“If we don’t have our dreams, we have nothing.” That’s the tag line of a low-budget and unrealistic film called The Astronaut Farmer. Still, it’s true. One major dimension of depression, and one that’s laced through suicidal cravings, is the despairing loss of dreams.
Buried in the belly of “dreaming dreams” are words like inspiration, vision, plans, expectations, hopes, and even “calling.” Within a secular frame, we are the one animal on the planet that has evolved with a mind capable of dreaming dreams in a way that advances us through history. We create culture. We create culture that changes. We create culture that builds on itself with new information and technology. Other animals do not. We get inspired, envision, plan, expect, hope—and then build. We build libraries, courtrooms, theaters, hospitals, synagogues, and churches. We build roads, houses, and all manner of architecturally pleasing “boxes” within which to conduct business. We plan jobs and careers. We plan marriages. We plan vacations and trips. We plan and build our lives. Within a Christian frame, we are made a little lower than the angels, capable of exercising such stewardship over creation…and contemplating the God who made that creation.
When we have a purpose-driven life, the meaning we create for our lives from day to day—and the joy that emerges from it—become the engine that drives seizing those days. But it is hope that is the engine driving our dreams that shape those days. Without dreaming dreams, without the hope that drives our dreams, we have nothing by which to create our days…to create our lives. If we do not dream dreams, then we do not create meaning. If we do not create meaning, there is no reason to get up in the morning to seize our days. We end up like the forlorn one in Ecclesiastes: “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (2:17; NIV)
Dreaming dreams. Where would we be if we didn’t have our dreams?
We are built to dream. Yet, we are caught in a dilemma. Life doesn’t care about our dreams. Tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis, diseases, war, famines, accidents and death all rob us of our dreams. In crushing our dreams, life crushes our hopes. That’s why some, Christian or not, get so depressed. And why some kill themselves. Almost foolishly and naively, we dare to get our hopes up in this life—hopes that fuel our fragile and utterly vulnerable dreams. In hope, we envision how we want life to go. In hope, we make plans to get it there. In hope, we expect good things to come from our grand efforts. Some even expect great things. Then something happens.
I dreamt of taking my children hiking and camping, even mountain climbing the Adirondacks of New York state. The Adirondacks were my old stomping ground as a boy. I spent hundreds of days hiking, camping, and climbing her gently rolling mountains. Given how I felt about my adoptive Mother Nature—my own mother had emotionally abandoned me since infancy—I sure wanted my family to spend time with her. It was never to be, however. I became disabled with severe asthma, a “gift” from Mother Nature and my parents who were chain smokers.
After a decade of being homebound with asthma—I was only able to enjoy the great outdoors for one hour a day with a heavy-duty mask on—I managed to get a few hours outside to have some fun…and be a bit normal. My wife and I began re-working our dreams. We thought we had a shot at being able to travel places in a recreational vehicle if I equipped it with a HEPA filter to protect me from allergens. I began to design how I might do that. But then, I got disabled again. This time, it was hyperacusis, which is auditory hypersensitivity to sound and vibration. It was a side-effect of a medication I was on for asthma combined with a very loud movie. The damage is permanent. Now, not only can’t I travel far because the car’s vibration on the highway re-injures my ears, but I can’t drive without Bose sound quieting headphones and foam ear plugs because the noise in the car’s cabin re-injures them as well. I also cannot go outside for a simple walk without ear protection. And forget planes.
You can imagine the practical limitations for day-to-day living. But I’ve had it easy compared to some. My own father, for example, had been a semi-pro football player. But he was cut down in his twenties with multiple sclerosis (MS). He became paraplegic then quadriplegic. I grew up seeing Mother Nature slowly and torturously destroy my dad. And look at the atheist Stephen Hawking. He is a famous theoretical physicist who acquired Lou Gehrig’s disease in his early twenties. Like my dad who was a Catholic Christian, he became quadriplegic—and still is at 72.
As Scott Peck, author of the 1972 book The Road Less Travelled, noted, “Life is difficult.” Christian or not, that is indeed true.
Still, many Christians find hope in Jesus. They think if they have enough faith, if they just snuggle up to Jesus, if they doggedly pursue living right in Christ, then Jesus will protect them…and their dreams. But, for so many, that simply hasn’t been true. It hasn’t been true for my wife and me. That hadn’t been true for C. S. Lewis either. He found love in a woman named Joy late in life, only to have her taken away in a few short years by cancer. In his private journal, it is clear that Lewis expected God to take care of him and Joy…to protect their dream-come-true of belated love. He repeatedly got his hopes up only to have them dashed. Joy died; Lewis became depressed.
When I was in my twenties, several friends of mine who staffed a busload of Christian college kids heading for an Urbana missionary conference prayed for “travelling mercies” before they left. On the way, the bus hit black ice, spun out of control, and flipped on its side. Several students were thrown out only to have the bus roll on top of them. Despite grand efforts to lift the bus, the bus didn’t move—and the students died. How many hopes and dreams went with them? My friends found themselves traumatized, depressed, and spiritually confused.
Thousands of years ago, Job struggled with the loss of his dreams. He lived a good enough life, yet suffered severe losses. In fact, when you read his story, you discover that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Grappling with his traumatic losses, he longed to die. And he repeatedly proclaimed his innocence to his friends and to his God. In the end, God agreed with him: Job hadn’t earned the loss of his dreams. Frankly, neither had my wife and I earned ours.
Faith or no faith, snuggling up to Jesus or not, living right or living lazily, God has never promised us a rose garden. He has never guaranteed us a certain quality of life. Nor has he ever promised to protect our hopes and dreams. What he has promised through the apostle Paul is that nothing, including the loss of our dreams, could separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus:
Yes, I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor ruling spirits, nothing now, nothing in the future, no powers, nothing above us, nothing below us, nor anything else in the whole world will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38-39, NCV; italics mine)
That truth is comforting, though when we lose our dreams, it may feel irrelevant and impractical. It certainly doesn’t bring our dreams back. Nor does it flame our hopes and passions for this life while living in this life. That’s why some Christians commit suicide. Still, for some, that truth can be an anchor point when life crushes our expectations and plans. It may have been for John the Baptist.
John criticized the king publicly—and found himself in prison. John knew Jesus was the Messiah; he had already baptized him. However, with great anxiety wondering about his own future, as well as the knot in his stomach pondering why this hoped-for Messiah hadn’t ushered in his glorious empire yet, John sent a messenger to Jesus asking whether he was really the one. Imagine: under the pressures of his own dashed hopes, the greatest Old Testament prophet questioned…out loud…directly to Jesus… if he really was the Messiah. Jesus answered back that he was—then told John that blessed was the man who not only accepted him but also bowed the knee to the divine game plan that came along with him. Maybe Jesus anchored John with that reassurance. Whether he did or didn’t, John lost everything; he got beheaded.
All but one apostle were murdered; Paul himself was likely beheaded. So from Job to Lewis, from John the Baptist to the apostle Paul, from those no-name college students to this no-name author and his wife, there is no divine guarantee on one’s hopes and dreams. None.
So, why dream? Really—what’s the point?
We hold two things in enormous tension from day to day. On one hand, as that tag line asserts, we must dream. We must hope, envision, plan, expect, and build—or we end up like the forlorn one in Ecclesiastes. We end up like my parents who worked very hard at continuing life but with virtually no hope and no new dreams. Only survival. On the other hand, we dare to dream knowing there is no guarantee on our dreams. None. Neither from my dear Mother Nature nor from God. Like it or not, we venture out in life with no promises of a rose garden. That’s the way it is.
The apostle Paul laid out in an extraordinarily brief paragraph how to hold these two truths in tension—how to navigate among life’s dream-shattering vicissitudes—to create a meaningful life. Frankly, I’ve spent years learning the skills he’s summarized here, and decades applying them to my clients’ lives…whether my clients knew I was using the apostle’s thumbnail blueprint or not:
We also have joy with our troubles, because we know that these troubles produce patience. And patience produces character, and character produces hope. And this hope will never disappoint us…. (Rom.5:3-5a, NCV)
For the apostle, both joy and hope emerge from character. Whether we make the despair of our lost dreams a moment or a way of life depends on character. It depends on the mental and emotional skills we build through the loss. Do we become angry and bitter or become more loving toward self and others? Such skills can be built out of the struggle with life’s various “troubles,” including our lost dreams. The apostle James put it this way:
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. (Jas. 1:2-4, NRSV)
James pointed out how the nonsense life throws at us becomes our opportunities to build mental and emotional endurance, skills which, if played right, will make us more mature in Christ. That maturing process—that growing in character even through shattered dreams and profound losses—is part of our transformation from one degree of glory into another into the image of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 3:17)
I don’t like it. I really don’t want to have to do that kind of hard work. But given the human condition, it’s all I got. We either commit suicide or live. We either paint ourselves black, lie down like a doormat, and let life steamroll us, or we push back and build a life through it all. We either lead pathetic lives as lost sheep as my parents had or we catch the vision in Christ to create a life worth living. We either eat or drink, piling up as many happiness moments as we can accrue in our limited lifetimes, or we create a purpose-driven life built on character. However complicated the analysis gets, when our dreams get crushed, it really does boil down to only two options: live or die. The apostles called us to live. They called us to hope in order to live.
But hope in what?
It is the hope of the resurrection. It is the hope that Jesus’ coming back to life really does mean that, in the end, all suffering and death is ultimately defeated. Like John the Baptist, whether life “beheads” our dreams or not, we must stand on that hope. But—and this is a huge but—it is precisely the hope of the resurrection that remains our dream when we’ve lost all other dreams. It is our “Big Dream.” It is the dream of all dreams. It is the dream that encompasses all other dreams. So, if we choose, we can allow ourselves to be inspired by the resurrection. We can envision the transformed universe woven in, through, and around that resurrected Jesus. We can adopt the apostles’ calling and plan on building character through any and all of life’s nonsense. We can expect that we will learn to love, exude joy, and forge hope deep in our bellies. We can build character. That is our meaning when we’ve lost our dreams.
Then—with that panoramic in view—we have a shot at facing and answering the tough question, “Now what?” Now what do we do with our lives? Given that our dreams have been crushed, how should we then live?
My parents never asked nor answered that question. They didn’t focus on the resurrection to mobilize their passions to fight the fight to build character. If they had, they would have wrestled with how to love one another in a way to create joy and meaning. Then—with that in place—they would have had a shot at dreaming new dreams.
My wife and I had to ask and answer that same question. In the spirit of the apostles, we chose to keep growing up into maturity in Christ. We chose to keep working at loving one another as well as the many others entrusted to our care. Candidly, I also chose to anchor myself in Jesus by refreshing the vision of the resurrection daily as I shower. Really…as I shower in the morning, I run through my mind how the apostle Paul noted that there were about five hundred people who saw Jesus after the resurrection. Five hundred! Incredible. In various ways I keep the resurrection before me to stir my hope that whether I live this day fully or die this day, I will come back to life like Jesus. And life’s nonsense will be over. That big hope then mobilizes my smaller hopes to create whatever other meaning I can create in my life from day to day. Among other things, writing articles for Phred in this e-magazine is part of forging new dreams for me. It grants meaning to my life.
My wife recently shared with me the sermon Rear Admiral Margaret Grun Kibben, the chaplain of the US Marine Corps and Deputy Chief of Navy Chaplains, delivered to our church. The admiral noted that the worst moment for a wounded warrior was when he or she woke up in the hospital, only to discover both arms and legs gone. The soldier’s dreams for life were gone. The turning point comes, she said, when the despairing warrior decides to create a new life from what she does have, and stops focusing on what she doesn’t have. All wounded warriors, all of us wounded warriors in the game of life, have to do that. We have to ask and answer that key question, “Now what?” The platform for the answer must be our big hope in Jesus. All other smaller hopes flow from that.
So let us never give up dreaming. But let us keep dreaming dreams strategically. Let us keep dreaming dreams…in Christ.