When Life Kills the Dream

Anne-Hathaway---Fantine

co-written by Becca & Andrew

What is your dream?

If time, money and education were not issues, what would you do? What is your dream? A few nights ago, when with a group of young mission-minded people, we were posed with this question.

It is a little surreal that our answer to that question begins October 1st – when we leave Minneapolis and begin our journey to Kolkata, India and around the world. Of course, we have many dreams and hopes for what our future could hold, but this opportunity to enter into communities working for justice, peace, and love – and tell the stories along the way – is a dream becoming reality.

Dream as Luxury

In 2001 I (Becca) spent a summer in Southern Sudan – a land ravaged by war, genocide, and persecution. Among the many people who kindly befriended me was a young father named Robert – he was the driver and mechanic for the organization hosting me. One day, while sitting in a small thatched hut with red earthen walls waiting for a meeting to finish, I turned to Robert and asked the same question recently posed to us: “If time, money and education were not issues, what would you do? What is your dream?” He looked at me very seriously and said “Rebecca. I cannot afford to think like that. I cannot afford to dream.”

Steeped in a culture where we are constantly encouraged to “shoot for the stars” it had never occurred to me that for much of the world dreaming can actually be detrimental. Because when your dreams are impossible, they only breed discontentment and heartache.

In the musical based on Victor Hugo’s classic, Les Miserables, Fantine is struggling to survive. She is a single mother who gets fired from her job. Desperate and alone, she turns to prostitution to support her daughter (like many women who are prostituted, it is a choice born of desperation and survival). Her song – brilliantly sung by Anne Hathaway in the recent film of the musical – is a beautiful and haunting lament of killed dreams.

Les Miserables – Official Trailer 

I (Andrew) cannot hear that song without thinking of girls in the red light area of Kolkata, India. I cannot hear Fantine sing I had a dream my life would be so different from this hell I’m living without tears welling in my eyes as I remember the hell being lived by women and girls enslaved in brothels. The story of Fantine is the story of countless people who have lived and died in a world that killed any dreams they had.

Holding the Tension

As we are on the cusp of pursuing our dream we feel we must acknowledge that there are millions of people – perhaps the majority of the world – who cannot afford to dream. Or they once had dreams that life and circumstances and the systems of poverty and injustice and oppression have killed. There are millions of people who will never see their dreams realized, millions of people whose stories will not have happy endings.

And we wrestle with the question “why do we not only have the luxury to dream, but actually get to see our dreams come true while others don’t even have the opportunity to dream in the first place?” What do we do with this disparity?

The Dreams of Others

We don’t have an answer to the why. There is a lot in this world we don’t understand. But What do we do with this disparity? We find an answer illustrated beautifully through none other than the TV series Downton Abbey. Downton Abbey is the story of the intersecting lives of wealthy estate owners and the lower class people who serve them as maids, cooks, butlers, and valets. Lady Sybil is the youngest daughter in this household of privilege and Gwen is one of the under-maids who changes bedsheets and waits on the members of the family.

Gwen has a dream to become a secretary and Lady Sybil conspires to help her apply and interview for positions. After a series of denials, Gwen is ready to relinquish the whole idea, but Sybil tells her she can’t just give up on her dream. This is when Gwen reminds Sybil that they are in different classes.

“You’re brought up to think it’s all within your grasp, that if you want something enough it will come to you.  But we’re not like that. We don’t think our dreams are bound to come true because they almost never do.”

As Gwen protests to Sybil, she speaks to people of privilege everywhere. She demands we understand that dreaming is a luxury for those who have access to the wealth and power and networks that make dreaming (and the pursuit and realization of those dreams) possible.

Finally, Lady Sybil pushes back:

“Then that’s why we must stick together. Your dream is my dream now. And I’ll make it come true.”

There is something simple and beautiful about this moment. Sybil makes the uncommon choice to go deeper, to enter into Gwen’s story and make Gwen’s dream her own. And if you are a Downton Abbey addict you know Lady Sybil is not merely a wealthy do-gooder, passing crumbs down to those with less power and privilege and easing her own guilt. She is, rather, thoroughly disenchanted with a system that only provides the opportunity to dream to those who are born into the right families.

Like Sybil, we are thoroughly disenchanted with our system in which people born into privilege can dream together in cozy living rooms while girls in the red light district of Kolkata have their dreams destroyed by a cruel world. Adding to the beauty of this world involves facing the reality that most people’s dreams won’t come true, and making the choice to turn to others and say, then that’s why we must stick together. Your dream is my dream now.

 

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