7th November 2016: Posted by Jennifer Dayes
I have always been a dreamer. As a child, I dreamt of becoming the cleverest kid in the class. As an adolescent, I fantasised about being a business woman who made her first million before the age of 30. In my early 20s, I imagined myself becoming the youngest qualified psychologist of my time. Always, I have dreamed of writing a novel. As I grow older and pass by the deadlines I have set for myself, I have learned that with age comes the death of dreams.
It is a sad fact that we will all experience this loss. At some point, like me, each of you will be asked to accept that the person you once wanted to be is just not feasible any more. With a heavy heart, you will have to smile and bid your fantasised-self goodbye, the way you would an old and treasured friend.
Why is this so sad? For me, it is mournful because it means the loss of legacy. I can no longer leave behind the image(s) of myself that I once wished to. In years to come, no-one will say of me, “she wrote The Great Gatsby. She was only 21”.
Perhaps sharing such hopes paints a narcissistic picture of myself. Working as a psychological therapist, however, I am privy to the secret dreams of others’. They are not so different from my own; I am normal. We don’t dream about leaving behind a mediocre imprint of ourselves. Legacy, and leaving a good one, is important to humans.
The fear of not leaving a legacy in the shape we wish to, is harrowing enough to bring some people to therapy. I have met many clients who have been referred, or sought help themselves, due to a rising sense of panic. Anxiety swells, thick and bubbling, and the gnawing, uneasy rumblings of melancholy shudder underneath. These individuals are baffled. There has been no trauma, no unhappy childhoods, no work-place bullying. Their pain is subtle. It started as disturbed nights, explained away by a project deadline. The squeeze of fear, cold and constricting, pulses once or twice in the mornings, but is ignored; there are kids to get ready and meals to plan. There is rush-hour traffic. Yet, the unease, the discontentment, continues to grow. Nothing has changed except time. It is running out to ‘make something’ of ourselves.
Time. Death. Legacy. Such concerns are shared by us all. So shared, in fact, that there is an entire branch of psychotherapy dedicated to them. Existential therapists work under the understanding that we are all here, we will all die, and none of us asked for it. I have met individuals so consumed by these ‘givens’ of life that the entire exercise seems pointless. Why bother revising for exams when in a hundred years’ time no-one will remember your name, let alone what career you had? Why choose to live when the daily grind is such hard work, and it’s all going to end anyway? What, essentially, are we working towards? The futility oozes into everyday life. They ask me, exasperated and desperate, “what’s the point?”
At 29 years old, (with 9 months left to hit that ‘millionaire’ goal!), I’m extremely lucky to witness these existential struggles. I have the benefit of other people’s hindsight. Rather than death and a lukewarm legacy creeping their slimy fingers around me as I sleepwalk through life, I can ask myself the questions which clients come to my therapy room to work out: “What is it that makes my heart truly happy?” “If money, talent and age were no obstacle, what would I choose to do with myself every day?” “Who would I spend my time with?” “How can I make this my reality before it’s too late?”
These questions are seriously scary. If we ask them of ourselves and if, terrifyingly, we know the answers, it brings a responsibility like no other. Not knowing what we want, or where and who with to spend our time, we psychologically release ourselves from the onus of making those things happen. When we know and we don’t do anything about it; well, the fault is ours.
The thing is, acting upon our innermost yearnings can require an upheaval so brave that it takes thirty years to even acknowledge there is a desire there. We might have to break off relationships, move cities, save money, spend money, change careers. We might have to weigh up our own happiness against that of others. The reasons not to act are often good ones. They provide compelling arguments.
When it comes to big life decisions, those around us tend to share their opinions about what they believe is best. It is my opinion, however, that when it comes to the path of our lives, it is nobody else’s place to say that this turning or that, is the correct choice. They are not the ones who will live with those decisions day in, day out. They are not the people who will die with them.
When we do die, most of us, hopefully, will have lived long lives. Towards the end, it is likely that there will be a moment where we ‘take stock’. We will look back over our time on this earth and evaluate how we did. Did we realise enough of our dreams? Have we lived the lives we wanted to? Are we, essentially, dying happy?
For myself and those I care about, I want the answer to be “yes”. Thus, my ultimate message is this: try and be brave enough to think about your death now. Let it be liberating rather than destroying. Allow the fact that you will die to explode a zest for life. Find your own meaning in a life that some people say has none.
Even at fifteen, a friend of mine had this nailed. Brave enough to beat her own path, she wrote the following in my high-school yearbook, “Shoot for the moon and you’ll land amongst the stars.”
Pretty good advice, I think.