NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Dreams” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome.
Dreams: Not gone, not forgotten
Copyright 2012 David J. Bookbinder
Clients often come for therapy with the uneasy sense that something is stuck, doesn’t belong, is too big or too small, too much there or not there enough. The architecture of their lives is misshapen. They have stumbled into marriages, occupations, locations, ways of life that are off, somehow.
Because I, too, have had the experience of a misshapen life, I pay attention.
Many of us enter adulthood not as single, unified wholes, but as tripartite beings. One part, nurtured by our environment, sprouts and grows, like a seed that gets the right amount of water, nutrients, and light. Another part, rejected by our environment, shrivels into invisibility and lies dormant. A third part, more able to survive in an unwelcoming environment, soon displaces the dormant part, like a weed taking over a patch of garden. It functions as a stand-in, a false self that helps us cope with the sometimes difficult conditions we find ourselves in as children.
A personal example: As a boy, my scientific/mathematical part was encouraged by my environment. It earned me good grades and occasional praise from my parents. The emotionally sensitive, independent, and artistically gifted part was largely ignored. It went underground, and depression, isolation, and compliance rose to take its place. I carried my false self with me to college, where, in the tumult at the tail end of the 60s, the dormant part began to stir.
I first encountered the phrase “Keep true to the dreams of thy youth” in a college literature class, where I learned that Herman Melville had taped it to his desk. The following summer, I hitchhiked across the United States to find out what my dreams were. I returned to Buffalo months later with 25 cents in my pocket and a list of missing pieces. On it was writing, photography, woodworking, meditation, and, to carry on the traveler’s sense of adventure, motorcycling. The list became a curriculum for a program to complete myself, and self-actualization became my dream. Besides starting these activities, I also began to read serious literature and volunteered at a state mental hospital and a “free school” run by university parents. I diligently pursued this dream for about ten years, until I severely injured my back just prior to starting a masters program in creative writing.
Melville’s professional writing career came to a halt following scathing criticism of Moby Dick. He soon entered a personal Dark Ages, working as a customs inspector for 19 years, during which he was virtually silent as novelist. He was 66 when he finally retired from the customs house and wrote Billy Budd, arguably the best short novel ever written in English.
On a smaller scale, my back injury, combined with relentless criticism from the director of my writing program and rejection from my father for abandoning engineering, halted what appeared to be a promising writing career. I limped through the writing program, took a crash course in computer science, and found work as a software technical writer, a position that satisfied neither my father’s wish for me to return to engineering school nor my own to succeed in creative writing. In this, my Dark Ages, writing, photography, serious reading, motorcycling, meditation, and working with my hands all stopped. A familiar false self arose to fill the vacancies, and I was lost for 15 years in depression and distractions.
Throughout this dark period, I had taped to my computer monitor Melville’s phrase, and its subtle insistence helped to keep my dreams alive.
Remembering the dreams of our youth can help to unseat the false self and reactivating them can reshape a misshapen life. The reshaping can begin anywhere; it soon becomes global, cutting across many areas as the suppressed part resurfaces and takes its rightful place within our being.
In my case, remembering the dream of being a writer and teacher helped lever me out of corporations and into an environment more friendly to my creative self. Then things started coming back. First reading, writing, and teaching, then photography, meditation, and motorcycling have made their return. Each has restored me, like a wilted garden springing up after a summer rain. My career shift into psychotherapy enacted a previously unrealized dream, and that has turned out to be the greatest gift so far, bringing me to a deeper sense of connectedness and purpose.
Reactivating dreams can happen at any age. In my therapy practice, I come upon many people in their 20s and 30s who already feel stuck and think it’s too late to change. I help them reinvent themselves, as I have several times reinvented myself, by encouraging them to remember their dreams. Sometimes, I can save them 10 or 20 years.
In the Baby Boomer generation, there are many like me, and we can all serve as models to the generation that followed us. Some examples: A client who wanted to be an attorney before she knew the word “attorney” is finishing law school at 60. A friend who retired from pathology has become an award-winning photographer. Another, after 30 years in the finance industry, is finding her way back to music. One of my brothers, a highly successful business man, completed his college education at 58. The list goes on.
None of us has the nine lives of the proverbial cat, but we can fully exploit the possibilities of this one by remembering the dreams of our youth, using them as a beacon to see who we really are and what we still have to look forward to becoming.