Spend enough time with small children and you’ll learn an awful lot about the power of the imagination. My daughter has dual citizenship in the real world and her dream world, and she’s not alone: watch most kids who are younger than second or third grade and you’ll see that the worlds they inhabit aren’t necessarily our own.
That changes around the time we begin preparing kids for the teenage years. Somewhere around fourth or fifth grade we begin telling the kids that it’s time to “get serious” about school, homework, life. We begin the subtle indoctrination of the Great Adult Lie: that the world functions in a highly specific way that requires stringent obedience to certain hierarchical rules in order for a person to survive. The programming requires the limiting of the imagination to be successful, and we’ve developed quite the toolbox of pruning shears:
“It’s great that you love playing baseball, Kevin, but honestly – there aren’t that many people who can realistically say they have a shot at the major leagues. Just enjoy the game for what it is.”
“That’s a nice painting, Emma, but you need to think about what you really want to do with your life. You can’t make a living as a painter.”
“I’m proud of the work you’re doing with these underprivileged kids, Stuart, and I think you’re making a real difference in their lives. This will look great on your college applications and resume.”
“You can always minor in theater, Sandra, but you need to get your degree in a field where you can earn a real living.”
Looking back, I can understand how every person who ever said anything like this to me was only looking out for a child they believed to be a hopeless dreamer. And they were right to do so, not because I was a dreamer, but because I was undisciplined.
But now, as a grown man and as a father, I can see how their efforts to teach me also robbed me of a great gift. I can also see which people weren’t trying to help me at all, but were merely projecting their own fears of failure, their own lack of confidence, onto me. I can honestly say that the people most invested in me wanted big things from my future; the people who saw me only as a number or a challenge wanted me to just go away.
And unfortunately, I went away. I don’t blame anyone other than myself; I never really wanted to fight for my dreams, believing that my life would be better served by my pursuing a safer route. Never one for confrontation, I took the path of least resistance and have spent many nights wondering “what if?”.
The biggest “what if?” goes back to college: in one of my final semesters at UGA, I took a class on writing for publication. The course grade was based solely on producing a portfolio of writings that would be suitable for publication in any major commercial or trade magazine, literary journal, or newspaper. We spent the semester honing critical essays, reviews, personal essays, investigative reports and op-ed pieces, and when it was all said and done, the professor pulled me to the side, held up my portfolio, and said, “You need to submit these.”
“I will someday,” I replied.
“No. You need to submit these now,” he pressed. “I know someone at The New Yorker who would print you in the next issue if you submitted.”
You can guess how much I believed him. Or, more accurately, how much I believed in myself.
My story is not unique. Almost anyone reading this has traded on a dream at some point in their life, has taken the security or comfort or convenience of the known over the unknown. It’s part of human experience.
What’s telling, however, is that not many of us ever rise above those decisions. How many of us continue to believe that dreams are things to be held lightly, while security is pursued with reckless abandon? How many of us choose a life of small successes in the hopes that they might equal one or two big dreams come true?
Perhaps, for some, there is wisdom in that – to be continuously successful in small things. But there are those out there whose hearts burn for that big dream, that one massive imagination stirring event that makes the soul sing at the thought of it. And for those people, the successful small life will never satisfy. They will always wonder “what if?”, even in the middle of a good life.
I spoke on the phone to my brother this morning. He has been offered an opportunity to sing tenor for a southern gospel quartet. It’s a legit offer, and something he’s been dreaming about his entire life: the chance to sing, on stage, for the glory of God. To sing on records for the glory of God. To live his life as music for the glory of God.
Basically, his dream called him on the phone and said, “Come chase me.”
Now, here’s where this little diatribe must address the rules of dream-chasing. Remember up above I said something about not being disciplined enough to chase my dream? That must be addressed, because dream-chasing is not living a reckless life and chasing after every changing breeze. Dream-chasing requires intelligence, discipline, confidence, and situational awareness; in short, you have to know who you are as a person, what your dream is as an ideal, and the ways that dream can might come to fruition.
You also have to know if it’s a dream worth chasing. A true dream, a God-given dream, is a dream that does something for others. That’s what separates dream-chasing from materialistic hedonism – accomplishing something another person will be blessed or inspired by. Hedonism is pursuing only what satisfies yourself.
Here’s what I told my brother, and it’s advice that holds true for me, you, or anyone else: as a human being, you only get so many opportunities. When they come, you owe it to yourself, your family, and future generations, to evaluate the circumstances and decide whether or not the time is right to pursue your dream. If you have kids, this doubly applies; how can we ever expect our children to try anything if they’ve never seen us try ourselves? Children need a legacy of dreams to inspire them to dream for themselves. The world will do it’s own work to beat their imagination out of them; we, as parents, need to do what we can to build that imagination back up, and part of that means chasing after our own dreams when the time is right.
My brother’s specific circumstances might, at first blush, seem to dictate that he should say “No, thank you” and quietly go about his life as scheduled. But “No” is an easy word, a cheap word. “No” is a coward’s word when said by someone with a God-given dream.
And cowards don’t inspire. Cowards don’t create.
I told my brother to pursue his dream, but to do so with the intelligence and savvy that his years of experience have given him. I told him to not say “No,” but to say “Yes, with God’s help.”
Our world is in desperate need of people who dream big dreams and pursue them, wait for the moment, and then seize them like a conquering hero. We need people dreaming big dreams for the hungry, the sick, the forgotten, the abused, the poor, the homeless, the oppressed; we need people dreaming big dreams for the frightened, the ones who gave dreams up as the dominion of a child. We need people dreaming big dreams to show us that the world as we know it is not the world as it should be, and while some may content themselves with rationalizing this world away, we don’t have to settle for what is.
Not when we have the power to create what can be.
It’s a life and a legacy the world, and especially our children, need and deserve.