Mary M. Doyle Roche
“Hold fast to dreams” Langston Hughes
The Christmas season reminds us that Christians are a dreamy people. God comes to Joseph and the Magi in dreams. These are dreams of courage in the face of fear; dreams that send us home by another route when we are set on a dangerous path.
During his address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in September, Pope Francis noted that Americans too are moved by dreams. Of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of equality, the Pope said, “That dream continues to inspire us all. I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of ‘dreams’. Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.” Francis’ insistence on action, participation, and commitment is significant if dreams are not to be mere wishful thinking or fantasizing, or the kind of dreams that Ecclesiastes notes will lead to vanities (5:7). Perhaps the Pope was also recalling the life of Ignatius whose fantasies of life at court were transformed into dreaming of a far richer sort: the pursuit of his deepest desires to serve Christ.
Sociologist Robert Putnam writes that the American dream is “in crisis,” especially for children and young people growing up in poverty. The ever-widening gap between rich and poor, exacerbated by racism and sexism, denies people access to the “American dream.” More critically, this gap is likely excluding too many of America’s children and young people from practices of dreaming itself. In Our Kids (2015), Putnam notes that parents of privilege adopt “promotive” parenting strategies aimed at “nurturing their children’s talents in comfortable settings that provide many opportunities and few dangers…” For these children, dreams become possible with their parents’ considerable financial and social capital. Putnam continues, “Impoverished parents, by contrast, use ‘preventive’ strategies, aimed at keeping their children safe in rough neighborhoods where dangers far outnumber opportunities …” Children living in poverty dare not “dream of other worlds” in which they would pursue education or realize a vocation that earns them a livelihood; instead they focus on the very practical business of surviving.
Yet, dreams not only lead to action, participation and commitment, they grow from habits of virtuous action, participation, and commitment. A welcoming spirit –whether welcoming the strangers who come to us as children, or as immigrants to a place we in the US have the privilege of calling home, or as neighbors impacted by poverty and the racism that defers dreams—can expand the horizons of our dreaming immeasurably. And dreaming together, with children, neighbors, strangers, even enemies, awakens what is deepest and truest for us. Participating in family life, school, church and neighborhood activities, in meaningful work for a just wage and political processes gives rise to dreams that are both unique to the person and shared in a commitment to the common good.
While the new year encourages dreaming about the future, in an individualistic consumer culture, dreams are often just wishes about a thinner, healthier, and more successful self. Advertisements for Christmas have given way to ads for fitness, dieting, and smoking cessation programs, and worthy goals for particular people. As with all goals, they require commitment if their intentions are to succeed. But, we might ask, what shared dreams fill our hearts and minds as goals to pursue? We might wish for world peace, a most noble aspiration; yet, will our dreams move us to action, participation, commitment? When, where and how can we begin to live the dream of peace builders? Parents, fresh from the pressure to fulfill Christmas wishes, might begin to dream the dreams of their children and of other people’s children. Dreamers beware: it is easy to impose one’s dreams on another. Dreams of the privileged –for vanities or their children’s educational and vocational success—may concern appearances rather than substance. And dreams of less-advantaged parents may be as much for their children’s success as for their safety, health, and better opportunities than they have had.
The Pope’s call to dream could not be more timely. The Herods of today tempt us to either despise or fear the dreams of others, telling us that dreams of peace and prosperity threaten our dreams –privileged or not—for the same. But it is time to hold fast to the dreams that reveal our deepest hope and to go secure with God’s message another way.