The Failure of Fantasy

The Failure of Fantasy

When I was in high school I was obsessed with horror. Horror movies and horror stories plucked a string deep inside me that throbbed like a wound. I didn’t know at the time how deep the pain went. I only knew that the words on the page and the images on the screen were irresistibly titillating. I consumed them and they became a part of me.

I stopped consuming horror in my early twenties after I began to have nightmares. The dreams were so terrifying that I would lay in bed crying and shaking before I went to sleep. I spent years being afraid of the nighttime–not because I was afraid of the dark, but because I was afraid of the darkness inside of myself. It was the beginning of what I now understand to be the failure of fantasy. What I thought was an escape was actually a dungeon from which I could not escape.

My love of fantasy began with romantic novels. I drank stories like wine–to become intoxicated by the feelings that made me feel. My 13 year old life was rather dull and so I escaped into worlds where I could pretend to be a woman being ravished by a man. I learned love from the pages of books that began with a woman having a problem and ended with a man solving it. I fell in love with “and they lived happily ever after”. Happily ever after became my doctrine.

One of the other fantasies that became deeply ingrained in my psyche was the idea that if I was thin and beautiful, I would be happy. All of the popular television programs espoused this doctrine and every movie proclaimed, “romantic love will save us!” And since all the heroines were thin and pretty, I adopted the pursuit of outward beauty. But when I lost the weight in my early twenties and learned that being thin doesn’t automatically make one happy, I despaired and quickly regained the weight. But rather than face the darkness inside–the darkness I was still unwilling to confront–I buried my head in fantasy once again. If I couldn’t be happy in myself, I would rely on stories and television and music to carry me away. Food was my constant companion in this delusion. As I grew heavier, I grew unhappier. As my clothes grew baggier to cover my frame I sank deeper and deeper into self-loathing until I finally felt so small I couldn’t imagine that anyone loved me at all. I was insignificant. Worthless. Hopeless.

Fantasy led me to believe my life had no value because I wasn’t pretty, rich, or famous. The more I “lived vicariously” in worlds other than reality, the more disillusioned I became.

In essence, fantasy made the wound worse.

I didn’t want to do the hard work required to heal and so I festered and foundered and flailed in my foolishness. The hardest thing I have ever done is too look myself in the eye and say, “Margaret, you have a problem. The second hardest thing was to do something about it.

This realization was actually a tremendous gift. I was so enamored with stories that I’m not sure anyone could have convinced me I had a problem. Since my journey to live a healthy lifestyle forced me to confront the pathos behind my eating disorder, I had to pull my head up out of the sand so-to-speak. I found that facing my 310 pound body was truly horrible. Even worse was walking around the block in it. I despaired when I considered how many steps were required to shed 100 pounds (my initial goal) and in order to get through the pain and suffering, I had to focus on something outside of myself. I chose to focus on Jesus. Each day I was tempted to eat foods that were harmful to my body and I had to make hard choices. I chose Jesus. I began to read The Bible like I had never read it before. It’s message became clear; I had hope. And nothing, not even disordered eating could quash that hope.

One of my favorite genres of story is dystopian fiction and so a few years ago when I picked up an interesting title at the library, I found myself ensconced in the story. The book was “Pure” by Julianna Baggot. The characters were so richly drawn and I could not wait for the second title. “Fuse” did not disappoint. And so when “Burn” came out I read hastily. But as I turned each page, longing for a glimmer or hope, redemption or even just the healing the main characters so desired, I found myself more than disappointed. I was angry. The story ended and my hopes for the characters with it. I credited my frustration with the writer or maybe even my understanding of what story she was trying to tell. But then I picked up another story, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs. Again, I could not put the books down. And at the end of the third story, however, I felt the same disappointment. The stories were well written and imagined but I still wasn’t satisfied with where they landed. I was reminded this morning of my disappointment in The Hunger Games series. Same thing. In fact, I think it was the Hunger Games that finally forced me to acknowledge that the stories themselves, and not the authors, were what was disappointing me. Here is why:

Every day I was living hardship. I was facing depression and sadness and pain. I was choosing to believe that God loved me just as I was, and that He would give me the strength to overcome adversity. The hope I was learning in the gospel, that God saw my suffering and cared, was becoming deeply ingrained in my mind. So much so, one could say it was my new reality. So when I read fiction and didn’t see a redemptive story such as the one I was living in real life, I was sorely disappointed.

One of the greatest casualties of fantasy in our culture is the death of self-worth. We forge our identity via celebrities and when we don’t fit the mold, we start to believe the lie that our lives don’t have as much meaning. Now maybe you are reading this and don’t feel that you have that problem. Let me give a few practical examples of how fantasy contributes to catastrophe in every day life.

I have a friend and co-worker who was blatantly told her career was impaired because she chose not to wear makeup every day to the office. She has been passed over for promotions over and over again. Every so often I see her wearing makeup and I cringe. Why can’t she be judged by the quality of her work rather than the amount of eyeliner she applies?

My mother-in-law finally procured her masters degree but was unable to find work after she was laid off. Her age was a prohibiting factor. Why do we perceive the young as the only viable employees in the workforce? Could it be because the images on our screens don’t celebrate older people as strong contributors? Is that why I have to watch videos at work that teach me to renounce age discrimination?

If you think these examples are not indicative of the power of fantasy in our culture, I would beg to disagree with you. Why else are obese people treated so poorly and as failing at life? Those who live the “before” picture but never realize the “after” live with a painful stigma not unlike Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter”.

But I think the most powerful example of fantasy and its impact on culture is indicative of the divorce rate in America. People have so come to believe that marriage is binding only so long as a couple is fond of each other that we are abandoning our marriages in droves. Why stay faithful once the feelings have fled? Every song on the radio says as much. Hearts are breaking all over town tonight because we bought the Cinderella story hook, line and sinker. “Happily ever after” is a myth and has no basis in reality. So why are we paying Disney to feed it to our children day after day?

A new incarnation of the story, “It” by Stephen King released in theaters recently and I remembered how it once haunted my imagination. I read the story and watched the original television version in the early 1990’s. Never before was a story about fearful fantasies so fully realized. The creature preys on children, feeds on hate, and deceives with images of the victim’s worst fears. Every time I see a trailer or advertisement, I cringe. A new generation is primed and ready for vicarious thrills they receive while evading true victim-hood. But I would like to suggest that they are in reality still victims. They believe the lie that the story will not harm them. They believe they are not dying; that they are safe. They believe, as I once did, that they can walk away from the theater and not be harmed. But the truth is potent; stories implant ideas and ideas have consequences.

Human beings are consumers and if we do not consume the right things, they consume us.

Christ came to set us free from fantasies, but He cannot set us free if we are still clinging to them.

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