Every night I lie in bed, the brightest colors fill my head. A million dreams are keepin’ me awake. I think of what the world could be, a vision of the one I see. A million dreams is all it’s gonna take. A million dreams for the world we’re gonna make.”
As P.T. Barnum sings these words to Charity in the beautiful montage of their young lives, we are captivated by the hope that they share, the possibilities of their bright future, and the chance of their love overcoming the wall between privilege and poverty that keeps them apart. But as we race through the moments of their youth, through school and dating and marriage and having children, we quickly discover that this story asks a far greater question than whether or not P.T. and Charity are going to make it together. The Greatest Showman asks us to wrestle with the quest for the holy grail of our modern world: success and happiness. What is the good life? If a million of our wildest dreams came true, would we truly be happy?
Now middle-aged and disillusioned with how his life has turned out so far, Barnum returns home one day, freshly laid off from a tedious office job in a dreary industrial park. He walks through the rooms of their run-down apartment and laments to his wife, “This isn’t the life I promised you.” Born the son of a tailor in poverty, he is desperate to provide a better life for his family than the one he knew as a child. Charity, seeing that P.T. is discouraged, wishes aloud for his happiness and attempts to reframe his perspective with the wonderful life they already share with their two daughters. But Barnum knows that he still wants more. His daughters, in turn, help to guide Barnum’s ambition from building a wax museum to creating a circus comprised of people with wildly curious features and talents, until his fame and fortune grow so large that his company receives an invitation to meet the Queen of England!
To this point, P.T. has achieved the love of the common folk and enough money to move into his childhood dream home, but he aspires to be revered by the upper classes of society as well. Recruiting a famous European singer, he hosts a show at an exquisite theater in an attempt to establish his name among the critics. Seeing the distinguished crowd, Charity asks, “Are you happy?” Barnum answers, “I will be if this works.” But one standing ovation and thunderous applause later, he’s planning an extensive tour across the United States, to the utter bewilderment of his business partner, which has the potential to devastate him financially if anything goes wrong.
Can you see the pattern? “I will be happy if…” This journey has no end! We will never reach our destination if our happiness is contingent upon something that we must achieve. Psychologist Shawn Achor, a globally renowned speaker on the subject of happiness, reveals that the traditional way most of us search for happiness is “broken and backwards.” The idea that ‘I must work hard to be successful and then I’ll be happy’ has effectively “pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon” in our society. Why? If you get good grades in school one year, you’ve gotta do it again the next year. If you graduate from school, then you’ve gotta get a job. Once you’ve got a job, you’ve gotta work your way up and get promoted or get a better job. The targets of success are always changing. Therefore, your happiness at meeting those targets is always fleeting and your successes will never ultimately satisfy you.
This sentiment underpins the entire narrative arc of The Greatest Showman and is most vividly expressed through the lyrics of the song, “Never Enough,” that we hear from the European sensation, Jenny Lind:
“All the shine of a thousand spotlights /
All the stars we steal from the night sky will
never be enough / Never be enough
Towers of gold are still too little /
These hands could hold the world but it’ll
never be enough / Never be enough for me”
No matter how great of a showman Barnum becomes, it will never be enough for him. No matter how big of a star the singer becomes, she has a greater hole in her heart that she believes can only be filled by something more.
What are we to make of this tragic human condition? Are we doomed to race through our lives from dream to dream, always pressing forward and never feeling fulfilled? Considering the nature of the insatiable desire we all have for more than this life has given us, C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity suggests this: “Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they can never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject which excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy.” The problem, he continues, is of course not in the things themselves (i.e. a bad marriage or a disappointing vacation – for it could be the very best of relationships or adventures), nor is it that we ought to stop dreaming, settle down, and resign ourselves to a life that is ultimately unfulfilling. Not at all. Rather, as C.S. Lewis says, “if I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world…I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death.”
If we put our faith in temporal things, they will inevitably let us down. They were never meant to be enough for us. Not alone. When Barnum finally does hit bottom, he recognizes that his heart has been led astray, fooled into thinking that fame or fortune could satisfy him. In the song, “From Now On,” he sings these poignant words:
“I drank champagne with kings and queens /
The politicians praised my name
But those are someone else’s dreams /
The pitfalls of the man I became
For years and years / I chased their cheers
The crazy speed of always needing more”
So when our eyes are no longer “blinded by the lights,” when we realize that our greatest successes and our most fulfilling relationships will only take us so far, how do we cultivate an attitude of thanksgiving for the things we have, while not mistaking them for what they cannot give us, as Lewis suggests? How can we escape “the crazy speed of always needing more?”
The French philosopher Blaise Pascal, in his Pensees, argues there is only one place – one person – where we can find our rest: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end… And yet, after such a great number of years, no one without faith has reached the point to which all continually look…What is it, then, that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself. He only is our true good.”
In Jesus, we find a man who invites us into his presence with these words: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). He is the only one who can fill “the infinite abyss” of desire in our souls. The green pastures and still waters of our Good Shepherd are the “true country” for which our hearts long (Psalm 23). He doesn’t change. His grace is always sufficient for us, even in suffering and weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Therefore, the apostle Paul is able to proclaim that he “has learned the secret of being content, in any and every situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12). Psalm 1 declares that people who find their delight in the Lord will be blessed “like a tree, planted in streams of water, that bears its fruit in season, and its leaf does not wither.” When you have fully devoted yourself and your dreams to your Creator, you will discover that “everything you ever want” and “everything you ever need” is “right here in front of you” in Christ Jesus.