What do you do when your dreams fall apart? There comes a point when you’re finally forced to admit things aren’t going to work out, and you have to make the painful decision. Do you keep pretending the life you hoped for is still a legitimate possibility? Or, do you face the consequences of letting go of your hopes and expectations?
Grieving the loss of a dream can cause as much pain as grieving the loss of a loved one. Your dreams are part of you. They’re intertwined with your identity in ways that are difficult to comprehend. To watch a dream die is painful. But to hold on to them when life is trying to steer you in another direction will destroy you.
“The world breaks everyone,” wrote Ernest Hemingway at the end of A Farewell to Arms, “and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills.”
Like anything Hemingway wrote, those words are stark and cut to the bone. But that’s the point. There comes a time when you have to admit that things aren’t the way you thought they would be and never will be. It’s painful — yes — but necessary.
Your dreams are supposed to die so you can become the person you’re meant to be. What you can’t know at the moment — what is too painful to admit — is that the dream you’re grieving wasn’t a fit for you anymore.
How is that possible when the pain you feel is so real?
You chose your dreams before you knew the person you’d become.
When you choose a direction for your life it’s often under the unconscious influence of family, friends, and culture. The expectations of other people, places, and institutions that influence you are what shape your perception of what possible for you in life.
At a young age, you created a mental picture of the way you think life is supposed to be. But today you’re suffering because things didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to and you think this is the only path you’re allowed to follow in life. When things fall apart–as they occasionally do–you’re left holding the ashes of a life you thought was meant for you.
But you are not the person today you were when you first chose your dreams.
Why does that matter?
It matters because you make decisions based on who you are, not who you’re going to be. As you grow and change in life, you no longer have the same goals and aspirations you once did.
Now you’re confused because you don’t know if the path you’re trying to follow is even what you want anymore. But you can’t just walk away because everyone expects you to be a certain kind of person, or have a certain job, or fulfill a certain role.
You suffer from what’s known as the sunk cost fallacy, which Christopher Olivola explains is “the general tendency for people to continue an endeavor…if they’ve invested time or money or some resource in it.”
It’s at this point of decision that your life could go one of two ways.
Don’t allow your idealism to turn into cynicism.
Do you remember how you felt the first time someone broke up with you? When it ended you were sad, angry, and hurt — all those emotions rolled into one. You had such high hopes for the relationship and you swore you’d be together forever–especially if you were a teenager.
After some time those feelings turned to something else. You weren’t sad anymore, now you were angry. You swore off men or women and said you’d never date again. You became cynical for a while until someone new came along.
Unless you were badly injured by the breakup, you moved on to someone new and the pain eventually faded. You didn’t fall into cynicism for long before you were back to professing your undying love to the next person. The breakup hurt, but you didn’t live in your pain forever.
When you’re young, your idealism blinds you from having a realistic view of life. As you grow older, the risk of becoming cynical and jaded is very real.
The only way to prevent cynicism is to allow the old to die so you can move on. You can’t drag an old dream into a new life. Some dreams are supposed to die. But how can you move on when you’re shattered?
This is not the end for you.
You might be familiar with the Japanese tradition of Kintsugi, the art of repairing broken pottery with gold or silver lacquer. A master of this art form could repair a piece of broken pottery and make it more beautiful than the original.
The beauty of this art form comes from putting the broken pottery pieces together with a substance more beautiful than the original. It’s no longer beautiful and valuable because it is whole, but because it’s broken.
The same can be true for you. Broken or lost dreams can either leave you shattered, or–as Hemingway wrote– ”strong at the broken places.” Your pain can become your power.
This process happens when you allow yourself to dream again. Instead of chasing an idealistic fantasy, you allow the wisdom gained from experience to inform your new dreams.
But letting yourself dream again is scary. It means facing the possibility of hurt and failure. But what’s far worse is attempting to drag an old, dead dream around with you that weighs you down and holds you back.
Death is the engine of life. Something has to die for something else to live. Nature understands this pattern as plants and animals die to feed other plants and animals.
It’s also why you feel the power of stories and movies on a visceral level. You connect with a character who leaves their old life, faces impossible challenges, dies, and is reborn as a person who can overcome those challenges. It’s the longing of the human spirit to go through a transformation and emerge triumphantly.
When a dream dies, that doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. It can be reborn as something new. When a dream doesn’t work out you’re tempted to fall back cliches like “It wasn’t meant to be.” But maybe it wasn’t meant to be in the form you imagined.