Mourning the Life We Thought We Were Supposed to Have
As someone born in the earliest years of the Millennial generation with a lot of privilege, I’ve spent time mulling over the cultural message that I could do whatever I wanted with my life. During the Great Recession, as I coped with the loss of my last career and wondered what would be next for me, I realized I’d been given an incomplete truth. I might be able to do anything I wanted, given enough tenacity, support, and favorable life circumstances; but I definitely could not do everything.
The depth and richness I sought in life—the sense of meaning—meant I must commit to a course of action and give up other possibilities. And this is in some ways inescapable. Even refusing any kind of commitment to stay perpetually unattached requires sacrifice of the life I could have had if I’d stuck with a relationship, a career, a project.
When I was younger, I filled myself up with dreams about the life I imagined I wanted, ideas about how people should treat me and what would be my signs of success. The dreams inspired me and motivated me to move toward them, yet in the course of living I would begin to encounter ways these dreams and aspirations caused me suffering. My dreams of a different life tended to be attached to a deep longing that had yet to be met. Yet when I was stuck in longing for what I did not have in my life, I was caught between two worlds. I could not walk confidently in either.
Confronting this sense of limitation and the finite nature of my time, energy, and money brought me to a deeper confrontation of the relationship between dreaming and realizing. These dreams had become expectations, and life frequently fails to meet my expectations. My expectations were formed at a time when I had no real experience. By the time I met the real person who would be my partner, I already had these imaginations of what marriage was supposed to look like. Before I began working, I had these expectations of career.
Imagination and expectations, furthermore, are unchecked by any limitations except the ones shaping my mind. I can imagine that a lover will respond to my intimacy and vulnerability with completely intuitive, empathic accuracy—will say the exact right thing—will know just where to touch—will know how fast or slow to go without me needing to say a word.
But then I take the risk and share, and my lover has had a long day and their attention lapsed as I shared with them. They didn’t understand why what I said was a big deal. They go too fast, or too slow. Or, my lover actually does something I envisioned. They say the thing I’ve longed to hear for years. But something didn’t work about it. It didn’t touch me the way I imagined it would. It failed to heal the pain, lift the burden of my self-deprecation.
Disappointed expectations often foster resentment, ingratitude, and blame. My heart is too filled up with beliefs about how life is supposed to be and feelings about why it’s not that way. There is no room for joy, or love, or gratitude.
These dreams and expectations run the risk of becoming a hostile form of entitled resentment. We feel angry that the world didn’t give us what we wanted or needed. We demand what we want and refuse to acknowledge that, once we are adults, no one is responsible for giving it to us. We rail against and resent people for things that can never be undone. We stomp on others and take what we need because we’ve suffered enough and fuck all those happy people.
The misalignment between expectation and reality often spurs us to change on or the other. Which we choose is not easily answered, and pain awaits in either direction. If my real, living parents consistently disappoint my expectations, I am in a muddle. I can try to change them, but the efforts are rarely effective and usually make my relationships worse. I could look for people to fill the idealized roles of Mother, Father, Parent, Caregiver and give me the nurturing, mentorship, tough love, or whatever it is that I feel my life is missing. Perhaps I’m lucky and find people to do that, or perhaps I experience a string of disappointments where yet another person seems to fail me.
In his poem, “Harlem,” Langston Hughes asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?” He continues with a series of questions, rather than answers. The dream deferred does not disappear or stay safely frozen in time, waiting for us to be ready for it. His images suggest the dream as something organic that can become stale, putrid, crusted-over, burdensome, and concludes with the suggestion of a dream being more like a land mine, in danger of an unexpected and catastrophic explosion.
That the poem is a series of questions suggests a lack of conclusion. The speaker of the poem does not yet seem to know, but perhaps contemplates their own deferred dreams, wondering—how long can this go on? How long will this dream be unmet?
For some, the most vivid and compelling dreams remain with us, becoming toxic until we finally realize the effort of resisting the dream outdoes the potential struggle and pain of moving toward the dream, embodying the dream, bringing the dream out of the ethereal realms of imagination, through the transforming and refining efforts of making it real.
At some point, whether we make the dream manifest or we accept it will never be, we stand at the threshold of grief. Here, the grief is our mourning that that reality is not what I thought it should be. My childhood dreams were impractical, or did not taste as sweet as I believed they would. The story I wrote is not like the one I imagined. The person I thought should never disappointment me finally does, and does in a big way, and yet I still love them.
There is a deep relationship between acceptance and grief. Grieving is the step most people want to skip on the path to acceptance and freedom. In grief and acceptance, I see that that what I am living right now is my life, and all my expectations and dreams of what should be are not my life. No matter how hard I work to set things up for success, to make my experience perfect, there will be variables beyond my control.
There is grief in growing up with family expectations one suddenly discovers are impossible to meet because you discover you’re queer or transgender, because you’re unable to bear children, because you don’t actually love or understand the career expectations laid out for you. There is grief in living with an abuser and coming to realize that there is no way you can get them to love you the way—somewhere deep in your heart—you truly believe they could.
We can get stuck in this grief, as much as we can get stuck in our efforts to avoid this realization. When I was younger, people called this stuckness “self-pity.” Perhaps they still do, but that expression seems to be less common. Calling it such may motivate some folks to let go and work through it, but for others it feels contemptuous and adds more shame and self-judgment on top of the stuck grief. This experience is the underside of that angry, self-righteous entitlement spoken of earlier. It is still anchored to that entitlement—a sense of unfairness, a sense that somehow, someone should make this right. There is still blame—self-blame, blaming parents, blaming society, blaming a deity.
What I want to speak of when I say “blame” is the emotional hook, not the act of assessing a situation and understanding why it happened and how peoples’ behaviors caused it. Blame feels heavy. It spurs up intense responses ranging from deep sadness to rage. It leaves us feeling powerless over ourselves. Blame says that the person on the other end of the blame to be different in some way, so I can be different. This is not acceptance.
Moving out of blame doesn’t require we say everything was okay. It doesn’t mean I say what abusers have done is totally fine. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t disappointed, or I don’t live under a system of injustice. It doesn’t necessarily make any of these things go away. What it does is unhook ourselves from these sources of suffering. We get our power back so we can think creatively about how we want to be in the world we have.
To illustrate this in a concrete way: imagine having a parent who does not always act the way you think a parent should act.
Let’s say you have this idea that Fathers are supposed to be inspiring, firm but kind, impeccable in their word, attentive, and interested in their children’s lives. Let’s say your father instead was somewhat meek, often traveled a lot and came home too exhausted to play, rarely stood up for you or himself.
As you grow older, you may notice yourself having struggles—either being meek like him, or acting out ferociously when you feel disrespected, afraid of being in any way like him. You love him, but you feel embarrassed by him. You feel angry that he wasn’t more of a “man.” You think, “If only I had a real father, my life would be better.”
The relationship with this father would be complex in many ways. You might avoid him. You might confront him often, call him weak. You might hold him in quiet contempt. You might badger him to step up and be more “of a father.” At some point, this adherence to an idealized reality stops being useful. Certain things about your father are fixed, or he counters your efforts by withdrawing, fighting back, ignoring you. No matter what you both try, your relationship stays strained and distant. Eventually it becomes clear that it would be easier to mourn the father you never had, then figure out what kind of relationship you want with the one you do.
When you stop wanting or needing him to be different, suddenly different things become possible. It’s easier to be around him and appreciate the good things he does. When you see yourself acting like him, you have an easier time acknowledging this and figuring out if you want to act differently. Instead of wasting energy wishing your father would be different—something you cannot change—you can explore being the difference that you desire. Then you are free. You no longer need to blame your father for not being enough for you. You can begin to see the ways you can be enough for yourself, or find that enoughness through other relationships.
Grief immerses us in the pain of what we truly have no power over. Painful though this is, it is a healing bath that leaves us feeling lighter, cleaner with time.
Moving through the grief and disillusionment, shedding the blame and entitlement, is also a sacrifice of the beliefs that inspired optimism and hope. Afterward we might feel lost or cynical, lacking the compass that oriented us in life so far.
That optimism and hope, however, had become too rigid. It came from a place of externality, of imposition, of believing I am not okay because my life does not match these things. Moving through the mourning and the sense of emptiness, meaninglessness, is scary and painful. Eventually, however, we wake up to a deeper sense of our own values, a fresh way of being in the world. We see the dawning of a sense of hope that knows I can be okay and meaningfully engage in my life regardless of what happens.
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