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  • Writer's pictureRev. Ruth

To Live the Impossible Dream

Updated: Jan 1, 2019

The Impossible Dream Lyrics by Joe Darion

This is my quest, to follow that star ... No matter how hopeless, no matter how far ... To fight for the right, without question or pause ... To be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause ...

And I know if I'll only be true, to this glorious quest, That my heart will lie will lie peaceful and calm, when I'm laid to my rest ... And the world will be better for this: That one man, scorned and covered with scars, Still strove, with his last ounce of courage, To reach ... the unreachable star ...

To dream ... the impossible dream ... To fight ... the unbeatable foe ... To bear ... with unbearable sorrow ... To run ... where the brave dare not go ... To right ... the unrightable wrong ... To love ... pure and chaste from afar ... To try ... when your arms are too weary ... To reach ... the unreachable star ...

Don Quixote: by Miguel De Cervantes in 2 parts, 1605 and 1615

This is the story of a retired country gentleman in the region of La Mancha, Alonso Quijano, who at 50 is considered to be an old man. He becomes obsessed with tales of chivalry, believing them to be true, and losing his sense of reality, adopts the persona of Don Quixote, knight-errant, and donning rusted armor, he mounts his aged horse, presses a neighbor, Sancho Panza, to be his squire, and heads off to seek wrongs to righted and oppressed to be rescued.

He encounters people and situations which seem through his lens of delusion to be in need of his chivalric services. He meets a farm girl, Aldonza, who becomes in his eyes, the fair Lady Dulcinea, for whom he would be knightly champion. He endures scorn and physical injury and is the victim of cruel humor. Finally, defeated and ill, he returns home, regains his senses, rejects all he done and all he has dreamed of, and dies tragically with nothing to show for his efforts. It seems that the ideals of chivalry have died with him.

To Live the Impossible Dream

How do we tell the differences among a harmless exercise of the imagination, a destructive, irrational fantasy, and a worthwhile near-impossible dream?

Consider these situations: the child who ties a blanket around her neck and runs around imagining she is flying though the air; the child who ties a blanket around his neck and jumps out of a upper story window expecting to fly through the air; and the child who grows up dreaming of flying until she or he becomes a successful aviator or aviation engineer.

The first child exercises her imagination in useful, creative play. The second child has confused his imaginary world with his real one in a most destructive manner. The third child, who could still have started out as either the first or second child, survives to adulthood with both imagination and healthy sense of reality intact, and can follow the vision, the near-impossible dream of youth to productive ends.

We have all been, in some sense, at some time, each of these children. Our imaginings vary, our dreams, delusions, and visions may differ, but we’ve all lived through these sorts of experiences. In fact, after some years at this church, I am coming to see the U.U. environment as a haven for dreamers of all kinds.

Our tragic hero, Don Quixote, pursues a destructive, irrational fantasy. He is deluded but so well-intentioned, and he elicits our sympathy and our admiration for his perseverance of a noble ambition. Yet we also grieve for the waste of his physical and emotional energy over unreachable goals and unnecessary quests. It is painful to watch him strive for pointless and unappreciated achievement. We have all questioned the value of our own striving, and wondered if anyone else noticed or cared. We see ourselves in Don Quixote.

I want to tell you two stories about one of my heroes, my father, David Vann. Some of you knew him and more of you knew of him when he was active in shaping the course of history for Birmingham. He was a brilliant man who spent much of his life trying to make this city a better place to live for everyone. I’m going to tell you the hard story first, believing that this deeply sad and personal story may have value for some of you. You see my father had a lot in common with Alonso Quijano.

Why did Alonso become so obsessed with the ideals of chivalry that he adopted persona of the knight-errant, Don Quixote? Was this a mid-life crisis? At the age of 50 in early 17th century La Mancha, he was already an old man. Was this chronic depression, alzheimers, or something else? At one level, this is a story of a man looking back and wondering about the value of his life.

My Dad had a crisis of identity as he approached his 70’s. He was never one to talk about his feelings, but I think that after his open-heart surgery and subsequent kidney failure at 68, he became depressed and began to wonder about his mortality and the value of his life’s work. Around this same time, perhaps due to the same circulatory problems, he began to experience a non-specific dementia, but because he lived alone, and was so intelligent, strong-willed, and articulate, he managed to hide it from everyone, including his family.

In this vulnerable state, he received mailings from nefarious parties who target the elderly with promises of “winning” quick, easy cash. He became increasingly obsessed with the idea of acquiring large amounts of money in order to leave a significant financial legacy when previously wealth had never really interested him. He fantasized about leaving family, friends, his alma maters and church large financial gifts. He started sending money to enter “sweepstakes” and he bought boxes of cheap merchandise to increase his chances of winning the imagined millions.

Then he received a letter from a stranger in another country claiming to need help “recovering” an astronomical sum being held unjustly. The letter convinced my father in his confusion that if he sent a few thousand to pay the expenses for this “victim,” the money would be released and Dad would receive a huge percentage for his help. Dad wired cash to the stranger, who responded by demanding more cash. This pattern continued through fax communication, until Dad had cleaned out all his savings, liquidated his I.R.A., and had amassed significant debt on his credit cards with cash advances.

It wasn’t until months later, when Dad approached a friend to borrow a huge amount of money, that we in the family finally found out and stepped in to stop him. Dad could never accept that he had been scammed, and I had to take difficult, painful steps to prevent my formerly brilliant father from continuing this destructive behavior. When he was finally diagnosed with dementia, I had to go to court to take control of his affairs. I had to take away his car, his checkbook, and his fax machine. He fought my efforts, believing me to be kindly misguided. As we approached the more intense stages of the legal battle, we were granted a reprieve from this difficulty with an even greater one.

Dad was diagnosed with stage 4 untreatable lung cancer and given three months to live.

So everything changed in an afternoon. Dad stopped fighting me and the legal battle was over before it had really started. Now our focus was on health and care-taking issues. I was still in charge of my father’s affairs, but now he welcomed my help and cooperated in efforts at damage control to his finances. His health continued on a rapid decline, but unlike Don Quixote’s story, there was grace in those last few months, which I’ll come back to.

I tell you this story to illustrate the need to closely examine our dreams and the dreams of others to make sure they are not delusions. One of the greatest strengths of our community here is that we can dream in relative safety. We can imagine, cast visions, and lift up hopes for ourselves, and for the larger community. And we can guard each other carefully against anything potentially dangerous lurking in our dreams. We can help one another to discern the differences among the dreams, the visions, and the delusions.

We are a church full of dreamers. The very existence of a liberal church of such religiously diverse people in Birmingham, Alabama is itself an “Impossible Dream” which is still alive after 60 years.

Martin Luther King’s “impossible” dream took root here and this congregation took many risks to follow it. Laura Knox’s dream of teaching folk to dance got its start in this church. I was twirling with other children in the sanctuary of the old building, and downstairs in the classrooms. I also attended the first Montessori School in this city, a dream of Barbara Spitzer and others. By chance, it also became to first racially integrated school, and the people of this church stood by the school amidst threats of violence.

I am so proud to be surrounded by dreamers here. Helen dreams of an Alabama where Latino people are treated with dignity and compassion. Jack dreams of justice and equality in many lands. Anthony dreams of inspiring and educating young minds to help prepare them to be adults of noble character. Rita dreams of children of all ages and races filling the world with beautiful music. Dick dreams of folk in nursing facilities forgetting their pains and losses through conversation and laughter. Jessica dreams of a place where young people can discover and explore their sexual identity safely and with loving support. And there are so many others. And me? Well I spend a lot of my time trying to help my son to walk and to see, and such an impossibly huge dream is easier to carry around with y’all nearby.

In the science fiction TV series, Firefly, the starship captain, Mal and his crew, come to rescue a group of enterprising women from a nasty character who means to run them off or kill them. Mal urges them to pack up and escape on his ship, but their leader refuses, explaining that she’s worked too hard and won’t let any man take away what’s hers. Mal looks around at the rag-tag group, and smiles, saying, “Well, Lady, I’ve got to say you’re my kind of stupid!”

There is a bit of reckless foolishness in the air here. A lot of us, from time to time, come up with some outlandish ideas, some risky plans. Some might even say we do some crazy dreaming around here. Well, from one nutty dreamer to the group let me say: YOU ARE MY KIND of CRAZY!

Now let me tell you a story about how my Dad and some other crazy dreamers got rid of Bull Connor. Dad came to Birmingham fresh from his service as a clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, where he happened to be present when they handed down Brown vs. the Board of Education which made all school segregation illegal. He would be the first to say that as a white middle-class male, he was still unaware of many of the racial injustices of his day. He had a good heart, took his Methodist upbringing seriously, and believed that one’s faith must inform one’s politics. So when he arrived in Birmingham as a hot, young lawyer ready to take on the world, he discovered a town in the beginning turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement. Risking his life and career without thought, he began talking to everybody, white and black, and he helped to mediate some resolutions to the many problems. But no one could get Bull Connor, one of the three city commissioners who ran the town, to back down.

Dad and a few others dreamed up the idea that they could get rid of Connor if they could change the city government from a commission to a mayor-council model. Dad then thought of setting up petition tables at all the polling stations during an unrelated run-off election to get the thousands of signatures required to hold a city-wide referendum on changing the government. When the populace voted to disband the commission and establish a mayor-council form, that was the end of Connor's career. Dad later served as a councilman and as mayor in the late ‘70s.

Afterward, Dad pursued other projects and served B’ham in other ways, but I think being Mayor was the highlight of his career. He had the rare pleasure of getting to star in his own dream for his community, and though he was disappointed not serve longer, I know he was proud to turn over the keys to the first black mayor of Birmingham, Richard Arrington. I think Dad could see that this, too, was a result of his original “impossible” dream.

So, twenty years later, we found that having a three-month warning about his cancer gave us a chance to let everyone know it was time to celebrate Dad’s life. People held receptions in his honor and gave speeches. Friends and family journeyed to visit with him. His true legacy, the results of his dreams, his hard work, his integrity, honor and commitment were lifted up before him and pronounced “Good." I think this comforted him as he faced the end of his life.

We dreamers must take care of each other. We must support each other, engage in casting visions, lending strength and energy, discerning potential flaws, and taking risks to pursue worthy quests. We must celebrate and affirm each other’s hard work, be loving even when we disagree. Behind every knight errant, there must be a whole support system to facilitate those quests, large and small. Tilting at windmills is hard enough work, but the world is filled with giants a plenty wreaking havoc and destruction. We need more U.U.s mounting up to bring help to the afflicted, both near and far.

I am so proud to be with you on the quest. I believe in this church. I believe in what we are doing and what we have done, and what more we can do. Like most of you, I pledge what money I can, I give my time and effort, my presence all to support our impossible or nearly impossible dreams, to promote our outrageous quests.

Let us re-commit ourselves to work together to reach those unreachable stars!

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