GUEST POST, by Cyndi Briggs the creator of The Sophia Project, who works as a writer and teacher in Winston-Salem, NC.
Last spring, I fell ill.
The symptoms were mysterious: lethargy, fatigue, chronic sighing and moodiness. Angst. Melancholy. A big, fat case of the blahs. Regular consumption of late night donuts.
It took me a few weeks to determine the cause. Turns out I had a classic case of Live-the-Life-of-Your-Dreams-itis, a common but often undiscussed condition suffered by many of us in the Western world.
I’ll let the incomparable Parker Palmer explain:
Like many middle-class Americans, especially those who are white and male, I was raised in a subculture that insisted I could do anything I wanted to do, be anything I wanted to be, if I were willing to make the effort. The message was that both the universe and I were without limits, given enough energy and commitment on my part. God made things that way, and all I had to do was get with the program (from Let Your Life Speak, p. 39).
I live and work in a subculture like the one Palmer describes, the world of healing professionals and educators. We all envision ourselves as Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poet’s Society, using the power of our words and our message to inspire ourselves and other to create lives of daring, power, and purpose:
I have been intent on living the life of my dreams for about 10 years now. It began with a set of goals based on random yearnings of my heart: to run a marathon, live in Oregon, finish a PhD, write a book. Noble goals, all. Each one felt like it might be the thing that finally granted me peace, a sense of place and belonging in the world. I hoped accomplishing my dreams might deliver me at last to that plateau of contentment I so longed to find.
Over time, I began to ratchet up the odds: I wanted to make money. You know, like bank. Bucks. Benjamins. I wanted to be a little bit famous. Not Oprah famous, but guest on Oprah famous. I wanted tens of thousands of readers, a book contact, speaking gigs. My dreams began to shape themselves around the hollow outline of the somebody I thought I wanted to be.
My dreams took on a life of their own, a pulse, a heartbeat. They sat on the horizon and taunted me, pointed out to me all the ways I failed to reach them. I mentally beat myself up daily for my lack of accomplishment, for the extra long naps I felt inclined to take, for reading a book instead of writing an essay, for not hustling more to achieve what I wanted.
Fueled by positive thinking blogs and Facebook posts shouting, “The sky's the limit!” I wondered why I felt so very limited. And then I began wondering why I wanted all those external markers of success, anyway. Were those dreams my soul? Or my ego? It gradually dawned on me that my dreams of success were built on a foundation of my insecurities and self-doubt rather than on a genuine desire to serve.
I tell you my story not to discourage you from dreaming or following your dreams, but to point out two simple facts:
1. We do, in fact, have limitations. Here is an abbreviated list of all the things I’ll never be: a professional figure skater, a nuclear physicist, president of the United States, an astronaut, a professional singer/actress/dancer. I’ll never be any of these things, no matter how much I dream about them, because I simply lack the talent, drive, and natural gifts to accomplish them. Period. No amount of positive thinking will ever change the fact that my singing voice is overwhelmingly mediocre.
In addition, I have limitations with regard to my time and energy. One reason Oprah is so successful: she works her ass off. I am a person who enjoys sleeping, eating long meals, hanging out with friends at coffee shops in the middle of the day, and dinking around my apartment, doing lots of nothing. These small activities bring me enormous joy. Oprah doesn’t have my quality of life, in many ways. In addition, she bears the tremendous pressure of celebrity, public criticism, and fame. I don’t want any of that stuff. My limitations, thus, save me in the end from a life that would make me miserable.
2. Our dreams are often built not on the life that desires to live through us, but on our ego’s fragile ideas of what our lives should look like. I love learning and being a student. I would stay in school forever if it were free. Being a student of life is my true and genuine nature. But one major reason I got my PhD was so I could feel important. Plain and simple. I wanted to be called “Dr.” My ego very mistakenly believed that extra letters after my name would remove self-doubt. It didn't work.
Many of us base our dreams almost exclusively on our insecure ego needs. We get married, buy houses, accept promotions, sell ourselves not because of our soul’s calling but because we’re compensating for the emptiness in our hearts.
How to tell the difference? When I am listening to my soul, the call feels like a Truth that cannot be denied. I often become tearful with emotion. The path before me feels scary, but like a tremendous YES of affirmation. I am full of peace about the decision.
When I make decisions based on my ego, it feels more akin to lust. Something I must have in order to be whole. What feels initially like a rush of energy quickly devolves into a form of obsession, and I feel incomplete without whatever it is I’m lusting after.
When my own case of Live-the-Life-of-Your-Dreams-itis flared up this spring, I decided to stop paying attention to my ego for a bit and quiet down to hear my soul. What resulted was a three month summer of bliss, long days of contemplation and very little striving. I questioned whether ditching my blog and extraneous work commitments was a good choice (my silly little ego cried, “What if they forget about me?”) but my wise soul reassured me again and again that all was well.
I’m happy to report that my symptoms have abated, the lesson learned.
I ask you today, what life of your dreams longs to live through you? And how can you get out of the way to allow it to take shape, grow, and bloom?
Guest poster Cyndi Briggs is the creator of The Sophia Project, and works as a writer and teacher in Winston-Salem, NC.