Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Courage to Give Up a Dream

Most parents teach their children to dream, and to dream big. 'You can be anything you want to be'. I notice the trend in children's clothing with the slogans of Princess or Popstar. The message is, from so many movies and songs and other sources, anybody can be a star. You deserve it. You're worth it.

This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, because the truth is that not everybody can be a star. In fact, most people who aspire to great heights, be they creative or sporting or academic, or in any career, will have their hopes dashed. Most people live ordinary lives. Most people who dream big at some point give up those dreams to live a normal life, a life of stability and responsibility. Does that make for happiness? I'd say that it depends on how graciously you can give up your dream.

One of the ways of being happy is to want what you already have. Dreamers don't do that - they want more, or something else, which is kind of insulting the people around them, who are content to be doing what they're doing and being ordinary. One of the ways to be happy is to be where you are, to be present. Dreamers don't do that either - they are somewhere else.

Now I should say here that I've just read the works of Salinger, who talks a lot about spirituality and how to be happy. Of course, we know, in his own life he shunned fame, and I admire him for that. We know about the impositions of fame; it is not for the feint-hearted. A theme of his work is how the little incidental observed moment of innocence can motivate a person to keep on going, to feel humbled and able to continue. It is the same kind of message mothers often talk about, or are told, that although it is difficult it all seems worthwhile when you see your child sleeping or when your child gives you a kiss etc. I'm not sure how realistic this is, or if it is just pat sentimentality and what is expected of mothers. When Salinger does it is seems significant and a revelation. When mothers say it, I'm not so sure it is enough. That's why I'm concentrating on the 'change what you can' part of the serenity prayer, in being active for change.

And, in Salinger's work, it is the clever, the intellectual and the high achievers who see the injustices and the inconsistencies and that life and art could be so much better. Those insights don't make for happiness. Knowing that you are the smartest person in the room certainly doesn't make for a happy life. The most intelligent people I've known have been depressive, alcoholics, drug addicts. As Salinger has Zooey tells Franny, shine your shoes for the fat lady, because the fat lady is Christ himself; being smug or unkind does not make for happiness.

Then I happened upon these messages from the GROW group - a support program for people with mental health issues. Reading their brochure they have a few sayings that could be helpful.

'The Overall Key to Mental Health and Happiness: Settle for disorder in lesser things for the sake of order in greater things; and therefore be content to be discontent in many things.'

This is particularly pertinent when you live with small children in your care. You certainly have to let go of the perfect house or your social life or your place on the career ladder to be with your children.

And another: 'I can be ordinary. I can do whatever ordinary good people do, and avoid whatever ordinary good people avoid. My special abilities will develop in harmony only if my foremost aim is to be a good ordinary human being.'

That message is so rare that it is almost shocking. We all think we are unique, special, and worthy of the best, but the truth is that we are also ordinary. So are our children. For people who are able-bodied and of sound mind, it is unlikely we are satisfied with being ordinary.

I'm thinking about this in the context of people who I knew had creative ambitions, as I did. I trained as an actor. I spent the twenty years before I had kids with writers, artists, musicians, actors, academics. Of all the people I spent time with, perhaps one has made it big, a few have had fleeting success. Some can periodically earn money from their talent. The people who succeeded weren't more talented, or more determined, or in any way more deserving. They were just luckier. Some found personal happiness and didn't need their dream anymore. Still others took a practical route of a stable job and responsibilities. Some became teachers. Some continue as amateurs or develop their talents as a hobby. Some never gave up on their dream, to their detriment.

Isn't that what growing up is? Giving up on the dream to be content with the ordinary? Living an ordinary life, without disappointment. And the dream may have been a life of wealth, of romance, of children. Very few people have all their expectations of life met.

Why don't we celebrate the ordinary more often? We might do so in photographs of people living in poverty, or in tribes in third world countries, but we don't do it for ourselves.

And I'm thinking about it in the context of mothers, who may have their own aspirations and desires that they can't pursue due to the demands of raising children, and I might add, the endless menial tasks involved in caring for children and running a household. If you do that work with a 'why me?' attitude, I'm afraid you're sunk. If you do it graciously, believing that it is OK to live a little life, an ordinary life filled with ordinary moments, there is a kind of greatness in that.

Now, I know there is a lot more to say. That this could be a gendered question, but I'm not sure that it is. That we want to give our children hope. That we want them to be happy, so, knowing their dreams will probably be unfulfilled, what should we teach them? And that we want to be happy ourselves. And while I certainly don't want to raise my housework to an artform, and I don't consciously do my housework as a blessing for my family, I do want everyone, not just mothers, but men and children and everyone, to see the honour and the value in all the little menial tasks that make up our ordinary lives. To see that no-one is too good or above doing these tasks. That it is as much a part of normal life as dressing yourself. That we can do these jobs consciously. That we are all worthy of them. And that it takes courage to give up a dream to do these ordinary things.

1 comment:

Motherhugger said...

A new book that says the same thing I'm saying here: