(Non)Toxic Dreams

My most recent piece, The Hard Business of Letting Go, is more emotional than my other pieces. I dwell on what it is like to realize that a dream is dead. What happens when you are forced to let go and move on? How do you feel when you confront that hard truth? What if you no longer recognize yourself?

Here’s a sample:

 My dream to become a professor floated away, too, in the flurry of applications and the brutal realities of the job market. The career that I trained for appears more and more untenable day by day.

Applying for a job off the tenure track, then, felt like the death knell of my dream. I stalled, not because I am a coward, but because abandoning who you think you are going to be is hard. I’ve let the dream I haven’t achieved define me more than my accomplishments. That dream turned toxic, and it is time to let it go.

It hurt to write this piece because I had to own up to the fact that my career won’t be what I imagined. I have to find new dreams. The end. Onto the next column.

But,  an interesting thing happened when I posted the column on Facebook. One of my mentors, Martin Kavka, asked, “Are there such things as non-toxic dreams?” He continued:

I ask in some seriousness, and with a lot of trepidation.

I ask in seriousness because I suspect that the contingency of life means that all dreams will always be crushed. 

I ask with trepidation because I fear that my suspicion ends up functioning only as a way to occlude all the structural problems of academia…

Are there such things as non-toxic dreams?

Academia was my dream, but lately, I’m not sure that I was ever really suited for it. The pursuit of an academic career turned me into a strange, neurotic woman, whom I avoided in the mirror. Frantic, busy, tired, anxious, irritable, pessimistic, and depressed. I mastered my brave, public face. It appeared as if nothing bothered me, but everything did.

When I decided to take a year off, I sort of fell apart. I cut and dyed my hair over and over, as if changing my appearance would change my life. I vacillated between anger and sadness. Slowly, I started to feel better, as I realized that my failure as an academic had very little to do with me and mostly with structural constraints of the university. Most days I’m happy with my decision to move on. Some days I’m miserable. This dream was clearly toxic.

Are there such things as non-toxic dreams? Martin’s words stick with me as I try to find my place.  I turn the question around: Are all dreams inherently toxic? The bleakness of the inversion makes me catch my breath. I pause. I have no words. I utter, Please don’t let that be true. What are we left with if things that we want to sustain us actually harm us? What are we to do if our dreams will always cause us pain?

The cynical part of me  finds truth in toxicity. What if all dreams are eroded by what Lauren Berlant calls the “wearying” of life?* For Berlant, the mundane sleights of the every day are more damaging than those big, shocking events called trauma. Drudgery and repetition eat away at us day in and day out. We cannot escape them. We are weary; I am weary. Life is weary-making. Berlant warns us of the fantasies of the good life that seem to dominate American culture. The good life is elusive, if not impossible. Optimism most often turns cruel. Positive visions of the future damn us, more than they ever save us.

I find this compelling and disquieting. Berlant challenges the ubiquitous “life is good” t-shirts in cheery, pastel colors. T-shirt wisdom should never be trusted. After all, life is hard. People reach for this mantra when confronted with the suffering of others. Life is hard for everyone, they say, why would academia be any different? We suffer, so why should we be surprised that you suffer too?

They are right. Life is hard and fragile and fleeting. That brusque statement of fact, however, is not an excuse to ignore  structural injustices wherever they may be.  We can’t use “life is hard” as a method to blind us to pain and suffering of others, inside or outside of academia. This oft-repeated sentiment  does not absolve the complexity or particularity of the “hard.” The wearying of the world impacts each of us. Life is hard both systemically and individually. To admit that life is hard is the beginning of a conversation, not an end. To use it as an explanatory end is a callous approach to those around us.

We can no longer ignore that the dream of a tenure track job is fantasy rather than reality. Adjuntification is the new normal. Optimism becomes cruel in every advisor’s assurance to students that they will get secure jobs. Toxicity blooms noxious and thick. It smothers and chokes us. Letting go of that dream, for me, is the only way to live.

Yet, I can’t give up dreaming. I’m an idealist, who hopes fervently that some dreams are less toxic. Maybe, some dreams nourish. I need to dream, so the wearying does not overwhelm me. Berlant might call me a stupid optimist; I’m okay with that. I refuse to quit dreaming even if that means that new dreams could turn on me. That’s a chance I have to take.

Are there such things as non-toxic dreams?  Let’s find out.

*Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, (Duke, 2011)

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