Dream on

Years ago I heard Rev Tom Houston (at that time, President of World Vision International) open a conference talk to ministers with a story I’ve never forgotten. Here’s the gist of it.

A wealthy Texan rancher gathered a hundred or more of his friends to his lavish home. The food was good; the company was good; being in the rancher’s presence was good. None of them knew their host had an ulterior motive in bringing them together. The rancher gathered his guests at the poolside, and made a speech which finished this way. ‘I want to find the bravest young man among you. So, I’m offering a prize. You can have $1 billion, or the whole ranch, or my daughter’s hand in marriage – if you swim one length of my pool. But I should warn you, the pool is filled with flesh-eating fish.’ Everyone stared at the water. Sure enough, piranha-like fish were thrashing around in there. For a moment no-one moved. Suddenly there was a splash, and one of the young men was in the water, and he was swimming for all he was worth. The water churned, the fish attacked, and blood poured from wounds on the young man’s body. But still he swam, pulling his arms and kicking his legs to power his way through the water. He was half way there, bleeding, hurting, but still swimming. Three quarters, and everyone was sure he would die. Somehow he kept going, got to the pool’s edge, and hauled himself out. He was badly hurt but he’d done it. The rancher ran over and said: ‘You’re a remarkable young man! Tell me which prize you want: the $1 billion, the ranch, or my daughter’s hand in marriage.’ The swimmer stared up at him, and replied, ‘All I want is to know who pushed me in.’

I laughed, as did Houston’s audience. But, for many of the ministers present, their laughter was hollow. They’d started out with optimism, confidence and a sincere belief they’d make a difference in many lives. But the reality didn’t match. Numbers in church had declined. Some in the congregation were sharp critics. The pastors felt seriously under-appreciated. They were sacrificing to serve, but met with piranha-like attacks on their ministry. Now they were hurting, deeply and probably permanently. Who pushed them in to work like this?

Far more than ministers ask that question. People start out cheerfully and hopefully into a career or a relationship. It begins well but doesn’t last.

I’ve seen it happen with young people chasing sporting dreams. A youngster excels at playing golf, so their goal is to be a professional and win the Masters or the Open Championship. None I’ve known have done that. Some have gone into deep debt playing on ‘mini tours’ but never winning. Some accept their career will instead be teaching golf lessons and selling clubs in a golf course shop. Some give up completely on golf. The pro at my course left recently, and is now tiling bathrooms and kitchens. End of the dream.

Not everyone who graduates with a medical degree ends up practising medicine. Some divert into related work; some change careers completely. I’ve known young lawyers, who began full of idealism that they’d help people fight for truth and justice, finally settle for a life writing business contracts. The salary was good, but they could hardly bear thinking about another thirty years of the same work. End of the dream.

I’ve married lots of people, by which I mean I’ve conducted their wedding services. Those were good experiences. The couples, young and not-so-young, were brimming with excitement for their future together. I wish they were all together still, but they’re not. One of my first attempts at saving a couple’s marriage was a miserable failure. I urged the departing wife to make another effort for the marriage. ‘I don’t want to try,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to save the marriage. It’s not what I thought it would be.’ End of conversation. End of marriage. End of the dream.

I should quickly say that sad outcomes for careers or relationships are not everyone’s experience! Plenty are doing well.

But, for some, the dream withers and dies.

Are there ways to ensure dreams always have happy endings? No, there aren’t. The complexities of life and our psyches rule out trite formulas for success.

But two maxims about dreams seem true.

Chase your dream; no-one else’s    In my teens I talked several times with my parents about what kind of work I wanted to do. By 13 or 14, I’d abandoned my ambition to drive a bus, and accepted I wasn’t going to play rugby for Scotland. I was doing fairly well at school, but no intellectual star and none in my family had ever gone to university, so no-one (including me) imagined that would be in my future. ‘Perhaps you should go into banking,’ my Dad said. ‘It’s a safe career, and if you pass your banking exams you’ll be promoted and earn a good wage.’ What if I’d done that? Two things would have followed: a) I’d have hated every minute; b) I’d have been out of a job long before promotion – simply because banking changed, and thousands were made redundant through rationalisations. I couldn’t have known the second of these, but I was dead certain of the first. Banking was my Dad’s dream of a safe and good career, but never mine, and thankfully Dad never pressed it.

But someone owning their own business and longing that it stays in the family may well pressurise their child to work in the shop or office with a view to taking over one day. That pressure can be hard to resist. Or youngsters are encouraged into the professions their parents always wished they’d followed. ‘Become a doctor, and save lives…’  It’s hard to argue against saving lives. Or cases are made by parents for other careers they esteem, like being a lawyer or an architect, or to follow a family tradition of working in the local factory or (as it used to be) going down the mine. ‘It was good enough for your Dad and Granddad, so it’ll be good enough for you.’

I wouldn’t judge the virtues of any of these career paths. But I would urge young adults to follow their dreams, not someone else’s dream for them. Chasing a dream you don’t ‘own’ ends in boredom, disappointment, and perhaps an early mid life crisis. It can never fulfil the deepest hopes of your heart.

Your dream must be earthed in reality   Even when the dream really is your dream, the road you’ll travel won’t be easy. My first career role was in journalism. I studied Pitman’s shorthand (not easy), touch typing (a life-long asset), law, current affairs, journalistic practice, and eased my way into reporting large and small stories for the paper. I attended a train crash, plane crash, and car crashes. They were gruesome, yet also exciting in some dreadful way. But sitting for hours in a minor court hoping at least one case would be interesting stirred not a single fibre of my being. I learned always to wear a warm, waterproof coat every day, because I might find myself standing in the cold outside a building for two hours waiting for a Council meeting to finish, hoping someone would tell me what had been decided. And, after two hours of freezing, they might not. Days like that were not exciting. That was the reality.

The reality of work for many is redundancy, or being overlooked for promotion, or being assigned brain-numbingly boring work. And marriages aren’t about a wonderful wedding day, they’re about years and years of hard work building a relationship that will fulfil the deepest part of a person’s being. It can be absolutely wonderful, but never without pain along the way.

We dream… But dreams don’t usually include hard graft and deep disappointments.

As a youngster I stood beside our town’s rugby pitch watching players running, tackling, kicking, catching lineout ball, and rucking players aside to get the ball from a loose scrum. It looked fun, and I dreamed of when I’d play rugby. A few years later I was playing, but being buried under a mauling heap of overweight bodies wasn’t fun. And being raked back by an opponent’s studs hurt. It hurt a lot. But that was rugby.

So, is it better not to dream? I might have made you think so. But we must dream, must hope, must strive, if we are ever to attain. Dreaming is the starting point for the greatest achievements. Life holds marvellous opportunities and experiences, and we mustn’t retreat away from our dreams. Just let your dreams really be your dreams, aware that the journey to that dream will have pain as well as joy.

And, what was the real issue for the swimmer in Tom Houston’s story? It wasn’t ‘Who pushed me in?’ The real issue was ‘Now that I’m in, how do I get to the far end of the pool?’ And he did.

And we can. Dream – work hard – persevere – enjoy – be fulfilled. Absolutely possible.