Running Down the Dream: Drawing Lines Between Dream and Fantasy

San Simeon, California. Photo courtesy of Karen Daniel

It hasn’t happened in a while around me, but it isn’t uncommon for the question, “What do you think she is like in real life?” to be asked about an actress during a television show or, more often, a feature film. The question is innocuous. I mean, it makes sense. There’s a fake life on the screen and there’s a real life in the living room. Upon deeper inspection, however, the question can be telling. For many of us there does seem to be some sort of notion of a reality-beyond-reality—something obviously less than real yet very influential in how we process and see the world around us.

I was in Colorado a few years ago. It was Georgetown, Colorado just off I25. Great town for grabbing a coffee. (So is Idaho Springs. And Leadville. And Buena Vista. Every town in Colorado for that matter.) My family and I stopped to have lunch. I don’t remember anything we talked about or what we ate or the name of the restaurant. The only thing I remember was a button our server was wearing that day. It said “Reality: What a concept.”

There are moments that you remember for a reason. Like your first kiss. And then there are other moments that you remember for no apparent reason—like a server’s button in Georgetown CO. Again, the idea behind the button suggests that there is an option other than reality. It’s not so hard to conclude that we’re all aware of the fact that our lives are stories with alternate endings. What’s confusing, though, is what these endings are, how to get from where we are to a desired ending, and where the lines between fantasy and dream are ultimately drawn. But where “reality” is concerned, there is only one viable conclusion: there is no “alternate reality.”

I think we’ve always had a bent toward escapism. Before television there were feature films. Before films there were novels. Before novels there was poetry. Before poetry there was drama. Before drama there was … farming. OK so maybe that’s where the notion of “alternate reality” began—when somebody finally said, “Man I’m tired of hoeing this field.” So the farmer looked for something to get his mind off of work. He didn’t create a fictitious world loose from the mooring of what he knew. What he did was carve out a place in the real world to which he could retreat. Somewhere in there lies the difference between “fantasy” and “dream.” “And this is important why?” I can hear you asking. Agonistes believes that our newfound game-show culture in which all you’ve got to do is be willing to make a fool out of yourself on television for a few thousand, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars, is on the verge of dropping completely into the grips of a fantasy world; a world unhinged from the sights, sounds, textures, and–yes–consequences of reality.

This distinction fantasy and dream hit me during a recent  trip to Disney World—trust me, I’ve got nothing against WDW. It’s one of my favorite places. We were watching one of the shows at Cinderella’s Castle. There were princesses and princes. A villain of course. Good wins—at least judging by the music. Just as the narrator challenged everyone within earshot to “reach for their dreams”  my oldest daughter says to me, “But what they DON’T show you, though, is all of the doubt, the bumps and bruises, the failures, fear, and the work it takes to live the dream.” (She was 15 at the time.) Always on the prowl for a potential blog post, I was struck: that’s the problem. That’s the difference between the fantasy and the dream. More than work, I would couch the  primary difference within what a mentor of mine described as “having skin in the game.” (Also check out Karen Dill’s How Fantasy Becomes Reality.)

Here’s the deal. Being a professional baseball player, for me, is fantasy. It isn’t going to happen. If I was ever good enough, that day is gone. I could hire a coach, a personal trainer, take BP and infield until I was blue in the face, and it wouldn’t matter. I could, however, write a novel. It could happen. For that to happen I would need to confront internal enemies such as fear of failure and lack of discipline—a very healthy enterprise—and do the hard work of developing a compelling story with intriguing characters. It might not be Hemingway, but I could do it. Even if this isn’t the best example, it makes a point: chasing the dream is edifying. Remaining in fantasy is destructive.

But the distinction goes deeper. Lets consider something easily categorized as fantasy … just for argument’s sake … just picking one at random … let’s go with … pornography. I’ve written about this before. Try to look at this emotional pandemic through the edification vs destruction filter above. Pornography requires nothing of a person: no commitment, no emotional investment, no real effort. That’s fantasy. On the flipside, look at what it promises. It promises adventure, but ultimately robs you of adventure. It promises beauty, but delivers only a one dimensional veneer. It promises fulfillment, but only for moments and only leaves you wanting more. It promises control, but in the final analysis owns you.  Granted, this is an extreme example. But this can be applied to just about anything we do compulsively. Why do I watch football? What is that a substitute for? What are so many of us addicted to Facebook? What does that say about one’s desire and how we’ve channeled it?

There is a lyric in an Avett Brothers song that says, “Your dreams to catch, the world the cage”—and that’s exactly right. Our dreams are vast and indefinable, really, while fantasy is localized. The dream sets the heart free while fantasy requires us to be static and still. Yet the fantasy industry—fantasy football, a zillion cable channels, video games to name a few—remains a billion dollar industry.  Thing is, no one can choose for you. The process of separating fantasies from dreams can be a life-long pursuit. As I’ve gotten older and learned more about myself I have sensed the pantheon of possibility narrow—which has afforded me greater focus. The sum of it is that anything worth doing isn’t necessarily easy, but it must be natural—as naturally as leaves to a tree, as Keats might have said.

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2 thoughts on “Running Down the Dream: Drawing Lines Between Dream and Fantasy

  1. Very well written….a very interesting post and I’d like to add very debatable.I would like to add,that aren’t our dreams sometimes the subconscious product of our own fantasies?I would say that the fantasy to become a football coach is just as achievable as writing the novel,perhaps requires more conviction and time.What I’m getting to here is the possibility or factor of failure exists with whatever you pursue.It depends on what steps you take to avoid it.Now I just pulled one thread of this post….like I said its interestingly debatable.But all in all…rather stimulating!Thanks!!

    • Everything at I Am Agonistes is debatable, Fabulousat5thavenue. Regarding the implicit question, I would think much is dependent on one’s definition of the two terms.

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