In Search of Shangri-La

Posted on 18 March 2010

In the early 1930’s, James Hilton wrote a novel entitled Lost Horizon, which prompted Hollywood to create a screenplay and resultant motion picture of the same name.

The story concerned a French missionary, Father Perrault.  In the 1700’s, the good father got lost and accidentally stumbled into the Valley of the Blue Moon, situated in the mountains of Tibet.  Surrounded by high mountain peaks and warmed by the sun, the valley was a Garden of Eden amidst the frozen wastelands of Tibet.  Here, with the help of the valley people, Father Perrault built the Lamasery of Shangri-La.  Much like the waters at Lourdes, France, the valley held mysterious powers to heal the sick and wounded, the aged, and those suffering in spirit.  Perrault discovered this firsthand, after having to amputate his frozen leg upon his arrival in the original camp.

Perrault’s dream was to collect the treasures of the world and keep them safe, in the Valley of the Blue Moon, for all posterity — or at least until the great storm racking the world was over.  He estimated that this would occur simultaneously with Jesus’ prophesy of the meek inheriting the earth.  Although Perrault lived for 300 years, thanks to the curative forces in the valley, he realized that his time on the earth was coming to an end.  Therefore, he required a predecessor who was wise in the ways of the world, to fulfill his dream.

Father Perrault selected Robert Conway, an English diplomat and soldier of fortune to carry on his work.  By nefarious means, Perrault brought his successor to Shangri-La.  The man of God arranged for Conway and his group to be hijacked by a Mongolian pilot.  Fleeing from war-torn China with his charges, the pilot crash-landed in the frozen wasteland of Tibet.  A monk from the Lamasery and his porters found the survivors.  After a long and arduous climb up the summit, the monk delivered them into Shangri-La.

In this land of long life and lifelong dreams, Conway and his group found real happiness. After meeting the High Lama (Perrault), the Englishman realized, incredulously, that Father Perrault, reported to have perished, was still alive after six centuries!  The High Lama revealed his plan to Conway, explaining why he was chosen to carry on his work.  However, everyone in the group was not happy staying in Tibet forever, despite the long lives and happiness they were promised (there’s just no pleasing some people).  Conway’s younger brother and a seemingly young female friend and postulant of the lamasery named Lo-Tsen convinced the soldier-of-fortune that he was just a victim of false stories.  Thus, they planned to leave the Valley of the Blue Moon, arranging for porters to bring them back to so-called civilization.

The trio left the valley on the eve of Father Perrault’s death and entered the frozen wastelands beyond the warmth and protection of Shangri-La.  As they could not keep pace with the porters, they soon became lost in the blinding snow and perilous cold.  Lo-Tsen died of old age (the penalty for leaving Shangri-La).  When Conway’s brother went mad and jumped off a cliff, the Englishman struggled alone to recapture the civilization that he once knew.

After many days, he stumbled into a native village.  From there, word reached London that Conway had been found after one year of having gone missing. London dispatched an emissary to bring him home but Conway rejected the offer and waned to return to Shangri-La.  After a wild turn of events, Conway disappeared over a mountain pass, never to be seen again.

The emissary returned to London and told the story that Conway revealed to him.  The book ends when someone asks, “Do you really believe the story you heard?” — to which the man answered, “I believe it because I want to believe it!”  Raising his glass, he toasted Robert Conway and his quest to find Shangri-La.

Although this is, for the most part, a heartwarming tale, it is a work of pure fiction.  Every one of us dreams of a fabled land of milk and honey, in which we can grow old in peace and harmony with our fellow human beings.  Down through the ages humanity has sought Shangri-La, each in our own way.  Some of us dreamed of flying.  Perhaps we thought we would locate heaven on earth from the skies above us.   The Greek god Pegasus had wings and could fly, but Icarus of Greek legend was a mere mortal and as such, was denied the same right (his waxen wings melted when he flew too close to the sun).  Centuries after Icarus allegedly fell into the sea, that fine Italian genius, Leonardo DaVinci, dreamed of flying ships to transport mankind, creating mathematically precise drawings of what he’d seen in his mind’s eye.  At the time, they were only dreams, but some centuries later, the Wright Brothers brought those dreams to reality at Kitty Hawk.

The moral of Lost Horizon, and the moral of turning dreams into reality, much like alchemists laboring to create gold from baser metals, is this:  how many times have we dreamed of realizing a goal, of living The Man of LaMancha’s “Impossible Dream,” and how many times have we never even tried to pursue our aspirations because we’ve allowed our fears to hold us in check?  We blame finances, family obligations, our jobs, and heck, some of us even blame God.  Naysayers also stand in our way, telling us out of jealousy or perhaps their own fears that we can’t do it.  We let them get to us; we absorb their words as truths and thus, we table our dreams.  With heavy hearts, we leave them behind.  But somehow, those dreams refuse to die.

They return to us in the middle of the night, when there is no good reason for us not to be sleeping through until morning. They return to us in the oddest places and at the most inconvenient times, for who wants to face a dream left buried instead of explored to its fullest potential?   We look back in lament, wondering what might have happened had we taken that walk on the proverbial high wire.  Yes, it’s risky out there alone on the wire.  We can get vertigo and wish to retreat back the way we came, to a safe place … always wondering what lay on the other side.

The secret to fulfilling our dreams can found in the last paragraph of the novel, Lost Horizon.  It can also be found as the premise to the old Kevin Costner film, Field of Dreams (“If you build it, they will come.”).  Reams and reams of information have been written on this subject; they fill the shelves of libraries and book stores, and the most popular treatise currently may be The Secret … which is really no secret!  If you believe that you can achieve something, you have actually altered your brain chemistry to a certain degree.  You’ve armed yourself with a dream and if it means that much to you, and if you believe it, you will find a way to make it come true!

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2 Responses to “In Search of Shangri-La”

  1. Lynn Mancuso says:

    An excellent write-up with valid points, I have been a lurker here for a short time but desire to become more included from now on.

  2. I.W. says:

    Wow this is a great resource.. I’m enjoying it.. good article

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