Monday, December 14, 2009

Living the big dream

I have always had big dreams.

I heard a story not too long ago (probably on Oprah) of a woman who faced great odds to live her dreams. She grew up in a small, poor village in Africa where AIDS is prevalent. Girls were not able to go to school, but she really wanted to learn. She dreamed of an education.

The boys in her town were able to go to school though, since they were considered the breadwinners. And so the girl begged to do her brother’s homework every day when he came home from school. It didn’t take much prodding, and that’s how the girl began to learn how to read and write.

The girl never imagined that life would take her beyond the village until an American woman came to visit on behalf of a non-profit organization. The woman sat with the village girls and told them: “When you have a dream, it means you can fulfill it. If you can see it, dream it, visualize it, then it can be.”

The girl had never realized that she can dream before that day, and that night, she was so excited that she wrote her dreams down on a piece of paper and buried them in a tin under a rock near her village. Her dream: To live in America, get a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree, and a PhD.

At the age of 13, the girl married an abusive man in an arranged marriage and had five children, but she always remembered her dream. And she pursued it despite the challenges. She did move to America. Her abusive husband died of AIDS. And she went on to get her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and now she is almost ready to graduate with a PhD. And to this day, every time she has achieved one of the items on her dream list, she goes back to the village and pulls the tin with her dreams in writing out of the ground, and crosses the item off the list.

She dreamed big, and she allowed herself to believe that she can achieve it.

As a person with big dreams, a believer in potential, I believe that this is a wonderful and inspiring story, and I wish her the greatest that life can give. The story strikes me though. On the one hand, it’s inspiring, but it also leaves me with questions.

Is she a happier person because she is realizing her dreams?

Perhaps I ask these questions because I have pursued my dreams, and although I am grateful for all of it and happier than I have ever been, I still want more. Like the African woman, I have had some challenges along the way – not lack of education, abusive husband, or AIDS infested village – but my own set of challenges – the diabetes, celiac, and so on. I’ve actually achieved a number of my big dreams. I’ve traveled, lived abroad, married an amazing husband, and have two Master’s degrees.

I was thrilled each time I achieved one of my dreams, but the next day, I always asked: “Okay, now what?” So I created more dreams and more visualizations of myself reaching amazing heights. I don’t regret doing so. But I wonder: Does the pursuit of dreams make a person happy? And how about once you get there?

I've worked at answering those questions. Here’s a theory that I’m testing out. Tell me what you think.

I have definitely gotten mired by the ins and outs of life, living in a cloud at times, getting sucked in by distractions and to-do lists (hello, TV, bills, errands, doctors, commutes), that sometimes (not always) I have found myself not even realizing when my wishes and dreams were actually coming true. I often have to stop myself and realize that I'm living a huge chunk of my dream life.

So, first, I made a conscious decision to do my best at becoming aware of each moment of every single day. I started journaling, meditating, becoming more creative, and I wrote my dreams down in my notebook which I keep by my bedside.

It's amazing what you discover when you are aware of the world around you. Try it if you haven't already. I found myself becoming more attuned - to myself. I was able to realize which of the dreams that I was holding are actually mine and which belong to someone else. I also became better attuned to the steps along the way to achieving the dreams.

Next step of the theory: I celebrate. I celebrate every single achievement. Sometimes, a celebration may be as simple as an acknowledgment and a smile, and sometimes, depending on the circumstance, the celebrations can get a bit more elaborate. Whatever the case may be.

Then, when I wasn't looking, I realized that the theory developed even further. I took a class in June which gave all of us students the tools necessary to writing a book, which I am now doing. On the last day of class, the teacher advised us to set up a reward system for mini-achievements along the way. He said that it would keep us moving along through a very long process. So he advised – reward yourself each time you reach a certain point, a reward for writing 50 pages, or 25, or even one. Or hey, why not just celebrate every day you write?

The big realization: This applies to everything - even beyond the pursuit of dreams. Because isn't the pursuit of dreams simply - life? If you are studying for a test, cooking dinner, or cleaning the house, celebrate. Or maybe you are fixing a car, riding a bike – break down the mini-steps of life and celebrate each step along the way.

And soon, before you know it, you’ll be celebrating life. All of the mini-achievements along the way. The sunrise and sunset, the change in seasons, family and friends, a beating heart, breath...

There are an infinite number of opportunities to celebrate. Because each day is an achievement worth celebrating in the pursuit of dreams.

Dream big, imagine the unimaginable, and be aware of every step along the journey, accept each day as it is, and be sure to stop and celebrate all the steps along the way. Because that just may be the key to the pursuit of happiness.

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