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In The Pursuit of Happyness, Chris Gardner's son tells him a joke (this re-telling isn't verbatim).

There was once a drowning man. A boat came by and tried to save him, but he said "no thank you, God will save me." Another boat tried to save him but he said "no thank you, God will save me" and he drowned. When he got to heaven he said "why didn't you save me God?" and God said "I sent you two boats you big dummy!"

Was there any special significance to this joke? I'm guessing that the drowning man represents Gardner, but other than that I'm not sure.

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Although I don't quite remember the exact scene where it is told, I remember the joke rather well and always liked it. It relates to the film's general themes quite nicely.

The film is primarily about Chris Gardner fighting the odds and working himself literally from rags to riches. This is also reflected in the film's very title, relating to the classic American right to "pursue your own happiness" and the idea of the "American Dream" that you (or anyone) can make it if only you work hard and fight for your dreams.

And along these lines the joke is to be interpreted too, I think. It tells the story of a man who blindly relies on others (or rather God) to save him, without recognizing the chances he got offered to save himself. It emphasizes that you have to look out for yourself and that it is on you to work for your dreams (or save your life). Yet notice that the joke still doesn't deny God (or anyone) looking out for you and offering help. But even while God/fate/life may give you chances, you still need to recognize them yourself and grasp them, it isn't done with just waiting for success to happen. So the man maybe isn't representing Gardner himself rather than someone antithetical to him. The moral of the joke, according to the film, would be to not be that man.

And although it's a joke and we don't have to take God literal rather than as a metaphor for the forces of life in general, it also fits quite well into the Puritanical work ethics of believing in God while working hard that the American Dream was ultimately founded on.

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    It should be noted that this joke in various forms long predates the movie. I'm not sure if it's even known where it originates from. It's a common parable, basically along the lines of "God helps those who help themselves". – Darrel Hoffman May 14 '20 at 14:46
  • @DarrelHoffman Maybe closer to "God works in mysterious ways". – Michael Richardson May 14 '20 at 17:50
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    @MichaelRichardson no, "god works in mysterious ways" is about when something negative or confusing happens, the idea being that anything that happens must ultimately be for a good reason, even if that reason is mysterious to you. There's nothing mysterious about rescue boats trying to save a drowning man. – Carcer May 14 '20 at 18:38
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    To extend @DarrelHoffman's comment, this joke at least dates back to classical Roman times, though I can't currently recall which work I encountered it in. – Flater May 15 '20 at 9:34
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    @Flater - FYI: Your comment spawned this question on the History site. If you can dig up the reference, there's probably a few reputation points in it for you. – T.E.D. May 16 '20 at 4:21
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The significance of the joke is an old one. It means that God has already answered your prayers and prepared your salvation. He has already given you the tools and means to save yourself. You just have to recognize and take advantage of it.

Gardner looked for and recognized opportunity. He then seized the opportunity. He did not wait for the opportunity to seize him.

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As per me, I feel this meant, that you had to take action and just praying and hoping that things will work out or that someone will help out (God), won't work.

Chris Gardner had the same attitude throughout, he was always trying to make it, and not wallowing in self-pity or giving up.

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  • In a way, yes. The context of the movie is about taking action. The joke, though, is more about the fact that God has given you what you need to save yourself. Don’t wait on him to do everything. For example, if you are sick, you can pray to get better. Still, go see the doctor. God has given the doctor the brains, skill, and experience to make you better. The doctor is the answer to your prayers. – Dean F. May 15 '20 at 14:58

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