On the outside, I was a starving artist. Dressed in a scraggly beard, glasses, and a worn T-shirt, I fit right in on the morning bus. But under the shabby veneer, nobody knew I was tortured by an impossible dream.
I wanted to live in the past.
I’d picked up a novel about World War II to pass the commute. The adrenaline-pumping battles and the people who fought them captivated me. I watched soldiers rescue victims from Hitler’s butchery, G. I. Joes fight for a righteous cause.
I could only think that my puny life would never measure up.
I was interning at a theatre where we put stories onstage to amuse people. I hoped one of our plays might bring a soul closer to God, but by any visible measure, even that was a failure. So as I buried myself in the novel, watching these fictional characters fall in love; face hopeless odds in battle. This story was more real than anything in my life.
I became obsessed with a desire to live again in the 1940s; to fight the war to end all wars; suck all the marrow out that terrifying and transforming time in history. I drank the pages like water in the desert, then cried when I finished the book. Emptiness yawned ahead of me. I knew nothing real could possibly compare.
That’s why I read it again — 1,000 pages; three times in one year; because all that was left otherwise was life. And life seemed like a dreary, mundane slog through numbness.
Imagination is a fearsome thing. You don’t know what will happen when you open the pages of an ordinary book or insert an innocent DVD. Fictional distractions have become so commonplace that we’ve forgotten the power they hold.
But do you remember the time you made Dad turn off the scary movie? The genuine tears you shed when your animated hero died? The power of stories is still latent within us — and affects us more than we like to admit.
You could walk away after a film ennobled, prepared to live with compassion and love. Or you might leave with a longing for what can never be. Deep changes happen to our souls within fictional worlds, changes that bypass our minds by penetrating our guts.
The most colossal chick flick of all time came out while I was in college. So I watched Titanic with my sort-of girlfriend, hoping for a good story and maybe a little romance. I picked up a burden instead.
Through her lover Jack’s sacrifice, Rose survived the doomed ship. Her entire world was transformed by a few days with him aboard Titanic. She went on to live an entirely different existence!
Then at the very end, when she departed from this life, she was mystically reunited with her beau on the deck of Titanic. Rose was eternally bonded to the one who’d saved her life from emptiness.
After the movie, I was filled with an intense, irrational longing to find passion that could fill my soul. I needed more than a girlfriend; more than a God; a transcendent lover that was stronger than death. I wanted a Jack-and-Rose romance — a love that dared everything.
The fact that it was impossible only made things worse.
By college, I was an escape artist — I’d do anything to dodge painful reality. But the skill didn’t begin in adulthood. If my parents had sent me to counseling in middle school, I could’ve funded some shrink’s BMW.
Back then, I was a prime target with hand-me-down clothes and geeky glasses and a squeaky voice. Our junior high comedians had no shortage of material. So I spent a lot of time alone, inventing unwritten stories where I was the hero. I won the heart of my latest crush or became a space explorer on a strange planet. Sometimes, I even talked out loud to myself — in front of other people.
One spring afternoon I was waiting for a ride from Mom. A bunch of my classmates stood near the parking lot doors, but naturally, I was outside the circle. I listened to the inside jokes that would never involve me; tried to laugh in the right places. I wanted so badly to be inside and experience real friendship. The longing was palpable — and it hurt.
Finally, I couldn’t take the pain anymore. I walked outside to the school’s loading dock and invented another adventure, living inside my head while my peers built friendships. Then I began talking to myself out loud — even though the kids could see me through the door.
In my longing for relationships, I pushed them even further away.
When life is less than you expected and ideals are broken on the ground, most people turn to comforting delusions. When it wasn’t supposed to turn out this way (but it has), impossible daydreams make the grind more bearable. Anything to distance us from the harsh, unrelenting world.
In daydreams and soap operas, the mother of a newborn escapes into fairy-tale romances. She thought her life would be full once she had a husband and kid, but she’s still lonely. So she dreams about a picture-perfect soul mate; the prince who’ll help her feel beyond the emptiness.
Her husband can’t turn away from the pictures on his computer and the hot blonde two cubicles down at work. They’re much more interesting than the wife who’s “too tired.”
Maybe you’re an internet gamer who finds virtual reality to be more satisfying than the original. You’re a single serial romancer who’s always in a new relationship. You’re workaholic who takes 16-hour days like pain pills, because you know this next success is the one that’ll finally “complete” you….
But by now, the impossible dreams have their tentacles wrapped a thousand times around your heart, and fantasy is your prison.
Dreams are not the enemy! Imagination is God’s gift, a holy treasure. Creations of the mind only become perverse when they isolate.
As for me, I did have some friends by the time I hit college — not the imaginary kind. Unfortunately, they were few and far between, because I was really concerned with “success” as a confirmed workaholic.
I slaved nonstop for four years to avoid student loans. I went on mission trips to serve Jesus and led a church drama ministry; still finished with a 3.1 GPA. But I remember sitting with my girlfriend and crying one night at the end because I’d missed the most important part of college. After four years, she was the only person I was really going to miss … because I was afraid of everyone else.
“What if my ‘friends’ are just putting up with me?” I thought. “What if I’m too strange to be valued as an equal — loved as a person? What if I never find anything better than fantasy?”
When life got unbearable, imaginary friends beat reality every time.
Not long after graduation, I walked out of a movie theater alone. I got in my car, but made no move to drive away.
A Beautiful Mind is a film loosely based on the life of John Nash. He was a prodigy, a mathematical genius. Nash was also regarded as “strange” even in childhood, and as an adult, still held relationships at arm’s length.
Nonetheless, he studied at Princeton and began a promising academic career. Along the way, he did research that transformed his discipline. His profession held nothing but hope. Of course, the rest of his life was empty.
He retreated into a dream world where he was a heroic spy doing undercover work for the government, where he had a secret “best friend” only he could see. Nash began to show signs of paranoid schizophrenia, and in 1959, he was admitted to the first of many psych wards.
As I sat in my car after the movie, I reflected that perhaps my parallels with John Nash were too close for comfort. I was not schizophrenic — or a genius — but I had been a smart kid who’d chased everyone away in fear they might hurt me. I didn’t see and hear nonexistent things like Nash, but I ran just as much.
According to the film, Nash’s long recovery from schizophrenia began when he decided to stop living in his head. He allowed people to get close enough to hurt — or to care.
That day in my car, I resolved to take the same risk. I renounced my imaginary friends and using work as a drug. I followed in John Nash’s footsteps and let go of virtual reality.
One year later I was standing behind a battered music stand, poised to speak to singles on a retreat. My topic: “Building a Community.” The miraculous thing was that I could speak from experience.
Not long after A Beautiful Mind, my church started a new singles group based on the idea of genuine community. This, I realized, was what I’d been longing for and dreading my whole life.
With trepidation, I went to the first meeting. I found other people with fears and insecurities, people on the outside looking in. Like me, they were afraid life would be vapid as they worked dead-end jobs and found the dating pool empty.
We played softball after church, went to the beach together, hung out and traded secret fears. And then something astonishing happened. I, the loner, began to be looked upon as a leader of the tribe. So I found myself standing behind a podium on our retreat, speaking from the book of Joel.
“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten,” I read. “You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the Lord your God, who has worked wonders for you.”
“I let the locusts eat my college years,” I said, my voice almost breaking. “I threw them away because I was terrified of people like you. You paralyzed me because you could carve wounds deeper than knives. Yes, you could love, but I couldn’t take the chance. I graduated feeling like I’d missed out on life.
“But in this summer … this moment … God is repaying me for the locust years — the ones I threw away myself. He’s put us in this community to walk along the journey together. I’ve discovered honesty and vulnerability with friends who care.
“I only pray we’ll keep loving and never start hurting. People need us to do that. I need us to do that.”
And over the next three years, when I wrestled with a bout of serious depression; when my life came crashing down with a broken romance and a lost job; when my weeks were nothing but hurt and I needed renewal at the end … this was the community that walked through it all with me. For the first time in my life, I didn’t live in fantasy.
It wasn’t because I never felt afraid or hurt or alone. It was because when I considered where my life had come … I didn’t need fantasy anymore.
If you could live in the 1940s or catch a starship to Andromeda, find a romance aboard a doomed luxury liner or throw yourself into an 80-hour-a-week project, it would be a lot of fun. New adventures always are.
Then after a while, you’d discover a difficult truth: Once a dream becomes reality, it loses its luster.
Personally, I’ll always be captivated by imagination. Sometimes on special days, I spin fairy tales for my wife while we cuddle together. To earn my daily bread, I write stories and direct plays. And almost every day, I crawl into a novelist’s fantasy for a few minutes before bed. But these aren’t my destructive imaginings of the past — and relationships make the difference.
I dreamed for years about getting married. Some of those dreams involved sex (after all, I am a guy). But the most compelling visions were conversations with my best friend.
I miss those imaginings sometimes, now that I share a bed with flesh and blood. Sometimes I long for the challenge of dating and the thrill of falling in love. With Julie a part of me, I don’t have as much fun discovering someone.
But even if I could fall in love again, I wouldn’t. Dream Wife might remember to rinse the dishes and never leave trash in the car. However, she’d probably make her freelancing husband find a full-time job and listen to nonstop country. The fantasy wouldn’t be worth the price.
That’s because real love — friends, family, marriage — is much greater than anything my imagination can conceive. And trust me, I can still imagine a lot.
Copyright 2008 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.