Childhood dreams spur us towards accomplishments meant to fulfill our larger purpose in life. But what happens when the very pursuit of these dreams stops us from living a liberated and happy life? Can our long-term dreams and childhood desires hinder future successes?
I am 6 months short of turning 30 and have lived through a tricky decade. It’s generally understood that the tumultuous 20s are a time for working overtime on achieving your dreams. I began by scoring excellent grades in college, securing an exciting job in the print media and landing a steady date. There, ambitions fulfilled! Well, not quite and not so easy. I didn’t realize that it was just the very beginning, the prelude in fact, to a decade of struggle and heartache in a bid to accomplish what I felt was the purpose of my life.
Like most kids, I dreamt of being various “persons” as I was growing up. At 4, I wanted to be a doctor, at 6, a teacher, at 8, an astronaut, at 10, a biologist, at 12, a poet, at 14, a scientist, at 16, a geneticist, and by the time I was 18, a historian and writer. These choices reflect the elements that caught hold of my attention at the time. It was exciting to imagine the transformation from what I was at one point in time (a fringe-haired girl wearing frocks and playing with flowers) to becoming this other being, complete with clothes, mannerisms and attitude.
At the age of 6, when you dream of being an astronaut, you only think about wearing a white suit and flying in space. This is also the reason I choose to use the word person and not profession to talk about my childhood dreams.
Take a step back now and think about the distance you have to bridge from that childhood idea of wanting to be an astronaut to the reality of growing up and being one. You have to pass through the rigors of high school science, graduate with the highest scores possible in the most obscure of subjects, all the while staying ahead of the 50-odd potential space cadets who also want to make it to the prestigious program you have shortlisted that only happens to accept the Top 5. Or, you sit through entrance exams, apply at numerous institutions, cajole your parents into emptying their life savings on your tuition fee, slog through half a decade of even more obscure theories and practicals, then sit through more rounds of interviews and cross-examinations before finally receiving a letter that announces: you have graduated! At this point, when the child in you wants to rush to the closet to wear that revered Space Suit and do the Moon Walk, comes the time to wake up: only a few fly to space, the rest are drafted to work as a junior assistant to the assistant manager at a space agency, or drafted in service to tabulate statistics and code astronomical numbers that verify the trajectory of the satellite around space debris, or any number of permutation and combinations of clerical and admin work. The horror!
A permanent fixture of my growing up years was my love for books. I have always been that girl with a storybook in her hand, sitting by the window (or the couch, the floor, the bed, the balcony) and losing myself in the stories of another land. There hasn’t been a day in my life when I haven’t read a tale on magic, fairies, adventurous sailors or frightening Greek monsters! While I changed my mind about being a doctor or scientist as the fancy took me, I never questioned that I would one day be an adventurer!
What it boils down to is this: As kids, we aren’t afraid of dreaming big because none of us know what it entails. Fulfilling and achieving dreams at that age doesn’t require a whole load of preparation. We use sticks to dig bugs out of the wet earth in the backyard of our houses and casually mention to our best friends, ‘hey, you know what, I am gonna be an astronaut when I grow up. You”ll see me flying up there, right next to the moon and sun and stars”.
What is the exact point at which we stop believing in these simple statements of truth?
At 18, when I chose to become a historian, it was a career choice first, and a secondary means to relive my childhood dream of being able to discover new lands, solve ancient puzzles and piece together stories of people long buried. It was happenstance that a History major would allow me to do all that. I clung to the notion that if I could just get waltz through graduation, scramble through a post-grad, and zombie-walk through a PhD, I would finally get to be that adventurer. I did not think about the financial repercussions of choosing ‘Ancient History’ as my major; I had vague notions of digging through archaeological sites and being paid my the government to unearth lost treasures. Yes, I was mature enough to realize that I needed money to survive, but not savvy enough to understand what that meant in day-to-day terms.
I was absent minded, sort of daft, lost in the world of reference books, happy to be spending after-college hours in the library, and my weekends pouring over research papers. My world revolved around ancient civilizations and I was in a state of bliss. Academic life for me was a journey of discovery and self-actualization. I saw my friends curse the reams of text they had to read or dread the surprise test. I actually looked forward to these! I was in love with the subject and the idea that here I was, step by step, fulfilling my dreams.
Before long, I had graduated with honors. My professors were my cheerleaders. The next step was to apply at the only university I knew worth applying at: Oxford. This is the point at which the reality intruded, again. Just as the child grows up to realize that becoming a doctor is not a costume party outing, I understood that getting through university didn’t just involve applying and flying there! You have to prove that you can read, write and understand English. You have to sit through entrance exams that endeavor to check your mathematical and reasoning abilities. As if that wasn’t enough, you have to pay for all through your last life savings. Let me not get started on the extraneous requirements of being proficient in two foreign languages, of which one has to of course be an ancient one. Once you are satisfied that you can make the cut after all, barely, you got to find three professors who can give you stellar recommendations!
Till the point you get an acceptance letter, you live in an in-between state. ‘Will I be considered worthy to be a future historian?’, you ask yourself, all the while hoping and praying that a foreign institution grants you approval for achieving your dreams.
Like scores of others in my place, I secured admission, was told I would get a percentage of bursary, but not the full scholarship amount. My world collapsed. No money means no admittance. I wrote back to the admissions officer, hoping for a miracle, stating my intentions of continuing on the path of discovery in spite of facing a hurdle at this nascent stage. Of course, I was wished best of luck and that’s that! For the next two years, every time the door bell rang my heart raced. I imagined it was the postman delivering a letter from one of the numerous charity / scholarship / rich institutions from whom I had “requested” aid, announcing my acceptance. While I knew the improbability and insanity of my fantasy, my heart was just not ready to give up.
I trudged on in my early 20s, congratulating myself for at least achieving good grades, at least securing a terrific job in the print media, and at least landing a steady date (err, online). It was supposed to be enough. It was supposed to be the beginning of an exciting life. It seemed practical to forget about academics for the moment and focus on earning a living and making it big. After all, in your 20s, you also want to be able to shop, eat out, hang out with friends, visit theme parks, travel, and splurge on the good things.
The 20s was depressing and I was not happy with the direction my life was taking. I hated that I had to wake up each day to rush to work, stay after hours, edit horrendous copy, and design pages for the attention-deficit public, where as my dreams were slowly turning into mothballs in the corners of my mind. I felt victimized by fate. Why wasn’t I born to a rich family?
While I focused on becoming an editor and writer, I never lost track of events that took place in the art world. I participated in seminars and workshops, read journals and papers, and shortlisted courses I could study after a couple of years, as soon as I had saved up enough money to pursue my dream, once again. This was just testing times, perhaps it was god himself who wanted to check if I was devoted enough to achieve the dream?
I grew estranged from my family as they couldn’t understand why I was trying so hard to pursue my dreams. They saw me as an ambitious girl, but couldn’t see the desperation behind the ambition. The desperate need to make a dream come true. It was all I knew. It was the only thing I had planned for in this lifetime. Apart from a career as a historian, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. Oh, I was good at writing and editing, but it didn’t fulfill me the way history as a subject did. If I couldn’t be a historian, I thought I would stop being me. That was at the crux of it. I was a child who was holding on to her idea of growing up to be someone.
I quit my job at the newspaper and in the ensuing decade pursued opportunities at a museum, study at an arts management institute, and finally got myself a master’s degree in Ancient Civilizations. Today, I am married and balancing work, personal goals and professional commitments.
The most painful lesson the decade has taught me is that dreams can be as deadly as knife edges. We are taught to achieve our dreams, sometimes by paying a high price, but lauded when we do achieve them. Stories of persistence are taught to us in school, through retelling of folk tales by our grandparents, and on the 70mm movie screens. We are consistently bombarded with glorified images of the poor, boy-next-door striking gold at the lottery, or the simple girl-next-door becoming the next top model, or the kid from a small town becoming a five-star chef, and countless other stories of people achieving their dreams through luck, sheer persistence, happenstance or good fortune. Some of them give up on their childhood fantasies, having spent long years struggling to combine their dreams with making a living – and finally, putting food on the plate won. Some others chip away at the wood consistently and many decades later quietly triumph.
The thing is, society’s idea of achievement is also closely connected to youth. Achieving dreams and making it big are projected as youthful pursuits and the vanguard of the young. In our 20s, we are slowly tinctured with messages of a ticking time bomb, as if dreams come with a sell-by date and if we don’t achieve them in that golden age, we are bound to miss the boat. We are subtly compelled to travel, find a soul mate, strike it big in the industry, and balance family and social commitments on the ten to 12-year arch of the second decade. Our parents start sending us Harry Potter-like howlers about our depreciating youth (read beauty and fitness) and urge us to settle down. There are just too many things hitting us from all quarters. The need to then achieve your dream becomes all the more urgent and poignant. After all, your dreams will have legitimacy only if you are in the peak of your life – and that peak is supposed to be your 20s.
We are once again at the beginning of my criss-crossing narrative. I am 30. Today, I realize that the pursuit of my dreams literally pushed me out of having a shot at another kind of life. I was so focused on the goal that I lost sight of the larger picture. I could have tried my hand at singing, music, drawing, cooking, languages, or even setting up a business. But the thought of giving up my one dream filled me with dread. I feared being a failure – in my own eyes. I feared the censure of the public that knew me in the academic circles. Having tried so hard, for so many years, I assumed that I just had to keep trying, to keep pushing and not give up.
I failed to understand the very essence of having dreams. To dream is to fill your life with a happy purpose. Dreams are there to motivate you to get out of bed every morning and spend the day with purpose. Dreams instill in us a sense of discipline. Dreams are also a way to guide us; they tell us to avoid extraneous stuff and focus on what truly satisfies us.
What happens when you cling to a dream at the cost of your health, your social life and your family? What happens when you fail to realize that perhaps there is a chance that you are Not a Suitable Candidate? What happens when you stubbornly refuse to devise a Plan B? What happens when you lose sight of the everyday necessities required to survive?
Time does heal many a wounds. It allows you to withstand shocks that you think you can never overcome. The best part about growing up is that you get a chance to reflect and forgive yourself. I look back on my journey with a sense of relief now; I got to learn such an important lesson about the purpose of dreams. There are stories waiting to be written. You will see me sharing notes, soon.