When the Dream Falls Apart


We always think that one day we'll be more than we currently are. Down the road I'll become a teacher. Or a CEO. Or a published writer. Or an anchor person.

After I figure out my path. After I get my degree. After I get some years of experience under my belt.

But what happens when we've crossed all the hurdles, reached the "one day," and realize it isn't anything we remotely desire?

I'm watching a loved one struggle with this question at this very moment, and it brings back ripples of remembrance of the time my dream fell apart.

The Fulfillment of a Longing

For nearly as long as I can remember, I dreamed of one day working from home full-time as a writer. I was the arrogant 10-year-old visiting my mom's company proclaiming, "I'll never work in an office. Never."

I had images of myself in sweatpants and a cruddy t-shirt, hunkered down in my house, scribbling the hours away, day after day.

What precisely I was writing in that scenario is as good a guess yours as it would've been mine. I had absolutely no idea. But if I could avoid pointy shoes, shrill ringing phones, and flourescent lights, I'd write about urinals for all I cared.

Fast forward twenty years:   A large publishing house approaches and asks me to draft a textbook in developmental psychology.

To be honest, this isn't much more exciting than writing about urinals. I try to be chipper, though, convincing myself that writing a textbook would be more thrilling than reading one (ha!).

The cash advances enable me to quit my teaching job and I begin working from home full-time, scribbling the hours away in my yoga pants and stained sweatshirts.

I live the dream.

And hate every minute of it.

Dream, Meet Reality

Before you go thinking that perhaps if I'd been writing something more glamorous - my novel! my heartfelt book on careers for twentysomethings! magazine articles! - my dream would have panned out, let me be clear:  what bothered me most were the circumstances, not the subject.

I missed seeing PEOPLE daily. My long-idolized publishing world turned out to be a petty, ill-motivated, poorly-organized place with which I had no interest in doing business. I actually <gasp!> wanted to wear non-workout clothes once in a while.

And those realizations made my long-held worldview come crashing down.

My immune system plummeted, sleep became a formidable foe, and irritability developed into my perpetual demeanor du jour.

It felt a whole lot like mourning, with a giant dollop of disorientation tossed in. The world wobbled around off-kilter and I couldn't find a horizon line to gain a hint of perspective.

If what I always wanted wasn't what I actually wanted, then what in my life held true?

How to Deal with a Dream Disemboweled

Forget a dream deferred, when we've actually reached what we'd hoped for and realize it's not at all what we'd imagined, it's more a unicorn disemboweled than a raisin in the sun.

This may be the very reason we routinely put barriers in our own way - oh, I can't pursue a social work degree right now, I have so many hours of Homeland to catch up on... We fear that if our dream is allowed to face the dry wind of reality, it may wither and crack, more heap of sand than sand castle.

Chances are, that's exactly what will happen. Nothing can ever match the beauty in our minds.

The rub is that to get to doing truly meaningful work, we have to go through the disemboweling experience first.

So how do we cope?

The only answer I can assemble comes from thinking back on my dreadful full-time writing days and asking myself what i wanted to hear, what I wanted to know. If I had to boil it all down, the desired words would've gone something like this:

You are courageous beyond belief to not only formulate a dream, but to then pursue it, and then live it. You are even more courageous to stand in the full light of the knowledge that this dreamed-for life is not one you actually want, and to feel naked in the awareness that you have no clue what hopes and goals to move toward next.

Allow yourself to stay where you are for a time. It's so rare a moment when we're not pining or avoiding or striving or maintaining. Just be there, in your disoriented space. Learn what it feels like to break free of the "what's the next thing" mentality of our society.

Then, when the future path has become a blank canvas that you don't feel obligated to fill, then you can begin to imagine anew. This time it will be different; your early imaginings may feel jaded or cynical or disillusioned. You may mourn afresh the wide-eyed view you once had. That's OK; mourn it.

Eventually you'll be able to embrace what you've gained.  You'll realize that your new vision is grounded in what you always wanted:  genuine knowledge of who you are, the circumstances you can and cannot stand, and the impact you need to have on a daily basis to feel well used.

Instead of dreaming, you'll begin building. You'll be thankful for all you lost. And thankful for all you gained.

Photo credit: Bruce Stokes