Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Hopes and dreams

I was listening to tunes while running yesterday afternoon, and Christina Aguilera's beautiful song "Loyal, Brave, and True" (from the movie Mulan) came up, and it got me thinking about a conversation I had a while back with a diehard cynic.

This guy hates anything Disney.  Or Pixar, for that matter.  His attitude is that happy endings are smarmy, cheesy, and unrealistic.  In real life, he says, the bad guys often win, having good motives doesn't guarantee you'll succeed, and true love fails to survive as often as not.  Life is, at best, a zero-sum game.  Movies and books that try to tell us otherwise are lying -- and doing it purely to draw in audiences to bilk them of their money.

My response was, "Okay, but even if you're right, why would we want to immerse ourselves in fiction that's just as bad as the real world?"

One of fiction's purposes, it seems to me, is to elevate us, to give us hope that we can transcend the ugliness that we see on the news every night.  Especially with kids' movies and books, what possible argument could there be for not giving children that hope?  But even with adult fiction, I would argue that all of us need to have that lift of the spirit that we can only get from leaving behind what poet John Gillespie Magee called "the surly bonds of Earth" for a while.

I don't mean it's always got to have an unequivocally happy ending, of course; you can have your heart moved and broken at the same time.  Consider the impact of The Dead Poet's Society, for example.  Okay, maybe John Keating lost, in a sense; but in the end, when one by one his students stand up and say "O captain, my captain!" who can doubt that he made a difference?  My all-time favorite book -- Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum -- ends with two of the main characters dead and the third waiting to be killed, but even so, the last lines are:

It makes no difference whether I write or not.  They will look for other meanings, even in my silence.  That's how They are.  Blind to revelation....  But try telling Them.  They of little faith.

So I might as well stay here, wait, and look at the sunlight on the hill.

It's so beautiful.

My own writing tends toward bittersweet endings -- perhaps not unequivocally happy, but with a sense that the fight was still very much worth it.  My character Duncan Kyle, in Sephirot, goes through hell and back trying to get home, but in the end when he's about to take his final leap into the dark and is told, "Good luck.  I hope you see wonders," he responds simply, "I already have."

No one understood this better than J. R. R. Tolkien.  Does The Lord of the Rings have a happy ending?  I don't know that you could call it that; Frodo himself, after the One Ring is destroyed, tells his beloved friend Sam, "Yes, the Shire was saved.  But not for me."  The end of the movie makes me bawl my eyes out, but could it have ended any other way without cheapening the beauty of the entire tale?

To quote writer G. K. Chesterton: "Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten."

We've been telling stories as long as we've been human, and we need all of them.  Even the ones my friend would call unrealistic and cheesy happily-ever-afters.  They remind us that happiness is possible, that even if the world we see around us can be tawdry and cheap and commercial and all of the things he so loudly criticizes, there is still love and kindness and compassion and creativity and courage.

And those are at least as powerful, and as real, as the ugly parts.

We need stories.  They keep us hopeful.  They keep us yearning for things to be better, for the world to be a sweeter place.  They raise our spirits, renew our commitment to treat each other with respect and honor and dignity, and keep us putting one foot in front of the other even when things seem dismal.

The best fiction recalls the last lines of Max Ehrmann's deservedly famous poem "Desiderata": "Whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.  With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.  Be cheerful.  Strive to be happy."


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