The Problem of Fantasy

By Ken Wells - 08/21/2021


Series Two; Blog Fifty-Seven

Though we do not wholly believe it yet, the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect on the world.”—James Baldwin

When I was a kid, I had a problem that any place other than where I am is where I needed to be. Perhaps this conundrum was due to early childhood abuse and deprivation. Yet, I recall thinking that others were having more fun in their skin than I was in mine.

On Friday and Saturday nights in the town I grew up in, it was a big deal to cruise down Broadway and honk at your friends. The trail ended at Gill’s Drive In where you would either circle through or park and sit on your hood trying to look cool. If you didn’t have a car you would want to hook up with someone who did for the experience of being cool and included. I seldom ever participated. I fantasized that others were having fun and that I wasn’t.

It was the same thing about dating. I fantasized about girls I had crushes on but never dated in high school. From a distance I would watch other friends date and believed they were having fun and that I was left out. I learned to believe that any place would be a better than where I was. I would make up reasons why I could not date. I didn’t have a car which was a big deal. I couldn’t imagine my dad driving me to pick up a girl to go to a movie when I was a senior in high school! He thought going to movies was sinful anyway! I was always glad that I never got so desperate for a date that I would resort to that. However, my experience of not dating fueled my longing to fantasize about being where I was not. Anywhere would do!

So I learned to live outside my skin, focusing on future experiences that even when engaged were never satisfying. I learned to live in a future that was never realized.

I believe that addicts learn to live outside their skin. So much of addiction is about trauma. Addicts learn to escape the pain of trauma with fantasy. They dream of being somewhere else rather than facing the painful reality of what is. Just one more hit will fix the pain! People who have serial compulsive relationships fantasize this way. Somehow, fantasizing about a relationship with someone other than who you are committed to will be the perfect fit that you have always hoped to find! When reality becomes painful you can always move on to chase the next fantasy. This experience is powerful and you can avoid discomfort throughout your life until the reality of present agony becomes so intense that it stops you in your tracks.

It’s not only true of addicts, but also for many who have learned to avoid discomfort by ignoring the obvious and embracing the improbable through fantasy. The delusion of fantasy is bewitching. There is a certain romanticizing characteristic to fantasy. Looking back, fantasy makes the past more than it really was. Looking forward, it is tempting to believe that the future will somehow make the present better. Yet, the future never exists. All we ever experience is this present moment!

Fantasy is managed by practicing being present in the moment. This is easier said than practiced.

Here are some tools and concepts to manage your fantasy life:

Refrain from labeling your life experience.  When facing adversity and problematic challenges, often there is the temptation to label yourself by comparing to others who likely don’t experience your problem and suffering. The tendency is to long to be that person or to be somewhere else other than where you are. Embrace the life you have rather than labeling yourself as a walking life problem. You uncover the miracle that you are by sitting with and embracing the very moment you are in. In relationship conflict, determine how you want to address the conflict by engaging the lessons you want to learn rather than reacting to the problems others present. This helps to avoid getting lost in your thoughts of labeling the relationship as a trial or tribulation.  It focuses on what you are learning in the conflict by being grounded in the present moment.

Being present in the moment requires that you embrace slow. I am learning that presence to any given moment requires the simplicity of slow. It doesn’t suggest that you are only to be slow. Connecting to present moment means that you will need to slow your body, your mind, and your awareness of breath. Fantasy pulls you away from the present moment. Thoughts of the past and future prevent you from the only moment you truly have–the present one. Slow helps to discipline your thought from distraction and provides a space to lean into the experience of here and now. Practice slow before you begin each day. Create slow and practice pause at various times in your day. It does create awareness of the present moment.

Beware of devaluing the present moment by overvaluing the next moment.  When you devalue process and obsess about achieving a goal, after you accomplish your objective, you will experience brief satisfaction and then move to “what’s next”.  You will have trained you mind to overvalue the future by devaluing the present moment. You will arrive at your goal and then it is over. The previous moment of anticipation will give way to focusing on what’s next. You never really arrive anywhere because when you do, you instantly begin to focus on the next moment.  The future is an illusion, only a thought. It is never really experienced. It is always out there. Fantasy is always about past or future. It never embraces the present. The depth of brilliance in life that is prized and valued is found in the present moment, no matter how mundane that moment might be.

Your sense of self is enhanced from within, not in the fantasy life that exists outside your inner experience. Comparing your insides to another person’s outsides will lead you to lose your sense of self. Often, people equate achievement with who they are. Fame and fortune become the marker that determines value. Yet, examine the life of a rock star. You might think if you could become one then it would represent the epitome of arriving. People would know your name. You would be rich. You would be adored. What more could there be? Yet, rock stars would say “is this all there is?” The fantasy of living in future endeavors only fuels present day disappointment and personal emptiness. Once you are rich and ride in a limo or experience fans screaming to touch you, there is the let-down that fuels the desire to pursue something more than what you experience in the here and now. Your sense of self can only be discovered by embracing the reality of the present moment.

The healing from getting stuck in fantasy, is found in the return to the present moment. Recovery in fantasy doesn’t make you a guru-type that never strays from being centered in the present. Rather, it is the capacity to bring yourself back to the present moment that anchors long-term peace. This requires practicing daily presence. Being able to return to center is more important than striving to never leave the present moment in the first place.

James Baldwin is correct to reflect on the powerful intangible dreams that exist in the internal life. Only when we manage the fantasies that exist within our interior life will we have a tangible impact on the world around us by learning to be present in the moment. 

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