Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

The Dingle-Derry Complex: Unrealistic Expectations

Originally posted on February 20, 2013

Reading Jean Houston’s mythic take on the classical Wizard of Oz 1939 movie, I was reminded of my own take on a tiny element in that great epic, the wistful song sung by the Scarecrow, “If I Only Had a Brain.” The Lyrics:

I would while away the hours / Conferin’ with the flowers
  Consultin’ with the rain
And my head I’d be scratchin’ / While my thoughts were busy hatchin’ /
  If I only had a brain.
I’d unravel every riddle, / For every individ’le, /
   In trouble or in pain.
With the thoughts I’d be thinkin’, / I could be another Lincoln,
   If I only had a brain.
Oh I… could tell you why, / The ocean’s near the shore.
    I could think of things I never thunk before,
    And then I’d sit, and think some more.
I would not be just a nothin’, /  My head all full of stuffin’, 
  My heart all full of pain.
I would dance and by merry, / Life would be a dingle derry, 
   If I only had a brain.

(Here’s another verse in the original: )
Yeah, it would be kind of pleasin’ / To reason out the reason,
   For the things I can’t explain.
Then perhaps I’d deserve you, / And be even worthy of you,
  If I only had a brain.

I realized a few years ago that this song expressed well what I call the “Dingle-Derry Complex,” which is another way for speaking about the way humans entertain unrealistic expectations. Often this is because we have childish illusions about what we think we want or should want. If I were rich, if I had the most glamorous love-sex partner, if I only lived in a “free” country, when I get to Heaven, etc. People really do entertain a goodly number of these. It’s better to recognize this illusion, though.

The most striking thing about this song is that on first glance it’s sort of plausible, and then if you think about it, every one of those things the Scarecrow wants is either illusory or at best an over-simplification of truth. Some elements are logical fallacies: For example, the ocean is near the shore because that’s the definition of shore! Some elements are illusions, such as the obvious “truth” that the flowers would converse with you if you only were smart enough to know their language. That they don’t converse, that it’s an anthropomorphic projection (the assumption that the sun, moon, wind, etc. have human motives)—inconceivable to those of an animistic turn of mind.

Our friend the Scarecrow is aware of his simplicity, but others, of course, seem to know more, much more. He could too if he only had a brain. They—professors, scientists, statesmen (i.e., those politicians elected to office where they learn high-level secrets and with this knowledge are empowered to be truly wise)—certainly know how. Now the question is, why don’t they fix things, make peace, cure cancer?

The Dingle-Derry Complex involves the process of idealizing those who seem to know more. It is most difficult to appreciate accurately consciousness that is more expanded than oneself. “A pickpocket at a conference of saints would only see their pockets.” One either doesn’t know how to recognize other-consciousness—tends to devalue or ignore it—or sometimes over-idealizes it, attributing to it powers that have not been evidenced.

Helping Others in Trouble or In Pain

The second verse is important because there are significant controversies raised here: Can any professional helper, therapist, wise person, anyone, unravel every riddle for every individual? There are multiple associated problems involved in the Dingle-Derry complex. For example, are we asking the right question? What if the people we are trying to help are asking the wrong questions, such as “What have I done to deserve this?” “Why is God not helping me in this time of need?” “If God is All-Powerful, how come there is evil in the world?” “Why did Sheila dump me?”

To unravel every riddle thus blurs over into the fact that most people don’t want to hear or register in their consciousness the obvious answers. For example, how many people who are deep in denial will really hear a formerly beloved tell the truth? “Because you have become an annoying, sloppy, at times emotionally incontinent alcoholic and a pain in the butt.” (This truth may need to become acknowledged, as it is in the Twelve Step program of AA.) It would undercut the thrust of the “pity-me” lyrics of innumerable country-western songs. Rarely, though, is this strong confrontation used by psychotherapists, and generally this is wise, because few clients are ready for this level of self-recognition.

Most people want relief from the psycho-socio-economic consequences of their own bad behavior, as if the suffering could be ameliorated by “therapy” or a pill. But they resist mightily the idea that it is their own behavior and the deeper attitudes that support and drive that behavior that might need radical revision. (This is what Fritz Perls [the most notable founder of Gestalt Therapy, but not the only one] meant by his line, “Most people don’t want to stop being neurotic; they just want to get better at it.”)

In short, unraveling individual’s riddles is not something smart people—infinitely smart people—have the power to do, because people’s pride won’t let a true unraveling happen! The next closest illusion is “There must be some way to get my (relationship status—wife, son, father, sibling) to stop (drinking, gambling, having affairs, whatever).”

Other Unrealistic Expectations

Okay, let’s proceed. The scarecrow expects that his near-omnipotent desire-fantasies could be fulfilled if he were only smart enough. Don’t laugh! People really will demand this as pills for “cognitive enhancement” get onto the open market. It’s like thinking that with enough Viagra you can overcome the fact that no girl would even date you to begin with, because … (fill in the uncomfortable reality).

The allusion to Lincoln is the fate of the idealized: Any inspection of his career, and especially the peak of his career in managing the Civil War, leads to the awareness that it’s very plausible to second-guess him for a goodly percentage of his decisions. (The recent movie about Lincoln highlights the perilous balances in political and other historical process!) Those decisions that turned out well in the long run redound to his credit. A number of noble deeds are magnified. Less noble and deeply disturbing acts during his presidency are overlooked by most. At any rate, Lincoln hit some lucky breaks, journalism and history-wise. It turns out that most politicians did some good stuff and some bad stuff and some questionable stuff and journalists and historians build their careers as they build a case for or against the target of their study’s “greatness” status.

Back to the ocean-near-the-shore conundrum. It also occurs to me that shore-ness is less fixed than it is commonly thought. In this era of tsunamis, global warming, melting of the arctic ice pack, raising and falling of the ocean levels, much less the ongoing tectonic plate shifts and the clear truth that what used to be ocean is dry land and vice versa, what, then is truth, enduring truth? Which ocean, which shore, and for how long? Are tidal patterns considered? Was the Scarecrow was intuiting the underlying ambiguity and complexity of the interface of oceanographic and geologic fluctuations? I don’t think so.

So, in conclusion, it is true that with a few more brains the Scarecrow would be able to think of things he never thought—“thunk” is poor grammar—before; however, it is questionable whether as a consequence life would indeed be a dingle-derry.

I have sought, high and low, to clarify what dingle-derry refers to. Apparently it is something relatively care-free, which then opens a whole philosophical problem—a bit of a paradox: Those with any sort of brain tend to find that there are things to not only care about, but actually be tempted to worry a bit. Care-free-ness tends to be more associated with brain-less-ness.


In spite of all these thought-provoked considerations, I really like the song. I sing it. I have made it my goal to seek Dingle-Derry as a Life Goal. I am hopeful that you will help me. Maybe, if I have demonstrated all this, thus proving I have a brain, you’ll be so impressed with this analysis, so in awe of the immensity and fluency of my “brain,” that you’ll, I don’t know what… but according to the Dingle-Derry complex, it’ll be great, somehow. I leave it to you to surprise me. Help me experience something more wonderful than anything my poor brilliant but nonetheless limited brain—even superhuman, super-ET brains have their limits, you know—more wonderful than I could ever imagine or desire. A conference with the flowers, perhaps. Ha ha ha. May your life also be a Dingle-Derry!

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