In the bed and breakfast that my wife and I once owned, a mid-20s couple and the husband’s mother stayed for a night with us. While I was serving guests their breakfast, I overheard snippets of this threesome’s conversation, dominated by the man, who spoke of his plans to become a millionaire in 10 years working as a sales rep.
When he left the table, his mother turned to her daughter-in-law and said, “So, what do you think of that?”
The young woman smiled and shrugged.
“Dreams are free,” she said.
In fact, except for those entertainments that visit us in sleep or the passing daydreams that give us a reprieve from boredom or stress, I would contend that dreams, at least for anyone older than the age of 12, are never free. They always come with a cost.
Serious dreamers know well what I mean.
Long enamored with ballet, the bright 16-year-old who decides to pursue a professional career onstage understands that she’s facing years of countless practices, relentless attention to diet and exercise, and a spin of fortune’s wheel to bring the opportunities that will forward her ambitions.
Like that aspiring ballerina, all who pursue their dreams with great intent understand that sacrifices must be made and that nothing—nothing!—is guaranteed. Even when they’ve given their all to this pursuit, the wise know that circumstance, chance, or an ultimate lack of talent may put a stopper in their bottle of aspirations. All who have lost this race against the current are familiar with these sea changes of fate.
Then there are those who yearn to reach a goal but who lack the willpower or the aptitude to attain it.
In the classes I once taught to homeschoolers, there were always two or three students, most often boys, who wanted more than anything to become professional athletes or to reap millions creating digital games like the ones they played. They seemed blithely unaware of the odds against them. Is that 15-year-old who saw himself playing shortstop for the Atlanta Braves satisfied with his life as a 30-something welder in Charlotte, North Carolina? Or does he have lingering regrets?
For the young and the young at heart, thankfully, dreams often give way to other dreams, balms allowing for happiness.
Even our dalliance with daydreams can bring a psychological price tag. The guy with three kids may not know it, but his fantasies about his attractive co-worker are damaging his marriage and his family life. The single woman picturing in her head a “perfect soul mate” may have already missed a chance or two to be happily wedded.
James Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” gives us an example of such a dreamer—a hero in his imagination but a milquetoast in real life.
Most of us, I suspect, have a touch of Mitty in our interior life, innocent diversions for the most part, but our larger visions constitute a precious part of what it means to be human.
Pursued with deliberation and on a grand scale, dreams lead to everything from peace in the Middle East to the invention of the personal computer. On a more minor but no less important note, our cherished ideals can create happy marriages and loving families.
Virtuous dreams are as vital to our humanity as blood and breath. They are the food feeding us into the future, inspiring us to climb mountains or to slog forward in the face of adversity.
As poet Langston Hughes writes: “Hold fast to dreams/For when dreams go/Life is a barren field/Frozen with snow.”
We need our dreams. We just need to remember that they come with a price.