Behind every mask is a human being longing to be set free. We dream of returning to a normal life. We long for what we once had that now seems to be gone. Behind the most hopeful and optimistic dream is its counter-story, the one that captures the darker experience of longing.
Our dreams are usually about what we want to add to our lives. We dream of the ideal mate, that special vacation spot or new position at work. Our longings reveal instead what is missing or what we have lost. We long for peace or freedom, a return to some past state of comfort or security. These longings tell us more about ourselves than our dreams because they are the products of our experience in life. Our dreams reveal what our imagination hopes and believes is possible in the future.
My conversations with people over the past decade have been about the longings of people. I would say very few people during this time have talked about what they hope to achieve in the future. Most of these moments of engagement are about what is missing and about how to return to a time that they remember with joy and comfort.
In this post, I decided to look at the stories of longing that emerge from literature and the films that brought those stories to a wider audience. I believe these stories point towards an understanding of who we are as individuals and as shared citizens of planet Earth. Mostly I hope these stories and the various videos that I am using to illustrate what I see will provide each of you a moment of contemplation for understanding what you long for and how you might take personal initiative to bring wholeness and resolution to your own sense of longing.
The Journey of Longing
Life is a journey. It is not a static display as if we are museum artifacts. Life is a journey of way-points, not a single destination. Journeys mahy begin with a longing for a return to a place we once visited or to a time that was simpler. Each of the stories presented here has a journey of one or more characters at the center of the story. The stories are drawn from the books of the Harry Potter series, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the musical, Man of La Mancha based on Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and, the classic film musical of L. Frank Baum’s children’s story, The Wizard of Oz. In each story, the central characters are driven by their longing for someplace, some purpose, or a resolution to some complication in their life. These stories are powerful and compelling. Each can point us in a direction where our own journey of longing can find its direction and resolution
The Longing for Home
In The Wizard of Oz, young Dorothy Gale finds herself at odds with her caregivers, Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, as her dog Toto brings trouble to the family from the wealthy matron, Miss. Gulch. Here’s the exchange that leads to the signature song of the film.
Auntie Em – Now you just help us out today and find yourself a place where you won’t get into any trouble.
Dorothy – Someplace where there isn’t any trouble. Do you suppose there is such a place Toto? There must be. It’s not a place you can get to by a boat or a train. … it’s far, far away … behind the moon, beyond the rain … (Music begins) Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high. There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby. Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue. And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true. Some day I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me. Where troubles melt like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops, that’s where you’ll find me. Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly. Birds fly over the rainbow, why then oh why can’t I. … If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why can’t I.
During her journey to find her way home, she encounters three characters who each in their own way are traveling a journey of longing. The Scarecrow longs for a brain, the Tin Man longs for a heart, and the Cowardly Lion longs for courage. In the scene where the three have their ultimate encounter with the “great and powerful Oz”, each discovers that what they longed for they already had. It was not something they did not possess, but something that they did not know they already had. In that moment of awareness, their longing is fulfilled and their lives changed.
The film ends with Dorothy waking up from her dream to find her family and friends surrounding her bed. She recognizes that all her companions on her journey are people from right there in her own backyard. The film ends with Dorothy’s declaration,
Oh, but anyway, Toto, we’re home. Home! And this is my room, and you’re all here. And I’m not gonna leave here ever, ever again, because I love you all, and – oh, Auntie Em – there’s no place like home!
While the film’s sentimentalism is Hollywood at its best, the emotional core of this story is the experience of longing for home and family. Many of my friends have shared with me how hard the time of pandemic has been as they have been separated from their parents, children, and grandchildren. This is especially true where family members are living overseas.
To long for home and family is for rootedness and to be known.
The Longing for a Quest
The heart of Miguel Cervantes’s great novel Don Quixote is a quest. It is a quest to fulfill the call to a life of honor and meaning. Cervantes tells a story about a man, Don Quixote de La Mancha, who is in the latter years of his life. Captured for the stage and screen in the musical, Man of La Mancha, Cervantes is a poet, an actor, a revolutionary in medieval Spain thrown into prison. He tells the story of Don Quixote in story and song to his audience of fellow prisoners. He begins …
I shall impersonate a man. His name is Alonso Quijana, a country squire no longer young. Being retired, he has much time for books. He studies them from morn till night and often through the night and morn again, and all he reads oppresses him; fills him with indignation at man’s murderous ways toward man. He ponders the problem of how to make better a world where evil brings profit and virtue none at all; where fraud and deceit are mingled with truth and sincerity. He broods and broods and broods and broods and finally his brains dry up. He lays down the melancholy burden of sanity and conceives the strangest project ever imagined – -to become a knight-errant, and sally forth into the world in search of adventures; to mount a crusade; to raise up the weak and those in need. No longer will he be plain Alonso Quijana, but a dauntless knight known as Don Quixote de La Mancha.
He tells them what has driven him to this journey.
I’ve been a soldier and a slave. I’ve seen my comrades fall in battle or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I’ve held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no brave last words, only their eyes, filled with confusion, questioning “Why?” When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Too much sanity may be madness. To surrender dreams – -this may be madness; to seek treasure where there is only trash. And maddest of all – -to see life as it is and not as it should be.
Here is a man longing to find beauty, goodness, truth and justice in the world. His longing is his ambition to be a knight-errant. He enters a shabby village and is captivated by the village whore, Aldonsa. He sees her not as she sees herself, which is how the village’s rabble sees her. Instead, Quixote sees purity, beauty, and goodness in this woman. His longing for nobility in character is joined with her own longing to be more than a slave to the base desires of men. She longs for dignity and genuine love but there is no one who can give this to her. She is so beat down from her life of torment, that she hates his tender love for her.
His journey, his quest is best summed up in the classic song: The Impossible Dream
To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go. To right the unrightable wrong, to love pure and chaste from afar, to try when your arms are too weary, to reach the unreachable star. This is my quest, to follow that star – no matter how hopeless, no matter how far. To fight for the right without question or pause, to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause. And I know if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest that my heart will be peaceful and calm when I’m laid to my rest. And the world will be better for this, that one man scorned and covered with scars still strove with his last ounce of courage. To reach the unreachable star.
Don Quixote’s journey of longing is transformed into a dream of ambition, a quest for something higher, better, greater than what he has experienced. Our journey of longing is the result of our experiences with loss, incompleteness, sadness, the brokenness of relationships, the lack of purpose or personal failure. It is real. And it is what every leader faces in him or herself everyday, as well as every person they encounter.
The Longing for Family
Several years ago I wrote about Harry Potter as The Heroic Sufferer.
Harry Potter was born into suffering through the death of his parents. The experience of suffering for Harry continues through his mistreatment by the Dursleys, the peer abuse of the Sliveran punks, and then through the long series of attacks by Lord Voldemort. … His strength in facing danger and tragedy has been born in suffering. At one point, Harry says that what he is facing is no worse than the loss of his parents and the abuse of the Dursleys. Suffering is the core of his life experience. It has made him the heroic figure that he is. As the child who lived, he lives not because of some magic ability, but because of the strength of character that comes through suffering.
Harry is the child who lived. As the story unfolds, we learn that Harry and Voldemort’s lives are intertwined together. One must die so that the other can live. Harry’s parents died at the hand of Lord Voldemort when he was just a baby. Harry longs for the connection to his parents. In this scene from The Deathly Hallows Part 2, as he prepares to face Lord Voldemort, Harry’s parents appear to him. They want him to know that they have always been with him and will be with him at this moment of confrontation.
Harry bears the burden of being the child who lived. He did not bear that burden alone. Harry’s Hogwart’s friends have been his true family, especially Hermione and Ron. In the Order of the Phoenix film, at the point where the Hogwart’s wizards and witches leave to go to the Ministry in London for the final battle of the film, Harry tells his friends that he wants to go by himself. He wishes that his friends never suffer for the destiny that he did not choose, yet is his nonetheless. Ultimately, he must face Lord Voldemort. He says this to protect them from danger, death, and the experience of his own suffering. Yet, they know because they have been with him from the beginning that their lives are forever cast together. They share in his sufferings. It is the true source of their friendship.
The entire series of books and films is a powerful statement about friendship and community. They are his family. It isn’t simply the bond of shared values that have cast them together. It is, rather, the bond of shared suffering that gives their fellowship depth and meaning. Near the end of the battle, Lord Voldemort tells Harry that he is a fool and that he will lose everything. Harry looks straight back at him and tells him that he has what Voldemort lacks, and that is friends and love.
The Longing for Completeness
The Lord of the Rings trilogy of books and films is also a story about a journey of longing. It too is a quest. The “Fellowship of the Ring” is made up of hobbits, dwarves, elves, wizards, and men who recognize that the survival of their world, of their civilization, is dependent upon their taking this journey together. Their shared journey is consequential. It brings them face to face with the greatest danger and the most brute force one can imagine. Ultimately, they face an evil that none of them could defeat alone. They need each other. The journey tests their courage, their character, and their friendship. Even as they journey together, their hope is faint. At one point, the Fellowship breaks apart. In this scene from the Fellowship of the Ring, you can see the fragility of their company. They lay aside their differences to begin a quest that carries them through their journey until the end.
Later their fellowship gathers together for the ultimate battle for Middle Earth. By then Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee have entered Mordor as they persist on to the end.
At the beginning, Frodo and Sam’s goal was to save the Shire. By the end, they saved the world. But, the world is not the same as it was. The Fellowship is now no more. In this scene at the end of Return of the King, we see how life circumstances mean that the longing we feel remains with us, never to leave.
As they part from one another, we wish for a happier ending. As any great story teller does, we journeyed with them. We suffer in our own imaginations. We too long for a return of the innocent days of life in the Shire, just as we long for a return to a normal life as we live through the coronavirus pandemic. The physical and emotional trauma that Frodo experienced means that he will forever live with a longing that can never be satisfied. Such is the nature of quests that require sacrifice and suffering for those we love and wish to protect.
The Incompleteness of Longing
I have been influenced by the thought of the physicist Kurt Gödel. As a young man, he presented an idea at a prominent conference called the Incompleteness Theorems. In its simplest form as applied to mathematics the first theorem says there are mathematical truths that cannot be proven mathematically. The second theorem is that a system cannot be proven by the system. I found out about Gödel’s discovery long after I created the Circle of Impact. What Gödel’s ideas showed me is that in life, we can never know anything absolutely. We must venture outside of what we already know to discover what we need to know. If you know my Circle of Impact problem-solving method, you’ll know that I claim that the solution to a problem is not in the problem itself. This is relevant to our experience to longing.
The experience of longing will always be with us. It is the same as being always in transition. There is no time when every question is settled. No place that is a perfect one of peace, harmony, or safety. And no relationship where absolute trust is possible. What our longing does is focus us towards that which we value, who we care about, and what we are willing to do to make the world a better place.
The journey of longing is very much as Don Quixote states.
These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no brave last words, only their eyes, filled with confusion, questioning “Why?” When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Too much sanity may be madness. To surrender dreams – -this may be madness; to seek treasure where there is only trash. And maddest of all – -to see life as it is and not as it should be.
Do you see life as it is and find yourself bound in fear and isolation? Or do you see it as it should be, and long to see that vision fulfilled through your own efforts?
This is the question out of which our longing comes.