Sunday, October 4, 2009

Wishes, Hopes, Dreams, Goals

I was thinking this morning about the difference between wishes and goals, between hopes and dreams. I guess I could look up the dictionary definitions, but I don't think it would really get me any closer. A friend wrote on her blog that there's nothing worse than not having a dream and I replied that the only thing worse was not caring if one had a dream.

Of course, that applies to those of us lucky enough to be able to dream and not have to spend every waking minute just trying to stay alive, and perhaps dreaming of having life's basic necessities of food, shelter and safety.

But beyond that, what? In America our kids are so often brought up with the idea that they can be anything they want, which has as a kind of corollary that they must then be able to have everything they want. It's a part of the disillusionment of growing up to find out that isn't true, and that even getting a part of what one wants, or to be what one wants, requires effort, sometimes Herculean effort, with no guarantee of success.

Maybe the life we led when our children were growing up was too good. Maybe it looked to them as though we had a lot without real effort, which certainly wasn't the case, although we had much good fortune. What makes one child strive for goals and another float along without them?

To me, a wish is something we would like, maybe even fervently want, but haven't translated into real and achievable goals and put the effort into achieving them. Wishes are like the ones we make when we blow out the birthday candles . . . it's a desire for something, but it doesn't connote action.

Hope takes wishing a step forward, as though one has a reasonable expectation that the wish will come true. Hope looks to results in the future but it doesn't act to achieve them.

A dream is something larger, a more global wish, so to speak, something which, if realized, would be transformative, something which would change our lives. To me then, a dream is a "big" wish, and it might or might not be accompanied by the hope that it would come true.

But goals, that's where the action is. That's where the achievement is. That is in large measure, that and a modicum of luck (which no matter how we might like to deny it is also necessary) is what's necessary to get beyond the stages of wishes, hopes and dreams to accomplishing them. To get there, goals have to be specific and achievable, though they might require extraordinary effort. The famous lines from Robert Browning's poem "Andrea del Sarto,"

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for? 
sound wonderful and inspirational but in truth, goals that are beyond one's grasp will result in endless frustration. The difficult key is in knowing not only what one can be capable of, with enough effort and dedication, but also what goals are worth that effort. This is one of the key problems we all face in life, what goals to pursue. And, actually articulating those goals instead of just going through life responding to the outside world and not really thinking about what we are trying to do with our lives, or the effects on those we love.

I look at the people I know, my family members, my friends, and look at the goals people are pursuing, whether it's completing an education, trying to stay financially solvent, raise children well, find a new career, complete an artistic project, and whether they state them outright or not, they have goals and are working to achieve them.

Leif, it seems to me, had many wishes, hopes and dreams, though at the end of his life I think he had given up hope they would come true, and at times he had strong goals and worked hard to achieve them, but too often that modicum of luck was not with him (such as when he lost his military career to asthma and never had a chance to be an Air Force pilot because of his eyes), but sometimes he focused on goals that he couldn't really MAKE come true and left those he could, things that would have immensely bettered his life, slide until they ruined it.

Although Leif had many career setbacks, he never set a real career goal for himself and set about reaching it. He would get a job, do it well, hope for promotions, and then be disappointed when they didn't happen . . . as would any of us, but he didn't work hard at finding better jobs or new career opportunities. All that paperwork and searching was not his cup of tea. 

Although Leif talked a lot about budgeting and managing his money better and made some efforts in that direction by terminating things like online gaming and cable tv subscriptions, he would then go and spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on things like a motorcycle, computer, or gun. Then he would be depressed because he had a hard time paying his bills and didn't have enough money to eat.

When he was in junior high and high school, he had project goals that he pursued with a vengeance, whether it was constructing and modifying radio-controlled model cars, constructing a giant chlorophyll molecule, designing and making his own electric guitar, or earning a black belt in judo, he excelled and would not quit until he had accomplished his goal. I used to say that he was like a train speeding down a track. Nothing could divert him from a goal he had set, and if he ever got that kind of interest in a life goal, there would be nothing to stop him.

But that never happened, and I still think there are three main reasons for that. The first one was having his original goals knocked out from under him by his physical limitations, which must have been hard blow for a strapping, strong young man to accept. The second was losing his love and companion. The third was the depression that set in following the other two. 

It is extremely hard, if not impossible, to set and work toward goals when you are depressed. Depression creates hopelessness and apathy. If you don't have hope that your can achieve your goals, there is little reason to really pursue them.

The one goal that Leif pursued with all his might, right until the end of his life, was to find love. More than anything else, he needed a lifetime companion, someone to love, someone who needed him, someone to make him feel strong and manly, someone to give him a home. He put all the energy he had into that search, everything he had to give. I will always believe that it was the collapse of that dream, when his finances collapsed and he must have felt he had nothing to offer the woman he had found, that demoralized him fatally.

I don't know what would have happened to Leif if he had been able to get his finances under control and find love. Would he have made it? Part of me says yes. Part of me says that if he had the kind of love he needed, if he hadn't been lonely and sad, he would have found within himself the ambition to work on career goals, if for no other reason than that he would have wanted to shine in her eyes. Part of me says that if he had children he would have found more love and reason to live. 

But part of me also wonders whether it would have lasted. Would he really have been able to curb the bad spending habits indefinitely? Would he have found another career disappointment and fallen into a new depression? And I am absolutely certain that if he had found love and a family, if he had lost love again, he would not have survived.

So often when I think about Leif I come back to my father, who had a family, four children, a PhD and a respected profession, yet he took his own life and it was because he had lost hope. He was depressed and felt he no longer had the mental capacity to advance the research in his field. A man's identity is so bound up in his work and his love. Losing either one, or never having them, is devastating.

I found myself lacking real goals in the past few months, doing the daily things I needed to do but without even trying to complete any of the projects I had hoped to work on when I retired. I realized it was a bad sign and I am working to correct it. It does no good to WISH they would be done. It does no good to dream without setting real goals, and setting REAL goals also means defining the steps to reach them. In this, I am learning from Leif and his life. I had goals before. Now I must work toward them again.

Not long after Leif died, his friend Lorelei said that Leif was teaching us one last hard lesson, and none of us knew what that lesson was at the time. I've had nearly a year and a half to think about it, and although I don't for one second think that Leif shot himself with the idea of teaching any of us a lesson, I do think there are things to be learned. So, what have I learned?

  • A life without purpose, a life without goals, is misery.
  • If you are without goals, hopes and dreams, get help.
  • If you are sabotaging your own life with dysfunctional habits and can't fight them yourself, get help.
  • There are others who care about you more than you know.
  • Taking your life will leave behind grief, misery and sadness that you cannot imagine. Don't do that to those you love.
  • If you are prone to black moods, depression or bipolar episodes, do not drink and do not own guns.
And most of all, 
  • Treasure your time with your loved ones. You never know how long you will have them.
This photo of a contemplative Leif was taken in our living room in Honolulu, Hawaii in December 1983.

No comments:

Post a Comment