The Purpose of Dreaming

“I have come to believe that “coming true” is not the only purpose of a dream. Its most important purpose is to get in touch with where dreams come from, where passion comes from, where happiness comes from. Even a shattered dream can do that for you.” – Lisa Bu, “How Books Can Open Your Mind”

I got a little more out of listening to Lisa Bu than I had expected. It’s a Friday afternoon and my work day is winding down, and so around this time when I start searching for some inspiration while I hammer out the remainder of my day’s tasks. E-mailing pre-written template pitches to potential customers requires very little brain power.

But towards the end of her talk, she really caught my attention, with the line I quote above.

I had to listen to the last few minutes a few times over just to make sure I quoted her properly. The gist of her talk had to do with how books served as an avenue for understanding the world she found herself in, after having migrated from China to the U.S. She later explains how books open up our dreams.

This is a common enough notion, that books often allow for us to re-imagine our lives as we know it, or think up new lives entirely. But what struck me was what she said about dreams.

More often than not, I’m overly pre-occupied with my dreams less so because they are that interesting or exciting, and much more because I feel the need for them to come true. My sort of dreams aren’t the kind steeped in fantasy and adventure – they are shaped mainly by all these notions I have of what I’ve earned, what I then deserve, and what I desire most in order for my life to be most meaningful. They feel too real and too attainable for me to ever let them go.

I hadn’t thought about my dreams actually pointing me backward – to who I once was or where my ideas had come from. It just didn’t occur to me that they could be my mind’s way of turning its attention to the past, instead of fixing its gaze to the future.

And even the dreams that had already come to pass. Even the ones I held onto so tightly, that they broke in my hands. The ones that left shards of painful memories still embedded in my palms.

These ones, too, can take me still to where I have yet to go.

Double Negative

I’m not sure who had coined the following phrase, but I find it rather peculiar:

“What is the work you can’t not do?”

And yet, I’m not sure there’s any better way to say it, either. There’s something about asking this particular question, in this manner, that makes it all the more meaningful. At the risk of sounding rather roundabout, the question, posed in this way, acts somewhat self-referentially, and in so doing, truly emphasizes the very heart of the matter, that is – to ask someone what really matters the most.

Because it isn’t just about finding out what you’d like to keep on doing. It urges us to find out what it is that we can’t see ourselves never doing again.

It is as though we are being asked to place all of our life’s activities in a make-believe spectrum, and then, start crossing out, one by one, each thing we’re ok with ending.

There is this one activity I recall doing back in college that required each of the participants to think about things that they believe made up their “identity”. They were to list these aspects about themselves on a piece of paper, and hand it over to a partner when they were through. The partner, who had also made a list, handed over hers, and the next instruction was for each partner to start crossing out aspects of the other person’s identity, however they pleased.

Of course, as simple as the task was, the activity pulled on the participants’ heartstrings because they could literally see the most important parts about themselves being “taken away”. The whole thing was intentionally disempowering, and there was a greater point being made, about the importance of identity and the recognition of such, by others.

This principle can be applied for this question, too.  After all, many of us so strongly identify with our work, and for some, our work itself may be precisely what defines us, what we find most treasure in, and most worth.

So given that, what if it were to be taken away?

If we were to imagine the very thing we could simply not live without, and say it were some sort of work – any kind, a serious hobby, a passion, a career – and then we were to lose the ability to do that very thing…

What becomes of us?

I once heard someone ask another related question: “When you wake up in the morning, what is the first thing you think you need to do?”

For me, the answer was a bit of a no-brainer – To go back to bed.

(And that’s why that question did not leave a lasting impression with me)

But I can appreciate what it’s hinting at, and really, that question, and the first one I had posed, the one with the unnecessary double-negative, are really like two sides of the same coin.

It’s just that, there’s something about the feeling of loss that helps value, (and evaluate), the very things we hold dear to us. Waking in the morning, it’s so easy thinking about all the incredible things you can think up doing, for the rest of the day. But when we start thinking about the day ending, about hours dwindling away, that could be spent engaging ourselves with the things we love, then our attention turns towards the very things we couldn’t help but do, before the day is over. Then we may realize that we actually just want to do those things, all the time.

I’m still figuring out which things I couldn’t afford giving up doing. (Really poorly worded, I know, but we can appreciate this by now right?)

Some guesses as to what they might be, for me:

1. Dreaming up a better world than this one.

2. Writing.

3. Eating rice.

4. Looking at myself in the mirror (sad, yet true).

5. Loving my wife, and my family.

I suppose the answer to this question, for many, may seem interchangeable with the answer to this other one:

“What are you most passionate about?”

But I urge us to reconsider asking this of ourselves, in this way. Perhaps we can arrive at something more closely connected to our core, when we phrase the question as though something were to cease to exist, as though we were to lose the ability of ever doing it, at all.

Then maybe we’ll discover that thing which we simply could never go without.