Most of us experience the loss of dreams gone unrealized at some point, if not at many times in our lives. Sometimes it’s a college application that got a rejection, a career that didn’t pan out, or a relationship that didn’t work. Perhaps it’s ending up single or childless when you wanted to be married with kids. Or maybe it was having an unexpected death or illness rob you of what you thought you would be doing or experiencing.
Significant loss, whether it’s a relationship, work, health, financial stability, or anything else, can tend to rock us to the core. We know it can happen. No one is immune from terminal illness, car accidents, layoffs, divorce, infertility or a host of other unhappy occurrences. Sometimes life isn’t fair.
And yet, we see a huge range of responses to these situations, these times when dreams die. That is what I would like to focus on today.
Have you ever known people who seemed to have it all, but were always sad and complaining, and at least a little bitter & self pitying? And at the other extreme, you may have encountered people who have endured tremendous suffering, but despite all challenges, did not let the depression or discouragement sour them? (If you had to see yourself with this in mind, where would you fall? I ask myself that sometimes.)
The crisis as opportunity
How to respond to the death of dreams is a very human question and it’s a deeply religious one too. Imagine some of Jesus’ first disciples who were helping their father to fish…and decided to abandon dad and go follow Jesus instead! How was this older man going to cope with both sons leaving him? Consider Peter’s wife as he left her, and his work which sustained them, to learn from and accompany Jesus to who knows where. You can imagine that these families had a shock and then the sense that the future they envisioned was gone – and we’re not even talking about the eventual martyrdom of these early followers!
As I write this, we are close to Christmas, so let’s ponder Mary’s situation a few months prior. She was betrothed but not yet living with Joseph. She must have been so happy to envision her future life with him and the family which they planned to have. Instead, an angel appears, tells her that she is blessed and that she is going to bear a child without benefit of Joseph’s involvement, but rather a miraculous and divine intervention in nature. Instead of freaking out, Mary asked for more information and allowed her dreams to be diverted to what God had in mind. Talk about a leap of faith! So too for her Joseph, who came around after an angel visited him in a dream. Both of them had dreams that they relinquished because of a sense that God called them to do so.
We don’t all have the aid of angels when our dreams are diverted by life or by God. But like Mary and Joseph, we do all have the choice as to how we respond. Will we be angry and bitter? Will we consider it a way to grow? Will we ask God to lead us through the confusion?
Confusion and dementia is one of my own fears. Frankly, I do a lot of self-editing, and I’m more than a little afraid that my blunt nature could morph into rudeness if dementia takes hold of me sometime down the road. I do not want to be mean. One of my very earnest prayers has been to help me to be a nicer person so that’s my nature – and if at some point my judgement fails, I will not be mean or unkind.
I had a great aunt who was a very beautiful soul, and she happened to be a cloistered Carmelite nun in Carmel, CA. She lived to be very old and near the end, in her mid 90s, was quite confused and forgetful. At one of those confused times, one of the sisters said to her “I believe our Lord has taken your memory”. My great aunt said in response, “He can take anything He wants”.
What holiness it is to relinquish to God our own will, our own desires or dreams, our grudges, even. Rolling with the punches is hard, especially when we are exhausted and discouraged. It is at these times, more than any other, when I really believe our best course of action is to not try to go it alone, but to lean on the God who loves us and let that strength of God be our strength.
When I consider God as our source of joy, our sustenance and the one who helps us to overcome big disappointments such as the death of dreams, it is the words of St. Paul which come to mind: “in life and in death, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8). If we can allow ourselves to live for God, and not for ourselves, then the changes and challenges which we face can all be seen as working toward God’s good plan rather than our own. And similarly, I love the passage from Acts of the Apostles, which we sometimes hear in Mass, which reminds us that in God “we live and move and have our being”(Acts 17:8).
The saying “let go and let God” sounds so trite, but in many ways it sums up a spirituality which allows us to not hang on to our own desires or dreams, but to try to hook our desires and dreams to God’s – which are sometimes not so clear for us to understand.
A word often used for this kind of openness to the redirection of our lives is “non-attachment”. That’s a term which is perhaps better known as being a Buddhist value, but in fact it is very much a Christian value also (it is referenced somewhere in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, but I’m sorry to not be able to cite it precisely). What we are called to cling to is God, not the stuff of life. Put most basically, putting God first is the heart of the very first commandment (which actually goes further – it’s not just that God is first, it’s that we are commanded to love God). If we can do our best to love God and put God first, than all other attachments, including the attachment to our will and our dreams, get cushioned and put in perspective.
I have heard it said that when someone preaches, he or she is preaching first to himself or herself. That applies here, to this writer, as well. When I write about things, it’s because these are areas I’m working on myself, not because I’ve mastered them, and because I’m finding them relevant in life and in faith. “Let go and let God” – I think that’s a great New Year’s goal, or any any-day goal, for that matter.