“Our purest dreams steal something from our lives.
They can only live if something else dies…”
As I idled in traffic one breezy spring morning, the lines above leapt out from my car stereo and gripped my brain, demanding my attention then and there—and I began to feel my emotions welling (as they are right now, as I compose this). What was required of me in that moment was to connect the dots between a book I’d been devouring breathlessly, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman1, pause the song until I could pull over and scribble the lyrics and the jumble of thoughts into my Field Notes notebook, and then to slide that leather-bound constant companion between the seat and the console and look up through the open top of the Jeep at the cloudless sky and memento mori.
(A bit of an aside: does this sort of thing happen to you,
this scramble to record a thought you know will slip away? Does it feel like
desperation? One could argue that it’s a function of aging; we realize at some
point that we will not remember an insight and we take measures to shore up our
abilities: surround ourselves with notebooks and pens and sticky notes
everywhere and memo minders on our phones and whiteboards on multiple surfaces.
So, yes, on the aging front I won’t quibble, but it isn’t just that for me. I’ve carried a book, a notebook, and a writing tool with me everywhere as long as I can remember, because there are so many more elements I experience than I can attend to at a time; the world around me constantly sparks my imagination and, no matter our age, we can only hold so much at once.)
Why did these lyrics grab me? Time is a fickle mistress, isn’t she? We tend to think we have way more time than we actually do; we see the future with rose-colored glasses as a huge, never-ending expanse of time in which All The Things will be able to be explored.
In order to pursue Activity A, we will have to pause or cease Activities B-Z because of the way in which we mortals experience time. This, on a micro level, means that dinner with your family at home means you can’t be attending a lecture or concert across town; and choosing to take a job on Wall Street means you have to give up the idea of spending that same year on a fishing trawler or hiking across the Caucasus mountains, because you cannot be in two places at once.
And this means you must constantly make an array of choices that could lead to extraordinary experiences, pure regret, or something in between.
Every experience you choose removes another experience from the realm of possibility in that time frame. And you might, remembering Frost’s words to “mark the first [road] for another day,” declare yes, if I choose K, I cannot do Q right now, but I will do it in the future, won’t I? If it matters, I *will* get to it, right?
Ah. It seems you may have forgotten the next lines Robert wrote, Dear Reader. 3
The idea that your life dreams are thieves may shock you, or
disappoint you. It may jolt you awake, smear you with intense FOMO, or be of no
real concern to you because you didn’t realize you had a choice of aspirations.
(The song is looking at the macro, of course, but the concept applies even when reduced, though it wavers, when reduced, from a “life dreams” level.4)
What do your dreams steal from you? Following them eliminates all the other dreams you might have pursued. Following them means that the activities and tasks you did to “move the needle” toward your goal happened instead of other activities and tasks and experiences you might have had or done.
For most of us, following our dreams means honing in and tuning out distractions, over and over and over; we structure our time and curate our activities for a goal out of necessity, typically not knowing what we are bypassing or missing.5
And here’s another truth about choosing to follow our dreams: since we have a limited amount of time, we must often jettison activities we enjoy (that may even be work-related) that are not moving the needle forward for us. This has happened to me in the last several months as I change careers in midlife, and I am still grieving the loss of those activities, most related to my previous career, that brought me so much satisfaction and pleasure. But we have to make the tough choices in regards to our time.
“…And our purest dreams
Steal something from our lives
They can only live
Because something else dies
But they lift us up
And they make us walk so tall
Got it all…got it all…got it all…”
~from “Love Too Much” by Keane,
lyrics by Tim Rice-Oxley
your run-of-the-mill self-help book about time management, so don’t dismiss it.
It’s a deep, thoughtful treasure trove of head-slapping insights and I re-read
2. During the pandemic, the wife and I invested in some nice glass whiteboards and installed them in multiple places in our home. Are they a beautiful addition to our décor? No. Do they improve the look of our space? Also no. But have they helped us by giving us a close-by way to jot things down and remember? Yes. I wish we’d done it sooner.
knowing how way leads on to way/I doubted if I should ever come back.”
4. E. g. the time you spend
doomscrolling social media is time you are not reading that stack of books on
your nightstand (or writing your own book); the 3 hours you spend at the bar is
time you are not training your puppy, studying for your finals, cleaning your house,
or any number of other tasks that may or may not be more important.
But reducing the theme to this micro level brings in more factors, one of which is how we ascribe importance, and even morality, to certain tasks, and how we guilt ourselves while doing so. If you are having a great time laughing and making memories with your friends while at the bar, who is to say that the experience is worth less than the tasks you are foregoing?
5.) This post is in no way an admonishment to abandon your dreams, by the way. Do that only to make room for new ones.