On the Death of Dreams
How do you mourn the death of a dream? I don’t have any answers, but I know a bit of what it feels like. It feels, first, like gutting, crushing disappointment. It feels like an elemental ache that curls up and calcifies in your bones. It feels like running at high speed and straight into a wall. It feels like reaching for something only to find emptiness — and then, freefall. Over time, it congeals into grievances against the cosmos for withholding what you worked so hard for. It feels, also, like a bad harvest. It feels like autumn when you’re expecting spring. In a way, it feels like climate change — the inversion of the seasons, of the natural order, and the attendant feelings of existential despair.
But, maybe ‘death’ isn’t the word for this feeling? After all, a dream isn’t a thing of flesh and bones. A dream doesn’t have a heartbeat. So maybe death isn’t the word. But losing a dream can be as emotionally devastating, if not more. Because a dream is that rare thing—immaterial, incorporeal, yet still a palpable presence. What I think a dream is is a proxy for an (as yet) unrealized life. So, a dream isn’t a life, but it’s an unrealized life. A dream is also a micro-universe of aspirations. And losing a dream calls for deconstructing that universe. You have to gather the ornaments, tear down the curtains, peel off the paint, scrape the stubborn stickers, repaint the walls. Losing a dream leaves you with the vacant feeling akin to moving out of your childhood home — a sense of barrenness, bereavement, of being bereft, like an essential part of you has been scooped out. But most of all, the thing about losing a dream is how it limits your sense of possibility. You lose a dream once, so dreaming again feels futile. Losing a dream handicaps your imagination, circumscribes your future sense of possibility, encloses your imagination in a pen, taints and warps your view of your own competence. You flinch from dreaming big because every additional acre you sow with the seeds of your dreams is another acre you surrender to the possibility of a poor harvest, the rotten yields of disappointment and dejection.
There are other feelings, too, that come with mourning a dream. The initial mourning mutates into different strains of itself. Some days, grief will look like a curdling envy at those who (seem to) have it easier than you. Other days, it will be a muted awe at those who (definitely) have it harder than you. Some days, it will be a shrinking shame at the audacity of your now-dead dream — like your dream was one size too big for your small self. And other days, you will wrestle with notions of desert and fairness — do any of us deserve anything? Are we owed anything? And if we are, then am I owed any more than others?
I don’t know the right way to mourn the loss of a dream. Joan Didion said this in her memoir on grief, The Year of Magical Thinking, but it’s interesting how when we talk about the stages of grief, we assume that they are linear. What I’ve found in my experience is that they are more cyclical: you feel healed and whole one day, and the next day, the anger flares up again like an inflamed wound. Any progress you’ve made is suddenly in the rearview mirror, and you feel like your gears are jammed in reverse mode. Progress and regress. Advance and retreat.
I do think that there comes a time, though, when you have to let go — for no one’s sake but your own — and I’ve been wondering if my time has come. Release the resentment, shed and shave the dead skin of your past. Not because it’s the proper thing to do, but because you owe it to yourself. Because how long can you cling to something that has already decided to let go? I said this to a friend of mine when I was in the throes of the initial shock, but as gutting as disappointment is most days, some days there is also something vaguely thrilling and seductive about it. The ground has fallen out beneath you, and you can feel the wind on your face again. Suddenly, you are released from the prescribed path, and unleashed to wander, to draw up a new dream.
Because here’s the thing about mourning a dream: it is cyclical, yes, and in the troughs and trenches is where the darkness resides. But in the peaks, you will also become fluent in at least’s (I lost a dream, but my life isn’t a nightmare; my heart is broken, but my body is safe). You will become trilingual in gratitude, patience, tenacity. At first, you will stumble over their consonants, prolong their vowels. But these, too, you will slowly learn until the phonetics of patience sit on your tongue, settle on your soul. Because maybe this is what life is: milking meaning out of mud, taking complicated journeys to simple truths. Because even amidst the pain, life spares us these minor mercies — I have tears, but many shoulders to shed them on. My dreams died, but I didn’t.