When Dreams Die
I killed a dream earlier this year.
Its demise came at the beginning of a road trip’s end. A few days earlier, we drove across state lines to spy out our potential promised land, much like Caleb and Joshua in Numbers 13. We encountered no giants in that place, only a thousand little details casting the shadow of a doubt.
Throughout the trip, my feet walked the same circle. Possibility, a surge of confidence, misgiving, despair, back to possibility. Over and over again.
I expected my wife and I would arrive at a decision just before arriving home at the end of a six-hour drive. But early in our return trip, within an hour or so, I blurted out the concerns of my sinking heart. The math—literal and emotional—didn’t work. The pieces didn’t fit. Somewhere in the distance, I heard a door slam shut.
I drove the rest of the way home in a blue fugue, accompanied by one answer and a dozen more questions. How do you grieve the long life, and sudden death, of a dream? When no clear moral difference exists between following a dream and finishing it, can you ever be sure you made the right choice?
Sometimes I wish the Bible read like a book of quotations. Open the index at the back of the book, run your finger down the page to the entry for “dreams,” then discover a few pithy one-liners to guide you forward. But scripture yields no such satisfaction.
Sure, we read of Daniel’s fateful ability to interpret dreams—and of Peter’s vision, which wrecks ethnic and religious pride in the early church. But the Bible seems to offer little aid as we sift waking dreams and develop our pictures of the better life just beyond our grasp.
Absent of explicit instruction, we tend to fill in the gaps. And our theology of dreams resembles a pendulum’s swing. Some elevate dreams to the place of canon, believing something like “God won’t give you more dreams than you can handle.”
Others take a more self-effacing approach. Tears still form in the corners of my eyes when I recall the line Twila Paris penned some twenty years ago: “Could it be that he is only waiting there to see / If I will learn to love the dreams that he has dreamed for me?”
A sort of beauty suffuses that lyric, which rings with truth. But is it really true? Is God primarily in the business of planting our dreams and aspirations, or uprooting them?
Sometimes I experience Paris’s words like a balm for the soul; other times it sounds like a bait-and-switch. How do we identify, in the words of a very different songwriter, a “God dream?” Maybe only Kanye knows.
People like me, wired to downshift our ambition and downplay our worth, risk committing an error that’s equal and opposite to those who chase every dream at any cost. Automatically dismissing our dreams merely turns us into the claims adjuster trained to refuse on principle. These acts of self-denial make us appear, and even feel, holier in the short-term, but do little to help us parse God’s best for our lives.
We learn more when we steer out of the all-or-nothing skid, and ask better questions of our dreams. Science tells us that in slumber dreams allow us to order all the information and input embedded somewhere down deep. We work out what matters and discard what doesn’t, even if our labor takes a form that’s feverish and surreal.
Perhaps our waking dreams represent a similar endeavor. All the information we receive about who we are, what we’re capable of, what the good life looks like—it all comes together, taking the shape of stories we tell and the ambitions we hold before ourselves. Our visions of the life we have and the life we’re willing to pursue manifest our deepest beliefs.
Considering what to do about a dream, maybe we need to ask ourselves—and others—if we’re really making sense of what we know and feel, if the input we’ve received was trustworthy from the beginning. Discerning whether something qualifies as a God-dream or simply our dream might be a fool’s errand. But, in contemplation and community, we might find a sort of contentment lasting more than fifty percent of the time—which is all I really feel comfortable asking of adulthood.
Months after the death of my dream, I remain a little unsure, a little bereft. Some days the evidence of my dream haunts me: how I entered it into the record in a graduate school assignment; the countless times I referenced it when asked “What would you do with your life, all things being equal?”; the steps I had to walk back as I explained the end of my dream to friends and loved ones.
If I know anything it’s this: dreams don’t exist in a vacuum. They come to people with families and mortgages. They are realized by people who then get sick or face catastrophe and have to let them go. They hang above our heads as we connect and collide with people that have dreams of their own, dreams we can’t ignore or dismiss out-of-hand.
Faithfulness to our dreams alone may not leave us satisfied. Faithfulness to a world in which dreams are born and die each day means not knowing every possibility or outcome, and carrying on anyway. Potential often paralyzes, but love for ourselves and others—which possesses a longer shelf-life than any dream—keeps us moving, even as we mourn.