The Happiest Place on Earth

Last week, while visiting my father and sister in Florida, I took what I’m quite sure will be my last roller coaster ride, “Expedition Everest,” the latest spectacularly elaborate attraction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane wrote an essay about the rich and strange art and mindset of Walt Disney, centered around an exhibition of his work at the Grand Palais in Paris, and I thought about it as Alex and I padded through a mock Himalayan base camp on our way to the high speed train that promised to catapult us into the unknown. I also thought of a recent piece by a venerable New York Times food critic who had visited at The Animal Kingdom just after a trip to the real India only to be unexpectedly disarmed by the wit and authenticity in the details of the Indian villages and ruined temples that lead up to the hollow recreation of the snow capped mountain that lead to my mock doom.

“I definitely feel that we cannot do the fanatastic things based on the real unless we first know the real,” Disney once said. What he termed the “plausible impossible” depended on realism and it was a lavish and sophisticated attention to the background details that made masterworks of the films created between 1937 and 1942: “Snow White,” “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia,” “Dumbo,” and “Bambi.” Disney’s perfectionism was famously unsparing. According to Lane in The New Yorker: “If you added together the man-hours spent on the artwork for ‘Snow White,’ they would total two hundred years.” But so was his willful insistence on a creating a world where unhappiness didn’t really exist, where death is a blip that makes the spring flowers all the more gorgeous.

As I rocketed up and down a painstakingly fake Everest with Alex (we were finally derailed by a Yeti!) I finally realized that what is so unnerving about all things Disney is not what the name has become an icon for–the denial of reality, the consumerization or kitschification of culture–but its artistry. The New Yorker article made the point that what Disney was brilliant at was not pap but buildup. The sight of a threatened girl tearing through the forest pursued by swirling leaves “is edited with a violent sophistication that chops straight into children’s dreams” writes Lane. It comes as no surprise that it attracted the praise of Chaplin, of the great Russian film director Eisenstein.

“Why do you look so down?” Alex asked as we waited to board the death train. “This is supposed to be a happy place.” Since Alex is now 18 years old and about to start college, I asked her if her love of Disney World wasn’t tinged with nostalgia, with a poignant sense of putting away childish things. No way, she insisted. Look around, she urged me. Didn’t I love the gorgeous quality of everything? “I love that nothing is ever run down or cheap looking,” she said. I told her she probably would have loved Buddha’s pleasure place too, where there was nothing but sensual delight, where the reality of sickness, old age, and death was never allowed to intrude.

We were buckled into our ride and began to move up out of the darkness and into the air on perilously narrow tracks. Asia and finally much of the Animal Kingdom spread out beneath us. Alexandra laughed happily, suggesting that we throw our arms up in the air when we hit a peak. “Leave me alone,” I said. “Do you need to hold my hand?” she asked. “Don’t touch me,” I said, my hands gripping the rail across our laps. Even before we entered a cave and began to slip backwards into darkness, even before we rose up, up, up again, even before the seemingly vertical plunge that inevitably came, a moan rose up from the depths of me. It was nothing like Alexandra’s hysterical laughter. It was nothing like the good-natured squeals and shouts I heard issuing from other cars. It was a groan of rock bottom, no-way-out misery, a hospital groan, a moan as old as humankind.

Was I the only person on that train who realized that death was possible, indeed inevitable. “Nobody dies on these rides,” Alex had assured me earlier. “Except once in a while, and usually just very little kids who shouldn’t be on the ride anyway.” I knew that several years ago, a 22-year-old man was killed and 10 others injured as people spilled from the Disney ride Big Thunder Mountain in California, but I hadn’t wanted to bring it up. Once I was strapped in and falling backwards, I suddenly realized that a person could die just from fright, that a person my age might have a heart attack just from the horrible sensation of plummeting backwards and forwards.

How could anybody enjoy a ride that so realistically simulates a violent and terrifying experience? In another park there was a ride called “Tower of Terror,” featuring an elevator that snaps its cable. Why not a ride called “Suicide Bomber” or “African Famine?” People could sit in the sun without food or clean water. Their wallets and cell phones and most of their clothes could be taken away and they could just…wait…indefinitely. Why not “Blackout in New York?” It was hot enough.

“If something is offered as entertainment, it will be received as entertainment,” I told myself. But the moan welled up from the depths of a body that apparently couldn’t sense that we were hurtling towards happiness and fun. I rocked slightly side to side to comfort myself. Years before, on another visit to Disney World when Alex was much younger, she had persuaded my husband to buy me a fake coon skin cap from a fake general store in Frontier Land. It was a hot miserable day for me (“Why the ‘Night of the Living Dead’ routine?” asked my husband) and she seized on the confession that I had always wanted one when I was a little girl because I had loved Davy Crockett. I put on. It fit almost perfectly.

“I never dreamed of being famous when I was a little girl,” I had said. “I dreamed of being archetypal.”

“What does that mean?” Alex had asked.

I wanted to be connected to deeper truths, deeper powers, I explained. Like people who know their way around the forest like Davy Crockett.

“I don’t want to be famous,” Alex had said. “I want to have magical powers.”

I guess I thought I was beyond the brightly colored illusions of Disney World. I thought I was beyond sappy happy endings. Years later, having lost my mother and others, I realize that facing reality of death and aging with the whole of myself is not what I thought it would be. There might be something to willed optimism after all. What do you think?

7 thoughts on “The Happiest Place on Earth

  1. I suppose the whole idea of such rides is to “Bop the nose of the tiger” (in this case death) and survive. Purhaps the thinking is that if you get as close to death as you can – and come back – the experience would be entertaining, if not empowering. Personally, I don’t think the ride designers will really be happy until traumatic amnesia kicks in. “Try this ride! it will take years of therapy before you’ll remember it!! Step right up!…”
    As was mentioned, the rides do not approach our REAL fears. There is no “Famine Land” no “Indifferent Nursing Home Land” no “Arthritis, or Cancer Land”. There is no “Pain Land” – what we likely fear the most. Purhaps fear in small doses – threatening us with a likely quick death (plunging to our doom 100 or more feet below) – would “Stretch” ourselves to be better able to deal with our real fears outside of the park. C.S. Lewis might have been speaking to that in his book THE PROBLEM OF PAIN. After all, we do not fear death as much as pain. We don’t fear plunging to a quick death off of a roller coaster. We fear being broken and tangled in the ironworks and living the rest of our lives in pain.
    There may be something to “Willed Optimism”. Beyond mere “Being Positive” is making a choice of how we wish to react to things. After all, your daughter chose to be happy with the same experience you regret. Same stimulus – different response. An objective view might indicate that the “…experience is not the causitive factor of the emotional response”. There could be something else.
    Perhaps “Willed Optimism” IS it? What if, as Thomas Merton put it, we could learn to “…See the love in things – even the bad things”? What if, as the man with the last of three wishes left, we ask God to let us be happy with whatever happens to us? These reflect a certain amount of choice. A decision to respond one way instead of another. The decision to respond differently and how to arrive at the choice of how we wish to react require imagination. In this light, “Willed Optimism” is not mere denial, but part of a larger imaginitive search. Maybe “Willed Optimism” is a clumsy name for something else?

  2. Recently, it occurred to me that our perception of truth is much like one of those chance games on the boardwalk of the Jersey shore. Specifically, that game where a person throws a dime and it must land exactly within the parameters of a tiny red dot housed within a white, rectangular frame (much like the old Lucky Strike cigarette package). Of course, it is virtually impossible to land the dime within the red dot. The dime is destined to land partially in the red dot and partially in the white rectangle. Like our perceptions of truth.

    For our experiences of truth is perceptional, isn’t it? And perception is influenced by many factors: Culture, Gender, Historical Period, Social Status, etc. But then again, maybe there is “The Truth” and perhaps a few mystics, Bodhisattvas, and maybe even madmen have seen it. But probably even the avatars among us have only glimpsed it. Didn’t Gandhi call his autobiography “My Experiments With Truth”.

    And Disney? He was clearly a genius and he clearly understood that people longed for fantasy and escapism. He realized that sitting under the Bodhi tree and watching the armies of Mara while focusing on the breath was not the stuff of ordinary men. No, we would much rather watch the armies of Mara and witness all of the drama and excitement as long as (and herein lies the key)…as long as we are untouched by true pain, suffering, and impermanence.

    So, what does the roller coaster give us? It gives us the danger and the excitement, the adrenaline and the relief, within the illusion of a womb of safety. Maybe Disney knew what Gautama did not. Life has suffering but anything that entertains us and distances us from that suffering is good. And isn’t it true? Life is short. The Hedonists, the true Hedonists, were right. Pursue pleasure for in this brief moment between the void and the void, we have been given the gift of experience and pleasure. And yes, the price of our pleasure is pain but if the pleasure outweights the pain, then we have been truly blessed.

  3. Douglasah, perhaps willed optimism is a clumsy term for an effort that is definitely not denial. One of the comments in a “readers forum” discussion quoted Dr. Maurice Nicoll: “Karma Yoga is the science of action with non-identifying.” Nicoll stressed that this is not the same as “without identifying.”

    Karma yoga is work in life. At mediation retreats, it is the period when yogis stop meditating to help with chores and maintenance. The essence of Karma Yoga, according to Nicoll, is to meet unpleasant expectations and experiences and things equally with pleasant things.

    As you said, this is not the same thing as denial or avoiding unpleasant things. Meeting life with an attitude or intention of non-identification is not exerting the power of positive thinking. It is not even the subtle action of letting go. It is the non-action, the total ahimsa or nonviolence (in an upcoming interview ravi ravindra told me a more accurate translation is”nonviolation” ) of letting things be–the fear, the whole bumpy ride. Instead of being identified with the fear one is open to the possibility that the outcome might be happily unexpected…or at least unexpected. When we can meet life with non-identifying, according to Nicoll, life can become one’s teacher.

    This makes sense to me. The door has to be open, even just a crack, or I’m at the mercy of my conditioning, the deafening voice of my own hopes and fears.

  4. Hi Liz: I never thought I would link these two names in the same sentence but Walt Disney does have something in common with the Buddha. According to several biographies of Disney (and the essay I sited), his high point, his moment of pure, unmixed happiness, came in boyhood, in tiny Marceline, Missouri, when a crusty old “Doc” Sherwood gave him a nickel for sketching his horse, Rupert. “Rupert was his Rosebud,” writes Lane, evoking Citizen Kane.

    When the Buddha was at his breaking point, when all his attempts at yoga and extreme asceticism had brought him to the brink of death yet failed to bring liberation, he remembered a day in boyhood when he sat in the shade of a rose-apple tree while all the men in his region took part in an annual rite of ceremonial plowing. Left alone by his nurses who went to watch the plowing, little Gotama looked at the newly plowed field and noticed insects and eggs had been destroyed. According to the legend, the future Buddha was filled with a strange sorrow–as his own relatives had been killed. At the same time, the beautiful day filled him with pure, unpremeditated joy.

    According to Karen Armstrong in her biography of the Buddha, the future Buddha was filled with the kind of ecstasy “which takes us outside the body and beyond the prism of our own egotism.” At the same time “the child had been taken out of himself by a moment of spontaneous compassion, when he had allowed the pain of creatures that had nothing to do with him personally to pierce him to the heart. This surge of selfless empathy had brought him a moment of spiritual release.”

    Young Gotama, unlike Disney, is said to have assumed a meditation posture, instinctively connecting this selfless joy that wasn’t tinged with any kind of craving–that was mingled with compassion–with liberation.

    “Disney taught the world to look back without anger,” writes Lane in The New Yorker. But so did Buddha. As vastly different as their gifts and intentions turned out to be, both men took inspiration from a state of childhood innocence and unselfconsciousness. Interesting….

  5. The impressions that mark the soul of a child are often the seeds of the future man.

    I remember once reading an article about a foreign journalist visiting Afghanistan many years ago. The journalist was walking with a father and son over rocky soil. Since the father and son were without shoes, their feet bled as they walked. The journalist felt badly for the child and offered to carry the child. But the father refused to allow the boy to be carried. It was not cruelty but a kind of pragmatism. The father wanted to prepare the boy for the life he would live: a hard life on rocky soil.

    Of course, this story feels very different to me than the joy of Disney’s nickel or Gautama’s day of compassion and bliss. But it still speaks of the power of impressions.

    We have so many experiences but only certain ones truly mark our souls.

    Who knows if the boy in Afghanistan was marked by the experience?

    And that is what is really amazing to me. We have continous experiences but only some mark us. And the experiences that linger are not necessarily the ones that were dramatic or intense.

    It is almost as if the soul has an awareness of its own that is removed from conscious thought? Not like the id of animal instinct or repetilian logic but a sense of the sacred and important that is beyond cultural conditioning or consumerism.

    Quite simply, the soul is the ultimate rebel of our being. It goes its own way without regard for the tyranny of others like some beatnik poet in the 1950s.

  6. Hi Liz: I once heard another story about another boy in Afghanistan who watched his father lay out a lavish feast for strangers. One of those strangers (the late, great William Segal)said that he marveled at the impression that act of generosity must have made on that boy.

    I agree that there is–or can be–another awareness in us that seems to take in impressions in a deeper way–so that they act on us in a different way. It may be a rebel or a pilgrim maybe, but not (for me) like a beatnik poet in the 1950s. For one thing, I sense this rebel intelligence has to be free from the reach of ego.

  7. “Free from the reach of ego”…

    Yes, that is true. In order for an impression to leave a lasting mark, it must occur on a level that is beyond the limitations of the ego.

    Recently, I have been thinking that I have so many opinions, I don’t know what I really think!

    It reminds me of a cartographer. When he maps uncharted land, he is simultaneously exploring it for the first time and defining it for those who follow. Those who follow use the map more than their interactions with the land. The followers have a preconceived sense of what lay ahead.

    “Oh, yes, a waterfall will be appearing in one mile.”

    And then the waterfall appears but it may be a little less spectacular than stumbling upon it, unexpectedly.

    Now, maps are important. They make our lives easier. But as we get older, I wonder if we have made such a finite map of ourselves that nothing surprises us. We lose the wonder of the child. Impressions rarely mark us.

    So, perhaps, Tracy, there is a question. In the case of Disney and Siddhartha and the boys of Afghanistan, the moments that marked them occurred in childhood. Therefore, if we are not marked in childhood, is it too late? Can we have impressions beyond the impressionable years? Is it too late to have an impressionable childhood?

    Of course, we are all marked in one way or another as children but how do we retain the ability to have powerful impressions as adults?

    Does it require the mastery of a Gurdjieff in creating impressions by completely unraveling the world his followers knew, putting them in situations beyond the experiences they were accustomed to?

    And what of those who never had the pleasure of meeting such a remarkable man? What then?

    And finally, regarding the image of the beatnik. I do not mean the beatnik of consumer success or the beatnik in old age. I mean that moment in time when a person leaves the well-worn path and takes the path less traveled. Of course, the path less traveled is only less traveled for a brief moment in history. Once it is marked with many footprints, it ain’t less traveled anymore.

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