“I have a dream.” Like most Americans, hearing those words conjures images of the Rev. Martin Luther King passionately sharing his vision from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where thousands gathered in solidarity as an expression of their commitment to his dream. To many the inauguration of President Barack Obama, this country’s first African American president, was the symbolic fulfillment of that dream, spoken with equal eloquence and determination.
I suppose it would be easy to deem the moment as ironic given the ceremony occurred only a day after the national holiday commemorating the birth of Rev. King, but to do so, in my opinion, implies a hint of cynicism, as if the two events took place by intention, through the scheming efforts of subversive conspirators with a hidden agenda. “Befitting” is more appropriate.
Regardless of political ideology or personal bias, there’s still a place within our collective human spirit that can’t help but feel at least a sliver of hope in watching such a dream realized over four decades after it was expressed. Blame the (well-hidden) optimist in me, but my assertion is rooted in a belief that when others succeed, whether we’ll admit to it or not, it buoys the faith we cling to of achieving our own goals. I am no exception, having aspirations that have followed me since childhood, and although not quite on par with the justice demanded from racial equality, my hope dreams are no less real.
Growing up, my career goals were fairly straightforward: a venturesome archeology professor, a helicopter-flying CIA operative, and yes, a highly paid mercenary (but with scruples). There were others, but basically they all boiled down to adventure-hero archetypes like those in movies. Don’t ask me why, but at 13, the choices stayed the same, but now incorporated the element of being a brooding loner with a secretive past, and uncanny intellect that rendered women helpless.
By my junior year, most of these visions faded. Turns out few colleges, at least within the United States, offered courses on “Overthrowing Oppressive Third-World Régimes for Profit 101.” Still, even though reality eliminated the majority of my boyhood fantasies, some, like the dark outsider too jaded to love, survived, while new ones emerged to replace the casualties.
Undoubtedly, the strongest of those remaining dreams was to be a soldier. This may seem like an unpopular choice in light of the current state of world affairs, but when your father is a Green Beret who fought in Vietnam, you tend to view things differently. To me, my father was the tangible image of who I wanted to be, and my desire to emulate him never wavered, especially when fostered by the arsenal of wooden guns that he made for me to play with, as I wore his old Army gear and carried out dangerous missions in the woods behind our home.
As I got older, that famed beret my dad earned after passing the grueling Special Forces selection course started smirking at me from the shelf where it was displayed. I grinned back. Sometimes, when alone, I would try it on in front of the mirror and practice saluting the image of what I saw as my future.
Oddly enough, my father openly discouraged my eagerness to join the Army. Why would a father not want his son to follow in the footsteps made on such an honorable path? Ultimately it was of little consequence. He learned, after the fact, that I had enlisted anyway. He simply broke out with the same grin his beret had been flashing at me.
It was the first step toward my dream, but one that also elicited two bits of advice from a man who had already been there: get an education and, as a soldier, never marry. I got the education earning an Army scholarship, and a much desired commission as an Infantry officer after graduation.
However, I failed to heed his second point of guidance, eventually leading to a crucial decision, and one that I made without regret even though the consequences translated into an abrupt end to my longstanding pursuit. Walking away from a dream, even for all the best and selfless of reasons, is no less painful as it shrinks in the distance behind you.
A short while ago, I read a blog post by an extremely intelligent mother, who outlined ways parents can foster healthy self-esteem in their children. Her points were right on target, and could hardly be argued with. However, there was one item that struck a chord with me dealing with encouraging a child’s aspirations.
To illustrate her point, she used the example of her oldest daughter’s desire to become a writer. Even in acknowledging her daughter’s obvious talent, as a practically-minded mother, she found herself wanting to point out the hardships involved in becoming an author, along with the suggestion of finding a “real job” as a fallback. Ultimately, the mother held back her initial reaction, offering support instead; but what stood out for me was the phrase “a real job.”
If I had a dollar for every time I heard the words “real job” repeated to me, I probably wouldn’t need one today. I’ve spent the majority of my life working these so-called real jobs, but if there’s any dream of mine rivaling that of being a soldier, it has been to be a writer. God only knows why. I was a mediocre student at best, my spelling remains conspicuously atrocious, and it’s more than likely my efforts are hampered by a mild case of “lysdexia.”
This general ineptitude probably explains why the idea of a “real job” is floated at me any time I mention a future as a critically acclaimed (and tragically reclusive) author. There is an undeniable logic behind the suggestion, but in all seriousness, I know such advice stems from entirely different thought: fear.
In comparison to “real jobs” with their set hours, established procedures, and most importantly, steady paychecks, eking out a living as a writer, an artist, a dancer, or any number of “non-real” professions brings to mind images of rag-tag bohemians shivering inside their condemned hovels, eating cold cans of beans purchased with money collected after three hours of panhandling at a nearby convenience store. It’s such scenarios, combined with personal experience, that can reinforce a parent’s conviction they know what’s best—regardless of whether their children want to be a Wall Street power broker or a street mime. At the same time, this well-intentioned mind-set is not limited only to parents.
Growing up, pastors, relatives, career counselors, friends, and just about every other adult that I knew, shared their visions for me as a minister, missionary, politician, professor, basketball coach, nurse anesthetist, and—based on the comments left by high school teachers on my recently discovered report cards—a career in the oil industry working as a (dark and mysterious) gas station attendant.
Understandably, however, in a community where the economy dictated that a large portion of the populace live paycheck to paycheck, what truly mattered was having a good job, and by good I mean one that actually paid. Dreams were a luxury that didn’t pay car notes and mortgages. Lucky for me at the time, I had the Army to look forward to.
To solely indict others for discouraging me—to whatever degree—from achieving my ambitions would be unfair. At least they were prompted by a fear for my general well-being. It’s a greater crime, by far, when our own fears prevent us from attaining what we claim to want most. Reality may hurl circumstances that shatter our vision, or redirect our course, but to continually ignore blatant opportunities because of self-doubt is almost tragic. Even though I had joined the military, it did nothing to diminish my innate desire to write, and when the Army sent me to college, I felt a pull towards a concentration in creative writing.
Instead, I opted for English Literature (a major possessing all the usefulness of a third nipple), sidestepping the embarrassment from sharing my literary drivel with a classroom full of Sylvia Plath and Jack Kerouac wannabes. It was a chance lost because of the fears convincing me I wasn’t good enough. Years later, these same fears kept me from accepting an unheard-of offer by a Rice University English professor whose writing workshop I had forced myself to take.
One evening after class, he approached me with the suggestion to enroll in the master’s program at a nearby school where his friend was a department head who could waive all my entry requirements. This professor told me flat out, my writing was better than that of many second year grad students, but I didn’t believe him. I’d witnessed dozens of students beg this same professor for written recommendations needed for grad school, and yet, with the door wide open, my utter lack of confidence prevented me accepting his generous proposal.
The other evening, my oldest son Noah informed me he wanted to make movies, which led to a forty-five minute phone discussion covering topics such as story development, special effects, distribution rights, and secondary revenue streams. Even the most mundane details failed to curb my son’s enthusiasm in becoming a filmmaker. Hearing the cogs in his brain turn as he spoke impelled speculation on my other children’s fledgling dreams. Allie wants to sing. Harrison loves animals. Sawyer drools over truck engines, and Avery seems destined to become the vertigo-afflicted stunt double for Jar Jar Binks.
At their age, nothing seems impossible. Noah has practically started a film production company without the nuisance of money. Harrison attempts to revive the dead moths he discovers, and Avery believes she will run a profitable coffee plantation in central Africa, employing Care Bears to tend the crops.
The innocence in their optimism is endearing, but still, I wondered how long before life ratchets up the degree of difficulty in their pursuits. Will they gain the confidence to ignore conventions and what others, me included, think best, choosing instead to follow their convictions? When odds seem impossible, will they quit, or persist? And, how will the path to my goals influence my kid’s journey toward their own aims?
Sometime shortly after my son outlined the milestones in his rise to become a modern day Orson Welles, reality reminded me how fickle, and yet how equally complicated, the circumstances in our lives can be, threatening my writing dream. To this point, I’ve been able to push past the fears holding me back. Not that they don’t still exist. In fact, to a certain extent, they are even greater.
For all the frustration, rejection, and impatience, there’s a motivation I’ve found in the realization that writing has been the one endeavor I have ever actually had to work for. Most of the successes I’ve enjoyed thus far in life have required very little effort on my part. I say this more out of gratitude than arrogance, but with less attachment than what I have for even the paltry success earned from all the efforts exerted in a writing career.
The thought of possibly having to abandon that now—even though it’s for all the right reasons—is for me a jagged, dry pill to swallow without water. I will, of course, do what I have to when the time comes. But, I never want to tell any of my children I merely had a dream. I’d rather they see me overcome the challenges issued in making my hopes a reality, and in doing so, buoy the faith they might cling to that, one day, they will attaining their dreams too.