This article was last modified on January 20, 2005.

Chasing Rainbows: Various Thoughts on Policy, Intention, and Perception

“And Charlie: don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he’d ever wished for … He lived happily ever after.” – Willy Wonka

The phenomenon known as “chasing rainbows” is generally thought to be a bad endeavor. But how do we know this? In the course of the next few pages, let us examine what chasing rainbows means, determine if the choice is, in fact, bad policy, and analyze the intentionality and perception behind the phenomenon.


The phrase “chasing rainbows” means to pursue a dream that we know is most likely never to come true. This is obviously taken from the real life idea of following a rainbow — for each step closer we come to the rainbow, the targeted object moves that one step further away from us, endlessly. The pursuit might be some grand vision of the future (a Utopian civilization), or perhaps the goal is the heart of a young woman who may or may not, in reality, exist.

The history of this phrase remains unclear to me — who first coined this term? Songs as early as 1918 (Joseph McCarthy’s “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”) have made reference to the idea, although I have no doubt the phrase is much older still.

More recently, the theme has been explored by Judy Garland (1961), Alice Cooper (1976), and pop-punk band No Use For a Name (1999). Contrary to the heart of this essay, the latter warns us, “All I want to do is make sure you stop chasing rainbows. Trusting those around you is an easy thing to do. I’m not saying don’t believe in someone that you don’t know; just don’t go on thinking that the whole world tells the truth.” It is this discouraging and pessimistic attitude that I wish to argue against.

An interesting sidetrack might be to compare the idea of “chasing rainbows” with the idea of “the grail” as presented in Chapter One of my essays on love. The theme of a lifelong journey runs strongly through both of them, and perhaps the ideas presented are really one and the same. Who would have told Sir Galahad or Arthur himself they were chasing rainbows? Surely not I.

Is Chasing Rainbows Bad Policy?

What is “bad policy”? To understand bad policy, perhaps the wise idea would be to first deconstruct “policy” in general. A policy is, according to Webster, “a definite course or method of action selected from among alternatives and in light of given conditions to guide and determine present and future decisions.” In short, a policy is a personal rule we have for ourselves to follow to make sure things go as we want them to (based on past experience). This idea is similar to the policies of corporations, although their polices are more often than not based on wholly separate premises.

Bad policy is a choice of lifestyle that is ultimately not to our benefit or to the benefit of anyone else in our circle of friends. [1] If we are to follow the definition assigned above, “bad policy” would be a personal rule that goes against what we know to have worked in the past. Being rude is bad policy, for example. Policy is neither a moral issue (sinful), nor a legal issue (unlawful), but rather an etiquette issue, if you will. Bad policy is our failing to take what we know to be good advice.

Most people would likely consider chasing rainbows to be bad policy. Can pursuing the impossible (or at least the improbable) be to our benefit? What could we possibly gain from this? Surely the answer is a list of emotional ailments: heartache, disappointment, a feeling of defeat, and ultimately hopeless bleak despair. The very idea seems almost psychologically and emotionally damaging — perhaps even leading to a strict codependence on the Imaginary.

I do not feel that chasing rainbows is bad policy for those who are strong in their convictions, however. When an object of desire is first established, I do not believe that the object is a rainbow at this point (or else we would have to clarify between things which are easily attainable or improbably attainable, and sometimes we simply cannot know the difference). The desired object becomes a rainbow once the first few attempts to retrieve said object have come up fruitless. The continued endeavor would seem hopeless. But we must remember how important convictions are to have and stick with them to the end. This is by far the most honorable and respectable state to be in.

Ideals are rainbows to be chased, and the achievement of them is possible. Some people fight for communism and others for anarchism — still others for world peace. These efforts are truly chasing rainbows as any rational person can testify these pipe dreams will never come to be. But can we help but admire the person who is willing to devote life and limb to their belief? And often times, look at the good achieved on the way. World peace is most likely impossible, but thinking that nothing has come of this ideal or that “world peace” is a bad ideal to strive for would be ignorance on our part.

With regards to men chasing women, can this also not be a noble venture with the right intent? (I imagine women chasing men is as well, but I lack any examples to back me up.) I call to your attention the lives of two extraordinary men — Stendhal and Kierkegaard.

Stendhal, the more commonly known name of Marie Henri Beyle, lived in the early 1800s in France. While he was the writer of numerous masterpieces (including The Red and the Black), his life was dominated by his thoughts for one woman: Mathilde Viscontini Dembowski. His love for her was so deep he devoted his book De l’Amour (On Love) to her in 1819. While the book is now seen as one of the greatest collections of thoughts on the subject, the novel did not successfully sway the heart of Mathilde. His other books had themes reflective of his undying passion for her subtly embedded in the heroines of their pages, as well. By 1822, he already realized his love for Dembrowski was hopeless, and plunged himself deeper into a world of self-destruction. Numerous affairs and flings were to follow, but Stendhal could never love again.

Soren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher and avid Christian, lived at almost the exact same time (although there is no reason to believe the two men had ever met each other or perhaps even heard of each other). His rainbow was named Regine Olsen, whom he met in 1837. The two of them got along quite well, and before long they were engaged. Suddenly, for reasons unexplained, Kierkegaard breaks off the engagement in 1841 and flees to Berlin to study on his own. Although immediately realizing the mistake he made, there was nothing he could do. All the letters he sent and the books he wrote in her honor did nothing to unbreak her heart, and in 1847 Regine marries another man. Kierkegaard becomes distraught and devotes the remainder of his life to wandering the streets of Copenhagen, never again risking his emotions on the heart of a woman (coincidentally, this is roughly the same time his books become increasingly centered on Christian theology).

Both men died horribly miserable and alone, but I envy them both for their dedication and conviction to remain true to their hearts.

A Note on Hope, Desire, and False Hope

When chasing rainbows, there seems to be an underlying appeal to hope. Because the journey will be long and treacherous, we may find ourselves saying “I hope this all works out for the best.” With this in mind, the concept of hope should be addressed. Allow me to start off with a story, as told by Nietzsche in his book Human, All Too Human:

“Pandora brought the jar with the evils and opened it. It was the gods’ gift to man, on the outside a beautiful, enticing gift, called the “lucky jar.” Then all the evils, those lively, winged beings, flew out of it. Since that time, they roam around and do harm to men by day and night. One single evil had not yet slipped out of the jar. As Zeus had wished, Pandora slammed the top down and it remained inside. So now man has the lucky jar in his house forever and thinks the world of the treasure. It is at his service; he reaches for it when he fancies it. For he does not know that the jar which Pandora brought was the jar of evils, and he takes the remaining evil for the greatest worldly good – it is hope, for Zeus did not want man to throw his life away, no matter how much the other evils might torment him, but rather to go on letting himself be tormented anew. To that end, he gives man hope. In truth, it is the most evil of evils because it prolongs man’s torment.”

While this is a searing and cynical polemic against hope, I think the story fails on two counts. First, hope is condemned as a whole. This is flatly wrong. If we had no hope at all — if we felt things were “hopeless” — there would be little point in carrying on at all. This is implied in the story (the Buddhist tenet that “all life is suffering”), but I do not know how much we can accept that. While hope does prolong our suffering, there are also many occasions where hope gets us to where we are more comfortable. Senator John McCain was in a prisoner of war camp for some time. Without hope, he surely might have died. He had hope on his side, and although he truly did suffer, he came out ahead in the long run. Nietzsche, we might recall, was the same man who proclaimed “that which does not kill me only serves to make me stronger.”

The second objection is that Nietzsche assumes that hope stands alone. Hope, by itself, is very likely to fail. Why? Because hope by itself is an appeal to fate. Simply having hope is the equivalent of lying around all day waiting for things to come to you. Rarely, if ever, does life work this way. Hope must be coupled with action to be effective. If we hope to pass a class, but make no effort to read the material, this hope will lead to failure. This is what we call false hope.

False hope could more rightly be called empty hope, as this type of hope is the hope of a sailboat without any wind. There is the false hope of hoping for the impossible (which is not what we are addressing here) and the false hope of hoping without giving your dreams a push. We must first have a want or desire — this is our sailboat. Hope is what fills the sails and takes us towards our goal. But this along will not get us there. We must steer our rudder, we cannot simply let hope carry us adrift. And yes, sometimes the waters are too treacherous and we cannot reach our goals, but we will surely not reach them at all without the foundation of hope. While this metaphor has been carried out a bit much, I believe the visual to be very effective.

If Success is Achieved… What Next?

If our convictions are strong, we need not worry about the problems associated with failure. We will take them as obstacles to be overcome and get back on our horse for another attempt with a new battle plan and will have only learned from our mistakes. The problem to worry about is the one we never expect to deal with — the problem of success.

If we are serious about chasing rainbows, the desire becomes an obsession and infects us like a plague from the inside until the Self and our Ideal become one and the same. Our very essence is defined by the Ideal, while our existence relies on this essence. So what happens when the goal is achieved and there is no longer any pursuit — what of our essence then?

Three possibilities come to mind. The first concept is that we become virtually dead. We go through the motions of life, but our Will ceases to be and our spark is diminished. When we know of nothing to fill our time with but our Ideal, our time becomes meaningless once this Ideal is removed or achieved. The successful man must pass the torch to another whose time has come to reach the Ideal, for he has nothing further to contribute at this point. This possibility is wholly depressing and one should wonder why bother to try at all if this is how we will end up.

The second concept is the idea of backtracking. We have the option of taking our success and giving everything we have earned back. On the television show Dawson’s Creek, Dawson’s mother is having an affair with her co-worker. When Mitch, her husband, finds out and asks her why, this is her response:

“Get ready, Mitch, because if you think it can’t get worse, it can. My reason is preposterous. I have no reason. No. I woke up one day, Mitch, and I realized, my life was perfect. Everything I’d ever wanted from the time I was 6 had been realized. I discovered perfection obtained is a discomforting state. And I got restless. What do you do when everything is right? When everything is just the way you’ve always wanted it to be? I have the perfect home, a career, the most gifted child, a husband who stimulates me mind, body, and soul everyday of my life. I want for nothing. And I guess that left me feeling empty not wanting. And I just wanted to want again. So, I set out to achieve it, and boy did I succeed. Because what I want now, I want back everything that I’ve lost. Mitch, I’m so sorry.”

While success can leave us empty, this character painfully points out to us why we can become even more empty if we are to give up on our rainbow after we have finally chased that goal down. We should not become numb to the outside world, and we should not throw away the work we have tried so hard for, either. But we know success is not so miserable, right? There must be a third perspective.

The final concept is that we must “switch gears” and become tenders of our garden. If we achieve world peace, our responsibility now is to maintain this peace. If we win the heart of our deepest love, we must embrace this heart and cherish this blessing forever. I refer to Kierkegaard yet again, who stressed repetition and re-affirmation in our daily lives — every morning a re-choosing of the choice we have already made. Or perhaps still once more to Nietzsche, who stressed that we ought to act as if we had to choose the act over and over again eternally. While we can no longer pursue our goal, we can embrace our desire for this thing over and over again in each breath by re-affirming our devotion within our hearts with each passing day. When the Chaser of Rainbows succeeds, perhaps he is called to a higher purpose — to be Keeper of the Rainbow?

Another way to switch gears is to see the achieved rainbow as the foundation for a new rainbow. Perhaps our first rainbow was modest — writing the great American novel. We could take this success and use the experience as firm ground to reach the next step — perhaps a major motion picture based upon our novel?

Perhaps we can keep in mind the words of social reformer Karl Marx: “The writer must earn money in order to write, but he must by no means live and write for the purpose of making money.” Two points are be gleaned from this. First, that if our goal is to write, let our goal be to write regardless of whether or not this goal is profitable. Marx is not saying that making money from our writings is wrong, but simply that our motivation should be pure and not for monetary gain. The second point, being more on topic, is that all rainbows have steps to reach them. We cannot simply write and do nothing else. In order to achieve the goal of writing, we must first achieve the step of being able to live. Common sense, maybe, but an important point to remember — too many starving artists have starved to death before they have ever taken off.

There is no reason we cannot have two or more rainbows, one after another. As long as we do not decided to chase two rainbows at once.

Why You Cannot Chase Two Rainbows

Chasing one rainbow is by itself an endeavor that could take a lifetime to achieve. A second rainbow is merely a distraction, and those who chase rainbows need as few distractions as possible. A quotation and an allegory to drive this point home:

The Bible speaks of tearing ourself in two directions. “No one can serve two masters. Either he will have the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” [2] Clearly, the intent here is that we must devote our lives to God and not be distracted by capital gains. But taken out of context, this raises an equally fine point for us — following two rainbows will get us nowhere. Only one can be our “master”, the one we work for. We will not achieve both, and we will grow to despise that which we cannot love. When our dreams become nightmares, we have been led astray.

Another way to explain why we cannot have two rainbows is to recall Hitler’s downfall in the Second World War. When writing his political treatise, Mein Kampf, Hitler knew he could only side with England against Russia or Russia against England. There was no way he could end up having to take on both of them. These goals were much too large. Ultimately, this was exactly his downfall. While being fully engaged in the West, the troops in the East became overrun by the Soviet menace and Germany fell. Had he left Russia alone, perhaps Hitler, too, could have achieved his rainbow? Instead, he ended up in a ditch covered in petrol. [Note: I am not suggesting I support Hitler, I simply wish to point out one major instance where he failed strategically.]

What If Our Perceptions Were Wrong?

Talking of intentions and perceptions here might be important. Intentions are what we hope to be or do. If I intend to do something, I do this thing on purpose or “direct myself” towards that end. Every intention is an intention of something. Perceptions are what we see or sense empirically. But what if the rainbow we are intending (have a desire of) is not the same rainbow we eventually perceive (the rainbow that actually is)? For is the observation not true that rainbows are often mere illusions? We may recall Sir Galahad believing he had found the Grail, when in fact all he had found was a grail-shaped beacon within the Castle Anthrax.

Often times when a man devotes himself to a cause, he loses sight of the reality. We might choose communism while conveniently ignoring all the negative aspects this ideology might have. Or perhaps he is in love with “the idea” of a woman in his mind without really knowing who she is. We have seen countless times in movies and reality where men will chase after women as they knew them years ago rather than they are now. We might recall the cult film Strange Days, where the main character (Lenny) is chasing after his ex-girlfriend (Faith) while literally replaying old memories before his eyes of a woman who no longer exists. Once they find and obtain this rainbow, how do they deal with this apparent loss and was the pursuit worth the effort in the first place? Can reality compare to our ideals?

The option of denial exists where we can continue to block out the bad aspects in the hopes that they will solve themselves or simply go away. This option is clearly a poor choice (if we hold truth to supersede falsehood) because denial is always false and a lie to oneself. These things will never go away. Along these lines is the idea of a psychological phenomenon known as The New Look. This school of thought believed that we could get ourselves to see what we expected to see rather than what was really there. For example, a man shown a deck of cards where the diamonds are black might respond that they are red when asked later that evening. We do this to our senses all the time. One could even say that love does this in a positive way by blinding us — making the unattractive appear attractive by focusing on certain characteristics and ignoring others. Beauty is subjective, but we might be curious and wonder how even the most obtuse or obese people find true love. While I cannot favor denial, I must simultaneously affirm the idea of love — regardless of the contradictory implications that might arise.

The other option is to cut your losses and move on. While this may seem impossible after the years of hardship to achieve what has been done, moving on is the only honorable choice. Saying just how to go about this is unnecessary — each man must decide for himself. Should he choose a new ideal? Or simply go on with life knowing he could never have the same level of conviction that he once had? (In the field of love, can we not deny this? We may love many times, but there will only ever be that One Love which stands out for us as the one that really matters. Perhaps they are our “true love” or maybe even “the one that got away.”)

The pursuit matters, even if this chase ultimately ends in failure or in a success with unforeseen results. Seeing our goals through to completion is noble no matter what comes from the adventure. Yes, we might pity the man whose convictions are leading him astray. But we pity him for the ultimate sadness he will endure, not for his strong sense of conviction. We envy this conviction, no doubt, even if we do not share his views or goals. Few are those who follow through or finish what they start. Life is like a game of Monopoly in this way — where only the truly devoted and patient have a chance win.


Ultimately, the choice of chasing rainbows is the decision of each person. Some poor, unfortunate souls may not even have a rainbow to chase. But for those who do, I encourage you to follow your dream and I support you. Pick up your walking stick and take that great hike. Pass or fail, you will not regret the choice you have made. Chasing rainbows is noble and honorable, not bad policy — and most of all, if we are true to ourself, this adventure of self-examination will be the most rewarding quest we could ever hope to take.

[1] Originally, I saw bad policy as bad in general, but James Skemp has wisely pointed out to me that often when we make poor choices, those poor choices reflect favorably on other people. Moreover, terms such as “bad” and “good” can be considered subjective in many cases, and we should not assume that something which is bad policy for us would necessarily be bad policy for anyone else.

[2] Do not be confused by this to mean that we cannot have two higher things in our life. For example, we might be very devoted in our careers and simultaneously be devoted to our spouse. Both of these things is important. However, both cannot be rainbows. Either one works to help in the other (for example, a good job is helpful to a stable marriage) or one must be eliminated as an end goal. Full devotion to one means decreased devotion to the other, unless one is a step to reach the other. Conversely, if we consider our career the rainbow, we must either have our spouse be secondary to this goal (such as a politician’s spouse is often a support), or like many career-oriented people avoid serious relationships altogether.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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