I recently took my children to the theater to see The Greatest Showman. It was so good that I took them a second time, this time with a group of college students. My point here, however, is not to review the movie. Instead, I want to consider briefly how the film led to my own introspection and repentance, and how G. K. Chesterton’s Manalive provided me with the necessary answer. If it seems confusing, perhaps it is, but if you know me, then G. K. Chesterton and musicals are likely to make an appearance.
(Note: What follows won’t really spoil either the movie or the book, but it may contain some plot elements that hint at what happens. If you have not seen the movie or read the book and are worried about spoilers, I did my best to avoid them when possible, but you may proceed with caution.)
At the heart of the movie is the story of P. T. Barnum, a boy who comes from low class beginnings but finds love with a wealthy young girl. Their love blossoms over the years and they are married. During this time, they share “A Million Dreams,” a song that embodies imagination, aspiration, and the heart of two young dreamers. The song proclaims things like “I think of what the world could be” and “a million dreams for the world we’re gonna make.” These lines capture a beautiful picture of two young people with big dreams that are within their grasp if they can shape their future together.
The early years of their marriage, however, show that these dreams are different than they expected. The young woman is content with a meager lifestyle, provided it is with the ones she loves—her husband and their two girls. Barnum, however, wants more. The process by which Barnum begins and then finds success with his circus shows that many of these dreams are coming true—a home, nice things for their girls, and more. But Barnum, stung by the fact that his father-in-law still sees him as inferior, seeks to get the approval of the wealthy. He hosts a one-night event with European singing sensation Jenny Lind, and this evening leads to a tour that threatens to tear Barnum away from his family in his pursuit of respect and fame. The song that Jenny Lind sings at this concert embodies Barnum’s own struggle. Lind sings, “All the shine of a thousand spotlights, all the stars that we steal from the night sky, will never be enough…Towers of gold are still too little, these hands could hold the world but it will never be enough.”
As I listened to these haunting words sung so beautifully, I found myself holding back tears. Here, on the screen of a musical, was/is the story of my life. I am a dreamer and a perfectionist, a driven person who is never satisfied with the status quo. In short, my “million dreams,” though right in front of me in the faces of my wife, my three children, and also friends, family, and students, are “never enough for me.” I also desire to be more and do more so I can provide the life I think they deserve. I wondered what stupidity, what foolishness, I could be led to pursue if I allowed my God-given imagination to spiral into self-focused obsession and an insatiable hunger for more. I pray that I never find out.
For Barnum, he stops short of completely wrecking his life, and though significant consequences ensue, they are not irreversible if he will repent. And repent he does in perhaps the most moving (alongside “Never Enough”) song in the movie, “From Now On.” He sings, “From now on, my eyes will not be blinded by the light; from now on, what’s waiting for tomorrow starts tonight.” Soon after, the cast sings, “And we will come back home, and we will come back home, home again.” These words serve as the repentance Barnum must undergo to once again recapture his dream without the tainted, sinful obsession marked by “Never Enough.” This, I pray, is where I will remain, having seen in myself the same potential for an obsessive need for more that Barnum had. Thankfully, like Barnum, I have a wife and children I adore, which makes it easier and more worthwhile to set aside other aspirations.
But as I sat wondering how one such as I, who always needs to be moving forward, could learn to rest and rejoice in the reality of the present, I found the answer in G. K. Chesterton’s Manalive, a book I was re-reading for the Chesterton Society I participate in. At the heart of the message of Manalive is the need for rediscovering that the “ordinary” things of life—wife, children, home, job, etc.—are extraordinary. Sometimes we need to step away and reorient our thinking. It reminds me of what Chesterton says in Orthodoxy, that if we leave a thing alone we “leave it to a torrent of change;” if we want a white post, we must continually paint it anew. This reality is the philosophy of Innocent Smith in Manalive. When I can’t appreciate the things God has provided me with, I need to see them for a time and from a perspective as if they belonged to someone else. When I can’t see my wife as the incredible joy and gift that she is, I need to pursue her again and remarry her. When I can’t see my home as a place of peace and excitement, I need to go on a journey in search of it, so that I might find it right where it is. The brilliance of Chesterton’s novel lies in the simple beauty that when once a man loses his wonder, he is in danger of losing his soul; but if he can recapture that wonder, that joy, that excitement, through constantly finding again what he has already found, he will be saved.
Like Barnum, I find myself in peculiar danger of ruin because my dreams can become an obsession for more; but “from now on,” I aim to be like Innocent Smith, who after journeying around the world to find his home where he left it, may very well have sung “and we will come back home, home again.”