What Would Langston Hughes Do?

2010 April 20
A Dream Deferred

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

-Langston Hughes

Our unrealized dreams come with an expiry date, a point beyond which we need to acknowledge that they will not feasibly be achieved. No one wants to face that and I don’t particularly want to be the one to tell you, but it’s true. Of course, this date isn’t neatly stamped on the package. And the trick to figuring out exactly when to throw in the towel is one that we spend our whole lives trying to get the hang of. There’s a fine line between too little and too much, too soon and too late, between giving it your all and going down with the ship. And there are no hard and fast rules for discovering this line. Mostly, it’s the process of trial and error, with our own cherished aspirations as the testing grounds (the poignant pain of hindsight has truly launched a thousand literary ships).¬† And the whole hope thing doesn’t exactly make it easier to figure out when to hang in there and when to cut our losses.

Photo by toddwshaffer

Hope is a hallmark of humanity. Hope is what elects presidents, gets us through the scariest of health issues, fuels those with missing loved ones to never abandon the possibility of a happy ending, or at least closure. But hope can also blind us to harsh truths, keep us running toward a mirage in the desert that doesn’t exist. The idea of the sun coming out tomorrow is a seductive one and we’re sure that if we hang on for one more tomorrow, there will finally be a break in the clouds. We can feel it. But what if it never happens? When is enough enough?

The question is meant rhetorically, but I will offer you a practical means of tackling it. Conduct periodic and brutally frank gut checks. Is the act of pursuing the dream/goal bringing you happiness or are you simply gritting your teeth throughout it and clinging to the specter of future contentment or pay-off to get you through*? That’s a lousy way to live, FYI. What have you given up in service of this dream (relationships, creature comforts, financial stability, etc.)? Do you miss these things? Would the addition of them improve the quality of your life? Could you imagine being happy with something else other than the dream? Could you see yourself building a satisfying life as a junior high school drama teacher and not a Broadway actor? Can you acknowledge the possibility of a future with someone other than the college girlfriend who broke up with you three years ago and whose emails you still haven’t been able to delete? If so, you owe it to yourself to explore these options. It’s not quitting or settling, it’s maximizing your current situation to wring the most attainable happiness out of life that you possibly can.

We’ve come to hold dreams and ambitions as almost sacrosanct (it’s the American¬† way after all), but when they always hang that little bit out of our grasp, when we’re always almost (but not quite) able to reach out to touch them, they and the unrequited hope we hold for achieving them damn us to always being unsatisfied or unfulfilled, no matter what other abundance and good fortune might surround us. When you realize the time is right, it’s okay to stop reaching. Really.

*If so, please read some Max Weber and then get back to me.

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