We Sing the Ideal

Laura and I have been watching the ABC television series ‘Once Upon a Time‘ here in the United States. It is about an Evil Queen in a fantasy world filled with fairytale characters all of whom she curses with the most terrible of magical spells … condemning them to live their lives in our reality and not remembering their true, better selves.

It is, indeed, a terrible curse.

The conflict between what we desire — our fantasies — and what we perceive as real has been a long standing one. Recently, Laura and I watched the traditional holiday movie ‘Miracle on 34th Street.’ Avoid the modern version, the only true Santa Claus is found in the 1947 version with Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, John, Payne and the perfect Natalie Wood. The curse is found here, too, in Maureen O’Hara’s character of Doris Walker when she addresses John Payne’s Fred Gailey on the subject.

WALKER: But I think there is harm. I tell her Santa Claus is a myth, you bring her here… and she sees hundreds of gullible children… meets a very convincing old man with real whiskers. This sets up a very harmful mental conflict within her. What is she going to think? Who is she going to believe? And by filling them full of fairy tales… they grow up considering life a fantasy instead of a reality. They keep waiting for Prince Charming to come along. And when he does, he turns out to be a…

GAILEY: We were talking about Suzie, not about you.

Mrs. Walker is condemned to live her life within the confines of her own perception of reality … and only comes alive when she takes off these blinders and considers being open to something more and find hope once more.

As a writer, I’ve come to believe that there are there is apparent truth and desired truth. Reality, I believe, is found in both but not fully explored or understood by either.

We think of apparent truth as reality but what is apparent isn’t always real. It was apparently true to the ancients that the world was flat. Science has down through the ages changed its perspective, broadened its understanding of the universe and, with each new perspective, the apparent truth of yesterday is replaced by the apparent truth of today. Reality has not been altered but our perspective on it has changed. Consider that science, in order to progress beyond our current understanding, must accept that it does not yet have a complete perspective on reality — and so our apparent truth of today is incomplete. ‘Here be dragons’ continues to lurk beyond our apparent understanding.

Desired truth is not just a wish … it is a hope for a reality that is better than the one which is apparent. Desired truth acknowledges that there is an ideal to be achieved beyond the imperfect trappings of our perceived reality.

Some men see things as they are and say why – I dream things that never were and say why not.

— George Bernard Shaw

A friend of mine was speaking a few days ago about our church hymns. He said, “We don’t sing about what’s real … we sing the ideal.” That thought has stayed with me these last few days. We are coming into the holiday season with a day of Thanksgiving and the many religious holiday celebrations in December. It has made me reflect on the purpose I have in writing.

There are many, I know, who believe that our literature should be about the reality — I would say ‘apparent truth’ — of our existence and should reflect who we are in honest examination. I believe that is only partially true; we should examine the apparent truth of our lives but we must do more than just wallow in our sorrows, inhumanity to man or the bleakness of troubled economic times. I believe that the real value in the written word comes not in our apparent truth but in our desired truth — in telling us not who we are but who we can become.

One of my favorite poems is by Robert Frost written in 1947. It’s called ‘Choose Something Like a Star’ and it is about our desire to understand and how we are inspired to rise above ourselves.

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud —
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.

Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says “I burn.”
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.

And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

Story, as Joseph Campbell saw it, exists not so much to tell us who we are as to show us who we should be.

We may write what is real … but when we do, let us be sure to sing the ideal.

Leave a Reply