At the age of six I rode to school in a big yellow school bus. As we lived in the country this gave me considerable time each day for the contemplation of metaphysical problems. A particular conundrum was caused by my Mickey Mouse lunchbox. I remember very clearly that my lunchbox was painted to look like a big yellow school bus like the very one I was sitting in.
On the outside of the lunchbox were printed various Disney characters cheerfully riding off to school. On this happy lunchbox was a most disturbing detail. At the door waiting to board this Disney-fied school bus stood Mickey Mouse himself. Mickey was waving with innocent enthusiasm, but the intriguing and somewhat sinister thing about Mickey is that he was holding a yellow school bus lunchbox that was identical to mine.
On the way to first grade this made me think. If I had a lunchbox with Mickey Mouse on it, and if Mickey held an identical lunchbox, did that mean on Mickey’s lunchbox there was another Mickey Mouse holding another identical lunchbox? I looked closely and sure enough, there on Mickey’s little lunchbox was another minute Mickey clutching another lunchbox just like mine.
Now what made my six year old head spin was the question, “Did that tiny Mickey also have a lunchbox on which was there yet another happy Mickey with an even tinier lunchbox with yet another minute Mickey happily going off to school on a yellow bus?” Logic demanded there to be ever more and ever more minute Mickeys on lunchbox after lunchbox ad infinitum. Was the everlasting succession of tiny Mickeys and lunch boxes there even though I could not see them?
There seemed to be worlds within worlds within worlds. Was the cosmos like this I wondered? Were there more worlds locked inside this one with even more locked in each one of them on and on forever? Was the cosmos one big onion or a Russian doll, with layer upon layer of reality—each one lying inside the next, each one more beautiful and intense than the one before? Did I hold in the form of my Mickey Mouse lunchbox a metaphor of eternity? Was this ordinary container for peanut butter sandwiches, a cookie, an apple and a thermos of juice a pointer to other worlds? Was my Mickey Mouse lunchbox not just an advertisement for Disneyland, but an advertisement for Wonderland and Neverland? Did I hold in my hands a magical transporter to another dimension? Were there dragons, elves, wizards and fairy godmothers inside? What if I opened it and found not a sandwich but a witch? What if that sandwich contained not Peter Pan peanut butter, but Peter Pan himself?
Unfortunately my first grade teacher did not discuss these matters in class. If she had the answers she wasn’t telling. She seemed more concerned with tiresome matters like keeping order, singing The Farmer in the Dell, and teaching us to spell. Nevertheless, the world of childhood is not lacking in similarly fascinating riddles. Indeed, I suspect far more contemplation of metaphysical problems takes place in the minds of six year olds than sixty year olds. Children are curious. They are fascinated by other worlds, the spiritual dimension, life after death, time and eternity. One of the reasons they like fairy tales is because through them they can play with their exciting playmates called good and evil, magic and mystery, time and eternity, destiny and death.
The possibility of another unseen world running parallel to this one is the complex premise of the stylish movie The Matrix. The hero, Neo Anderson, is locked in a boring artificial world as an office drone when he hears the call to adventure. He is told that his ‘real’ world is in fact a computerized artifice. The really real world exists on a different plane altogether. He is challenged to go through the looking glass to the real world, then return to do battle in the artificial world for all that is beautiful, true and real. Neo’s wake up call makes him aware of the existence of the other world, and his quest is to give up everything for reality.
The modern fairy tale of The Matrix is as old as Jason’s quest for the fleece and Parsifal’s search for the Holy Grail. In the stories of every age the hero is a romantic character who is shaken from the slumber of his ordinary world and called to embark on a heroic quest. As I studied Mickey Mouse on my lunchbox and wondered if there was more, so the hero puzzles over the mundane details of ordinary life and tries to figure out the riddle. He traces in his ordinary world the signs of a larger, better life and the pattern of mystery and meaning that is far more tremendous than he could ever have imagined.
The mythologist Joseph Campbell studied the stories of cultures around the world and discovered that a pattern runs through them all. All the great stories are stories of romantic heroes. Legends, myths, folklore and fairy tales enchant us with the accounts of ordinary men and women who hear a call to adventure and leave everything to find some great treasure.
Their calling disturbs their peace. It upsets their comfortable little world. It whispers to them that their ordinary world is simply a portal into another realm. The call is an enchantment that reminds them that there is more, yet more, and that their ordinary world is cramped, narrow and dark. At first the hero refuses the call because he feels inadequate, frightened, confused or simply lazy. But then he meets a mentor—some wise older person, who affirms the validity of his call, encourages him to embark on the adventure. Once on the roller coaster of his adventure the hero encounters enemies and allies. He learns how to be a hero not by sitting at home thinking about it, but by taking a risk and setting out on the quest.
The hero embarks on a quest because he has asked a question. In fact, he has decided that the meaning of life is to ask a question, and the question is, “What is the meaning of life?” Gradually it dawns on the hero that the answer to the question is not simply a formula or a phrase. It is not even a dictum or a doctrine. It is more than rules and regulations and rubrics. The answer to the question is to go on a quest.
This essay is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Longenecker’s latest book, The Romance of Religion—Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Published by Thomas Nelson.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “The Flying Carpet” by Viktor Vasnetsov, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.