How often do you tilt at windmills?

Today is March 16 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you tilt at windmills?” Navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well involves dealing with worries, enemies, and adversaries. The phrase ‘tilting at windmills’ derives from an episode in the novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes wherein protagonist Don Quixote fights windmills that he imagines are giants. Technically, ‘tilting at windmills’ is an English idiom which means attacking imaginary enemies. The word "tilt", in this context, comes from jousting. The phrase is sometimes used to describe confrontations where adversaries are incorrectly perceived, or courses of action that are based on misinterpreted or misapplied heroic, romantic, or idealistic justifications. As Cervantes wrote:


“Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, ‘Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless.’ ‘What giants?’ asked Sancho Panza ‘Those you see over there, replied his master, ‘with their long arms. Some of them have arms well-nigh two leagues in length.’ ‘Take care, sir,’ cried Sancho. ‘Those over there are not giants but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone.’”


Often regarded as the greatest writer in the Spanish language, Miguel de Cervantes’ novel The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, also known as Don Quixote, is cited as both the first modern novel and one of the pinnacles of world literature. The catalyst for his work, however, was the harrowing five years starting in 1575 that he spent in the dungeons of Algiers as a prisoner of the Barbary pirates. As Ariel Dorfman wrote in The New York Times October 7, 2016 article "In Exile With 'Don Quixote,'" upon his return to Spain, a crippled war veteran neglected by those who had sent him into conflict, “Cervantes concluded if we cannot heal the misfortunes that assail our bodies, we can, however, hold sway over how our soul responds to those sorrows. His ordeal put him face to face with a dilemma that he resolved to our joy: Either succumb to the bitterness of despair or let loose the wings of the imagination. The result was a book that pushed the limits of creativity, subverting every tradition and convention. Instead of a rancorous indictment of a decaying Spain that had rejected and censored him, Cervantes invented a tour de force as playful and ironic as it was multifaceted, laying the ground for all the wild experiments the novelistic genre was to undergo.”


Cervantes published the work in two parts: part one in 1605 and part two in 1615. This is in and of itself important to remember as you navigate the chaos and practice the art of living well. It takes time and might involve a life-changing experience. One of the greatest novels in world literature was written in two parts over the span of a decade and came about following his five years in captivity. Remember that as you go about trying to translate one dream after another into reality.


In the novel, Don Quixote believes his nemesis, a magician named Friston, turned the windmills into giants. Don Quixote battles the windmills because he believes he will defeat them and collect the spoils and the glory as a knight. However, when he charges the "giants," his lance gets caught in a sail. The lance snaps and Don Quixote and his horse Rocinante are hurled some distance away to the ground. After his companion Sancho Panza helps him up, Don Quixote explains why the giants are gone and only windmills are in their place. Instead of recognizing his mistake, Don Quixote insists that the windmills were once giants. He says that Friston turned them into windmills and did so on purpose to deprive Don Quixote of the honor of slaying the giants. While it is easy to label Don Quixote’s obsession with the windmills as giants as delusional because he was, it serves us better to recall the words of another accomplished writer.


Mark Twain noted “I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” As you navigate the chaos remember to work at differentiating between real and perceived concerns. There is no need to torture yourself. The more time you spend attacking perceived enemies the less time you have for those tasks that require your attention. How often have you worried in your life, yet it never came to fruition? How much time do you spend reflecting upon real versus imaginary enemies, giants, or worries in your life? If you attempt to battle imaginary enemies, giants, or worries, you risk falling to the ground as Don Quixote did in the novel.


It takes a disciplined mind, a dedicated spirit, and an untiring heart to navigate the chaos, to practice the art of living well, and to overcome the real difficulties. How often do you tilt at windmills? How often does a fight with an imaginary enemy distract you from moving forward?