Dreams and Growing Up

In her article Grieving the Dream and Living What Is, Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg described her feelings about realizing that there are some things she cannot do because of auditory processing issues and other autism-related challenges.  For most of her life, she didn’t understand the nature of her limitations and assumed that she only needed to try harder.  She wrote:

“I grieve the loss of the person I thought I was—the person who could navigate the world like everyone else, the person who could do anything she wanted if she worked hard enough.  I grieve the things that I’ve always wanted to do but am physically unable to do.  I grieve the loss of my apparently privileged status as an apparently neurotypical person.  In short: I’m grieving what was never there to begin with.  I’m grieving an idea of myself and of my place in the world.  I am not grieving what is or what was.  I am grieving what doesn’t exist and what has never existed, except in my own thoughts.”

Her words resonated with me because I was also told as a child, on many occasions, that I could do whatever I wanted to do.  When something didn’t work out, I attributed it to bad luck rather than my own shortcomings or, perhaps, assumed that I hadn’t gone about it in just the right way and just needed to make a small adjustment or two.  I had no concept of how to make realistic career plans based on my particular set of strengths and weaknesses, but instead thought that a career was supposed to be about serendipitously finding something fun to do and getting paid for it.  Needless to say, that approach had its drawbacks.

After a while I learned, chiefly by trial and error, the same thing Rachel did—that I had the most success with work that took place in a quiet environment and emphasized written over spoken communication.  But it never occurred to me that this might mean I had a less privileged status or that it was something to grieve about.  I just saw it as another one of the many discoveries that we make about ourselves and the world as we grow older.

By saying this, I don’t intend any value judgment.  We all frame our experiences in our own individual ways.  I don’t mean to suggest either that Rachel was wrong for grieving the loss of a dream or that I was ignorant for not recognizing a disability issue.  Rather, my point is that both of us had to deal with the effects of an American cultural myth—the idea that we ought to be able to do whatever we want, in the same way as everyone else.  This wasn’t something that existed only in Rachel’s thoughts, or only in mine.  It is a story often told by our society, and it has had a profound impact on many people’s lives.  Indeed, it’s such a common myth that it is often called the American Dream.

I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s a bad thing to have grown up in a society that taught us to follow dreams.  After all, there are plenty of other less appealing ways to view the human experience, along the lines of “life sucks and then you die.”  But I think it’s fair to say that the myth of the American Dream is to some extent childishly optimistic, not just with regard to autistics and to others who may fall into a disability category, but also for our society in general.  Looking at things more objectively, there is no standard way of navigating the world, and hard work doesn’t always guarantee success.

Perhaps some of the angst that our society has been experiencing with regard to autism, disability, and other issues of social integration and opportunity may be part of our collective process of grieving the dream at the archetypal level.  Our culture, like ourselves, is starting to realize that we’re not actually entitled to do whatever we want to do, either as individuals or in relation to our environment.  We can’t cut down trees, fill in wetlands, and pollute the oceans with impunity; we can’t keep on using huge amounts of fossil fuels as we’ve been doing; and we can’t dump our garbage wherever we want.  And like a toddler having to learn the unpleasant but necessary lesson that he or she is not the center of the universe, our society is bound to have the occasional cultural temper tantrum.

It’s just a matter of growing up.

on 10/20/10 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 3 Comments | Read More

Comments (3)


  1. I completely agree with your analysis, Gwen, and it gives me so much food for thought. It’s clear to me that there are only a minority of people who can really do anything they set their minds to; unfortunately, I graduated high school with a number of those people, many of whom have gone on to do whatever they set their minds to!

    Perhaps this is the main reason I left a small Ivy League university after two years and transferred to a much larger public university. I wanted to be amongst people from much wider socio-economic, racial, and ethnic groups precisely because most people who fall into those groups cannot do anything they want—not because they’re incapable, but because of the barriers that the society throws in their (our) way. To me, that was (and is) reality.

    I’ve become much more sensitized to how unlevel the playing field really is since finding myself disabled. It’s not just that American society is set up for typically abled people; it’s set up for people from particular socio-economic, racial, and ethnic groups as well. The fact that there are exceptions to that rule doesn’t change anything. In fact, the exceptions prove the rule. If there were no unwritten rules governing who got to succeed at their dreams, there would be no need for exceptions.

  2. Gwen McKay says:

    Very true… we may not even notice the existence of barriers until we personally run into them, in part because our society has been so busily denying that they exist.

  3. Stephanie says:

    Great post, Gwen. I had a similar approach to you. I looked at what I wanted to do, what I needed, and what I had to work with, and I built or re-built my dream around that. I do grieve being excluded from certain working environments-they just wouldn’t work for me and I don’t regret that. But I have found other ways to pursue my dreams and have the kind of impact I want. It takes work, planning, and awareness of oneself and one’s circumstances, in my experience.

    But that isn’t to say it’s wrong to grieve, either. It can be hard to let go of something you thought you wanted when you find it’s not what you thought it was or requires more than you have to give.

    But there is something beyond that.

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