My daughters love musical theater. Thus it is no surprise that over the Christmas holiday we found ourselves at the cinema in a full theater watching Into the Woods, the film adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical.
One of the central elements of the story is that it takes a look at the “ever after” part of fairy tales, and we see that getting what you wish for isn’t always pure happiness:
- Cinderella gets Prince Charming, but he is only charming, not sincere, and more interested in the chase than in life together.
- The Baker and his wife get the baby they always wanted, but things quickly fall apart. The selfishness and deception they use to meet the conditions for breaking their curse of infertility sets in motion a series of tragic events, including the death of the Baker’s wife.
- And on it goes with difficulties for other well known characters (like Little Red Riding Hood). The story ends in a bittersweet way; it’s not all sadness, but it is definitely not a state of bliss.
In part the story tells us that the content of our dreams and wishes is often missing the larger and more complicated trajectory of life. Though Cinderella thinks that all she has to do is go through the woods to the palace to get her prince, the path is neither as clear or as safe as her wishes suggest.
It is not much different with our own dreams and aspirations. When I was a child, I dreamed about being a professional tennis player.
In my dream version of professional athletics, this was a fun existence where you get paid to play a sport, and if you are a champion you get lots of public recognition (including magazine coverage). You get to travel around the world. Yet I have heard this experience described by many players as “a grind,” or even “a dog’s life.”
Not what I expected.
Whether it is professional athletics, executive leadership, politics, investment banking, serial entrepreneurship, or any other ambition, the reality is a less gilded version of what we had in mind when we said “I wish.”
Does this mean we should be cynical people who call ourselves “realists” because the path of life isn’t an uninterrupted ascent to our vision of the joyful life?
Does it mean that we should discourage those who have high ambitions? Should our churches make sure they teach believers that the Christian life is one where dreams and wishes are set aside because they are guaranteed to disappoint us?
Not at all.
Instead, our recognition that difficulty, failure, stress, and loss may attend the pursuit of our dreams is actually a great opportunity. This is a chance to ask very important questions, like:
- What are the real expectations connected to my dreams and wishes?
- Is this really my dream, or that of someone else?
- What are the main sources of my dreams?
- Have I developed a perspective on struggle and failure?
- Where does God factor into dreams? Is he there only to sponsor my wishes?
- How are my ambitions an expression of my life as disciple and member of Christ’s body?
If we take the time to ask these types of questions and heed Christ’s words in Matthew 6:33 (putting God’s kingdom first), and Paul’s words in Romans 12:1-3 (offering ourselves to God and being transformed), we are in a far better position to make our way down the path toward our ambitions, undaunted by the surprises that emerge as we pursue our aims or the dissatisfactions that attend our arrival at the destination.
These surprises and dissatisfactions need not steal the joy and contentment we can have with a larger, more complex picture of our wishes and dreams.
Dreaming and wishing is good; it is even better when God is with us.
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