This is almost true, and there is a tyranny to it that most people won’t recognize.
This meme pops up in my Facebook memories annually, and when I first shared it I thought it was much more true than I think it is now. A lot of it has to do with what we call a dream.
Stephen King had a dream. He dreamt he was a writer, and if you read his book, “On Writing”, you’ll learn when he first got a book published – “Carrie”, I think – he was balancing a typewriter on his knees in the cramped laundry room of a camper while he and his wife worked at a dry cleaning place. He did follow his dream, he hammered away at that typewriter with his words and thoughts that have now been with us for generations. He did follow his dream, but he made it through because he was practical, he kept working, and he did not neglect his obligations.
Obligations are their own tyranny, or can be. I felt obligated to do many things in my life that I was not obligated to do, and, conversely, I neglected obligations I didn’t recognize as obligations. We all do, if we’re honest and live long enough to recognize it.
Life as we know it is hard to understand. I learned this in the Navy, when sometimes I had to make judgement calls that had broader implications than I knew in the moment. This is where training comes in, where the narratives of those successful before guide us through and hopefully most of the time we get it right because of that training. It doesn’t always.
Dreams are fluid too, and it’s hard to dream in a system that curtails them. When I was 7, when asked the infamous and dumb question of what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered that I wanted to be an Oceanographer. It stood out amongst the throng of the usual suspects – Firemen, Doctors, Police, and of course the President of the United States. Some of those are easier to get to than others. How many people can be President of the United States at any given time? Some dreams are more easily attainable than others.
I never did become an oceanographer, but I got to dive and see stuff that other people had already cataloged. My dream of being an oceanographer was to be like Jacques Cousteau and explore new places, discover new things, and experience a world unknown. I would have been disappointed because the path to get there just so long that by the time I got there I would have found the ocean less a mystery, and it was the fact that it was a mystery for so many that prompted that dream.
What young human doesn’t want to explore and see things for the first time? I believe even in adulthood this is latent, and an obligation many of us do not recognize. Learning doesn’t end where education does, formally or otherwise. The world teaches us a lot of things if we can manage to get out of our own way.
Freedom to do whatever we want is something we always have latent, too, but freedom is just decorating our prisons as we wish. Show me someone who is completely free and I’ll show you someone who has simply had an interior decorator visit their prison. We all have obligations, we all have dreams. For some, the obligations mean putting the dreams on hold.
People have told me over the years that I should be writing instead of <insert whatever I was doing at the time>, but I had obligations. I helped put my mother through college and get her degree because I felt obligated to do so, and while she did nothing with it I can still reflect on the day when she proudly held up her diploma when she graduated. I helped my father at times despite himself, and he listened to maybe 10% of what I had to say, but I felt obligated and to some extent it had an effect. Then came the other obligations, the necessities of paying bills, of moving forward through life so that yes, maybe someday, I could do some of the things I wanted to. It wasn’t to buy them. I never dreamt of things, I always dreamt of being – being this, being that, being the other. Opportunities to become new things were paths that I often followed because I made my choices by asking one simple question:
Would I regret not doing it?
I have no regrets, I did the best I could with just about everything.
We circulate that meme because it strikes a chord wherever we are in life because we are never, it seems, where we are supposed to be. We dream of dreaming without the weight of obligation. That never happens.