Requiem for a dream is a famous movie that tackles drug addiction. But underlying its raw depictions of a corrupt existence is a broader keynote: tragic idealism that leads to life-crippling delusion. In the movie, Sara is a woman who spends her time watching infomercials, and after she gets a bogus call telling her that she can be on TV, she goes to extreme lengths (visiting a quack and taking copious amounts of medication) to lose weight and fit into a dress, and look good for her fifteen minutes of fame. She slowly loses all grasp of reality but clings to an idealistic inner voice that tells her that her dreams will come true.

The world we live in is a cruel, petrifying place that we often erroneously view through deceptive lenses and come to conclusions like, “We can be what we want to be!” or the cliched, “Life is beautiful!” or the prosperity gospel themed, “Believe! And it will be ours!” We want people to give us the good news that will end our sorrow and make us celebrate. Sometimes we like Sara, go to extreme lengths just for morsels of hope. To a rational outsider, a lot of what we do looks like nonsense, but it doesn’t stop us.

My father loved gossip and astrology. He loved other abominable things too, but I won’t talk about them today. He would force our family to visit astrologer after astrologer in the hopes of finding one, who’d tell him that he’d get his ‘second innings.’ My father was mentally ill but refused to seek treatment for it. He’d been out of a job for some time, and he spent his time at home, gossiping and watching porn. He was so obsessed with astrology that he’d read the daily column, visit palm readers, mystics and other occultists who tape-recorded their views. And he wasn’t only obsessed with his fate. He wanted to know how his little brother’s life would pan out too.

He eventually started a website in my name for good luck or some other superstitious nonsense. It offered people a buffet of astrologers who professed different skills. People could pick the one they desired most like they were choosing something exotic like Foie gras off a dinner table. Initially, the response was brilliant, and my father’s phone rang all the time, and he was overjoyed, but then some of the people he hired fell out with him, and he couldn’t make profits, and he had to shut the website down.

Coming back to the topic of tragic idealism, my father never realized that the stars do not write one’s fate. In life, if one wants something; one has to put in as much effort towards the goal without expecting success. Life isn’t fair. Life can be harsh, and sometimes sorrow, is the only thing we see. But my father wanted it all on a platter. And since he wasn’t accomplishing anything, he went to the soothsayers for false hope. And they wove story after story to please him. They asked him to wear rings, and to pray at certain times. They told him that he’d die when he was 75 years old. The said in a recording that his brother’s stars weren’t aligned, and misfortune would plague him, and he loved it. They told him everything he wanted to hear, and he clung to it like a child clinging to a teddy bear.

Today he’s nearing 75, and he still holds on to the false hope. He reads what some occultist says on a website, and when I talked to him about Christ during the period, I was religious, he said, “Well, if I have to follow Christ, then He has to give me powers. He has to empower me to break bread and feed the millions, to heal the sick, and to walk on water.” I was appalled. I still am. The gall of that man! Break bread! If God sets you free, you’re a criminal released! And you want to walk on water and replace the one who set you free!

My father’s tragic idealism is in my genes too. I think it’s in every millennial’s gene. It’s a terrifying thing. In India, you’ll find cases where someone kills off a friend or a stranger they supposedly were in love with because they feel rejected. Here we find tragic idealism at play. Other cases include: Pentecostal preachers behaving like they are direct messengers of God; people ranting on the internet about the behavior of strangers they haven’t met; people treating others with scant respect like they were characters in a sitcom; spiritual leaders talking utter garbage about making cows speak, and waiting for an ovation; and many more.

So why is this sort of thing rampant? Are we all mentally ill? No, the real problem is pride. We all have this ‘sense of privilege,’ that makes us think that we’re entitled to certain things. It makes us cross our boundaries as human beings, and act like we’re gods. Every form of disrespect stems from a deep craving for something. Even jealousy comes from a need for attention. But the truth is that we’re not entitled to anything except fundamental human rights. In cases where someone or something robs a person of their basic needs, they can make an argument. They have every right. Otherwise, it’s a no. Regardless of who you are, you’re not entitled to each woman’s body you crave for; you’re not qualified for fame, prestige or status; and you’re not authorized to make people love you.

With the growth of technology; our lives revolve around being online. We need to post every thought; publish each picture taken, and form a circle of admirers who love us, no matter what. We fail to see the hopelessness of this. A lot of people will jump in here and criticize capitalism. I’m not overtly against it. I hate when right-wing jingoism backs it and distorts it. And yes, in its purest form, it supports materialism and hates altruism. It focuses a lot on self-esteem after achieving something, but that’s another form of pride. No country can implement laissez-faire capitalism because it’s visionary, and also because people are inherently evil. No country will because governments are power hungry. But at least, it’s against millennial ‘privilege.’ It focuses on working hard.

Here, a lot of people who don’t understand capitalism in its rawest sense, but love to hate the distorted, Fascist leaning one we see in countries may jump in with an opening line saying, “The scourge of capitalism…” Well, please understand that I’m not against helping the poor, and I’m all for a casteless society where we treat everyone fairly. But I’ll never become a red-uniformed wearing, deceptive, power hungry, ‘For the People,’ Napoleon who uses his Squealer to promote lies, before installing a regime just as totalitarian as the Nazi regime. I don’t understand how artists can fall into the net of Communism so easily! I would never want to live in a State where even art is government controlled. Communism is a lie. It claims it’ll touch egalitarianism, but it never does. It keeps the masses controlled by implementing hideous, punitive measures. A Communist society is one in which the people have every right to scream for freedom.

Ultimately, the innate human desire to worship instills in us a need to be somebody or want something that’s out of reach. Atheists deny this by saying that there is no such thing as a need to worship. But in their hatred towards God, I often find Atheist being great evangelists. You’ll find Richard Dawkins loving militant Atheists wanting their children to see ‘reason,’ and the ‘beauty of science.’ And science has no answers for creation except a ‘big bang’ that happened billions of years ago, but Atheists will bang their gavels and scream that this is fact. How can nothing come from nothing? If something did come from nothing, there must have been someone who initiated it. That someone is God who’s infinite. I’ll say someone because a term like an ‘entity’ will not explain the intricate, beautiful design we see in creation. I’ll say infinite because God is great enough to sustain Himself. We paint what we see, or we express what we know, and by that logic, God knows everything; he knows more than enough to create an entire universe in which man is simply a speck.

Someone once didn’t get me when I talked about how we all worship. “How can you worship yourself?” They asked me with scorn. The truth is that there’s much more to a person than the ground we walk on. There is so much metaphysics involved that philosophers have tried to make sense of for centuries. Often people aren’t aware of what they worship. A biblical point of view will blame this on a wicked and deceitful heart, but even if we haven’t read the Bible, we cannot deny our consciences. Chomsky says that conscience is a miracle, and I don’t deny that claim. Some others who cherry-pick from postmodernism like Richard Dawkins will say that the moral zeitgeist shifts, or will even go to extremes and support Hitler, and the Bible will say that these men have seared consciences or suppress the truth, but I’m not here to expound the Bible.

David Foster Wallace, in his lecture, ‘This is Water,’ addressed the notion of people and worship. I’ll end, quoting him: “Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.”

© Nitin Lalit Murali (2019)

Photo by Daniel Sandvik on Unsplash

7 Replies to “On tragic idealism”

  1. This was a great read (in a sad sort of way) – do you think that all the great tragedies stem from this concept?
    Let us know how your father’s 75th birthday pans out.

    1. The Great Gatsby and Sons and Lovers are great examples of tragedies that revolve around worshipping other people. I reckon you’re right. A lot of great tragedies do stem from this concept. Thanks Richmond.

  2. I liked this a lot. I wonder about pride being the root of the evil. I think in this technological world it is more about incompetence. It’s the same rationale for hoarding. People are clinging to what they have because the prospects do not seem to offer an easy segway. Programming, for example, is not necessarily a good fit for people. I went to Barcelona last summer and it didn’t seem to have the same kind of technological preoccupation. There was one storefront that I saw that might have alluded to computer software. The area was back in time. I felt like I could survive there. But technology defines behavior. As the world gets caught up in the new medium, it is controlled to acquire the skills to meet the work demands. I don’t need a smart refrigerator to tell me what I am out of. I don’t need to remember to turn the lights off. I can see them on my way out. And yes, I should not be on the computer. No one is reading this except you. My thoughts aren’t necessarily true. Who is truly informed anymore?

    I loved the part about your dad’s dependence on astrology. I must admit that I review it for hints about how to improve myself. I am always longing to know my purpose. As I grow older, I never had the idea that I would tire. Anyway, I don’t want to waste any more time. I loved this piece.

    1. Pride is the root of evil. You’re right. Satan’s fall and Adam and Eve’s disobedience hints at wanting to replace God. But here’s a tricky question: How can creation that was originally good even be inclined towards evil? Today we are fallen and we give into our vices and passions. But the true root of evil always puzzles me. I’m of course talking from a Calvinistic Christian perspective because that’s the only one I find to be true. As far as technology is concerned, it isn’t inherently a bad thing. Most of it at least. But like you said, no one wants a smart fridge. The problem today is people worshipping technology. We parade our lives on social networking sites and create fabricated selves, deprived of depth. And with the growth of technology, privacy is under threat, and soon things that people once strove hard for will be available at a price. It’s frightening. As far as astrology is concerned, I personally stay away from it. I read a lot of books l, and then think about my purpose. Not a day goes by when I’m not thinking about why I’m here. Thank you very much for your kind words! They mean a lot.

  3. My thoughts as well, though not my extensive experience and education. Hence, my hesitation to claim membership to groups or schools of thought. There is no one who has all the truth and, even if there were, I know the human mind cannot handle it.

    Even within the religion I attend and adhere to I, like you, have observed and felt and concluded what resonates with my soul and not what discords.

    1. Best agree with what gives your soul comfort, I guess. Although if you were to read Puritan teaching, you’ll find them saying the opposite. The Bible echoes them: Everyone knows the truth. There is God and man is responsible for every action. How you can be reconciled with this God is where the question lies. The answer is Christ. Thanks Chelsea. I’m sorry for the late reply. Ever since I installed some plugins my WP site is giving me trouble as far as comments are concerned.

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