“The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.”
-Miguel de Cervantes, from Don Quijote
Don Quijote was the first modern novel; undoubtedly one of the greatest works of literature in all of Humanity. The book describes the adventures of an elderly gentleman who becomes obsessed with reading books about knights-errant and their deeds. From so little sleep and so much reading, his brain dried out, and he became insane. He sets out to look for adventures that would befit a knight of his standing. He convinces a local peasant (Sancho) to become his squire (after he promises him untold wealth and prestige).
During their first adventure (by far the briefest of many), Don Quijote and Sancho run into many windmills, a common sight in the area they lived in. Don Quijote believes that these are giants. In the books that he has been reading, giants always have vast amounts of hidden treasure. Some of them may even harbor a captive princess or two.
Don Quijote tells Sancho that he will engage these giants in battle. Sancho warns him that there are no giants in sight; that these are windmills; that they are used to process grain; that it would be dangerous to get too close to them. Don Quijote, of course, ignores his squire’s advice. He spurs his horse into battle, and both him and his horse are sent flying. He miraculously survives, albeit with many bruises.
Once Don Quijote brushes himself off and tends to his ailing horse, Sancho admonishes him, basically saying: “I told you so.” To Sancho´s (and the reader’s) surprise, Don Quijote agrees that they were indeed windmills. But there is a caveat: he is sure that an evil wizard who hates him transformed the giants into windmills just before he established contact.
One of the many reasons that this book has kept its luster for 500 years is the way that Cervantes uses comedy to allow us to safely accept our flawed human condition. It is as if he were placing a mirror in front of us. From the Impossible Dream to tilting at windmills, Don Quijote’s insanity is revealed to be nothing more than our “normal” behavior taken to a ludicrous extreme.
We are human. Our brains are hard-wired to believe what we want to believe. When our existence is presented with occurrences that we do not understand, we will come up with an explanation that seems logical to us. If there is a member of our social group that has a gift for persuasion, we will accept their view of the world as he or she sees it without the slightest hint of skepticism.
Over the centuries, as we acquired the means to understand and at times dominate our environment, new knowledge inevitably contradicted explanations that had been passed on from generation to generation for centuries. There were times when those who derived benefit from passing on the old wisdom clashed with those who believed what they saw with their own eyes.
Galileo was threatened because he could prove that the sun was the center of our solar system. Harvey had a hard time convincing other doctors how blood truly circulated. People who believed that God had made himself human went to war against others who felt that it was blasphemous to attribute any vestige of humanity to their God.
We have been unable to re-wire our brains so that our first instinct when presented with a different point of view is not rejection. Instead, we have used our vast new knowledge to invent systems that will multiply the number of people who agree with our view of the world. We have made it easy for anyone, no matter how unprepared, to announce to millions of people at a time that we are indeed surrounded by dangerous giants. Like subservient sheep, we have followed modern-day Don Quijote into battle against nonexistent enemies.
Like Don Quijote, we will be tossed aside by reality.
Like Don Quijote, we will dust ourselves off. We will admit that maybe these were not giants after all.
Like Don Quijote, we will find another enemy to blame for our defeat. We will believe what we are told: that evil wizards are coming to hunt us down. We will gather en masse once again; we will shed more blood; we will curse our bad fortune.
I can only hope that the truth will surface; that the oil of our existence rises above water, soon, before it is too late.