Posted by: Robin | March 10, 2009

The Trouble with Dreams

I just read that on this date in 1876 (March 10) Alexander Graham Bell made his first phone call to his assistent Watson in the next room. When he wrote to his father he predicted that houses were going to be connected by wires, and people would be able to talk to each other whenever they wanted. Forty years later Bell was there in New York City for the dedication of the first transcontinental phone line, and called Watson again, this time in San Francisco instead of the  next room saying the same thing he had the first time: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” What a perfect moment! How great that Bell was still alive to see his dream come to fruition not once but twice. And that is the trouble with dreams, sometimes for some people they come true, and come true in spades.

I just finished one of those long overdue 20th-century classics I continually procrastinate reading because the ‘great novels’ of that century are pretty bleak. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck has at its core a dream. It is at a glance nowhere as ambitious as Bell’s and certainly not world-changing. It is the dream of owning a modest piece of land to farm and have a place where a trio of men can belong and live without being hostages of fate and other people’s whims. Every one who hears the dream reacts in one of two ways–they want to partake or they laugh at how every drifter wants that dream and none ever get it. At one time in the course of the novel the dream becomes tangible and the plan to reach it realistic and within their grasp. The reader can’t help but be caught up in the contagion of hope despite Steinbeck’s making clear from the advent of Lenny and George onto the stage that this story will not end well. Yet one tiny choice here, one tiny choice there, the reader can see that the dream was possible, as possible as it was impossible.

We are a culture that loves to hear about the underdog, about the person who defies the odds. We love to believe that all things are possible, and that hope is not unreasonable. It is one of the great quandaries of parenthood when our children at eighteen still aspire to be things when they grow up  that involve jobs where the stats are against them, whether it be the arts or a field where the ratio of jobs to applicants weighs heavily against them. Should we be realistic and discourage their dream, or insist on a plan B, or support them in it? Who can say they won’t be the one in a few hundred who gets that job and succeeds?

It is also a quandry for those of us who have pursued dreams. When do we let go? There are almost always human exceptions to every rule: the woman who gets pregnant after years of trying, the person who heals after being at death’s door, the artist or writer who after twenty or more years of rejection finally breaks through. It is very human to hope. It is what gets us up in the morning. It is a very good thing, but it can also, like most of the best things be destructively addictive if a particular hope becomes the end measure for our lives. I have no easy answers, except for measuring this dream against the cost. At the end of our lives, will all we invested be worth it if the dream we have spent our life chasing but never getting, also means we never lived and always neglected ourselves and others.

And yet dreams require seasons of sacrifice. If Bell hadn’t been willing to undergo those seasons of sacrifice I might not be writing a blog for anyone who wants to to read. It is a circular argument. I guess the real trick is making the choice and the sacrifice with our eyes open and taking responsibility for that choice when the price comes knocking. The one certainty is that dreams are never neutral. We drive them or they drive us.

I don’t think Steinbeck was saying we are stupid for dreaming, or that pursuing and hoping are a fool’s paradise. The striving brought out the best in the best of his characters and the worst in the worst. The facts are the facts. Our dreams depend on other people and on circumstances usually outside our control. Our dreams depend more on our capacity to be what is required than our capacity to imagine what might be. That being true, most of us will in one way or another live lives of “dreams deferred” as Langston Hughes wrote. Then the challenge is not to be bitter, but to learn contentment and appreciation of what we have.

We will always hear about the exceptions. For many of us they will inspire and justify. But it is important at times to read about the majority of us who have to figure out how to live with dreams that died. I for one think we must grieve, but then we get up and dust ourselves off and discover what good things are within our grasp. Faith, hope and love. A sunny, warm day. A good laugh. The touch of those we love. A child delighting in an empty box. Finishing something hard and doing it well. And then who knows? Maybe we dream new dreams.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: