04 July 2012

The Ubiquitous Message

Before I jump any farther into my thoughts on dreams and following them and what it all means, I want to talk a bit about the message I keep hearing. It's important to me to articulate what I'm hearing, both so moves from subconscious to conscious in myself, and so that we're all on the same page as we begin this exploration.

I feel bombarded with people saying "Follow your dreams." It's more than just that, though, more than something that reduces to "Follow your heart," though that's definitely a part of it. I hear that I'm supposed to follow my dreams so that I can be sure to contribute to the world and, more specifically, so that I can contribute what I am meant to contribute, or made to contribute, or supposed to contribute, or contribute something that the world won't have if I don't follow my dreams.

This message implies that my purpose in life is hidden in my dreams, that my dreams indicate my calling, that where my heart wants to go is where I should go, and that, therefore, everyone else in my life either needs to come along with me or be left behind. It implies that God speaks to me in my dreams or, if from a secular source, that the universe or some larger source communicates my purpose to me that way, or I hear a larger need and that forms my purpose, or something like that. It's a combination of internal and external forces, though, that dictate what I want to do.

Along these lines, while following my dreams is not supposed to be easy, it is somehow supposed to work out eventually, if I fully give myself to the dream, continue to pursue it despite opposition, believe in it, and maintain suitable levels of passion for it. Because it is what I am supposed to do, God will eventually move or the universe will eventually align in such a way that I will find some measure of success when it comes to my dreams and my contribution to the world (though this can be defined in many different ways).

In addition to hearing that I should follow my dreams, I also hear that I will not be happy until I do so, that doing so is the only way to find fulfillment, and that I will end my life with regret if I don't follow my dreams. I hear that I have the choice to truly live or just to exist, and that I can never enter my "real life" without following my dreams.

I hear that there is much to get in the way of following dreams. Things like fear, resistance, and distraction can keep me from this true purpose and calling, and if I give into them I will never reach my potential, give the world what I have to offer, or find happiness in life.

In fact, there's often implied threat in all this talk of dreams - something like "If you don't follow your dreams, you'll be unhappy and unfulfilled for the rest of your life," or "If you choose not to pursue your dreams, you're giving into fear and disappointing God."

This seems like the dark underbelly of this message. Following my dreams, as it turns out, is not just about my own and the world's fulfillment, but also about avoiding pain, disappointment, ambiguity, confusion, shame and a host of other negative emotions that could arise in me if I don't do these things that I'm made to do. I don't know if this threat is meant to motivate me, or is just articulating the natural consequences of not following my dreams, but it almost always seems to be part of the message I'm hearing.

Alongside this, there is also a distinct "should" here (though this isn't present in all the versions of the mandate to follow dreams) - I should try to do what I dream of doing, for all the reasons that I'm teasing out here. 

There's also usually a part of this message that has to do with faith and trust - mostly in myself, but also in God or the universe or some other sort of higher power. I'm to trust that I'm hearing my dreams accurately, that what I want to do or feel pulled towards doing is, in fact, what I should be doing. I'm to believe that I have what it takes, that I am enough to make my dreams happen, sometimes alongside God or the universe or some conglomeration of the force of all things. There's faith that God is communicating with me, that he is telling me how to work and move in this world via my dreams, and that he will eventually make me successful if I choose to believe that these dreams are the way I'm to contribute to the world.

This is the message that I'm hearing, over and over, from both secular and Christian sources. As you read this, what do you think? Do you hear the same message? Is there anything you would add or take away? Am I being fair in my portrayal of what I'm hearing? Let me know what you think.


christianne said...

I really love that you're opening up this discussion and exploration. I can feel you peeling back layers and saying, "What's really going on here? And can we really believe this?"

I was having a conversation with someone last night about the language of "dreams" and "calling." I still want to set aside any kind of answer to the question about whether every single person is called to a specific thing or not from my comment on your last post (since I still don't know what I think about that) and just relay an interesting part of the conversation I had last night.

We talked about how dreams can be often spoken of in the language of "follow your heart" or "be who you really are." But sometimes we don't know our hearts or who we really are. And sometimes we *think* we know our hearts and who we really are, but we really don't.

Enter a conversation about the false self and the true self.

Calling, this friend said to me, strikes her as something that comes from outside the self. It's connected to God and what God thinks or has in mind. It's less about originating in ourselves and more about connecting to God and tuning into God's ideas.

And then trusting that if a calling is there, the way forward and means to get there will present themselves.

But again, I don't know if every person is called to some specific thing. I know that I have received a strong sense of calling over the last 3-4 years, and it continues to grow in clarity, but if that call had never happened, I'd still be doing what I've always done my whole life: trying to figure out what to do with my life and my time based on what I seem gifted to do and what I enjoy doing and how those things tie in to the very real and practical realities of my life and circumstances. And knowing that the choices I make about those things could and most likely would change over time, as my circumstances and opportunities changed. (There's that ongoing discernment thread again!)

I really hear what you're saying about the negative underbelly of all this. There's some adjacent threat in there that goes alongside buying into a particular view of dreams/calling/what to do with our lives. I've been bumping up against this threat in the rhythmed life series on Still Forming. While I choose to live my life that way, I keep reminding myself (and hopefully others too) that it's just one choice of a way to live. It's not for everyone. But it works well for me. And the specific rhythms I choose for myself aren't for everyone else, either. They'll have their own rhythms based on their own life circumstances and freedoms of choice.

Stephanie S said...

Dear friend,

I'm struggling to put my response into words, but what you're saying makes a lot of sense to me, and in my roundabout way, the following will appear to NOT support what you're saying, but it does in my brain.

I know that throughout grad school (and even after--I just got the question of "Then why did you get a Ph.D. in history?" again just the other day) there was a definite dream that I was supposed to be fulfilling according to those around me. After all, it didn't make sense to go through that if I wasn't going to do x.

And, of course, from other quarters I have heard other "should" voices that are only silenced by the news of God's definite call or some strong dream that I'm following.

In other words, I guess, people assume that you should follow your dreams, but that certain dreams dictate certain actions (e.g., going to grad school to become a professor), and those actions are proof positive of what your dreams are. Then there are the generic dreams of spouse, house, kids, pets, success, etc. Based on age, gender, and marital status, people also assume they know those dreams. You're not only supposed to follow your supposedly unique dreams to give our unique gift to the world, but also supposed to follow those cultural dreams. If you're not happy, then you must not be following some dream fully.

So, yes, I think you're hearing the message correctly.

Love you and can't wait to see you!

Anonymous said...

"Follow your dreams" sounds so Disney to me, starry-eyed diva princess, unrealistic, selfish, and ego-centric. So often "follow your dreams" comes off as a blatant American mantra to go after what you want, no matter who is in the way or what the cost to self and others. On the flip, we are fed a constant diet of "follow your dreams and they WILL come true." But they do not all come true. For some, a few might.

I say this as a dreamer.

If I'd followed my "dreams" of long ago, my life would look very different, and not in a good way. There are places I could not force my dreams to fruition. There are places along the way the dreams shattered, and with them, my heart. Over and over. I stopped dreaming for a time, and even now, it is a tentative exercise.

I have felt at times, like a small child, creeping into His presence, with rags for dreams, wanting so badly for Him to bless them, not realizing how much more He had in store.

What has replaced those broken, tattered pieces is so much better! Adventure with Him, holding tightly (and being held) in the hurt places, tasting His goodness, and a new joy in the journey.

Oh, the beauty of the day He invited my to release my broken pieces and dream new dreams, together! No promises of them becoming reality, just dreaming together. Some silly. Most unrealistic. Others very tangible. And eventually, turning toward others. Dreaming blessings on those dear friends and family I call my own. How rich those dreams are, even today!

Many dreams have been released. Some have fallen, probably to not be picked up again. Others still flit around in my heart and head. If and when they are to become reality, they will be tested, as so much of life, against His will.

I am, honestly, tired of dreaming my own dreams, of chasing them, and wearing myself thin in their pursuit, only to find something better was waiting in the wings, as His plan and dream and will.

Does that mean we do not take steps to follow this dream or that? No. Does it mean we do not pursue something shrouded in fog, but we know to be from Him? No. But when we place our dreams in front of Him instead of Him in front of our dreams, reality gets skewed. We dream, pray, take a step, dream some more, pray some more, continually listening to and for Him. It's Ignatian, really. We are the ones who muddy the waters and impress our cultural, American can-do biases on Him.