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Have you ever experienced the sensation of a dream dissipating into thin air?
One moment it is there—vibrant, pulsing with life and exhilarating with its inherent promise. Then, just like that, it seems to evaporate into the atmosphere right before your eyes.
Replacing it is a jarring taste of disappointment, a rumbling of anxiety in the pit of your stomach and pervading questions of ‘how did it come to this?’, ‘what just happened?’ and ‘why didn’t I see it coming?’.
Recently this happened to me as I sat in a doctor’s office hearing the words ‘severe’, ‘unknown risk profile’, ‘surgical intervention’ and ‘long-term treatment plan’ uttered in the calm, steady tone that medical professionals reserve for delivering unwelcome news.
Immersed in the gravity of this information, I barely noticed my husband’s hand gently enclose my own, anchoring me to the only thing I knew to be true as the world became unfocused. Yet, what I recall most vividly, is the sense of something deep inside me shifting as my dreams of good health and motherhood appeared to dissolve.
Unfortunately, this is a feeling that is all too familiar for many of us. It can also consume us during adulthood, whether we are experiencing a health setback, relationship breakdown, business failure or painful grievance in our personal and professional lives.
Regardless of the circumstances, the disappointment that comes from losing purchase on our dreams can be profoundly distressing and detrimental to our wellbeing.
Perhaps this is because conjuring up goals to work towards and labelling the achievement of these goals ‘a dream’ has become our cultural norm for approaching and realising an improved way of life.
Grounded in the work of American psychologist and pioneer in goal-setting theory, Edwin A. Locke, our modern society has come to understand goal setting as a successful plan of action that we set for ourselves, guiding us to choose the right moves, in the right order, at the right time to achieve our dreams.
As a byproduct, we have been conditioned to expect that our goals will navigate a linear trajectory towards a positive destination if we simply work hard enough.
Is it any surprise then, that not achieving a positive outcome, despite investing in the hard work, hits us so close to the bone? Losing hold of our dreams tends to trigger a painful bereavement process akin to the seven stages of grief.
So how do we avoid the pitfalls of disappointment when it comes to our dreams? Is there an answer that involves less heartache?
Modern neuroscientific studies suggest that we should train our minds to think about what we want in life and work towards reaching it by leveraging the ability of the brain to automatically rewire itself to acquire an ideal self-image.
By doing so it is proposed that our goals and dreams become an essential part of our identity, increasing the likelihood of their achievement.
But when we do not succeed, this approach leaves us with two options: to keep compelling onward until a successful outcome is realised; or to experience a crisis of identity.
Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why the most recent ABS National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing concluded that over three million Australians live with anxiety or depression. These figures do not consider the emotional and mental after-effects of global events such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing environmental disasters and the financial crisis of 2008.
However, they provide insight into the potential health and wellbeing consequences of cumulative disappointments over our lifetime, should experiencing an identity crisis become the social norm.
One recent autumn morning, I found myself paying an inaugural visit to the Australian National Museum’s Garden of Australian Dreams, hoping for an opportunity for solace and reflection on this topic.
Meditating in the still, crisp air, I watched the sun’s reflection rise high in the sky, before slowly slipping away from the surface of the water. As the minutes became hours, my gaze took in the surety of the two dancing brolgas poised in the water, gracefully frozen in their telling of the creation story of the Djan’kawu. The brolgas sat juxtaposed with the steadfast eucalyptus yellow box gum, and the traditional wooden backyard fence following the contour of Shrapnel Gully in Gallipoli.
All the while, the sun cast pools of light and shadow as I observed its energy seemingly transform the garden’s permanent fixtures. Witnessing the scene, I couldn’t shake the sensation that it was somewhat prophetic of how our dreams tend to evade us in our everyday lives.
More often than we realise, our dreams and their support structures fade incrementally, quietly and surreptitiously in plain sight—only we generally aren’t paying enough attention to recognise there has been a change in the elements.
This being the way, we often proceed to go about our lives none the wiser, until we receive an unexpected awakening that our dream may not be achievable—prompting us to finally notice there is chill in the air amidst a lingering mist of nostalgia and regret.
But as I sat contemplating the permanence of the garden in contrast to its living atmosphere, it urged me to question whether our dreams ever do really leave us. Or could it be that in the ilk of the garden’s brolgas and the yellow box gum, they merely remain idle or in repose, fixated and waiting for the opportune season to burst back into our consciousness?
If we envision this to be our reality, perhaps the most valuable question is not how we can best shape and mould our lives in a linear trajectory towards achieving our dreams without heartache or disappointment.
Instead, maybe it is more vital to ask ourselves, how can we unlock the door to tap into the internal reservoir of unlimited potential required to repeatedly revive our dreams—no matter how dark and rocky the way?
The Garden of Australian Dreams was designed on the premise that Australia does not have one linear history, but many histories intertwined. In the same vein, perhaps it is important for us to recognise that our dreams do not have to follow a linear pattern to be achievable. Possibly, our dreams can even be imbued with a greater purpose if they have an opportunity to rest and regroup in the same way as our bodies, hearts, minds and spirits.
French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, famously purported that we are all the architects of our own self, character and destiny, pronouncing that “You are—your life, and nothing else”.
If the situation is as simple as Sartre foretells, then perhaps revitalising our dreams when they feel lost to us, relies upon our acceptance that every moment of every day holds a silent invitation to trust in our strengths and not in our doubts if we are to achieve what we hope for.
While the benefits of this outlook may not appear overnight, you never know when it could serve you. After all, one day you might just be sitting in a doctor’s office and your ability to embrace the totality of possibilities over the likelihood of probabilities, may just change the course of your life.