Dear Loved One,
I don’t know how best to tell you this, but you’re wrong. You’re wrong about me, and I fear you are wrong about the world.
The other day we sat talking and, going out on a limb, I unveiled my dream to you, knowing full well that you’d only see how far I am from achieving it. I explained how heavily invested I am in this dream, how it consumes my every thought, how I feel as though I’m willing to die in pursuit of it, how I can’t see myself doing anything else. I told you, in short, that I believe. I showed you my soul.
You nodded, in a humoring sort of way, like you would’ve checked your watch had you been wearing one.
That’s ok. I don’t expect you to be enthusiastic about my life, particularly about goals that, apparently to you, seem asinine. But this is the point I want to discuss, because I wonder whether it is I who am the fool, or whether the world is so full of fools that the few who are sane appear to be mad.
When I was young you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I replied an astronaut. At the time, I couldn’t imagine doing anything more exalting — drooling at stars, riding in rockets, walking, skipping on moons where gravity might hold me as delicately as you taught me to hold a bird, a nine-iron, and a fly rod.
But I realize now even then you were humoring me. All of you were. You said, “Dream. Hold hard those dreams!” And you said it as though dreaming alone would transport me to the mountaintop. But you never spoke of working out my dreams. In fact, when you spoke of work you said to get a job, consider my career options, look at which fields and industries offer benefits, pay well, and are secure in today’s economy. Then you told me to choose my studies accordingly. As I got older there was less and less talk of dream-following, and more and more talk of “growing up,” as if dreaming was some infantile pastime that only works in feel-good movies and Disney cartoons.
I listened to you, and not even because I chose to, but because of the overpowering volume of the din.
By the time I reached my twenties I had dropped out of college, believing I was undisciplined. I never considered that maybe business management wasn’t for me, that I never even made the choice to enroll, even though it was my hand that signed the forms. My teenage efforts to form a band, race cars, or make eerie photographs had all become half-hearted. Eventually they waned to nil. I entered adult society.
I think this is how most of us operate in life, Loved One. At some point we reach an “oh, shit” or “dear God” moment, a void, a point where the path ends, where we have an opportunity to live a life unscripted. And most of us, I think, have a sense of the life we’d like to live. At least, we know our own interests. But instead of following these interests into the void, we literally say “Oh, shit!” or “Dear God!” and we clamber for a lifeline. We look for the safe path, the one that seems sure — which is more like a conveyor belt than a path — and we step forward. We latch onto doctrines and ideologies — systems that have a track record of making people comfortably numb, systems that are oiled by collective unthinking.
This is why I wonder who the fool really is. Every person had, or has in them still, a deeper dream. So where is the expression of it?
But then I wonder whether I’m the fool. I wonder whether all my dreams are narcissistic, an effort to earn a place in the spotlight. I wonder whether I’m trying to muzzle my screaming insecurities, like maybe if enough people validate me my ghosts will go to rest. I look around me and I think, “Yes, I must be insane, because sanity is evidenced by large numbers.” And I am alone.
I don’t think this way for long, though, because I’ve tasted my mortality. I tasted it when I took the high-paying, misery-inducing job. I tasted it when I double-mortgaged my home to buy Bimmers and coins for an airy roulette wheel called the stock market. I tasted it when I convulsed in the ER bed, hooked to an EKG, after a yearlong bender on crack, an addiction I had developed while on this “safe path.” I tasted it when I sifted through my own feces to rescue the heroin I had swallowed to avoid getting arrested. I tasted it when, after ten years of this kind of living, I looked in the mirror and saw only a body and no soul. I tasted that lollipop of shit that the world gives you while saying with carnival-like empty cheeriness, “Thanks for playing! Here is your prize!”
Then I said fuck you. You can keep your prize.
But my story is just an iteration of a universal story. The addictions vary — money, sex, TV, social media, food — and the antidote varies — a bout with cancer, the death of a loved one, getting laid off from that job you gave your life to, an injury or a move. The point is sometimes, given a good enough shock, we glimpse our transience in a disturbing and awakening way. Such a shock brings us right back to childhood, right back to dreaming. Which is where I am.
What I never anticipated, though, is this final hurdle, and it’s you, Loved One. This probably surprises you, because you’ve never actually told me not to dream, and you’ve never said that I’m incapable of achieving my dreams. You’ve even supported me throughout my life, and I’m forever grateful for that. But whether you realize it or not, you do convey a certain feeling. The feeling you convey does not say “you can’t,” but rather “you shouldn’t.” Your body language, when I move in the direction of my dreams, seems to say “shame on you” or “that’s offensive” or “don’t upset the system,” even “you fool!” It’s as if you resent me for believing. Like, “How dare you?”
I don’t know why you react this way, but I’ve given up on trying to understand. And for my own sanity I now must ignore you. Of course, I still love you. I’ll always love you. In fact, I’m chasing this foolish dream into darkness because I love you, because I want, more than anything, for you to say in silence to yourself one day: I believe. But I can never do that if I buckle to your requests — to watch TV, to gossip about the neighbors, to punch a clock so that we might take that emerald vacation, the one you read about in the candied brochure. I will not go under the ether. I will never forget that I am dying.
But if you wanna talk, like really talk, I’m here. If you want to tour the local distillery and get irresponsibly drunk on a Tuesday afternoon, I’ll meet you. Or if you want to skip stones and skinny dip under the August moon, I’ll be the first one in. And any day that you want to conquer a fear, if you need me, I’ll come. But I won’t march in the slow parade, where the course is charted and the army costumed and the flags, though varied in design, all say the same thing: get in line. That is no jubilee. Not for me.
I wish you well, Loved One, but I ask not for well wishes. Oh — I’ll accept your good will, should you offer it, but I no longer seek it.
Until we meet again, I love you.
Edit: I wrote this letter to no one in particular in February of 2016 and published it on Medium, where I knew it wouldn't be seen. I half hoped it might serve as a template for young adults struggling to defy the planetary weight of expectation.