Follow Your Dreams? Find Them, First.

It always drives me up the wall to see some exhortation in the media to have everyone follow his or her dreams without offering one shred of advice on how to determine what those said dreams are. Think of it: if everyone up and followed dreams right now, there would be countless broken families, empty chairs, unfilled jobs… and massive, massive lines going around the block waiting for publishers, movie producers, and other people with money to smile upon their ventures. But would they even be there, if they went off on some sudden dream quest?

There’s what we think we want, and then what we really want. What we really want may not be “living the dream”, but dealing with reality successfully. Things like raising a family, helping friends in a bind, and working at a job worth doing are what most people truly want to do. We may dream of escapes from the drudgery, but the successes in those areas can’t happen without the hard, hard work. What we really want is what we’re willing to do the hard, hard work for.

To me, “living the dream” does not mean abandoning family or friends. That means doing without certain options in my life. It doesn’t mean I’m trapped in a family or home. It means I’m doing what I really want to do. Other things are secondary. I like having time on my own, sure. Just not permanently. My wife and kids don’t hold me back – they give me strength to go on.

Would I like to be a hugely successful artiste? Certainly, the idea of walking out on stage to thunderous applause is a tempting idea. Receiving millions of dollars for an artistic enterprise seems like a grand thing. But are any of those things worth the price if it means sacrificing my family along the way? Are any of them worth the loss of my soul and integrity?

I have to face the fact that I’m a working stiff. I can try for a grab at the brass ring of fame and fortune, but even if I lean all the way out and give up my entire base in that leap for glory, it’s only luck that determines who wins it in the end. I’ve seen successes, but I’ve also seen failures all around and behind them. Wisdom tells me that the rate of success at “follow your dreams!” is very low for people that aren’t willing to sacrifice either their souls or their integrities. Conversely, the poison-tongued backstabbers always seem to find a way to the top of the world. Funny how that works out.

But is that really success? Is that really “living the dream”? I’ve known men that died with peace in their hearts. That is part of true success in life. The other part is being able to face the spirits of the rest of the dead without shame or regret. Our ability to forgive and to find forgiveness is critical to success in the ultimate scheme of things. Our ability to be welcomed into the fraternity of the good and the wise when we are dead is more important than any song, book, film, or investment banking deal. When I’m dead, I don’t want to be sitting at a table full of Nazis, full of perfect recollection of the wrong I had done, the pain I had caused, and the mistakes I had made.

Given the complete folly of the world and the law of averages, I am firmly convinced that the smartest man that ever lived was a Chinese peasant from the 14th century, who probably narrowly avoided execution because he kept his ideas to himself. In so doing, he preserved his family and possibly also his village. I believe that the most talented musician ever to grace the earth lived in the 8th century in West Africa: he made all the children in his village laugh. Who was the greatest writer? Tough question, given that so many people that would have been in competition for that title never learned to read or write. There’s a ten-year-old child in a cave near Mexico City right now that has the greatest story ever told in his mind… it’s just that we’re not likely to ever hear it because he’s not able to get to school, let alone the means to write the book – or even land a publishing deal. The world sees him as a nobody, with nothing to offer. He can sure try to follow his dreams, but he’s got to deal with basic survival issues, first.

When I was a kid, I sometimes imagined life as a rock and roll star, going out on stage, singing songs, and having the crowd go wild. I didn’t imagine the money or the travel – just the experience of the concert. Today, I teach songs to the children at my church. I work with ages 18 months up to 12 years and I strive to get everyone to sing along with me. I’m up there, in front of them, singing songs… and the crowd does go wild, and I mean that in a good way, most of the time. They recognize me at the store and I always stop to spend a little time with my tiny fans. I find that, in keeping to my family and friends, in keeping my soul and my integrity, I have sort of stumbled into my dream.

I never was specific about the makeup of my audience. While I hoped to do rock songs, any sort of songs would do for my dream, I suppose. The stage and seats weren’t really important – just the connection with my audience, the discovery of a shared joy in the performance. This is why it’s so easy for me to do art for free – money has never really been part of my dream. My dream has been in having a powerful, positive, shared experience through art. That is exactly what I have with the 30 or so kids I work with every Sunday.

It is foolish to presume that every dream involves a journey away from something, that it might be properly followed. True dreams do not float on the wind: they get our hands dirty, make our faces worn, and bring our backs aches. They are here, where we are willing to do hard, hard work. These true dreams are worth the sacrifice, no matter what a television advertisement or banal movie platitude may say. True dreams bring us what we truly desire, not what we’re told to desire. True dreams make us heroes, even if only to one person, and even if that one person is ourself.

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