be replaced with greater understanding, empathy, acceptance, and cooperation. In other words, individuals need to come together to form a shared identity that becomes just as important as their separate identities. That doesn’t mean that everyone becomes the same, but that they learn how to integrate their differences into a peaceful whole. The collective whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
There’s a widely known principle that captures this wisdom of healing. It’s known as the Golden Rule. Some version of the Golden Rule can be found in every major world religion and society around the globe, an indication of its universal importance to society. The wisdom of the Golden Rule is about much more than treating one another fairly. Its greater truth is that we must recognize how we share a common identity that unites us all, and treating one another fairly is just a natural consequence of this awareness. The separate colors of a rainbow cannot compete with one another for supremacy without betraying their collective beauty. That’s the wisdom that the teenagers in TheBreakfastClubultimately reveal to us.