Escaping Reality to Face Reality

You can probably find plenty of people who say escaping reality is healthy or unhealthy.  Among a host of other factors, the question really depends on how and why you’re escaping reality.  I’m no psychologist (or whomever would be qualified to address that question), and I can’t speak to specific situations I know nothing about.  Generally speaking, however, I believe the key is whether the escape enables you to come back to and face reality.

Sometimes, escaping reality just means taking a break.  I think that’s what Kenny Chesney is trying to say in  his song, “Reality” (click below if you’d like to hear it… you might want to preview the lyrics first to make sure you’re ok with it)… “Reality, yeah sometimes life ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be/So let’s take a chance and live this fantasy/’Cause everybody needs to break free from reality.”

Reality by Kenny Chesney on GroovesharkIt’s a fun song, and you can take it how you like it… but again, even if you’re just taking a break from reality, I think the key is that the break should refresh you to be able to back to reality and deal with it.

At other times, escaping reality means gaining a different perspective on your problems by seeing them in a different context.  For most people, this involves fantasy of one type or another… for me, it involves fantasy in a quite literal sense (“literal fantasy”–now that’s an oxymoron for you!).  In other words, my escape often takes the form of reading books and watching movies that fit in the fantasy genre.  (If I’ve lost you, just hang on a little while longer–it does relate to you, even if you’re not a fan on fantasy).

 In college, I wrote a paper for my children’s literature class responding to the assertion that fantasy can enable children to face reality.  It’s a question I think about often, and I had the chance to pose the question to Lois Lowry (author of The Giver quartet) when I saw her speak at the National Book Festival in DC last year.  I’m glad the Library of Congress posts transcripts of the talks on their website, because I loved her response:

“That’s a pretty tough question. But I think surely it’s true. Why do we read fantasy? Or why do we write it? It’s a way of disguising reality, I think. It’s a way of hiding things sometimes that are very tough. And so it’s a back door into facing real issues. And it’s a way, a book like this or the ones that precede it, are a way of promoting discussion about real issues.”

I’ve copied the text of my paper below… it is lengthy, so feel free to skip it if the thoughts above are “enough” for now.  I also highlighted some of the key points if you’d like to skim.  Of course, you’re quite welcome to read the whole thing if you really want to. 😉  Although the paper is directed towards children’s literature, the points aren’t confined to children or literature… and I’m hoping just maybe it will help you reflect upon your “escapes” of the past and reframe your “escapes” of the future.

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“Reading fantasy to face reality”

When children read fantasy, anything is possible.  As part of the genre in which “imagination is the key ingredient” (Mitchell, 2003, p. 306), fantasies are different from all other types of literature because they can truly be about any topic.  This characteristic opens up infinite modes through which fantasy can relate to children—and, more importantly, through which children can relate to fantasy.  Fantasy’s unlimited potential to relate makes it distinctly conducive to helping children face reality.  The ways in which it can aid in this crucial task are varied, but include helping by: providing a much-needed escape, offering desired light distraction, and, perhaps most powerfully, recontextualizing life struggles.  These abilities of fantasy are present in quality fantasy literature regardless of the type.  The presence of these attributes in both C. S. Lewis’s (1950) high fantasy, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and E.B. White’s (1945) low fantasy, Stuart Little exemplify this assertion.  It is not simply that some fantasies or certain types of fantasies can help children to face reality—this ability is a characteristic intrinsic to the genre of fantasy.
Fantasy’s potential function as an escape from real life is often construed as a negative characteristic.  However, this possibility of escape can actually be one of its most positive and helpful aspects for children.  Freud considered fantasy to be of little value specifically because he viewed it as an escape from real life (as cited in Mitchell, 2003).  To the contrary, sometimes people—and especially children—need to escape for a time from what seem like futile life struggles.  They need to take a break “in the loveliest town of all” with Stuart Little, sitting down to “enjoy the feeling of being in a new place on a fine day” (White, 1945, p. 100).  Fantasy can be for children that “most beautiful and peaceful spot” (p. 100) where they take the time to step completely away from their problems and just be.  It is this time of rest that can rejuvenate children and equip them with the strength to mentally and emotionally return to the life tasks at hand.
Sometimes, to be effective, this escape also needs to be more than restful—it also needs to be thoroughly diverting.  High fantasy, in its involvement of the reader in living “through the trials of the heroes” and experiencing “their decision making and the consequences of those choices” (Mitchell, 2003, p. 305), is especially conducive to this kind of escape.  Lewis’s (1950) The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe offers an excellent example.  As his characters step through the wardrobe door, leaving behind a world of war and family separation and entering a land of magic, mystery, and adventure, they mirror the journey that children take when they leave behind their worries of the world and join, for a time, the world that fantasies create.  There are times in life when there is simply nothing one can do about a particular problem, and worrying about that problem becomes excessive and destructive.  Children are especially prone to this kind of harm, as they are often in a position of little control over their circumstances.  Fantasy can offer children an alternative—they can, for a time, remove themselves from their worries, and immerse themselves in another experience. Perhaps Mitchell (2003) best captures this idea, explaining that “fantasy can lull and enfold us if we let ourselves inhabit that secret place within—that place that wants to believe” (p. 306).
            Often, however, children do not need a mind-encompassing diversion, they simply desire a light distraction from everyday obstacles.  Fantasy can also provide this kind of distraction.  Mitchell (2003) asserts that “reading fantasy takes us away from the humdrum of daily existence and gives us interesting things to think about” (p. 306).  One way that fantasy healthily distracts is through the use of humor.  White (1945) fills Stuart Little with humorous asides that contribute to the book’s potential for enjoyment.  One delightful example occurs during Stuart’s visit to his dentist friend, who is working on extracting a patient’s decayed tooth.  As the dentist translates the patient’s advice to Stuart, the dentist comments, “Often people with decayed teeth have sound ideas” (p. 77).  Few readers would be able to resist laughing at this unexpected, nonsensical statement.  Low fantasy, although typically viewed as less serious, does not have an exclusive hold on humor.  Lewis’s (1950) The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, also contains light moments.  Realizing that Edmund has left and that the White Witch’s ill-intentioned cohorts will soon arrive at the Beavers’ dwelling, Peter, Lucy, Susan, and the Beavers frantically prepare to leave for their journey to find Aslan at the Stone Table.  In the midst of this chaos, motherly Mrs. Beaver attempts to pack anything and everything they could possibly need, even asking, “I suppose the sewing machine’s too heavy to bring?” (p. 97).  Her comic actions offer relief not just from the gravity of the characters’ situation in the text world, but also from the readers’ everyday concerns in the real world.
            Fantasy can also be distracting by simply offering the reader something new to think about.  White’s (1945) imaginative descriptions of how Stuart Little copes with the challenges of being very small in a world built for humans are interesting to consider.   Child readers enjoy thinking about how a mouse-sized person would manage to turn a faucet to brush his teeth (p. 15-16), get on and ride a bus (p.27-30) or captain a model sailboat (p.32-46).  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe presents many thought-provoking situations as well.  One prominent example is the magic of the wardrobe that leads into another world (which readers will be delighted to find ties in later to The Magician’s Nephew), but only does so intermittently.  Other examples in Lewis’s story are more numerous than can possibly be described within the confines of this paper, but include the idea of a place where it is always winter and never Christmas, the incredible yet not all-powerful magic of the White Witch, and the unpredictable presence and absence of the lion Aslan.  The defining feature of fantasy—that it contains elements deemed by most people to be impossible—means that the possibilities for providing distraction are limitless (regardless of whether the nature of those distractions is humorous, interesting, or otherwise).
However, the ability of fantasy to help children face reality extends far beyond
removing or distracting readers from real world concerns.  Fantasy can also help children cope with their struggles in a very real and crucial way.  Often, difficult struggles and experiences are too close, too immediate for children to be able to process them.  Fantasy recontextualizes real life’s trials in a way that removes concerns just enough so that children can truly begin to deal with them.  Just as fantasy can “lift us above so that we can clearly see” truth about our culture as whole (Mitchell, 2003, p. 305), it can also lift children to a perspective from which they can see truth in their own lives.
Stuart Little and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in addition to their fantastical elements, contain concerns relevant to children’s lives.  For instance, Stuart Little deals with significant issues of being obviously different and family’s efforts to compensate for that difference.  This theme is present from the very first pages of the books, as White (1945) narrates, “Mr. and Mrs. Little often discussed Stuart quietly between themselves when he wasn’t around, for they had never quite recovered from the shock and surprise of having a mouse in the family” (p. 9).  They try to protect him, forbidding the mention of the word “mice” in their house and finding ways to accommodate the mismatch of his size to everything in his immediate surroundings.  Most, if not all children, have characteristics that make them feel like they do not belong.  Many have also experienced adults’ attempts to hide or ignore the ways that they are different.   No matter the nature or extent of children’s abnormal characteristics, Stuart Little offers children an avenue to approach their personal anxieties in a removed yet authentic manner.
            The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Lewis, 1945) also deals with difficult situations to which children can relate.  Because it is not safe for them to stay in the war-torn city of London, the Pevensie children’s mother sends all four of them—Peter, Susan, Lucy, and Edmund—to live in the country with an eccentric professor.  The way they react to this frightening and confusing crisis point in their lives is crucial to their development as individuals.  In the land of Narnia, all of the children find personal, empowering truth that aids the children in confronting their life in their normal world.  Peter’s story is particularly poignant.  As the oldest sibling, Peter is faced with new responsibility and the challenge to have the courage to complete the tasks that his responsibility requires.  His assumption of this role comes to a climax when he slays the wolf that is attacking his sister, Susan.  Lewis describes Peter’s thoughts as he runs to Susan’s aid: “Peter did not feel very brave; indeed, he felt he was going to be sick.  But that made no difference to what he had to do” (p. 127).  Peter’s slaying the wolf despite his fear reflects the difficult steps that all people (and especially children) must take to confront life’s trials.  Lewis’s portrayal of Peter is the kind of story to which Mitchell’s (2003) assertion refers: “fantasy can help empower [children] to be the people they want to be by giving them models for facing their deepest fears and accepting challenges they aren’t sure they’re capable of” (Mitchell, 2003, p. 305).
            To fully illustrate the idea that fantasy can help children face reality by portraying parallel struggles in a different context, a personal example is relevant.  This example concerns the way that The Lord of the Rings fantastical trilogy—written by Lewis’s good friend, J.R.R. Tolkien (1954, 1955)—helped me face to face a very real struggle in my own life.  A few months after my 16th birthday, I fainted in a sudden and unusual way that caused a severe concussion and several hours of short-term memory loss.  The ensuing months were filled with endless doctors’ appointments, medical tests, constant headaches, and painful confusion.  During that time, The Lord of the Rings was my constant companion.  I felt a kinship to the main character, Frodo, that at the time I could not explain.  Like Frodo, I had suddenly been forced to undertake a journey that I did not request, of which I did not know the end, and which I could not complete without holding to a faith that there was a purpose to my story.  Along each of our journeys, we were helped by incredibly faithful and endearing friends; ultimately, however, we had to complete our journeys on our own.  Although, at the age of 16, I was beyond what cultural definitions deem a child and Tolkien (in contrast to The Hobbit) did not write The Lord of the Rings for children, there is no reason to believe that children’s fantasy cannot be this same empowerment for children.
I could not possibly adequately explain the crucial role that Tolkien’s trilogy played in enabling me to face my own reality, but I can say that it was able to assist me not in spite of the fact it is fantasy, but because it is fantasy.  Only fantasy can portray the impossible and, in the process, help its readers to confront the possible.  This paper reviewed only a few of the ways fantasy can help children face reality: providing escape, offering distraction, and recontextualizing experiences.  All of the modes through which fantasy can enable facing reality are too numerous to describe.  The way that a particular text helps children face their lives depends partly on the text, but mostly on the children who read it.

References

Lewis, C.S. (1950). The lion, the witch, and the wardrobe. New York: Collier Books.

The lion, the witch, and the wardrobe is the first of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia
Mitchell, D. (2003). Children’s literature: An invitation to the world. Boston: Pearson
Education, Inc.
Tolkien, J.R.R. (1954, 1955). The lord of the rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
White, E.B. (1945). Stuart Little. New York: Harper Trophy.

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