Dreams aren’t always “valid”

Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar for an outstanding job as an actor in an important movie. Nothing bad about those facts and important to celebrate. Fortunately, Hollywood, which never loses a moment to celebrate itself, has done so. Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar and since chances to do so (and actual wins) have been rare for non-white actors I am glad of it. Thank God for any sign of cracks in our ongoing institutional racism.

Nobody should be sorry Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar, but what she said about her win is dangerous, especially to the sort of person who tunes into an Oscar broadcast (people like I am!). This is especially true since her Salada-teabag sentiment is getting widespread coverage.

She said: “No matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.”

I am not sure how a dream, of all things, can be “valid” since being valid applies to arguments. In a valid argument, the premises cannot be true and the conclusion false.* Suppose a dream is the conclusion of an argument a person has with herself. It certainly isn’t true that wherever you are from your dreams are based on sound reasoning. In fact, I don’t think I reasoned about my dreams as a young adult at all.

I just had them. Some of my dreams were stupid, being a placekicker for the Packers, some would have been bad for others, my dream at sixteen of marrying Amy Grant, and some of my dreams ended up coming true, but only when I moved them from “dreams” to action plans. Many of my dreams were based on false assumptions: I had football talent, Amy Grant would be interested in me if we met. Some were aspirations that were useless: my dream of being “the next C.S. Lewis” was bad, because we already have had a C.S. Lewis and do not need another one.

By now I have lost patience with my tiresome academic self and am mentally shouting: this excellent actor meant that no dream should be dismissed because of the neighborhood where the dreamer was born. At first this seems right, until you realize that “neighborhoods” often do constrain dreams. One reason to fight poverty or the stultifying results segregated communities is that they limit dreams.

A child born into a neighborhood where Hollywood family values are adopted is far less likely to live her dream than a child who lives in a community with strong, intact families. My wife is a living example that a tough start can be overcome, but nobody should rest be sanguine about how many find Hope’s path.

In fact, her neighborhood encouraged delusional dreams: winning the lottery is likely, sports will be my ticket out of here. These dreams might work for one in thousand (in the case of sport) or one in a billion (in the case of the lottery), but only at the cost of hurting almost all the other dreamers. The time spent throwing free throws could have been spent getting the skills to become a nurse or the money spent on lottery tickets could have been invested in a college fund. That one woman won an Oscar after dreaming of doing so is wonderful, but not if most of us think we should pursue acting careers while ignoring our own (relative) lack of talent or the number of jobs actually available to an actor.

And this is a real worry: many of my students have misaligned ambitions. They wish to be things they have not talent to become (sports stars), things that are wicked (being an idle rich man), or things our culture has in great abundance (aspiring actors).

Many dreams turn out to be desires unconstrained by reality. We dream of being actors or astronauts, but detach from those dreams the hard work or skills needed to live the dream. We fantasize that winning an Oscar will make us happy in the long term when such glory will fade as surely as our own relatively smaller prizes. Dreams tell us that marriage will solve our problems and that the right partner will fix what is wrong inside of us. We ignore warning signs or the consequences of some of those dreams.

And of course some of dreams are wicked: we want what we should not have. We commit to our family and then we throw our family aside for a dream “job” that ends up putting them at risk. Dreams (Disney told me) is a “wish my heart makes when I am fast asleep.” Those wishes need to be brought into my waking hours and examined. Some of them will survive the process and motivate me to go further up and further in.

Dreams have a place, but not cut off from logic and wisdom. Hollywood constantly sells the opposite: follow your heart, your dreams, now and things will (generally) turn out well. This is rubbish, dangerous rubbish.

Now somebody might say that all of this was not implied by one actor making an off hand comment, but I think it was. Few have the looks or talent to be Lupita Nyong’o and most people who wish to live her dream should be told: “don’t bother.”  Our society needs more medical workers and fortunately many Americans have the talent to reach those goals and many of us should be told “go for it.” We can change our dreams: they need not be static. Our dreams may lead to a valid argument . . . a good and persuasive plan of action for our life, but only if our dreams are brought into the waking world and our plans are based on the truth.

I never had the leg to placekick for the Packers. It was a fun daydream, but it needed killing if I took it seriously and began to act upon it.

Whatever our neighborhood today, our dreams may be foolish or wise. Our dreams may come to pass and harm us or come to pass and help us. Only God knows and only God and His community can help us purge invalidity and falsehoods from our lives.

*In a corrective to any pride, my first draft of this reversed terms! My definition of validity was wrong! You can have a valid argument with false premises and a true conclusion. (If the moon is made of green cheese, then the sky is blue. The moon is made of green cheese. Therefore: the sky is blue. The sky is in fact blue, but the second premise is in fact false. If both premises were true, then conclusion would necessarily be true.) Warning about typing quickly early in the morning! Shout out to Michael Robinson for finding the error.

 


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