I think there is a part in all of us that yearns for the epic. It begins with the unfettered dreams of childhood with aspirations to be an astronaut, a knight, or a rock star. The dreams morph and change to our shifting fancies and then, somewhere along the way, they fade beneath the grim truth of our reality. How quickly and how deeply the yearning is broken depends on our circumstances and our individual capacities to cope with what we face in our lives. A few of us actually achieve what we longed for, but that achievement is always a challenge born out of intense commitment. In some cases, it isn’t worth it.
This isn’t to say the lives we achieve are bad ones. They may be quite good and we may find ourselves content. But rather than striding across the surface of Mars, scaling a castle wall, or dancing across the stage to the screams of adoring fans, we may be pouring concrete for a new road, flipping burgers at the local restaurant, delivering packages ordered online, or entering data into a computer.
While less glamorous, all of these roles are important. The roads sustain our economy with the movement of all the goods and services that are needed for us to survive and to thrive. They get us to our jobs, let us run our errands, socialize, and most importantly… get us to our vacations! Food sustain our lives us while the convivial atmosphere of the restaurant where we eat with good friends may sustain our spirits. Package deliveries have become a fundamental part of our modern existence, making readily available both those things we need and those things we want. Computers fulfill a similar role, allowing for the efficient execution of a host of different jobs. They also connect us in our shrinking world. It is a solid life with solid work. Not glorious, perhaps, but honorable all the same.
Yet even if we do find a certain contentment with where our lives have led (and especially if we have not), that greater yearning never fades away. Even if they were first born a long time ago when innocent naivety still endured, we remember those hopes of youth where the future lay open and unmarred. But now it combines with the hard realities of this world where price and pain are always a part of the deal.
We seek that epic as we watch our favorite sports team, vicariously experiencing their triumphs and defeats as if they were our own… and as if our cheers at the TV somehow helped them along the way. We feel such dreams as we watch “Action-Packed Movie Part XXIII” for the twelfth time. Or we step into them as we play the hero in our favorite game to the accolades of the pixelated masses. It may reverberate through us in our choice of music. We feel it in our stories.
For it is in stories where we can live the epic lives we’ll never see.
During the second summer at West Point, all “Yearling” cadets take part in intensive military training which includes a week as light infantry deep in the forest. There is no shelter, food is sparse, and sleep is sparser. A good friend recounting his experience afterwards told me that something was markedly absent when he was on patrol, striding through the dense undergrowth with an M16 in hand, tense to hear the signature popping of blank rounds that marked an ambush. There was no soundtrack.
While he obviously wasn’t expecting one, the yearning for it speaks to this greater truth. It also points to a second one. That if we’re honest, we hope we’ll never have to experience what our heroes face. It is much more pleasant to read of our favorite hero slaying a dragon as we’re wrapped up in a blanket on our sofa in front of a roaring fire with our preferred beverage ready at hand than actually being the dragonslayer.
That is why dreams remain as dreams and reality as reality. For the yearning for the epic is a gilded vision where pain and sorrow are always sweet. Not like the world in which we live. Yet I believe there is value in this yearning. It serves as an outlet for our hopes. It provides worlds of wonderment that lie beyond our true reach where, if only for a moment, we can claim them for our own to the relief of the harder reality that surrounds us. And, in the words of G.K. Chesterton that I’ve quoted several times before, they bolster our belief that the dragons we face truly can be overcome.
Hope is the crux of it. For while we may never walk on Mars, we can still see a better tomorrow and the yearning gives us the strength to reach for it.
Note: I’m particularly proud of the image I drew for this article. It turned out better than I’d hoped. If you’d like to see the full underlying artwork, you can find it here.