Breaking the Looking Glass

The new year is a time for resolutions, promises, and plans to craft an ideal world. But how will your plans fare when you take them from the cozy nest of your mind and push them out into the real world? Will they soar with the majesty of eagles or plummet to the ground like grimy stones? Sometimes it seems that the world is full of half-completed goals no matter how hard you try. Evil can be a murky shade of gray. Nobody ever appreciates your efforts. Perhaps you envision a realm on the other side of the looking glass where all your goals are actualized through hard work, villainy is defined in sharp contrasts, and there is always a need for a hero to step up and save the day: you.

If not the hero of your own story, it is easy to read a novel and step into another hero’s story. The thrill may be vicarious, but just as satisfying. Fantasy novels offer an escape to realms beyond reality, which is a part of their charm. They offer worlds with simpler rules. They offer worlds brimming with nostalgia. In these cluttered, confusing times, it is rare to find a world we wholly understand. The yearning pull of the fantasy is undeniable and understandable.

You can sink into these fantasies like sinking into a pleasant dream. They are just as advertised in the name, fantasies. They hearken to a world that never actually existed though we always wish it had. And for a short time reading the book it certainly exists for you. But there comes a time when you must put the book down and return through the looking glass back into the real world: the one that is complex, noisome, and doesn’t always work the way we expect. You may feel tempted to look back fondly through the distortions in the looking glass.

I say break the looking glass! Once you’ve finished the fantasy, set it down and leave it behind lest the fantasy finish you. The danger of dwelling too long beside the warped nostalgic mirror of the delightful world-that-never-was while languishing in the dreary world-as-it-always-was is that when reality competes with fantasy, the fantasy will always win.

How do we respond to this? Some retreat into the fantasy world. Some will conflate elements of the fantasy with elements of reality. They will resent the world that doesn’t match their expectations. For throwing up obstacles with no clear path to victory. For denying them the happy ending they deserve. For not allowing them to be the hero they know they ought to be.

The world is what it is, not what we imagine it should be. I am not advocating you try and change reality to mirror some fantasy: that way lies disappointment at best, madness at worse. Because the people who inhabit this reality with you aren’t characters in a book: they are capricious, random, and striving to be the heroes of their own stories. And while it is easy to see the hero in a fantasy tale, recognizing the little acts of heroism that pervade reality is more difficult. Which brings us back to New Year’s goals and resolutions.

Resolutions are commonly framed as tasks or simple goals. I will eat healthier foods. I will go to the gym. I will read these books. I will spend more time with my family. I will do all those things I would have done already if I was the more idealized version of myself I always wished to be. All these goals are laudable, but I encourage everyone to think bigger, beyond yourself, beyond your friends and family, beyond your day-to-day life.

Heroes are defined not by their actions, but by how those acts improve the lives of the people around them. So I encourage you to inject a bit of the fantastic into someone else’s reality. How will your actions this next year impact the world? How will you change other people’s lives for the better? How will you truly become the hero you were meant to be?