What Kids -- and Don Quixote -- Can Teach Us (July 29, 2012)

posted Aug 12, 2012, 8:24 PM by Neal Jones   [ updated Aug 12, 2012, 8:31 PM ]

I am always struck by the seemingly natural idealism of youth.  I remember when I was the director of summer church camp many moons ago.  Our theme for the week was stewardship of the earth, and I remember how spontaneously idealistic the kids were.  When we told the kids that fluorocarbons from air conditioners and aerosol cans were destroying the ozone layer, they wanted to know why we continue using them.  When they learned that Styrofoam cups don't decompose, they wanted to know why we don't use paper products instead.  And when they learned that pollution from our cars and factories cause acid rain, they wanted to know why we let auto makers and factories get away with that. 

Before they are tainted by adult cynicism, young people are able to see and believe the best.  The world, in their eyes, is still a good place.  People are trustworthy.  When things or persons are broken, they can be put together again.  Before his Presidential campaign was cut short by an assassin's bullet, Bobby Kennedy challenged the country with his favorite quotation:  "Some look at the world as it is and ask why; I look at the world as it might be and ask why not."  Young people are more likely than adults to ask, "Why not."

Now we parents, teachers, and ministers do a strange thing to our children.  We instill in them our cherished ideals when they are young, and then we resent it when, as teenagers, they challenge us for not living up to our ideals; and then we feel reassured when, as adults, they finally give up their ideals and live in the "real world."  Helping others is fine, but everybody needs to look out for number one.  Ethical principles are nice, but it’s okay to cut corners as long as nobody is looking.  It’s okay to give peace a chance, but violence is a language everyone understands.

When I think of youthful idealism, my mind wanders past the young Harry Potter to a fictional character I read in my youth.  I remember Don Quixote, that quiet, middle-aged, country gentleman who sallies forth as a knight-errant to win honor on behalf of God and country.  His outfit is an ill-fitting suit of rusty, second-hand armor.  His steed is a tired hack of a horse.  With his idealistic talk of righting the wrongs of the world, Don Quixote sounds like a madman to his family and community.  Perhaps it takes the crazy idealism of youth to believe that this world, so full of wrong, can be made right.  It was primarily the youth of the Middle East, after all, who brought down dictator after dictator during the "Arab Spring."  It was primarily the youth of Eastern Europe who tore down the walls of communism.  It has been primarily the youth of this country who have torn down the walls of prejudice against people of color, women, and LGBT persons.

Don Quixote needs a fair lady to whom he can dedicate his quest for justice, so he chooses a simple farm girl, but in Don Quixote's eyes, she is a princess.  He gives her the royal name of Dulcinea.  Maybe it takes crazy idealism to see the beauty within a person that no one else can see.  Maybe it takes crazy idealism to recognize the personhood of a homeless person, an inmate, an immigrant, or any other so-called nobody.

Don Quixote's side-kick is Sancho, a practical, down-to-earth realist.  While the crazy Don Quixote attacks windmills in the illusion that they are "lawless giants," the sane Sancho rides along in the hope of winning worldly gain.  Sancho represents the sanity of most in our society, who believe that the highest ideal in life is the making of money.  Now making money is not a bad thing.  It's not even sinful.  But greed is an unquestioned virtue in our culture.  The preservation of the environment and the safety of workers should never hinder the making of profit.  That’s just good business sense.  Granting corporations the same rights as people without requiring of them the same responsibilities is just good business sense.  Calling campaign contributions "free speech" and disallowing any restrictions on this "speech" is just good business sense.

Back when I was living in North Carolina, it was just common sense for a poultry plant to lock all the exits from the outside because some minimum wage workers might try to steal some chicken parts.  In their concern to prevent any loss of profit, the management did not consider worker safety in the event of a fire.  So when a fire did break out, 41 workers were found dead, huddled at the locked back door.  The state of North Carolina had never discovered this blatant violation of the safety code because the state of North Carolina only employs 14 inspectors to oversee every factory in the state.  It just makes good business sense to get “guvment” off the backs of “bidness.”

I think Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, is challenging us to question the unquestioned sanity of our world.  What is often accepted as “inevitable,” as “the way things are and always have been,” as “normal,” as “natural,” the “will of God,” or “common sense” may in fact be absolute madness.  You and I are born into a world pervaded by myths that are regarded as established fact: money can buy you happiness, our technology will save us, war is inevitable, the poor choose to be poor, professional wrestling is not staged.  These myths were part and parcel of our world before we came on the scene.  They are embedded in our culture, our communities, our institutions, our families, even our churches.  They inhabit the air we breathe.  No matter how polluted the air is, we just breathe it in and assume that the air is normal.  But children haven’t been breathing it as long, so there’s still hope that they may recognize our sanity for the madness it is.  This is why we sometimes need to allow the child to be the parent and the student to be the teacher.

It greatly upset Don Quixote’s family and community that he had chosen to believe in himself.  They were contemptuous of his wish to follow his dream.  His prissy niece, his know-it-all housekeeper, his dull barber, and the pompous village priest all knew that it was his dangerous books that had filled Don Quixote’s head with foolish ideas.  An education can be a dangerous thing.  And by education I don't mean the ability to regurgitate in unexamined form what has been taught; I mean the ability to think for yourself, to see the big picture, to see beneath the surface to the heart of the matter.  Such an ability is threatening because such a person cannot be told what to do.  He or she must be persuaded by clear logic and sound principle. 

Don Quixote’s auspicious community of the wise and sane took it upon themselves to judge his books and burn them.  They are not unlike the self-appointed defenders of the status quo who crucified Jesus for his idealistic dream that God could be like a loving parent and that we could be like brothers and sisters to one another.  They are not unlike the defenders of the religious establishment who imprisoned and excommunicated Galileo for his radical contention that the earth revolved around the sun, which contradicted the well established, long accepted truth that the sun and everything else in the universe revolved around us.  They are not unlike the self-righteous book-burners of today who would like to stamp out of the classroom such dangerous ideas as sex education, global warming, and “evilution.”

At the end of his insane adventures, Don Quixote comes home to die. While on his death-bed, his very sane housekeeper gives him the practical, down-to-earth advice, "Stay at home, attend to your affairs, go to church, be charitable to the poor."  Safe from any further threat of madness, Don Quixote dies, in the words of Cervantes, "having gained his reason and lost his reasons for living." 

One of the ideals demonstrated in the Harry Potter books and movies is that you can put your faith in the goodness of life and in the abundance of its support.  It's true that life can also break your heart and drive you to your knees, and the Harry Potter series does nothing to gloss over life's dark side.  But this is not the whole story.  When you least expect them and when you have done nothing to earn them, life can surprise you with a warm smile and a helping hand, with a second chance and a new beginning, with compassion and community.  In religious circles, we call this giftedness of life grace.

The story of Don Quixote was written in a Broadway play, The Man Of La Mancha.  Almost everyone is familiar with the song from that play, "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 lie peaceful and calm when I'm laid down to 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.

I know.  I know, it's a hopelessly sentimental, idealistic song.  I know it's idealistic to believe that the world is a good place; that people are beautiful; that when things or persons are broken, they can be put together again; that a single person can make a difference.  Yet I also know that when dreams die, our souls die.  That’s something that young people can teach us.                                                                                                  

                                                                                                                                                              Rev. Dr. Neal R. Jones