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What Happens When Your Dreams No Longer Serve You?

When dreams desert you

At various times in your life, you'll find that your dreams have deserted you. They've gone into hibernation or disappeared all together--daydreams of success or desire that fueled your motivation, or dreams and visions of a life that embodied your innermost authentic self.

This usually happens during a transitional phase in life--when you crossover from adolescence to young adulthood and you find that the grandiose daydreams that kept you awake in boring classes no longer work their magic. You might still find yourself daydreaming about being a rock star or winning the Super Bowl for their sheer entertainment and ego-boosting value, but they don't really light the path anymore. They don't show you the way or drive your actions.

A similar thing happens during midlife. You may have fallen short of the plans, dreams, and desires that once kept you going or lost track of them completely in the shuffle of everyday demands. Another dream-challenged time is the cross over into the final act of life, old age. What do we dream of when the future looms as a prospect we'd rather not think about? Do our daydreams revert to memories?

The delicate house of dreams we build for ourselves also tend to crash after life-altering events--a job loss, an illness, a death, or even when we finally achieve some long-held dream. Our dreams are so important to our identities that some who fulfill long-cherished quests actually experience an existential crisis when they no longer have a dream as a guidepost. I remember reading an interview with actor Kevin Costner right after he won the Oscar for Dancing with Wolves. He asked the rhetorical question: what do you do when all your dreams come true--what's next?

Any of these transitions are times of great grappling, internal struggle, fear, and confusion. The poet David Whyte often quotes Dante from the Divine Comedy to describe these transitions: "In the middle of the world of my life, I awoke in middle of the dark wood, where the true way was wholly lost."

It's not unusual for people to become lost without a dream guiding them into the future or depressed in the face of what they now see as a void. It's yet another way in which our capacity to dream defines us. Psychologist David Kauss writes in his book Mastering the Game, "The very personal (and often very private) daydreams you've been imagining for yourself for years carry the most powerful themes of achievement you will ever know,"

When you lose the ability to daydream in ways that boost your ego and help you envision the future, you can at first feel empty, bored, hopeless, terrified, or depressed. People who are depressed often describe their world as looking gray and lifeless. There is anecdotal evidence that people in the midst of depression have lost their ability to daydream, and a recent study confirmed that people who are depressed experience a decreased perception of color, thus the gray, dreamless world they so often describe.

So what do you do when you find the dreams that you've cherished for so long have left you or no longer serve your needs? One answer is to dream another dream, or more importantly, to be open to the possibility of new dreams that better match your current self, right here, right now. This means making a certain peace with the "dark woods," waiting them out if you will, and trusting that if you keep exploring, keep your eyes and heart open to the wonders and mysteries and ultimate unknowingness of the world, new dreams will come your way.

I read a comment by the singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow that resonated. In an interview, she discussed her travails a couple of years ago with a traumatic break-up and a bout with breast cancer, but her emphasis was on how happy she is now with her adopted children and how she got to that point by letting go of old dreams and making room for new ones. "Generally, when you let go of your vision of how something is supposed to be, the universe hands you exactly what you need."

© Text by Amy Fries
© Photo by Tina Lorien:
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About the Author
Amy Fries

Amy Fries is a writer and editor. She is the author of Daydreams at Work: Wake Up Your Creative Powers.