“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”
My dad hung a lithograph displaying the above quote in our basement bathroom when I was young. I must have read it thousands of times. It’s ingrained in my memory. I come back to it constantly when things seem out of control. I’ve thought of it often the past months.
When I was a boy I didn’t know anything about the source material. It wasn’t until I had to read it in a lit class did I get the reference. Christine and I also attended the musical years later.
The story is about a noble who reads so many chivalrous romance stories he loses his mind and becomes a knight-errant, a hero in the tradition of King Arthur in a world moved on from such ‘antiquated notions’.
In one famous scene he falls under the belief that windmills are in fact giants attacking the countryside and rushes to face them.
Since the book was written the phrase ’tilting at windmills’ has come to mean attacking perceived but imaginary enemies.
I think I do that. I think I have become so ready for something new and painful to come along that my first instinct is often to fly into battle, attack before I can be attacked.
That might be a poor description though, because just as often I flee. Flee from feelings. I also tend to take an imaginary issue and find my way to the worst possible outcome and assume life will become what I’ve just dreamed up.
Overthinking. Fantasizing. Imagining. Expecting. Worrying. Doubting. This is how I tilt at windmills.
Back to the quote at the top of the page. It’s been on repeat in my head for months, especially the last bit.
‘And the maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!’
This is the moment when Don Quixote realizes his madness, when he realizes he’s been fighting the imaginary. It’s poignant prose.
As he’s recovering, as he’s raising himself from the depths of mental illness, his conclusion is that life, by its very structure, is mad. It doesn’t make sense.
And that’s it, isn’t it? It’s why we wonder, it’s why we think to ourselves ‘How can this be happening?’.
How the fuck can my wife have killed herself?
She should be at work as I write this, finishing lunch, thinking about our evening plans, stressing about her holiday party coming together. But she’s not. She’s dead.
It doesn’t make sense. None of this makes sense.
And there, in essence, is my windmill. Trying to find reason, logic, anything that will bring me some type of understanding of how she could do this.
The answer is simple, of course. It doesn’t make sense. Not to me. It never will. I don’t know what it’s like to be in a place so bleak you see no escape. To be unable to recognize how loved you are, how incredibly important you are to so many people and how much you’ll be missed when you’re gone.
It doesn’t make sense.
And so I tilt.