On a recent 12-hour (overnight) layover, I found myself unable to sleep, but too exhausted to stay awake. I decided that, since I couldn’t really fall asleep but also couldn’t really keep my eyes open and pay attention to anything, I would just listen to some music.
I listened to the Beauty and the Beast soundtrack. Several times. I listened to some Hamilton and some Camelot. Then I listened to some Man of La Mancha. And when I got to the song “To Dream the Impossible Dream,” I pushed the repeat button and listened to it probably five or six times straight through.
In the past, I’ve felt the song can be a bit sappy and that it doesn’t really have the best writing. But it caught my interest and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
To me, “The Impossible Dream” is about futility, which I have been thinking a lot about lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about its relationship to effort. There is something incredibly beautiful to me about trying in the face of futility, and I have noticed it everywhere in whatever I’m reading, watching, or listening to.
But let’s come back to that “Impossible Dream.”
The adjectives in the song are striking. Unbeatable, unbearable, unrightable, unreachable, hopeless, impossible. Then compare that to the verbs. Dream, right, fight, love, bear, run, and strove.
It’s significant to me that Don Quixote doesn’t say that he wants to achieve the impossible dream. He just wants to dream it. He doesn’t say he wants to beat the unbeatable foe, he wants to fight them. And pay attention to the final lyrics:
And the world will be better for this:
That one man, scorned and covered in scars,
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star
He doesn’t say the world will be better if he reaches the unreachable star. He says it will be better if he strives to reach it. For a character with such pronounced ego, these are deceptively humble ideas.
Don Quixote intuitively recognizes that it almost doesn’t matter what results we achieve. What matters is the effort and the intention. (It’s interesting to note that one of the most common English phrases/idioms we use to express the idea of futility, “tilting at windmills”, comes from Don Quixote. It’s an idea that pops up everywhere in the story about the man from La Mancha.)
Now of course it’s far too simplistic to say that the results of our actions don’t matter, because I think we all probably agree that of course they do. But sometimes, we get caught up and forget that the result is not the only thing that matters. And we forget that just because something didn’t have the result we were hoping for, doesn’t mean we have failed.
This is all essentially a way of answering the question “why bother?” Why bother being kind to someone that you know dislikes you? Why bother spending time on something that you know nobody will notice or appreciate? Why bother trying to teach someone who doesn’t want to learn and who makes no progress? Why bother making the bed when you’ll be climbing into it again in a few hours?
The only real answer is that the only thing you can control is yourself. You can’t control how someone will react to a choice you make, but you can choose to be kind. You can choose to serve. You can choose to do your part, regardless of whether you think anyone else will do theirs.
That can be frustrating. It can feel like running on a treadmill. You’re putting out energy with no hope of getting anywhere.
But what is the alternative? A complete lack of progress. We only ever get anywhere through effort, whether we see the needle moving or not.
The more I have thought about these ideas and the more I have seen them in literature and other art forms, I have come to realize that trying in the face of futility is a stunning illustration of the resiliency of the human spirit and is among the best that human nature has to offer.
When something feels futile, we don’t keep trying because we’re convinced we’ll succeed. We try because trying is all that’s left.