Post 23

Looking Forward to It:
Reflections on Anticipation, Ambition and the Big Dream

It’s so natural for us to look ahead into the future, seeking happiness just beyond the horizon.  I came across this:

The Beatitudes are a map of the route to human happiness, and one reason they are such a good one is that they express the dual desire that God has written on the human heart – to attain true happiness on earth and eternal bliss.

Navarre Bible, Commentary on Matt. 5:1-12

The essential teachings of Christianity aren’t given to us in order for us to have a miserable life on earth followed by a sublime afterlife.  No – they show us the (counter-intuitive) method of how to be happy both on earth and in the life beyond.  The quotation says that it’s God who has “written on the human heart” the desire to be happy, both on earth and after death.  God therefore gives us the tools to attain abiding happiness in our everyday lives.

Lately I’ve been thinking about this human inclination to look forward – indeed, if you don’t look forward to anything, it can be a sign of depression or other dysfunction – and specifically to the differences between anticipation, ambition and dreams.

Anticipation is when you look ahead to something you’re pretty sure that you’re going to get.  You might not know exactly how it’s going to play out, but you figure it’s going to happen, and you’re going to like it.  From a spiritual point of view, there’s nothing wrong with anticipation, as Fr. Jacques Phillipe writes, provided that you can still accept the graces of today:

Sometimes, though, it isn’t worry that causes us to focus on the future, but the hope of something better or happier.  It may be a very specific event, like a reunion with someone we love or coming home after a long, tiring journey.  Or it may be less well-defined: the time when things will go better, circumstances will change, life will be more interesting.  At present, we tell ourselves, we don’t really have a life, but later we will ‘live life to the full.’  There is nothing wrong with that, but it does contain a certain danger.  We may spend our whole lives waiting to live.  Thus we risk not fully accepting the reality of our present lives.  Yet, what guarantee is there that we won’t be disappointed when the long-awaited time arrives?  Meanwhile, we don’t put our hearts sufficiently into today, and so miss graces we should be receiving.  Let us live each moment to the full, not worrying about whether time is going quickly or slowly but welcoming everything given us moment by moment.

Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom, Chapter 2

Then there are ambitions.

An ambition is further down that continuum of likelihood.  Unlike the objects of anticipation, the passing of time does not guarantee that you’ll fulfill your ambition.  Nevertheless, ambitions are, for the most part, attainable and rather concrete.  Here, the attainment of our goal seems to depend very much on how we play our cards and there’s a strong sense of ‘earning’ when it comes to our ambitions.  Do x, y and z with the right amount of effort and in the right amount of time and you stand a good chance of getting what you want.  St. Josemaria Escriva encourages us to have a healthy dose of ambition, and he’s not speaking only of ambition for heaven.

He emphasizes that we gain credibility by our reputation for good work in our field.  He says we are supposed to do natural things, like work, with a supernatural motive.  It’s part of being a good Christian: you have to put your heart into what you do.  St. Josemaria even laments those who view themselves as holy while doing shoddy work.

And then there are dreams.

A dream is a mixture of the attainable and unattainable.  It’s a dream because it’s out of reach for you right now in some significant way.  You lack the necessary mix of circumstances to get what you want.  Waiting, in and of itself, won’t bring about your dream, and there’s a lot less that you can control to make it happen.  The notion of ‘earning’ isn’t as strong, because so much of it is not within your power.  It’s more like a prayer answered, a wish granted.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a young man who made his living as a rickshaw driver.  He pedalled tourists around using an electrically-powered bicycle.   He said, “Sleep is death,” – obviously an ambitious fellow.  But I was curious – with that amount of drive, he must be heading somewhere.  So I asked him what his life’s dream was (first time I asked a stranger that).

Chesterton says we tell the most important things to the complete stranger, since in them we see unadulterated Man.

The rickshaw driver told me that his dream was to design a certain type of app, which he would then market.

You usually would never guess what a person’s dreams are because their current line of work gives you no hint.  I can think of several instances in just the last little while, where people have mentioned – without my asking – what their dream jobs would be, or would have been: the dental hygienist told me she had dreamed of being a forensic scientist, the lawn care worker told me he would like to support himself as an actor, and my friend told me that her engineer husband always wanted to be an artist.  (Probably the most popular hidden dreams relate to the less ‘practical’ pursuits.)

I was surprised that St. Josemaria Escriva commented about the big dream, about the kind of forward-looking which gropes for the unattainable.  But why not?  Dreams are an important part of the human condition. We aren’t dogs on a couch who think only of our next meal – we so easily begin to think of more; we yearn.  Even the ‘couch potato,’ outwardly idle, has his idea of the dream career – he watches sports imagining himself as one of the athletes, or at least as the commentator.

Anyway, it was this quotation that stopped me in my tracks:

Persevere in the exact fulfillment of the obligations of the moment.  That work – humble, monotonous, small – is prayer expressed in action that prepares you to receive the grace of the other work – great and wide and deep – of which you dream.

The Way, no. 825

I find this fascinating.  Does it suggest, counter-intuitively, that the faithfulness of the rickshaw driver to his bicycling duties will ready him for making and marketing his app?  Indeed, it says that the critical preparation for “the other work” can be accomplished in the context of something which appears utterly at odds with it.

If so, then achieving our dreams isn’t as dependent on all those factors that we first think of, and which we can’t control – our present circumstances and all those external things like knowing the right people and being in the right place at the right time. Instead, it’s more like a mysterious underground seed, waiting for certain conditions.

St. Josemaria Escriva is saying that fulfilling our dream depends on what is internal and invisible.  We need to make ourselves ready, by continuing in our duties of the moment with the right motives.  And this behaviour will, according to this quotation, have two effects: first, it will change us inwardly to make us better suited for our dream work, and second, it will act as a prayer, a request for the grace of “the other work – great and wide and deep – of which you dream.”

And I see that this has the passive elements of anticipation, where you must wait patiently, but also the active elements of ambition, where you must work with diligence and precision.   Ultimately, though, it’s still a gift, a grace.