A Dream Deferred / Langston Hughes
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Some dreams unravel and others implode. Such painful beauty in so much destruction.
I remember the year my parents migrated from south Florida to Colonial Beach, Virginia chasing after a dream. My sister and I had moved out, so with a suddenly empty nest, my parents were free to roam again. They migrated north—back to seasons and history towards my sister and the rising tide of grandchildren. When I returned from college on winter break, I was glad to help mom and dad move into their little rental cottage near the gray shores of the Potomac.
That winter Colonial Beach did not offer much in the way of southern hospitality. Locals said that winter was one of the coldest in the past hundred years. My parents, so used to eighty degrees with ninety percent humidity, could not get warm in inside or out.
I couldn’t get warm in the cottage either. Among unpacked boxes in the new house, I slept in three layers of clothing with gloves and ski cap, and still tossed through the night, chilled. Raccoons and squirrels bumped unseen in the crawlspaces within the walls, toenails scraping eerily from floor to ceiling.
When dad complained about the accommodations, the landlord, a kooky belligerent man, acted out a caustic Foghorn Leghorn. “Now, I’m not about to take no guff!” he told my dad, wagging his bird-like snout and finger at him
Though no one died or was maimed that winter, it still seemed the perfect storm of bad luck and untimely misfortune. One bad enterprise lead to another and another. As the foundation of their dream began to buckle and fissure, my parents decided to cut their losses and return to Florida. As Murphy’s Law would have it, my parents home in Florida finally sold shortly before they decided to return. My parents would have to start over again in a place they arguably never should have left.
I remember the dream that my wife and I shared in our mid twenties. We would become missionaries—change the world through faith, compassion, and perseverance. We would succeed where so many others had failed. So we moved our family of four from Seattle to central China. We studied Chinese for three years. We planted ourselves in a small Tibetan town hunkered on the (oddly very green) Yellow River. We prayed and hoped and embraced culture and smiled sweetly at our neighbors. It took ten years, all in, to nurture this dream from the rocky soil of nonexistence to watch green tendrils sprout from the dust and soil, to arc daring stems up into the light of day. But the steady sun of adversity, the chill mountain air of Tibet, the acrid spiritual ennui and desperation for vocation soon began suffocate. me.
Though I tried to hold the dream together through willpower and immutable trust in God, the fracture and fade could not be ignored. The dream that had splintered for so long had begun to splinter me. The missionary life that I had longed for could no longer sustain me and I knew this—though I dreaded to admit it. But after many months I accepted it and embraced the decline of a dream. We packed our bags, shed our farewell tears with friends, and returned home to America. Back to where we started—back to the clean-slate beginning of it all. Returning to the corporation I had worked at once before, it was as if nothing had changed at all. But everything had.
Even with the disappointment and disillusionment, there is a sad form of glory in a detonated dream—in the shrapnel that destroyed dreams imbed deep within our skin. They are felt for years like phantom limbs.
I have heard many stories like mine—we all have our Colonial Beach, our Xining, our San Diego. Vocation and location changes may seem incidental compared with the loss of a child, the barrenness of a womb, the cancer, the bankruptcy, and the infidelities that excoriate us daily. But the calamity of human experience is real enough regardless of degree and it is not all bad news. Hurt and disappointment, longing and fragility, what I like to call the power of brokenness make up all that is universal in human life. Oddly, these events tie us all together in a fellowship of grief.
On the other hand, suffering for its own sake should not be considered the good news. Suffering is a precursor to something else. Suffering, tragedy, and disappointment are the catalytic points in life when a person begins to know and embrace a different reality: the (almost) good news.
The (almost) good news is a lamenting epiphany.
The (almost) good news is the resignation to plan B.
The (almost) good news is an unexpected U-turn when forward motion is the desired goal.
The (almost) good news is the sigh of recognition that leads to empathy. When our dreams get pulverized and changed beyond recognition, they create the possibility for growth and for re-creation. There will not always be a clean moral that can be drawn from the (almost) good news, but revision necessitates and undergirds hope. Like a tree springing from a rock in the desert. It is hope (against the death of all hope) in resurrection and the dogged persistence of the human spirit.
This great mystery of the (almost) good news must be shared with others to be fully appreciated. This is the new gospel in poetry and prose–it begins in gratitude. Gratitude to our deferred and decimated dreams.