I place on the altar of dawn
The quiet loyalty of breath,
The tent of thought where I shelter,
Wave of desire I am shore to,
And all beauty drawn to the eye.
May my mind come alive today
To the invisible geography
That invites me to new frontiers,
To break the dead shell of yesterdays,
To risk being disturbed and changed.
May I have the courage today
To live the life that I would love,
To postpone my dream no longer
But do at last what I came here for
And waste my heart on fear no more.
— A Morning Offering, by John O’Donohue
You have been given the gift of life – and, if you’re lucky, a bunch of decades to do your thing.
Alright, what is your thing?
Checking your Facebook page 500 times a day?
Acting like everything is okay when it isn’t?
Fitting in, so nobody gets upset?
Keeping so busy that you never have to be with yourself?
Doing just enough to keep out of trouble?
Putting your head down and just repeating what you did yesterday?
What if you looked at yourself in the mirror every morning, and said,
Well, for cryin’ out loud, here I am again. They gave me another whole day. For all I know, it may be my last. What am I going to do with it? What could I do that I would look back on tomorrow and say, “Kid, you took that precious day and did a pretty good job with it.”
No, I don’t mean being a ‘do-gooder’, though, sure, that may be one thing you could do with it. I’m talking about living from the inside out – ‘manifesting’ (eeww: buzz word alert) who you actually are, out in the world. What is it to be you? I’m talking about coming up with an active answer to the complaint, “I never get a chance to really do what I want to do. I never get a chance to be who I really am.”
Sure, maybe you’re a jeweler and all you ever wanted to be was a newspaper reporter. Maybe you’re working in a day care center and you’re really fascinated by numbers. Or maybe you’re like most people, and you don’t KNOW ‘who you are’. It doesn’t stop you from feeling that you never get to BE who you are, though, does it? You still have that vague unease that you’re not really being YOU, even if you have no idea what that would look like – it still feels frustrating and unsatisfying, doesn’t it?
I can hear some of you saying, “Hey – we can’t all save the world, buddy.” True, but fortunately that has nothing to do with what I’m talking about. I’m talking about incremental steps towards letting the cat (you!) out of the bag – small steps for tiny feet. It might start with this exercise:
I always wanted to _______________ (fill in the blank).
I wish just once I could ________________.
The people I really admire are ______________.
I can hear the classic comebacks:
If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
You can wish in one hand and spit in the other, and see which one fills up first.
Yep, I get it. Just wishing alone does nothing. But wishing can lead to more than ‘nothing’: most new things start with an idea, a wish, a concept, a drive, a desire, a ‘vain’ hope – and then, by allowing those things to rattle around in our heads and hearts, they lead to a wish, dream, concept, drive, desire, and hope, that is more realistic, that is a first step, that is a revised version of the original dream.
The hokey saying, “dreams plus effort equal success” is not so crazy after all – because the primary thing holding us back from reaching some version of our dreams is that we give up before we start, mostly because, at the start, we can’t envision the modified version we might end up with. If you talk to people about their lives for a living, as I have done for decades, you begin to hear things – like the fact that, at the beginning, most people had never heard of what they ended up doing for a living. And, if they had, they might have rejected it because it was not “what they dreamed of”.
It takes emotional work to process a dream. Let’s say you start out wanting to be a famous performer. Of course, you know the odds against you are astronomical: you may feel you’re talented, but not that talented – so you give up, accepting “reality”. Now, what would happen if you continued with your dream?
Well, just as a representative example, this was the sequence of events for a woman I worked with, we’ll call her Josephine, who dreamed of being a performer:
1) You take singing and guitar lessons – you do pretty well, but nobody ever suggests you should go on American Idol.
2) Nevertheless, you do develop your singing and playing ability, and your performance ‘chops’, to the point where you are able to perform at local open mikes. You get some pretty good responses, but again, no one says, “I’ve never heard anyone as good as you, Josie”, either.
3) Hanging out at the clubs, you get to know more and more people in the music scene, and also land a few paid gigs at local spots. It is gratifying, and some people really like what you do. You meet an agent who is in the audience at a local club you are working, and she’s a really cool person. She doesn’t offer you anything, but you talk a lot together, and it’s pretty interesting. Maybe this thing could actually work.
4) You get a better gig, but it’s on weekends, out of town. You are hostessing at a nice restaurant where you live, and on weekends you can make pretty good money, even though hostessing is a million miles away from what you really want to do. But you can’t afford to quit your job just to pursue one gig out of town. What do you do?
5) For some reason, you call the agent you met at that club – you end up talking to her for two hours. She talks to you like a Dutch uncle (aunt?) and says, kindly, “Josie dear, you’re an amazing person, but to tell you the truth, I don’t feel you have what it takes to make it as a performer.” She’s nice about it, but it hurts, bad. But on the other hand, there’s something about her that you trust, so you can’t just dismiss what she’s saying.
She does say, “You should call me sometime, when you’re feeling better. We should talk.” (Whatever that means.)
6) You cry – a lot.
7) You cry more – a lot. (Hopefully you have good friends. They help – a little.)
8) When you get off work late one Saturday night, you suddenly remember that the agent said to call her sometime, when you’re feeling better. You check: Hmmm, you’re feeling better, marginally.
9) You call her, hoping against hope that she has reconsidered her death sentence of you, and wants to work with you on your performance career.
10) She doesn’t want to work with you on your performance career – but, she does want to talk to you about something else. She’s a top agent in town, and has noticed that you are good with people, and know a lot of folks locally around the music business by now. She is trying to expand her business, and, maybe, could use someone like you. Of course, you would have to “start at the bottom”, but she feels you might have it in you to grow into a significant role in talent representation one day. You’re flattered, sort of, but inside you’re still really wounded that she didn’t want to talk to you about you-know-what. But, you tell her you really appreciate her time and comments, and you’ll have to think about it and get back to her.
11) You sulk alone. You sulk with friends.
12) Hmmm, you sigh a lot, but it kind of makes sense, what she said: you are a good judge of others’ talent, you are good with people, and you have always liked helping people pursue their dreams, even if you can’t pursue yours.
13) You cry.
14) (Sigh) You call her, and say you’re willing to talk more about it. (Sulk)
15) You do talk more about it. It’s starting to sound like a possibility: Your friends say, “I can totally see you doing it – helping people like that.”
16) More sighing – after all, if you accept this, it means throwing away your ‘real’ dreams, right?
17) Secretly, you’re getting kind of excited about this whole thing: “Wow, I could work for a talent agency: I’d still get to be around performers, watching them, helping them, and I always thought I had a good eye for talent.”
18) Last-ditch sighing, last-ditch crying. First-ditch excitement – all mixed up together.
19) You make a decision: you’re going to do it. It’s not as much as you’re making hostessing, but it’s in the field you love, and the potential in that field is a bit greater than in the field of guiding drunk people to their tables.
20) You have a new dream: Being a talent agent. “Gee, now that I’m a ‘professional’, I have to get some real working-woman clothes. This might be fun!”
Okay, I can hear you (you, reading this – you know who you are) saying, “Oh sure – he came up with an example where it all worked out, but what percentage of the time does that happen? My Uncle Moe wanted to be Enrico Caruso, and now he’s a broken-down bum on Skid Row. Dreams, schmeams.”
Folks – this is the way it REALLY happens, not pie in the sky. No, not every person finds work that is a perfect fit, and yes, this story would sound very different if Josie were a man, say, but I have helped many, many people “evolve” their dreams. And note: in the example I gave, Josephine did NOT “achieve her dreams” – but pursuing it did lead her to people, and circumstances, that made it possible to develop other dreams, that were achievable. And she had no thought whatsoever, at first, that being a talent agent was a possible (or desirable) dream for herself; and if I had been prescient (or stupid) enough at the beginning to say, “Josephine, you should be a talent agent,” she would have been hurt and angry, and rightfully so.
Does this mean,
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No – of course not. Every single person has a unique path to follow. You cannot ‘know’ beforehand what someone’s path will be, you cannot know beforehand what it will lead to, and it would be arrogant and disrespectful to try to, but you can know beforehand what, basically, needs to happen – that following a dream, with a lot of support, will lead to something meaningful and authentic, even if the path involves a lot of sighing and crying and rejection. Sure, it might hurt sometimes, but sighing and crying are not end points – they are only emotional way stations: if you are willing, sometimes, to sit with the sighing and crying, and have someone who believes in you (a therapist, in the case of those I have worked with), you will move beyond sadness and disappointment, to a new formulation of yourself and your possibilities, and all the emotional processing you have gone through will bring a maturity that will serve you in good stead in your ‘new’ dreams, a maturity you would never have had if you had instantly achieved your dreams (see Woods, Tiger), or if you had stayed home and never pursued them at all. With a dream, anything might happen; but without a dream, you don’t have a chance.
So, the next time you stand there in the morning and look in the mirror, ask that sleepy guy or gal you see before you, what he or she can do to make sure the day isn’t wasted. It’s been said: “A dream is just a dream, but a goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline.” Jeez, I don’t know about all that: dreams, plans, deadlines – why not throw in a bag of peanuts and a partridge in a pear tree, too?
But a dream paired with some courage and some help: now that’s a plan!
Where does your plan start today, sleepyhead?
Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.