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When Dreams Don't Come True

Updated on June 13, 2018

More Creative Dreaming

When I was growing up, I spent many hours on our driveway shooting baskets on a hoop that my dad had attached to a homemade backboard and bolted to the roof. In fact, I cannot remember a time in my childhood when I was not already playing basketball. Like many kids, I would run through imaginary games in my head in which I was the star player hitting last second shots and winning championships, and I was pretty damn good from a very early age. Although I stopped playing competitive basketball a long time ago (in order to avoid the constant injuries), I will still shoot hoops at the gym from time to time and bury shots from all over the court.

Although I spent countless hours playing basketball until I was in my early thirties, I never really committed myself to working hard on developing my game. I was just in it for fun, and when basketball season was over, I would shift to other sports. Sometimes, I wonder how good I could have gotten if I had really committed myself to the sport. But I can guarantee one thing: I was never going to make the NBA. Hell, even playing division one basketball would have been a major stretch. For obvious reasons, there is not a huge demand for 5 foot 7 inch somewhat above average athletes at the highest levels of competitive basketball. No matter how hard I might have worked or how much I may have believed in myself, any dreams about playing in the NBA were not going to come true.

Some people have dreams far more important and basic than a fantasy about being a basketball star. Some dream of being a parent, beating cancer, being able to walk again, or getting over the effects of PTSD. Unfortunately, these dreams often fail to come true.

One of the hardest things about being a human is that we have a remarkable capacity to dream of something better, but we are trapped in these bodies and in an unjust world that often let us down. Even those of us lucky enough to avoid major tragedies are going to get old some day and lose the capacity to do what we once did. I guess this is why the ultimate dream that humanity is unable to shake is the hope that we will go to a better world after death. It's the one dream that no one can ever take away.

So when we realize that all of those Disney movies about happy endings and dreams coming true (at least in this world) are usually a fantasy, what do we do? Many would argue that we should be practical and take on goals (not dreams) that are within reach. Others might say that we should appreciate what we do have and remember all of those people who have things far worse. This advice is perfectly reasonable, but it is not the punch line of this little blog.

The trouble with the "be practical" advice is that it is based on the premise that we should stop dreaming. For humans, however, no longer dreaming is about as practical as no longer breathing. So if dreaming is inevitable, we seem to have three basic options, two of which suck. We can suppress our dreams and become one of those people with an underlying feeling of bitterness that comes out in both big and little ways. Or we could go to the opposite extreme and get so lost in our dreams that we are unable to function in the real world. Needless to say, neither of these options are particularly appealing or healthy.

Fortunately, there may be a third more satisfying path. Maybe we can maintain and even fulfill our dreams in ways different than we originally planned. Beneath every dream, after all, is some deeper need that we are trying to fulfill. On the surface, we may dream of things like fame, fortune, and adventure, but we may really be trying to fulfill the deeper need of establishing meaningful relationships, gaining acknowledgement of our value as human beings, or having the freedom to do what we want as opposed to what we are obligated to do.

In some cases, the motives underlying our dreams might be selfish, twisted, and ultimately leading down an unsatisfying path. But in other cases, the needs behind our dreams are perfectly legitimate, representing the basic foundations for being a happy human. So if I have a healthy dream that will apparently not be fulfilled, is there another more achievable way that I can get what I am looking for? Maybe I can't be an NBA star, but I can still work to get better at some sport and compete in sports leagues. I may never act in a Hollywood movie or on Broadway, but there are all sorts of talented people getting our their creative juices in YouTube videos, community theaters, and by performing (like myself) as teachers in classrooms instead of theaters. And sometimes, if we carry out an in-depth, creative analysis of our dreams, we may find completely unrelated ways of living them out.

I still drift off into daydreams about being a sports star, even though I knew a long time ago that it would never happen. Today, my more feasible fantasies are that I will get a full-time teaching position at a single community college or become a famous writer or speaker someday. But I am learning to let those go as well. The underlying desires behind those dreams - the feelings of being productive, respected and acknowledged, along with the sense of accomplishment that comes from being creative and performing in front of a crowd - are being fulfilled right now. And I am able to experience all this while having plenty of time for friends, family, and fun. I suppose that I am already living the dream.

Of course, none of this will last forever, and if I stick around long enough, I will someday join the ranks of those who have lost and long for the more basic things of life. The older I get, the more I understand why people learn to say, "At least you have your health." The wisest among us, I suppose, learn to align their dreams to the stuff that really matters. In the end, the secret to long-term happiness is not just adapting my dreams to new circumstances. The key is to keep finding new strategies to fulfill the same old dreams.

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