115 - On False Fronts - Moral Letters for Modern Times
I remember going on an excursion with my family when I was a young boy. This would have been in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, when we would spend six weeks of the hottest and brightest summer months away from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where my father worked and our family lived. We traveled from an oasis in one arid country to a desert in another in the province of Almeria, Andalusia. This part of Spain is mountainous, rugged, filled with cacti and the crumbling remains of once vast industrial works. The Mediterranean glinted invitingly, its clear blue water stretching out of sight into the horizon as if to mock the very idea that we sat baking in the middle of the driest part of the European continent.
Stay in any place for too long and you will take everything for granted. The iron-red mountains, with their herb-covered foothills running down to the azure sea, became so much painted backdrop to the boredom playing out within the four walls of our house. So it was that my parents herded my brothers and me into the car one day for a drive to Tabernas, where the tantalizingly named Mini Hollywood nestled. This was where Sergio Leone filmed the spaghetti Western For a Few Dollars More, and where the drama of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly unfolded. How could this not be a magical place to visit?
As an adult, Deuteros, I can tell you the distance to the kilometer, but back then it was a journey into the unknown. And like any journey when you do not know the destination, but whose arrival you eagerly anticipate, it seemed to take forever. I could not have spent half a day of my life staring out the window onto thousands of square kilometers of scrub and sand, but I felt older by the time we were freed from our four-wheeled prison.
Look! A genuine Western town, starting with the town square, watering trough for horses, and the storefronts facing it on all sides. The Yellow Rose Saloon, the Fire Company, Overland Stage Lines. A schoolhouse, the General Merchandise Store, and is that a church steeple I see? A whole town laid out for us to walk through, not as spectators but as participants, transported directly into another world only ever seen on screen.
There was some sort of show, cowboy stunts, perhaps a recreated bank robbery. I don’t recall exactly. The appearance of actors and the carrying out of assigned roles had the effect, for me at least, of making it seem less real. No matter how lifelike, the play could not compare to the rich dramas concocted in my mind. For the same reason, I suppose, that even the best film adaptation of a favorite book inevitably disappoints. “That’s not how I imagined it when I was reading it,” goes the resigned realization. The magic of books is that they allow each reader to create magic in their heads. Sometimes it’s best left there.
Even at my impressionable age, I soon realized the actors were just people wearing costumes. That the magical town was just a quickly constructed set, and that half of the buildings were nothing more than false fronts, a single painted wall supported by struts creating giant empty right angle triangles hidden from plain view. Suddenly I could not see Mini Hollywood the same way, and I could not wait to get out of there. I wanted to keep the magic of my imagination intact. But it was too late, and not just for me in Tabernas.
Ever since then, I cannot visit a theme park or studio without immediately noticing the false fronts all around. Europa Park, Disney World, Universal Studios: no matter how artfully done, the entire experience is a set construction from beginning to end. From the signage, the paint on the walls, the very flooring we walk upon, I see the craftsman’s attempt to create worlds within worlds. It all seems so superficial because in my mind I know it has been built for effect. Sadly the effect sought is less to create childlike wonder than to create the ideal conditions to separate weary parents from their money.
Why are these destinations still so popular, then, if we can easily recall on a moment’s thought that they are nothing more than painted stages? My dear Deuteros, it is because we want to be fooled. We accept the false front as the reality because the reality behind the false front is just a hardscrabble desert or a reclaimed swamp. If life is hard and unforgiving, can we be blamed for wanting to believe in magic?
I suppose I can understand this, and could even forgive the impulse, if we did not take it so much further. We take at face value the whole of our lives. We assume that what everyone else chases after must be valuable, so we chase after it too. We unquestioningly accept that buying things can bring us happiness, refusing to see the evidence before our eyes that though we are drowning in possessions we are no nearer to satisfaction.
We say “no good deed goes unpunished” as a cynical and self-serving way to justify focusing on our personal needs. I say “no superficial thought goes unpunished,” because in refusing to think for yourself, you resign yourself to accept the same fate as others. How happy is your fellow person? How satisfied are they with their work, their pay, their politicians, their friends? How many suffer envy, greed, and misgivings, not to mention a hundred other maladies of the mind?
People say the Stoic philosophy is one of hardship and suffering, because we try to see through the surface to the substance of things. When I compare the depth of mind of the average person with that of the philosopher, I have to ask who is suffering the greater hardship? What we gain from philosophy is deep peace of mind arising from confidence in our judgements and in our actions. The world is the same arid desert, or reptile-filled swamp, but our steps are assured even though they are not always safe. There is no greater achievement than to arrive at a point where you can look back on your life and say, “I would not change a thing.”