At one end of the spectrum, we hear a lot – particularly in tragic news stories – about young people who have grown confused about or desensitized to the distinction between fantasy and reality; who have lost the ability to discern between behaviors which may be common in movies and video games but are not appropriate in normal daily experience.
At the other end – the end I grew up on – we hear pronouncements and dire predictions from concerned citizens who have built up exaggerated defenses against both “make-believe” and the sometimes sordid realities of life. These folks are genuinely distressed (and rightfully so!) about the evils rampant in our culture, and scrupulously conscientious (again, rightfully so) about guarding the minds of their offspring and students against unwholesome influences.
I don’t have enough personal experience of the first scenario to speak intelligently about it, so I will leave it alone. Having been raised in the other camp, securely sheltered behind high, thick walls, I feel that I can reasonably share some observations from that perspective.
First, let me make it absolutely clear that I do firmly believe that those of us who are entrusted with children, whether our own to rear or students to teach, have a very solemn responsibility laid on us. We are required to exercise our best judgment, to be conscious of the impact of cultural mores on impressionable young minds, and to be judicious in filtering the influences that reach them.
That said, I must sadly report that many people with the most admirable intentions have missed the train. They carefully avoid situations in which they might come in contact with people or literature that don’t live up to their standards of cleanliness and godliness. They prohibit, across the board, any element they have labeled undesirable, frequently without actual knowledge of what they are censoring: any story containing a reference to magic, witches, monsters, or sex is automatically taboo. They mistake a portrayal of evil for an endorsement of evil. Any supernatural phenomenon outside the covers of the Bible is suspect. They barricade themselves and their children in ivory towers with high, thick walls which they believe – or at least hope – no impurity can overreach and no toxin can penetrate.
I’ve come to recognize over the past few years, as I’ve finally grown up and begun to think for myself, that you can, in fact, have too much of a good thing. Caution is wise, but carried too far it becomes crippling. Prudence is good to a point; pushed beyond that point, it grows into paranoia. Total isolation from contaminants weakens the body’s natural defense systems; similarly, over-zealous exclusion of awareness of the sometimes unpleasant realities of the world handicaps one to live in it. Someone who has never heard of a dragon is ill-equipped to fight one when he encounters it.
Another thing about those walls: they’re rather indiscriminate about what they keep out. The wolves can’t get in, but neither can the stray lambs. The traffic noise is pretty effectively muffled; so is the echo of the sea. The burning rays of the sun are blocked, but flowers don’t grow well in the shadows. And really, as the partygoers in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” learned to their horror, there is no impenetrable defense.
I know I’m waxing metaphorical – another thing that makes some of these well-meaning wall builders nervous. It’s more comfortable, easier to understand and avoid confusion, if everything is put in simple straightforward language that can be taken literally, at face value. Some people believe that it’s best, safest, to read only nonfiction – histories, biographies, informational treatises, and the like. But even hard facts can be manipulated; “true” stories can be spun a dozen different ways to mislead an unwary reader.
Fairy tales and fantasies are the vaccines of the mind. They introduce us, in a safe setting, to ideas outside our limited personal experience. They inoculate us against xenophobia (the fear of anything foreign to us), against too readily believing appearances, against assuming that there is no hope or help beyond ourselves. They provide us immunity and strength, sometimes from the most unexpected sources, against evil within and without.