The Impossible Dream
Peter O'Toole, Sofia Loren and James Coco
Man of La Mancha (1972)
In remembrance of the great actor Peter O'Tool upon his death, I revisit a post that I originally wrote in 2005 that was partly inspired by this scene from the musical, Man a La Mancha. (2013)
The post below, I wrote in 2005. Lately, as I have thought about the nature of gratitude, I've been brought back to the theme of dreams and longing. I repost it here as a statement about gratitude. When we express our thanks we are expressing our appreciation for those things that matter to us. The three film stories I discuss in the post have at the heart of each, a deep appreciation for people and place. We give too little weight to the experience of gratitude when we view it as simply a way to say thanks. Gratitude expresses something much deeper than this, and I hope this reposting of The Power of Dreams and The Journey of Longing will lead some of you to a deeper appreciation of the people in your life and the place where you live, work and play. (2009)
One of the most universal human experiences is to dream. It is at the heart of every entrepreneur's ambition to create something unique and personal. But behind that most hopeful and optimistic dream is an experience that is darker, the experience of longing. The connection between dreams and longing is rarely, if ever discussed in relation to leadership. Yet, because of it, not only are they universal human experiences, but they are powerful motivators of both action and inaction.
One way of understanding this experience is to see life as a journey. A journey of longing and fulfillment. This has come home to me recently as I've reflected upon three films that have a journey at its core, but in each, the journey carries deeper implications of life. The films are the recent trilogy, the Lord of the Rings, the musical, Man of La Mancha and, the classic The Wizard of Oz. In each the central characters are driven by their longing for some place or some purpose beyond themselves. It is powerful and compelling. And each are worthy to be revisited in reflection upon this theme.
In The Wizard of Oz, young Dorothy Gale finds herself at odds with her caregivers, Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, as her dog Toto has brought trouble to the family from the wealthy matron, Mrs 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. Its not a place you can get to by a boat or a train. … its far, far away … behind the moon, beyond the rain … (Music)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 blue birds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why can’t I.
In 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 discover that what they longed for was not something they did not possess, but something that they didn't not know they already had. And in just a moment, their longing turned to a dream fulfilled.
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 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 sentimentalism maybe Hollywood at its best, the emotional core of this story is the experience of longing as loss, of separation, of incompleteness.
This too is at the heart of Miguel Cervantes great novel, Don Quixote de La Mancha, that was so movingly developed for the stage and screen in the musical, Man of La Mancha. Cervantes, a poet, an actor, a revolutionary in medieval Spain is thrown into prison, and he presents his story of Quixote in story and song. He tells his audience of prisoners,
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 on a journey of longing. His longing is not for a home or a brain or a heart or courage, but for virtue and justice in a world lacking in such. He enters a shabby village and is captivated by the village whore, Aldonsa. He sees her not as she see herself, which is how the village's rabble see her. Instead, Quixote sees purity, beauty and goodness in this woman. And his journey of longing as a knight errant is joined with her own journey of longing to be treated with dignity and genuine love. His journey, his quest is best summed up in Joe Daron and Mike Leigh's 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. The journey of longing is the result of our own experience 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 much more familiar Lord of the Rings trilogy of books and films is also about a journey of longing. It too is a quest. The difference is that the longing is more than personal, it is communal. The "Fellowship of the Ring" made up of hobbits, dwarves, elves, wizards and men recognize that the survival of their world, of their civilization, their community is dependent upon their taking a journey together. The journey is a real one that brings them face to face with brutal force, with evil. It tests all they have. Their courage, their belief in one another and themselves, their capacity for change and adaptation. They are on a journey together. The dream is faint, the longing ever present, and by their determination, they are ultimately successful. But not without cost.
It is important for leaders to understand that buried deep in the heart of each person they lead is desire. The desire maybe for peace, quiet and security. It could be a desire for greatness. It maybe to have life's questions answered. Whatever that longing in the human heart, when leaders connect with that longing, they have connection to people that physical proximity will never provide.
For leaders to understand their followers' journey of longing they must understand their own. They must understand how to turn that longing into a dream. The power of a dream is that it is hopeful and optimistic. But it rises from longing in the heart. It is personal. It is emotional. It is as powerful a motivator as we can find anywhere. Clarify the longing that you have. Transform that into a dream of accomplishment, of achievement, of impact. And people who long for the same, will find you and follow you.
Honda has picked up on this theme and developed a wonderful video that chronicles their history through the image of a man singing the Impossible Dream as he drives various Honda vehicles. It is silly and wonderful at the same time. Thanks to Bill Kinnon for pointing to it.