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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The Delicate Generation

I’ve been a parent for more than 16 years. As the child of divorce and a father that was never—and still isn’t—a part of my life, I vowed from early on that I would do everything in my power to support my children, encourage them, dream with them, and be present in their lives. And we all know that vows represent a very powerful presence for us. I wanted to seize opportunities to fight for and with both of my children. And both my wife and I have.

And it seems to be working. My children are both successful at what they do. They do very well academically and socially and seem to draw a great deal of strength from their home life. And as I look around, my wife and I are far from the only parents screaming their lungs out at gymnastics meets and swim competitions, basketball games, and dance recitals (probably not screaming there, but whatever the dance equivalent would be); working in partnership with them to tackle the mountains of homework these crazy teachers send home every night; and coming alongside our children as they plot their life’s would-be course. My children and their peers seem confident and self-assured. They seem to me to be self-motivated as well as well-adapted socially. And even if Generation X is not living vicariously through our kids, we’re by all means taken an “all in” posture.

However, in a recent conversation with a member of the generation that precedes us, this member said something that struck me as more than a little interesting. Apparently, when this person, lets say we refer to her as “Mother,” gets together with her peer group they inevitably a discussion of their grandchildren and, I presume, the job they believe the parents are doing in this regard. The news to me was that all agree that our children seem to be … delicate.That is, “Mother” and her group of Boomers friends believe that we’re raising The Delicate Generation.

My first reaction was, “What!? Xers are much more committed and successful parents that you guys. Delicate? My girl swims 5,000 yards 5 days a week and then does homework until 10:00 at night!!” But that sentiment evaporated almost as quickly as it surfaced when I recalled an article in Newsweek about helicopter parents not too long ago. At the time I didn’t consider myself a helicopter parent. The article tended to categorize these parents as fear-based, homeschool-like types that take every precaution available—think bicycle helmet. That couldn’t be me, right. since I was at the time cheering my oldest daughter as she propelled herself several feet into the air above a  4″ balance beam, executing a back tuck, and landing on said 4″ balance beam (most of the time).

In keeping our children active and challenged we believed that we were preparing them for life’s wars. In fact, I realize that it just goes to show you how pillowy soft our nation has become, quite possibly, when we have to manufacture and manipulate pretend battles for our children.

But now I’m not so sure. In honoring the vow stated above and creating a safe, cozy environment, certainly not a bad thing, I do wonder if I have also perhaps created a false sense of security, comfort, and safety. Because the world is not always so kind I guess the question becomes, “When do I allow reality to encroach upon the facade I’ve tried to create?” In keeping our children active and challenged we believed that we were preparing them for life’s wars. In fact, I realize that it just goes to show you how pillowy soft our nation has become, quite possibly, when we have to manufacture and manipulate pretend battles for our children. Will they be ready for the real war that we know as adults?

Don’t get me wrong. I still believe that the things we and what I see our peers doing in this regard is a beautiful thing, particularly in light of what we saw throughout the 1970s in so many American homes. And none of this is intended to be critical. “Mother” has another saying that is applicable here as well: “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” But I do think it’s possible that we’re complicit in creating a “delicate” generation. Although not a perfect fit, take a look at this clip from the movie Greenberg. I love the line here: “Your confidence is horrifying.”

Having a Moment with TV’s Dancing With The Stars

So I don’t watch television’s Dancing With The Stars—or at least I try not to. Yes, it’s cheesy. The judges are cheesy. The set comes off as some kind of overhauled soap opera court room or “upscale” restaurant set. There’s something about the lighting that reminds me of a bad day in a mall. Of course it doesn’t help that all but a handful of the dancing celebrities conjure the most embarrassing and awkward moments of my own life—a very disconcerting parade of events. And then there’s the last judge on the right that’s just a little creepy. And so even though I try not to watch DWTS it still manages to get recorded and I still manage to see at least some of the “highlights” during the most mindless and please-just-maybe-60-minutes-that-require-no-decisions moments of the day.

But in the midst of of it all something like Jennifer Grey happens. Like many of us, I grew up for the most part with Jennifer Grey. She played leading roles in some of the great 1980s “coming of age” films. Movies like Dirty Dancing, Red Dawn, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off have become standards. (Really, what adolescent boy could go unaffected by Red Dawn in 1984?) And Jennifer Grey was actually standing (or sitting I guess) right there on the set when Patrick Swayze said, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” RIGHT THERE! Grey is one of those people that has always seemed so genuine, honest, and vulnerable to me. Hold that thought.

In the world of dancing that we’ve seen played on the small screen in recent programming like DWTS and So You Think You Can Dance I’ve come to expect praise for the male dancer not for his art as much as his strength. It’s common for judges to affirm a male dancer with things like “You were there for her”, “You were strong for her,” and “She knew she could trust you.” When the partners are at their best, working together, and putting on display the most beautiful expression of the dance … it is an absolute art form that calls to mind so much of what is good about being human and alive. A dance such as this provides both opportunity and context to create a chance moment of authenticity. And this has never been more evident than in Jennifer’s recent Viennese Waltz on Dancing With The Stars. Apparently the song this waltz was choreographed for is a number from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. Jennifer reveals to us during the introduction that her friendship with Swayze and his recent death were very much on her mind throughout rehearsals. And so when she stands on the dance floor in front of millions, making her heart and most intimate internal dialog a matter of public record, what she needed most was a partner willing to accept the invitation and dance the dance with her. Clearly there was quite a bit of life rolled up into those 90 seconds.

Is their greater application? Well there doesn’t have to be. It’s OK for beautiful things to have their own addresses and stand on their own merit. But I would say that if we’re serious about growing, maturing, and being all that we’ve been created to be, then we stand to learn a lot from an imperfect Viennese Waltz during which one partner provides strength and another is allowed to be beautifully broken.

And so I find myself right here at the junction of empty nest and mid-life. Life can be such a pleasant fiction. We spend the first third in such intimate community, doing life together, and learning how the world works as we sometimes stumble/sometimes soar through those early years. Then we move on to college, career, and family before waking up to find that those intimate relationships have collected so much dust on the shelf as to make them hardly recognizable. The last third holds so much promise of restoration and putting into practice all the things we believe we’ve learned.

Maybe Jennifer’s dance captured so much of the victories and the pains required of us? Maybe its heart is found in the simple power of a shared story? Who knows. I say bring it all to the dance floor. The more people you’ve got in the dance, the more likely we’re going to find magic. Here is a video of Jennifer’s Viennese Waltz. Now this is dancin’.

Will vs. Shall: Two Roads in the Woods

While a student at the University of Kentucky I had junior seminar in Renaissance Lit. English 422 I think it was, but don’t hold me to it. We read John Donne (OK in a renaissance sort of way) and Christopher Marlowe (way ahead of his time). Of course we examined Shakespeare’s sonnets—I never really and still haven’t “gotten” the sonnet. The sonnet seems more like a mathematical marvel than an artform. I remember liking Edmund Spenser a lot. Muiopotmos: or The Fate of the Butterflie was great. So was The Shepherd’s Calendar—loved Colin Clout. (I was not ready either emotionally or intellectually or mentally, for The Fairie Queene at the time. I just remember finding it easy to believe that Spenser never finished it.)

Our professor was Dr. John Shawcross and he remains one of my all-time favorites. Dr. Shawcross was one of those college professor types that they portray in the movies—equal parts funny, informed, and mad scientist. In fact, I discovered some time later that he was somewhat famous in Renaissance Literature circles. In fact, because of my association with Dr. Shawcross I was little bit of a celebrity in the mind of my Renaissance professor in graduate school.

As a class we were looking at something from one of those people mentioned above when Dr. Shawcross told us about the difference between “will” and “shall.” “Will,” I remember him saying, suggests determination. Most of the time “will” means trying really really hard to make something happen eg, “I WILL make this happen if it kills both of us!” “Shall,” on the other hand, has much more of a prophetic bent. In some ways “shall” removes you and I from the equation in favor of some greater force; some natural or supernatural ripple that will bring about some end. If not the opposite of “will,” “shall” suggests an ease and sense of providence that “will” simply lacks. Or maybe the most profound difference between “will” and “shall” is understood as the juxtaposition between “knowing” and “believing.”

As a part of my devotional life I’ve been reading and re-reading John 1 every day. It’s always interesting what new insights bubble up during these kinds of exercises—which is why one might undertake such a practice I suppose. So when my eyes kept rolling over John 1:12-13 I recalled that moment in English 422 when Dr. John Shawcross explained the nuances of “will” and “shall:”

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

We become children of God not by the will of the flesh or the will of man. In other words, clinched fist, bare-knuckled “will” holds neither sway nor currency in our transformation and renewal. When it comes to our relationship in this context it’s all about “shall”, not the clinched-fist determination that is so often esteemed by others. So maybe it’s not a matter of “willing” some sort of outcome, but “allowing” God to work.

So it comes to this … what if we find ourselves in moments when we’re trying too hard; moments when we tense our jaw and grab as tight as we can and squeeze with everything we’re worth, but instead of freezing up in tension we should be letting go. Seems a difficult concept for Agonistes to grasp, frankly, when so much of my formation is owed to the wrestling match.

Omega Man

Following up a couple of recent posts (by recent I mean in the past 6 months) on the subject of masculinity in today’s culture, I found a pretty interesting article posted at Slate that has associations with both “Tales of a Dying Superman” and “The Stuff of Super Heroes.” These have two posts have been two of the most-read over that same time period and both come close to addressing the state of mascunity in the 21st Century.

The post uses a recent Ben Stiller movie Greenberg as a jumping off point—or maybe it is the entire impetus behind the piece—into a description of today’s omega male. On the other end of spectrum from the alpha male, the omega man has for the most part abdicated the traditional roles and expectations of a man. Now contrary to what the Slate post may suggest, or maybe what I Am Agonistes readers may be quick to conclude, I’m not convinced that our world hasn’t at least acted like that this omega man isn’t what it wants from masculinity. It’s certainly no excuse, but worth pondering, that our current “everybody-be-cool-and-for-heaven’s-sake-don’t-DEMAND-anything-from-anybody culture hasn’t breathed a great deal of life into this cultural enigma. The writer defines 4 types of omegas: The Liberal Arts Layabout, The Mimbo, Beer Guy, and the Game Boy. All are fairly easy to recognize. You can read the post in its entirety by clicking here.

The Discipline of Remembering

The January–February issue of Outside Magazine features a dietary experiment performed and reported by endurance athlete John Bradley (All Systems Go, p.47). The exercise, as it were, included spending eight weeks each on six different diet plans ranging from popular fads to clinical studies: the Abs Diet, the Paleo Diet for Athletes, the Mediterranean Prescription, the Okinawa Program, the advice of a personal nutritionist, and the USDA’s nutritional pyramid. Along the way he recorded every meal, snack, and caloric drink, and workout, and made bi-monthly visits to his doctor for blood work, weigh-ins, cholesterol checks, and body composition analysis. You can read the entire article by clicking here.

The most interesting piece of this article to me, however, were the conclusions of the nutritionist, Laurent Bannock, he worked with during his research. Apparently Bannock has spent years researching diet strategies based on ethnicity. Bannock believes that one’s genes have “equipped” him or her for specific foods. Furthermore, Bannock contends, a diet comprised primarily of these “remembered” foods leads to greater wellness. For his part, Bradley experienced improved blood profiles, a leaner body, more sound sleep, and consistently higher energy levels using Bannock’s diet strategies. So it appears that our genes have what may be described as a “memory” that reacts positively to reminders of our heritage—in this case dietarily, but perhaps this phenomenon has broader application.

I remember hearing a few years ago that, in some sort of informal poll, the word “home” was acknowledged as the most favorite word in our vocabulary. (Who comes up with this stuff?) Like most people, I had never once stopped to consider my favorite word. But after thinking about the results of the poll, I can understand why “home” was voted the most favorite. It has the long vowel sound that is so pleasant in our poetry and music. But it also asks us to … remember. And if “home” is our favorite word, then “remember” just might be our most profound word. In one of his most recent releases Peter Gabriel sings the words “I … I remember” from the most inner part of his heart. His vocal is both primal and profound at once. There’s something so perfect about remembering—even the hard stuff. “Remember” beckons us to consider our own stories, where we are, and the road we’re on. Scripture tells us, “… if a man should live many years, let him rejoice in them all, and let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many.

A diet that reminds us, a word that stirs the heart, and a word that invites us into our own stories. Ecclesiastes 3:11 reveals that God has put an eternity into our hearts. I’ve seen this explained in more than one way, but what makes the most sense to me is that God has created us predisposed to “remember”—not only our own stories and the stories of our times, but the loss of Eden, the wonders of creation, and beauty of the gospel. Our hearts—our emotional seats—are wired to recognize our personal stories when we sense them bubbling up around us.

And so I wonder if along with the spiritual disciplines of study, worship, service, prayer, community, confession, and submission, if we should also practice the discipline of remembering. It seems, in the spirit of Lauren Bannock’s dietary conclusions, that our hearts also have a “memory”. There’s truth to be discovered in retracing the paths that led to where we are in our own stories—powerful memories, the things that move us, and the things that won’t seem to go away. Consider those things that have been lost, those things that have been gained, and those things yet to be born from the womb of time, yet the heart still manages to “remember.” There’s karthasis in the process.

More Than You Realize

I’ve wondered aloud for years if fiction isn’t somehow more true than reality. When I look around at reality—my reality—it doesn’t seem as real to me as the pages of a novel or the lines from a movie or even that which springs from my own imagination. It just seems like … there’s more. More to life. More to the days. More than reality. 2 Corinthians 4:18 suggests that we look “not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.” It continues, “for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

This is a strange set-up for thoughts on spiritual warfare I realize, but the fact is that there is an “unseen realm” that is very real—likely more real than what we are able to see, hear, touch, and feel. It’s not fiction but neither is it what we normally associate with reality. (In fact, it’s more closely aligned with an integration of the fantastic.) And in this unseen realm we are not without certain specific and powerful weapons. Psalm 139:14 reveals to us that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Ephesians 2:6 goes as far as to say that we are “seated with” Jesus. The sum of it is … are you more than you realize? Here is a video from the first release in the Small Group Life series. It’s short, less than 5 minutes, but author Ron Keck poses some very provocative questions worth considering. Take a look.