Life isn’t fair.
We teach this to our children, to the point where the very concept seems cliché. Throughout the long and arduous course of raising their progeny, there will undoubtedly be a time when a parent hears this declaration, usually in the form of a whine or a scream: “But it’s not fair.”
What is our instinctive reply?
“Life isn’t fair!”
Life isn’t fair, and we learn this as children. Whatever path we decide to walk from then on, we learn it again, and again. The universe doesn’t compromise, the laws of time and space don’t bend to our will. Whatever good we intend, bad things will continue to happen which we are powerless to prevent. We each have only an infinitesimal amount of change we can effect in an almost insignificant little speck of the universe, and accomplishing even the tiniest thing on such a small scale can still feel too overwhelming for us to bear.
Human beings, to our current understanding, are the first species to not only develop complex rules of behavior, but to do so knowing that they would always be broken. We waited until after the first cattle was raided to decide that stealing was wrong. We declared murder reprehensible well after the first Cro-Magnon man was skewered in the back with a sharpened tree branch. We invented the idea of “fairness” while we simultaneously proclaimed its nonexistence. We became smart enough to invent the idea of “wrong” — so smart, in fact, that we couldn’t escape seeing it everywhere we turned.
We developed worlds where things happened for a reason, worlds where even when the just and true hero was vanquished, the ignoble villain’s comeuppance would immediately follow. Worlds where great pain has purpose, and those who are lost will eventually find their way. One of the greatest injustices the universe can commit is leaving a child to grow up without the love and guidance of its parents. Re-read your myths, page through your comic books, watch your favorite epic films. What will you find? Orphans around every corner, discovering their secret and great importance.
We use storytelling to show ourselves how the world should be — to teach cautionary tales about the consequences of wrongdoing, and the rewards in store for the righteous. We start simple, with children’s books teaching the basics of morality in pop-up form. As we mature, so do our stories. Fables are replaced with complex thought-provoking questions on the nature of morality and reality, and cardboard pop-ups are replaced with CGI. This combination of life lessons and entertainment is crucial to our survival on this planet. Stories help us learn, stories distract us, and stories help us cope.
There have been numerous instances during my 36-year transition into adulthood when someone has asked me, “Why do you read comic books?” I used to explain my passion by citing that comics are a unique and incomparable art form that manage to tell a story in a way that can’t be replicated by other media.
That was true, but so is this: When someone asks that question, I get an image in my head: a memory of two little boys, two years apart in age. They are sitting in a small bathroom with two doors, both locked. Their intoxicated and abusive mother rampages throughout the house, occasionally rattling the handles and pounding on the frames of each entrance as she makes her rounds and tries to get in. In the center of them, lit by an oppressive yet almost angelic bathroom heat-lamp, are a stack of comic books. They read each in turn, trading them back and forth, thumbprints of sweat collecting on the pages. The youngest of the two gets the second look at each of the books, and it is once he has finished that discussions about the story can commence.
Not a single tear is shed; no complaints about their circumstances are made. While outside chaos and danger envelope their lives, inside this little bathroom rules still apply. Life is fair, wrongs are righted, death is never meaningless and pain always has a greater purpose.
When faced with what life shouldn’t be, sometimes the only thing that can get us through is remembering what life should be.
Enter Theme Parks
I’m not about to tell you to buy into any hype. I am not a marketing mouthpiece for The Walt Disney Company or Comcast. I won’t lie to you and tell you that a trip to a Disney or Universal park is necessary to live the American Dream. An ideal theme park vacation won’t fix a broken family, it won’t prove to yourself or to the world that you are a great parent, and it is not a requirement for living a full and happy life.
Those two corporations are thriving in a capitalist society for a reason: they know how to sell you a story. They bring you in, then find a way to profit from every step you take while you are there. That doesn’t devalue what they are selling, though.
What they are selling, what they call entertainment or immersion, I call healthy escapism. I think this is necessary.
Biology, technology, and society as a whole are all evolving on different timetables. Within my brief lifetime I have seen the introduction of personal computers, cellular phones, the internet, and most recently, social media. Every decade has held a breakthrough innovation which completely alters the course of a now globalized society, and the changes are becoming more and more frequent.
Yet the brain I’m using to adapt to this constant increase in societal complexity is the same model my ancestors used when life was boiled down to the basics of survival. My “hunting and gathering” involves an understanding of the ridiculous intricacies of modern day economics — my “survival instinct” finds me researching the bureaucratic hellscape that is the modern American healthcare system. Whereas my predecessors might have been born, lived, and died on the same farm their parents did, never meeting a single stranger from a foreign land, I am reminded daily about multiple injustices affecting each and every culture throughout the known world. Intellectually and emotionally, I’m trying to navigate deep space using a roadmap of Detroit.
To say that this can be a little overwhelming is an understatement of epic proportions. Just as our torn muscles need rest to rebuild and our overworked bodies don’t function without sleep, I need a break from reality.
Lucky for me, along with the countless technological innovations in every area of human interest, the modern world has provided me with opportunities for healthy escapism so sophisticated that they would have sent my ancestors screaming in disbelief and begging for shelter from their respective pantheons. My favorite among these reality-interrupting breakthroughs is, of course, the theme park.
I want — I need — to completely lose myself in a story every so often. I’ll never tire of literature or cinema, I still love a good comic book, but when I want to truly feel for the briefest of times that I am not involved in a globalized infrastructure, that the rules are actually quite simple and I’ve known them all along, then I want to live the story. Nothing helps me live a story more than a truly immersive theme park.
I learned this when I was young. Amidst all of the anxiety and confusion that I felt growing up in an abusive household, there were naturally some good times in the beginning, before I could fully comprehend the reality of my situation. Something was never quite right though, and I was a nervous child from the outset. One of my fondest memories from those days was the grand scope of the Magic Kingdom. To me it seemed larger than a city, and everything from the quaint brickwork of Mainstreet U.S.A. to the enveloping foliage and exotic structures of Adventureland gave me a feeling I had long sought but seldom found.
Given a child's enviable capacity for imagination and lack of shame about playing pretend, at home in my backyard every stick was a sword and every tree was a tower. The problem was, I was the only one in on the fun. At Walt Disney World, I wasn’t the only one playing. There were fully grown men and women with artistic brilliance and engineering proficiency building these places, which meant that my childhood imaginings and fantasy adventures weren’t out of place at all. I could fully commit to the story, and things that would have bothered me before, such as tightly-packed crowds of strangers everywhere, all became part of the adventure.
I kept learning this as an adult. Each time my lack of direction and physical exhaustion started pressing so hard on my chest I thought it might be simpler to just give in, I found distraction and relief in the parks.
Spending weekends surrounded by Marvel heroes connected me to the idealism of comic books, and monthly visits to Spider-Man made sure I remembered that doing the right thing doesn’t mean that life gets better, we do it because it is our responsibility to try. When I began the most terrifying chapter of my life, newly sober and aimless, knowing I couldn’t live life the same way as before but having no clue where I fit into the world, or if I even deserved to, a rediscovery of Disney was the signpost that pointed me in my current direction — a path that I would have never found on my own, but am truly grateful to walk.
Corporations do understand the immense power of storytelling. They pay attention to guests’ desires for increased immersion and the opportunity to “live the story.”
A premiere theme park experience is costly. How is a customer expected to forget about their real world problems for a while if a hefty financial burden is placed on their shoulders? They have to make it worth it. They need to create such wondrous environments that the feelings of adventure and amazement outweigh the worries of impending mortgages and future college fund responsibilities.
So Universal builds a Wizarding World, Disney builds an alien moon, each with increased story elements and world building. The Walt Disney Company’s most anticipated new venture will not only tap into one of the largest and most ingrained sources for escapism in modern culture, but it promises an actual story line that guests can live from the point of entering their hotel all the way through the new land, complete with props and costumes if they so choose. I might so choose, and if I do, I’ll do it without shame or apology.
The thing is, we know life isn’t fair, but that can’t be all we know. If we determine our worldviews using only the information reality presents us, our attitudes will end up mirroring the hate and pain we see daily. We will become unfair people, perfectly designed to perpetuate an unfair world. Bearing the burdens of a modern age can be overwhelming, and some of us require that break from reality to return refreshed. Some of us don’t. Some of us are strong enough to handle anything life throws our way, and reality is just another daily challenge to successfully overcome. I think those people need to escape for a while as well, if only for perspective. Not to cope with what life is, but as a reminder to work towards what life should be.
If your love of stories or the way you experience them has ever been met with judgement or condescension, if you’ve ever been accused of being an adult fixated on childish things, I have some advice for you. If you pride yourself on being a realist, a problem solver who doesn’t waste their time on fantasy, I have the same advice.
Escape. Find the stories that give you hope, find the stories that help you heal, and live them for a while. Our decisions are affected by our perspective. Our perspectives are influenced by the stories we love. Fairness may not exist in the real world, but it does in our hearts and minds. Losing yourself in a story means losing the burdens of reality for a bit, taking a breath, but it also means remembering that while the worlds we imagine may not exist, it’s where the best versions of ourselves live. We owe it to those around us to be our storybook selves.
I think to the modern human, escapism is medicine, and it is possible to overdose. Remember, our fantasies allow us to cope with reality and prepare us to deal with it in a positive manner. If you find yourself so lost in your love of books, video-games, theme parks, or anything else that your connection to the real world is slipping and it’s negatively affecting your life and those around you, don’t worry. There is no shame in losing yourself, but the important thing is that you realize it and let someone know. I’ve been lost too, in my own way, and finally asking for help was the most rewarding decision of my life.
Image credits not belonging to The DIS were taken from various Disney properties including Disney Animation, Marvel, and Lucasfilm. The comic panel is taken from Ultimate Spider-Man's "The Death of Spider-Man" arc by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley.