For two words with such distinctly different definitions, the tendency for hope and fantasy to be confused for each other is remarkable. They are, of course, linked – but mistaking one for the other can have toxic outcomes.
We can’t live without hope. That’s why, as the old saw says, it dies last. And given the uncertain and turbulent times in which we currently live, that’s nothing if not reassuring: there are worse ways to live than in the enduring belief that things will ultimately get better.
Fantasy – the imagining of impossible or improbable things – also has its place. As the 19th Century Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin observed, by striving to do the impossible man has always achieved what is possible. Without fantasy to fuel the hopes and dreams of humankind, it’s entirely possible we would still be drawing on the walls of caves.
Fantasy is an essential part of our thinking. It drives creativity and ambition, it impels our desire to reach beyond the expected, to overcome, to succeed and to mould our future. Without it, our world would be bereft of the many great works of art and literature and inventions that define our history.
If we never fantasised about life with someone or something we’re attracted to – a new partner, job or house for example – how would we ever be motivated chase our dreams and hope we might succeed in that pursuit?
The problems start when fantasy, rather than the (possibly hopeless) reality, becomes our day to day existence.
As Circa Survive so insightfully sang: the difference between medicine and poison is the dose
The truth is, it’s easy to become seduced by fantasy and popular culture is littered with enduring and disturbing examples of it: the story arc of the recent BBC miniseries Apple Tree Yard centred on two people caught, with catastrophic consequences, in one character’s delusion; more extreme, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho revolved around the character Norman Bates, who not only kept his mother’s skeleton his attic, but also assumed her persona physically and emotionally;
And then, in terms of portraying how fantasy can often hide behind a chilling normal façade – and in re-defining the notion of an ordinary person becoming fatally delusional – there’s the ultimate bunny boiler, Alex Forrest, the character played by Glenn Close in the film Fatal Attraction.
Yes, these fictitious examples are extreme. But you need not be that deeply entrenched and wholly removed from reality to experience the pernicious effects of being detached from what is really going on.
A life lived more in fantasy than reality is, by its nature, inhibiting because it is finitely defined; leaving that ‘comfort zone’ is painful. But as Susan Jeffers, author of Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway illustrates, every time you step out of your comfort zone your comfort zone – and therefore your life – become bigger.
Put another way, by Anais Nan, ‘life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage’.
Being entrenched in fantasy is more likely to apply to people who find reality unbearable. Traumatic childhoods, painful life experiences and, negative self-belief are all pre-cursors to fantasy-addiction and blocks to doing the hard work of making a necessary change.
The good news is that you can heal and recover from these things with the right work and the less unconscious pain we are trying to escape the less we need to ‘use’ on fantasy as a coping tool for life.
When we are continually engaging in fantasy and escapism what we are really doing is avoiding the ‘self’. We choose social media, mindless TV, binge eating, video games, obsessive shopping, drugs and alcohol rather than spending time with ourselves, learning what we really want out of life or engaging in meaningful interaction with others or making our goals happen. Constant distraction and escapism is an exercise in self-administered anaesthesia and is, in many ways, the exact opposite of mindfulness.
Nowhere is fantasy often more present than romantic relationships. It doesn’t help that the media drip-feeds us a daily diet of romantic fantasy nonsense based on intensity, extreme chemistry and bad perfume adverts – but, again, the roots of this are often based in childhood. As children, we often form a picture of what real love looks like based on fantasy rather on the genuinely admirable qualities that we will actually one day desire in a partner. We use fantasy to fill perceived gaps, to correct perceived mistakes and to perpetuate consciously unwanted, yet subconsciously comfortable familiarities that might recreate an important figure from our youth or obscure our own sense of low self-esteem.
If you have been burned by fantasy relationships and situations it’s really important to flex your ‘hope’ muscle here but also learn to do things very differently next time round. It’s vital to conduct everything from your place of wisdom – friendships, business situations, and romantic relationships. Slowing down is essential to be able to access this.
Fantasy can also present itself very much in the most unhelpful sequence of four words in the human language: what could have been.
We have to let go to make room for the new – and this is impossible in if we’re always hooked into old fantasises of the past and the ‘good times’ and how it might be in the future. Living in reality means a commitment to how things are now, not to how things might be when someone else changes their behaviour.
This is where hope is essential, because hope allows you to exercise choice. Hope allows you to make good life decisions. When fantasy outstays its welcome, it can keep us stuck in one place.
When a situation looks hopeless the thing that has been lost isn’t hope at all, but perspective.
Hope lives in the present moment, don’t waste another second.