At the Eaton Centre where I sometimes like to hang out, there's a giant ad set up for the Cirque du Soleil's new "Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities!" show. The theme is that you'll enter a portal to another world, a world of mysteries and surprises and interesting things.
Every time I see it I think about the depth of my attraction to the whole other worlds thing -- especially worlds like the ones they're suggesting that involve both flying through the air and cool clothes and how, because I can't cognitively enter in to the actual other worlds idea, I'm unable to see the spectacle for anything but a bunch of people doing acrobatics -- which, let's face it, appealing as it might be, is another kind of mood thing altogether and is actually among the most worldly thing out there.
It reminds me of this time when I was around eight years old and my parents bought me a fantastic Christmas present that came in a huge box. When I tore the box open, I found it was an oversize chess set, with oversize sculpted pieces, to be played on a large carpet with a chess board pattern on it. The pieces were about eight inches tall and weighted with sand, like weeble-wobbles, so they didn't fall over. And were shaped like for real. I mean, the castle was a castle -- or at least a turret-y thing -- with a staircase winding around it and a castle-y roof. The bishop was a man with a funny bishops hat and robes. The queen -- well, you get the idea. So cool.
I thought this was a great gift. But what I remember most vividly about the occasion of receiving it was not actually anything about the gift itself but rather what I felt when I came down and saw the very large box under the tree.
Because when I saw that box I had a set of feelings I had often as a child. These were a mix of something like "Ooooh, maybe that box contains a portal to another world!" and "Oh, Patricia, you know all that 'other world' stuff is all made up."
I was always somehow hoping there was something else.
This was not, let me emphasize, because there was anything wrong with my life or something making me unhappy. As a child I had a wonderful home life with doting parents and the whole nine yards. Sure, the other kids picked on me at school. But that had nothing to do with why I was daydreaming about another world. The reason I was daydreaming about another world was much more elemental. I just felt, "Really? Is this all there is?"
This world of apples and astronomy and TV sets and baseball games? This is it?
When it came to the box, I'm sure I was influenced by one of my favorite childhood books, The Phantom Tollbooth, which "tells the story of a bored young boy named Milo who unexpectedly receives a magic tollbooth one afternoon and, having nothing better to do, decides to drive through it in his toy car."
Milo has all kinds of surreal adventures that involve funny plays on words and his other world is vivid and fascinating and full of interesting characters. I remember thinking how fun it would be to be Milo, and how I hoped I would someday that I too would receive the gift of a tollbooth portal to hilarity, even though I knew it was impossible. I remember also what a fake-out I thought it was when Milo woke up the next day and the tollbooth was gone but instead of being disappointed he was all "Oh, there's so much that's interesting here!" Hmph.
Incidentally, what I did not remember, and just learned from Wikipedia, is that Milo's quest involves rescuing princesses, which I believe speaks to the depth to which I identified with Milo and not with any of the girls or women in the story, something that seems to have been characteristic of me as a young reader and which probably had profound effects on the development of my personality. But that's another post for another day.
Anyway, as I got older and started to became the rational-minded person I can't help but be today, I lost the easy ability to entertain the idea of the other worlds, and I stopped thinking of magic shows and the tooth fairy and large boxes as possible sites for escaping the everyday.
But I never lost the melancholy of being stuck here in this world that seems, relative to my imagination anyway, kind of a drab and dull and a bit of a disappointment.
For a long time I assumed that I was quite unusual in my particular mix of ideas, because it seemed like a lot of people who knowingly experience my kind of alienation go on to do something about it: they get religion, or join a cult, or become a conspiracy theorist, or whatever -- outcomes that have never even remotely tempted me.
But as time goes on, I wonder how many people experience a feeling like mine without realizing it. Because in case you haven't noticed, a lot of people find staying satisfied with the basic good things in life is not always easy. How many people are successful, with a lovely family, yada yada yada, and find themselves just unable to enjoy themselves?
I feel like when this happens it's almost always chalked up to something very particular. It's modern life -- so stressful. It's modern relationships. It's the new social media FOMO whatever. It's all the fault of someone's parents or something that happened to them as a kid. It's not being able to live out your real dreams.
But maybe those aren't always the reasons. Maybe just being a human in this world is just not so great, and therefore often leaves us feeling disenchanted, dissatisfied, left with the feeling I had at age eight when I encountered my chess set box and had to grapple with the realization that there was no way that box had a phantom tollbooth in it because a phantom tollbooth is not a real thing.
My point being that, contra what you've been told by the twenty-first century entreprenurial positive thinking establishment, you don't need a special explanation for the garden-variety disappointingness of life. It's there because life is garden-variety disappointing.
So, when someone's feeling bad, instead of looking for reasons and causes and explanations etc. etc. etc. maybe we could just be more like "Yeah, I know, huh? Here, have a cookie."