All the leaves are brown, and the sky is grey.
I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day.
I’d be safe and warm if I was in L.A.
California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.
— California Dreamin’ by John and Michelle Phillips, sung by The Mamas and The Papas
When I was young, I would sometimes lie back in the grassy meadow near my home to watch the clouds float by while I dreamed dreams. The snowy contrails of a passing jet made me dream of soaring like the birds and seeing the earth from high above. I imagined exploring the cold mysteries of space (America was caught up in the race to the moon), or digging up lost, ancient cities in Egypt.
As I grew older, I would sometimes imagine some labor-saving device that I could build in my workshop. I dreamed of being an inventor; as I approached college, I gave serious thought to becoming an architect.
As a young man awed by the wonders of the female members of our species, I began to dream of meeting a beautiful woman, falling in love and discovering a friend who would want to share life with me.
It’s good to have dreams. Dreams keep life interesting; they fuel a sense of expectation and wonder about life that I think God intends us to have.
It can be harder to dream when you’re an adult, of course. When you’re young, the possibilities seem endless (even if they also seem frustratingly slow to materialize); adults quickly discover that a commitment to one dream can mean abandoning another.
Still, adults need dreams, too, perhaps more than anyone. Dreams give us the courage to keep slogging through the daily grind of life. Dreams help to keep hope alive within us.
This is the “Year of a Million Dreams” at Disney World, where I’ve just spent the past week with my wife’s family. The siblings and spouses and grandma all came together for a reunion, and we wore ourselves out eating, walking and roller-coastering.
(Despite my fear of roller coasters, I’m proud to report that I rode Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Space Mountain, Expedition Everest and Aerosmith’s Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, all with my eyes open!)
Disney’s idea of a dream come true is having your picture taken with Mickey Mouse, dressing little girls up like princesses or little boys like Jedi knights. It’s giving you a front-row seat to an awesome fireworks show or a chance to experience something you’ve never done before, like blasting off in a rocket to Mars, soaring in a hang-glider over the mountains of California or flying over London with Peter Pan.
Those are fine dreams, but they lack something, don’t they? Like artificial sweeteners, they taste good but lack much nutrition. My brother-in-law watched a set of parental units walking backwards through Disney while videotaping their daughter, who was all decked out in an expensive princess costume. She sashayed down the street like royalty, the Kingdom of Disney her oyster.
Back home, I’m certain that video will be played over and over again as she relives her dream of finding a handsome Prince Charming. I’m equally certain she will wake up one day to discover that the real world is not as eager to place her on a pedestal as the Disney dream makers are.
What we really desire are not costume-party dreams, not dreams made from smoke and mirrors, but dreams that lead to something tangible, something true, something life-changing.
We often hear about “The American Dream,” which usually refers to opportunity and financial success. We want to become independent from our parents, to marry well and accumulate the goodies that come with affluence. Most Americans achieve that dream to one degree or another. America really is a land with extraordinary opportunities for self-improvement and wish-fulfillment.
I looked everywhere in Disney World and never saw any poor people — no beggars, no homeless, no one down-on-their-luck. It says a lot about America that most of us can afford the entrance fees to a place like Disney.
It also says something about human nature that we are attracted in droves to the Utopian Disney dream of a magical place where everything is perfectly beautiful, where there’s no crime, no tears, a place where we are all highly esteemed and where the streets are full of smiles.
We know Disney isn’t real, but it somehow manages to create a hope about something that could be real, might be real, ought to be real.
All of us dream of being loved and appreciated for who we are. We dream of finding joy in our work, in our homes, in our relationships. We dream of a world where peace and harmony are the rule, not the exception.
Reality can be disappointingly unlike any of that. We may never find that love we have been looking for, or worse, we may find it and lose it. We may never find a vocation where our talents and interests are appreciated and used. We may never know a time of peace and security where we don’t have to deadbolt our doors at night or have our shoes x-rayed at the airport.
Those are the realities we live with, but in our hearts the dream of something better remains alive.
Where does that dream come from?
It can’t be evolutionary in origin. The evolutionary story is one of improvement, not perfection, and in that quest for improvement it’s a story of relentless, ruthless competition, with the strong eliminating the weak. There’s nothing sentimental about evolution. It isn’t a story that seems likely to foster dreams of love, peace and tranquility.
Perhaps these dreams are our mind’s counter-response to the emotional weight of evolutionary competition and the certainty of death, sort of a dose of Valium to help us cope with reality — a built-in 60’s high. Doesn’t seem likely to me.
Maybe these dreams of love, of significance, of purpose and meaning, of peace and harmony, of life beyond death come to us, and remain with us, because they were put there by our Maker?
Genesis 1:26 says that God made men and women in his image — imago dei in the ancient Latin phrase. In grappling with the meaning of that idea, theologians have suggested that we have hidden in our spirits things inherited from God, among them: the ability to love and act selflessly, a need for intimacy in relationships, a sense of value and of fulfilling a greater purpose than meets the eye, and a hope for eternity in the midst of a world that seems very finite.
Our dreams, I suspect, are like bread crumbs that are meant to lead us back through the dark forest to a green clearing where we discover someone patiently waiting for us.
Perhaps, then, our dreams are our Creator’s way of calling us nearer to himself. If that’s true, how should we respond?
That’s one beautiful essay and very refreshing. I’ve been reading some books by reductionist materialists and realize that I needed a little relief. We can probably divide the human race into those willing to allow a bit of venture into the dreams you are talking about and their implications, on the one hand, and those who insist that there is nothing here but fundamental bits of material and physical processes that operate among them, on the other. It’s not just a question of which alternative we might prefer. It’s also a question of which makes more sense when stood side-by-side with the reality of our experience. Thanks for bringing out that sense. You join the ranks of Augustine and C.S. Lewis.
Very good, Charlie.
I do think that the whole “princess thing” causes many women to not do well in relationships later in life (not to imply that women are at fault in the ending of every relationship; I’m just writing what I see from the perspective of a woman who grew up on Disney). We’re taught that we’re princesses in need of and deserving of a prince to rescue us and take us away to a castle, where we will live a life free of cares and worry. Then we grow up and discover that life isn’t like that, that successful relationships, by definition, require work, and that not everyone thinks we’re princesses who deserve to be pampered. The “princess thing” also leads to the proliferation of expensive cookie-cutter weddings which start new couples out in debt and with an image of perfection no relationship can live up to. It’s worth taking a look at the media images we present to our children.
We’re going to Disney in January – I can’t wait to hit whatever coasters are there! Ha!
Oh, and I tagged you over on my blog. 🙂 The Threshing Floor