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‘What’s holding you back from making your dream a reality?’

I see this question asked over and over – in the media, online forums and the New York Times Bestseller list. I hear it coming from the mouths of seasoned mental health professionals, so-called life gurus and spiritual leaders.

Answers to the question vary according to who’s talking. Isolation, a lack of self belief and the wrong creative process are variously and routinely blamed. I’ve also seen blame placed on ‘an inability to manifest your dreams’. I’ll come back to that.

In all of the drivel that’s spouted about attaining your dreams in this life, not one person has acknowledged the brutal fact that your personal dream might be unattainable. Indeed, speaking this idea out loud is the modern-day equivalent of heresy. Try telling your life coach that some dreams can’t be achieved, and watch their facial features quickly try to cover shock and horror simultaneously.

Afterall, rich Western nations devote large chunks of their daily existence to dream attainment. You can see people – and nations – pursuing the dream on myriad levels. From the shoes you can buy with six-inch heels that indicate a dream of affluence (you can afford to be driven to your place of entertainment), to the raising of the Palestinian flag at the UN headquarters symbolising the dream of formal nation status.

But many of us aren’t free to attain our own dreams, because we’re involved in living, part living or surviving the dreams of someone else. Like the young man I met the other day. A recruitment consultant by trade, he talked to me at length about his father – a man who wanted his son to be a banker. He told me that all he’d ever wanted to be was a singer/songwriter, and that even the fact that he was now a recruitment consultant was a ‘disappointment to my father.’

I encouraged him to reclaim parts of his dream in small things – like writing a line of a lyric on the way to work, or singing whenever he had the chance. But I saw him nod resignedly at this; and I know why he seemed sad.

Our society makes the little-by-little approach towards happiness so very difficult for us all. Small, modest increments are ridiculed and ignored in an age that only knows how to value ‘big’ and ‘now’. We’re surrounded by people giving us The Big Sell – from the car we should drive to the person we should date.

What I found sadder still when I spoke to this young man, was the realization that his dream had been so interfered with. He could now only seem himself with his father’s eyes – as a failure, a nothing, a less-than.

When we allow other people to define our life purpose in this way, we may not be able to recognise or give any worth to our dreams. It’s often too hard to fight your own mind as well as the slings and arrows of the world.

I have come to believe that the concept of dream fulfillment is toxic. And it’s toxicity peculiar to our narcissistic times. We live in a world where millions of people encounter famine, drought, war, environmental destruction and lack of basic opportunity. We live in a world where some people earn less than $2 a day – and have to feed a family on that. And yet, we still buy books and listen to self-appointed experts who tell us that attaining our dreams should be the focus of our life. Their collective argument: that we’re not really living unless we’re living our dreams.

I said I’d come back to the issue of ‘dream manifestation’. This particularly pernicious notion says that we are responsible for calling into our lives everything that we encounter in them.

Oh really? Why don’t you tell that to the woman I know who was gang-raped. Or tell my childhood friend who had her leg amputated in middle school because it was cancerous. Or the hundreds of thousands of Syrian children who will never have a childhood because children who have grown up are fighting over a land they can never own. Did all of these people call their suffering into their lives? Of course they bloody didn’t.

The more this toxic thinking encourages us to buy into dream fulfillment, the more ridiculous and out of touch we make ourselves. Moreover, we become less able to deal with reality, where dreams are shattered irretrievably every moment of every day. And worse, because we’re so busy chasing dreams, we forget the only thing that can help others overcome the sadness and fear and desperation of not attaining life’s dreams; compassion.

In our rapidly-changing world, compassion is a quality that all of us would be advised to cultivate. Leave dreams to sleepwalkers and Hollywood; let’s focus on getting our hands dirty in reality – and dealing with imperfection with integrity.

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