Harriet Tubman once wrote: “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”
Dreams that change the world - what an astonishing idea that is! Yet we see dramatic examples of such dreams arising in the most unlikely places. Consider Malala Yousafzai, the 19 year old young woman from Pakistan, who was shot in the head by the Taliban, who felt threatened by her strong advocacy of girls’ education. After the shooting, Malala was flown from Pakistan to the UK for treatment, and she made a remarkable recovery. Some months later, she gave a speech at the UN, to more than 500 young people aged 12-25 from around the world. She spoke with grace and compassion about her dream for universal primary education for children around the world. "Let us pick up our books and pens," she said. "They are our most powerful weapons.”
But we know that not all dreams come true. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, our dreams are dashed or shattered in the most devastating way. Danielle was a young woman in Burlington, Ontario, who began to suffer from a severe eating disorder. Her parents struggled desperately to get her the help she needed, and as a family they all battled this condition for years. Danielle improved for some time, but eventually relapsed and died of her disorder. So many dreams must have died with her – her own as well as those of her parents.
Several years after her death, her parents founded Danielle’s Place, an organization that provides support to those whose lives have been affected by eating disorders. In this way, they created a new dream from the ashes of the old. Such stories inspire us to trust once again in the power of dreams. But after we face a devastating event, we will no longer hold that innocent trust that “everything will turn out alright in the end”. Rather, we are called to a higher level trust in which the dark realities of life are acknowledged and accepted, and yet we remain willing to dream again.
That was the great lesson I learned during those turbulent years described in Cloud Messenger. I went to India with all kinds of hopes and dreams, most of which were completely unrealistic. When our health program did not evolve in the way that I’d hoped, I felt devastated. I concluded that my work had been a failure, and fell into a significant bout of depression. With time, I was able to see the beauty of the journey itself, and all that we had accomplished along the way. As I move into a new stage of life, I’m beginning to dream about India again. Garhwal and its people still call to me, and I would love to re-connect in some way. I hold those dreams lightly though, recognizing their magic and their truth, but not creating impossible expectations this time around. Let’s see what happens – I embrace the mystery!
Parker Palmer offers a thoughtful reflection on a phrase from a poem by WB Yeats, who writes of “the lying days of my youth”….
My youthful “lies” weren’t intentional. I just didn’t know enough about myself, the world, and the relation of the two to tell the truth. So what I said on those subjects came from my ego, a notorious liar. Coming to terms with the soul-truth of who I am — of my complex and often confusing mix of darkness and light — has required my ego to shrivel up…
Whatever truthfulness I’ve achieved on this score comes not from a spiritual practice, but from having my ego so broken down and composted by life that eventually I had to yield and say, “OK, I get it. I’m way less than perfect.” I envy folks who come to personal truth via spiritual discipline: I call them “contemplatives by intention.” Me, I’m a contemplative by catastrophe.
Cloud Messenger explores this very theme. I was a young idealistic woman who actually had very little understanding of myself or of my husband Pradeep. When I went to India, I had grand ideas that Pradeep and I would create a primary health program that would be effective, low cost and sustainable. My primary working principle about life was that if you try hard enough, you’re going to succeed eventually. This principle was challenged again and again during those years I lived in India. We did create a primary health care program, and we certainly worked hard, but ultimately it didn’t succeed – certainly not in the way I was hoping. Faced with this tremendous disappointment, I fell into a major bout of depression. This devastating experience transformed me into a “contemplative by catastrophe”, learning about myself the hard way.
Looking back on it now, I realized that I was working from an artificial sense of the self created by my own ego. When my dreams were dashed, I was forced to question myself deeply. I slowly came to a more profound understanding of who I am, realizing that my true gifts in life lay elsewhere. I was learning the “soul truth” of myself, a journey that continues to this day.