Once I was touring an old church with a young boy who had never entered a place of worship before. It was evident early on that his curiosity had been sparked as he walked through the chapel. Looking to add some adventure to the tour, I confided with him there was a secret catacomb beneath the church only accessible through a specific side room.
That was all it took. From thereon out, the boy was practically unstoppable in his search for the hidden entrance. I doubt he knew what precisely a catacomb was, but it didn’t really matter. His sense of wonder had been stoked. It took some effort to convince him not to pull out the old shelves placed against the wall, which unbeknownst to him had fragile vases and lamps sitting on top. However, he was still determined to figure out how to get down there.
Eventually, I introduced him to one of the elderly female churchgoers and declared that only she could open it. Thankfully she played along and informed him that unfortunately one had to be a member for several decades first. He believed her, but it barely placated him.
Had I had more time and nerve, I would have convinced him the chapel also housed a secret meeting place for the Knights Templar (that the Bible verse on display outside was the same as the order’s motto would have made it all the more easy to do). However, it seemed his father was having enough difficulty as it was keeping him from emptying out every closet.
Nevertheless, the scene reminded me of my own youth. I was one of those kids whose imagination ran wild, perhaps too much so. I didn’t need any prodding from adults or my peers to envision an Indiana Jones-style quest wherever I went. Inside every old building there was a treasure room. Buried underneath every decrepit basement floor was a passageway to some mysterious cavern or tomb of a legendary warrior. I live in the Cascades, and to this day I will look up at a ridge and envision beyond the alpine slopes some Tolkien-like world beckoning. Much my writing is drawn from such thoughts.
That imagination comes from an idealism every boy is born with, yet too few will carry with them into adulthood. Whether it’s the circumstances of his upbringing or the education system’s conformist nature, that brightness in his eyes is dimmed until there is no spark left and he acts without passion, without fervor.
Show me a man without that child-sense of awe and wonder of life, and I will show you a man whose spirit has been broken, whose will to dream has been crushed. A man with his idealism still intact finds opportunities for excitement even in the ordinary and normal, because he has hope. A man without it instead wallows in derision. He doesn’t aspire or yearn for anything grand or lofty.
Quintus Curtius has written that for a man, his myths are the last thing to die. Ultimately, myths are founded upon idealism; they must be, because they are not literal truths. They offer glorious narratives that sustain men’s spirits and inspire them to dare bold things.
In many ways Alexander the Great was a boy who never grew up, his audacity in battle cultivated by childhood tales of Hercules’ heroic feats. Thomas Malory’s personal life was a far cry from the righteous knights he depicted in the classic L’Morte D’Arthur, but that wasn’t what spurred him to write it. For all his severe crimes and iniquities, he hadn’t lost his boyish idealism. During the time he wrote the Arthur legends down he was imprisoned and would never see freedom again. Yet, his impassioned plea at the end made it clear his spirit hadn’t been broken, or he would have never bothered to put those words to paper.
His circumstances perhaps offer us a glimpse as to how idealism sustains us through difficulties. Most men will enter a dark period in their lives. For some, those times will test their resolve to the fullest. Even in the strongest of men, the spirit will dim and weaken. But what propels men forward through that period will be a fundamentally romantic, albeit perhaps tragically so, vision of the world.
This is why Greek and Roman mythology proved popular well after Europe was Christianized. The paintings, artwork, and plays were not done to maintain religious devotion, but ideals. The stars and constellations named after gods, goddesses and mythological creatures still draw fascination because they feed into our imagination as we look bright lights in the sky and conjure an image of Perseus holding the Medusa’s head or the centaur, Centarus, and they symbolize the air of mystery and unknown the stars still hold despite our modern scientific advancements. We acknowledge that the universe can never be fully known or understood, and that there is beauty in that.
Idealism is to believe in something that brings out the best in us, and to strive for it. From that, all creativity and artistic endeavors originate.
What happens is a man either has his idealism robbed from him, or he is convinced he must surrender it for the sake of practicality. He mistakenly believes it must be surrendered in order to become an adult. Or, he erroneously fears it blinds men to the realities of life. But it is the necessity to accept reality in order to function that makes one’s idealism so vital to preserve. Without that balance, there is no faith or hope when the cruelties of life bear down on us.
If anything, myths teach us to find beauty even in tragedy. Many legends end with the hero’s death or demise, from the Song of Roland and Beowulf to King Arthur and American folk hero John Henry. They’re not Disney-style “happy” endings, but they lift us up because the heroes aspired to greatness. Their spirits did not break, so ours must not either.
Ironically enough, broken men still have their imagination, for it is only with that they can see the false cage imprisoning them. Dean Abbott has written about how all men carry a heroic vision of themselves. A man without idealism has accepted the imaginary shackles damning that vision to darkness.
In the end, we must all must go into that good night. But the masculine geek, the man of idealism, refuses to go gently.