I had a conversation on a plane last week with a woman who lamented, “I just feel like I haven’t accomplished anything and I’m 65 years old.” This woman, mind you, runs her own business, volunteers with her Church, has raised 3 daughters, is active in the lives of her grandkids, and has poured out her painful experience of divorce to support other friends who’ve walked the same crestfallen lines.
“I thought I’d be married by now,” I heard another friend say.
“I thought I would have been more successful at this point in my life.”
“I thought I would have accomplished more by now.”
Do you hear voices you know in those sentiments? Have you ever felt that way?
I turned 26 a few weeks ago. From the get go, I knew it would be a hard number for me. Throughout college, I talked non-stop of serving in the Peace Corps in Africa post-college and then attending grad school immediately after. “I kinda know what I’m doing with the next four years, or so, at least,” I shared with a friend a few weeks out from college graduation. “I’ll spend two years overseas and then two years in grad school, and by that time, gosh, I’ll be 26!” I remember exclaiming, and wow, did 26 seem much older then.
Peace Corps was my dream. My passion. The thing that drove me to put all my energy into swimming Division 1 athletics now, because one day I would be on a plane headed off to Africa. I saw the faces of women and girls I met on a short term trip back when I was 20 in Botswana. I dreamed of meeting more of those animated smiles. I scribbled “Peace Corps” all over notebooks, especially my senior year, when I was tired of learning about people and just wanted to be out in the vast, wide open world with people. I’d dream about which country I’d get selected for. I poured over University of Denver’s Masters in International Human Rights program with vigor, glancing on their website when I should have been writing papers. Life seemed big, seemed open, seemed exciting and filled with possibilities and wonder.
Until that stopped.
It was January 20, 2010, 10 minutes before the close of business on the day before I was supposed to leave for South Africa with Peace Corps. I had knots in my throat all day and stared at the phone until 4:50 PM, pacing my room with trepidation, sadness, loss, fear, and most notably, uncertainty. My mental health had taken a downward turn. During my sophomore year of college, I developed anxiety for the first time in my life. I began to withdraw from my daily activities, including friendships, then entered in anxiety’s menace counterpart: depression. Throughout college, I attended a couple of clinical counseling sessions (but couldn’t afford to do a series of consecutive sessions that would have enabled me to really address my issues) and relied on my anxiety/depression medication and prescription sleeping pills. It was something I hoped would get better, would go away. I didn’t think it would turn into something that would take me away from the dream I’d been building.
But it did, and I made that painful phone call to say I wasn’t going to be leaving tomorrow. After receiving a few minutes of condolences and logistical instructions (“You can expect your passport to be mailed back to you in approximately 4-6 weeks”), I bawled my eyes out. My dream lie crushed, broken, smashed on the floor, like a million photographs shredded into one thousand pieces, all within a matter of a 5 minute phone call.
First thing was to schedule an appointment to see a psychiatrist. It was the best gift I ever spent on myself. Through medication and counseling, I began to gain new footing and spent my days writing cover letter after cover letter, wondering if anyone would even read the text over which I labored.
But sure enough, I had a job interview one long month later, and within two weeks, was hired as an HIV research assistant for a start date in April, giving me one whole month to re-focus, re-gain strength, and most importantly, breathe in the beauty of the spring air around me underneath the solace of Magnolia trees.
So many wonderful things have happened over the past four years; things I could have never foreseen at 22 when I said “no” to my Peace Corps dream. I spent 10 days in Cambodia with a women’s advocacy group. I began weekly therapy sessions, finally able to crawl out from underneath the rubble I felt like I created. I began writing and even got a few articles published. My family celebrated my grandmother’s 90th birthday party, bringing together all of my cousins who are scattered across the US.
But I knew 26 would still bring back memories of realizing that I never accomplished the life goals I had for myself at 22.
Which begs the question…
What do we do when our dreams get smashed? When your dreams are taken from you? When your dreams become trampled upon, left for dead? When that gaping whole in your heart where your dream once was pangs with emptiness and longing for the dream to return?
To find that out, I went back to water, my first love.
I headed out to a reservoir with one of my best friends on my birthday, gathering small rocks and stones scattered along the shoreline. We wrote each of our regrets, fears, worries, and uncertainties on the rocks with a sharpie. All of the things we needed to make peace with. The things we thought we would have done by now- the way it was “supposed” to turn out– and we tossed each and every one in the water. Sunk them. Skipped them. Hurled them like a shotput, letting all of the shame, disappointment, and fear of the future go with the rocks we now released into the water.
It was a holy moment.
A freeing moment.
To acknowledge crushed dreams and to affirm that my dreaming spirit never died; it just got revamped.
The thing I’m learning about dreams is that they are changeable, moldable, adaptable. They are resilient, yet flexible. True dreams offer life, not shame. They guide you but don’t harness you in. True dreams don’t immobilize. They recognize the wind and waves, and move with you, not against you. A passionate current that allows you to be washed over and over again with hope.
It’s that hope I think about when the Bible talks about “turning swords into ploughshares.” I’ve always been fascinated by the symbolism of taking something negative and turning it into something positive, useful, something better and more beautiful. I think that’s what God longs to do with dreams that never came into fruition. To take our crushed spirit and set us on a new trajectory, one that is more open, and free, and ever-passionate. One that accepts that things change, and don’t turn out the way we think they are “supposed to.” Ones that don’t feel too heavy because we can hold onto them tightly enough to put in our blood, sweat, and tears, but loosely enough to let the light in, let in air, let in matter, creativity, open-mindedness, and acceptance.
Right now, I say I want to get married sometime in my 30s and adopt a child in my 40s. But I hear a little bit of my obstinate, so-sure 22 year old self in there. I’m learning that dreams change, including timelines, and to not get so hell-bent on insisting things turn out the way I want them to right now, because who knows, that 22 year old girl who was sooo sure of the future has learned a thing or two now.
And so what about you?
It doesn’t matter if you’re 26 or 36 or 96 or too afraid or too scared.
Your dream is still there.
Oh sure, it may have changed shape since you first dreamed it up, but there’s still something tugging at your heart, calling you into life each day.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve said “no” to opportunities that you just weren’t ready for.
You still have the heart of a dreamer and that can never be taken from you.
May we have the fortitude to express our disappointment in not accomplishing what we thought we would, without shaming ourselves.
May you have eyes to see the amazing things you have done, though perhaps not your main dreams, the things that have shaped and molded you, and given meaning to your life.
May we come to understand that dreams shift, dreams change, and may our hearts be open to new directions, confident that there is something bigger going on here, things that if we were to see ahead of time, all at once, we could hardly contain ourselves in joy.
I’m 26 today…
… and I’m still a dreamer.
Have you ever lost a dream? What was that process like?
How did you gain a new vision for your life?