I hear lots of talk lately about the “American Dream” and people’s right to pursue it. Immigrants follow their dream by coming to America, college students work toward it, the poor and middle-class are motivated by it, and the rich try to live it. The general idea of “dreams” is that they are a comfort or motivator from the future: what will happen? What will I become? What will I attain or achieve?
Naturally, we dream success and fulfillment and joys for ourselves in the future. The future doesn’t exist as a solid thing that we enter or a hard-and-fast truth that descends upon us…it is created every second as we live it and our hope is to create our future the way we dream it: success and fulfillment and joy. Like the dreams that come to us when we sleep, these waking dreams are often difficult to define: What kind of success awaits us? What kind of fulfillment? Typically, and naturally, we strive and trust every day toward a future that we dream for ourselves.
But I have learned, too, that the idea of “dreams” comes with the negative concept of nightmares. It is sobering to remember that dreams can be a deep torment, a terrifying uncertainty from the future. Who hasn’t known the torture of anxiety from nightmares of awful possibilities, a failure, a pain? In a nightmare, the brain can storm the heart to racing, the breath to panting, and turn a peaceful sleep into an upright screaming waking in the dark.
Dreams have the power to create an unreal reality—whether good or terrifying; to create a longing and then quickly but momentarily satisfy it—as if quenching a thirst in a cool pond; to create a presence despite an absence—that makes the absence feel greater. As in Lou Reed’s song “Dreamin’” from his 1992 album Magic and Loss, his dreaming is a remembrance of a lost friend…and his experience is a presence and an absence of that friend:
If I close my eyes,
I can’t believe that I’m here without you
Inside your pale room and your empty red chair
And my head.
Others have framed and questioned this danger: the risk of falling victim to dreaming dreams:
♦ Langston Hughes says that, “Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly” if and when dreams die.
♦ Emily Dickinson looks at the dangers of Life and thinks, “We dream — it is good we are dreaming…It's prudenter — to dream.”
♦ Robert Service asks, “Oh why should some dreams be like heaven/And others so resemble hell?”
♦ But T. E. Lawrence, in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, looks distinctly at the differences between types of dreamers and types of dreams:
All people dream, but not equally.
Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their mind,
Wake in the morning to find that it was vanity.
But the dreamers of the day are dangerous people,
For they dream their dreams with open eyes,
And make them come true.
So I will dream of my future, but it will be dreams of the waking world: I will dream waking dreams of success, fulfillment, and joy. I often enjoy dreams of my sleeping world, but they may become nightmares at any second! I prefer—and pursue—what Fitzgerald calls, “the greatest of all human dreams…something commensurate to [my] capacity for wonder.”