Reaching your dreams is overrated

Give thanks for your awesome blessings but don’t forget the ordinary ones.

Jared J. Oldenburg

I am pretty ordinary. But that doesn’t mean I wanted to be. As a kid I dreamed of changing the world. That is probably not quite how I would have phrased it back then. More likely, I simply wanted to do something awesome.

I am not alone. I am guessing that if you surveyed young boys older than preschool, there would be two popular answers for future occupations: professional gamer or professional athlete.

In the 1980s, the answers would be similar, although it wasn’t so much about the money. Back then, professional athlete salaries were substantial, but not nearly what players earn today. I can still remember news of the first $1 million/year contract—Nolan Ryan, if you are wondering (actually, it still is Nolan Ryan even if you are not wondering).

Thirty years ago, becoming a professional gamer would have been on a number of kid’s lists as well. This was the infancy of the future multi-billion dollar video game business. Arcade games and personal gaming consoles—remember Donkey Kong, Pac-Man and Super Mario Brothers?—took off in the 80s.

However, tucked just behind professional athlete and professional gamer, a whole generation of boys and girls wanted to be astronauts. Maybe it was because of the Cold War or the popularity of Star Wars and other science fiction movies or simply that space is amazing. The 1980s marked a resurgence in our space program. Kids were crazy about space. There were space Legos, the Space Camp program, and countless space-genre movies. What kid, or adult for that matter, didn’t want to be in space?

Such a chance came in 1984 when President Ronald Regan announced the “Teacher in Space Program.” Ten thousand ordinary teachers sent their applications to NASA, hoping to do something extraordinary. One teacher was picked, first-grade teacher Crista McAuliffe. If you didn’t live then, it is hard to imagine what a big deal the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger was.

Christa McAuliffe’s launch was set for January of 1986. The country awaited. Countless school children, including me, watched the specially televised launch during school. I can still see it, a classroom of fourth graders with eyes glued to a tube television on one of those tall metal carts that somehow never tip over. It wasn’t just the kids; an estimated 17 percent of Americans tuned in to watch the launch. And within one hour, 85 percent of Americans had heard the result. That result? A failed O-ring caused what is now known as the Challenger disaster; the spacecraft broke apart 73 seconds into its flight. There were investigations, crying kids, and even a special address from the president.

This article is not really about the fate of Christa McAuliffe. All evidence indicates that Crista was a believer in Christ. She even taught Sunday school at her local parish. But, while I know it is heartbreaking, Crista got a chance to reach her dream. She got a chance to do something awesome.

Reaching your dreams?

For a long time, I thought not reaching your dream was the worst of all fates. Boys and girls around the country dream of changing the world, but in the end, it’s the world that more often than not changes us. We trade in baseball bats for laptops, space suits for khakis, and being awesome for being ordinary.

What is worse than failing to reach your dream? Maybe, reaching it.

I recently went to a book signing for one of the most famous astronauts in history. I brought my son, thinking it would be a memory he could cherish forever. Instead, we listened to the ramblings of a brilliant man that I am 90 percent sure was intoxicated.

This will sound unloving, but I can’t say I was totally surprised. How do you face reality when you have already reached your dream? Imagine being an astronaut. Of all the people in America, you are picked to go to space. You get to look down on earth from 238,900 miles away. You land back on earth, and you are an instant legend. There’s a parade with you waving at the crowd. You are in your 30s, maybe younger, and you have just accomplished the most awesome thing a kid could imagine. Now what do you do? For many astronauts, the days and years that follow their trip to space are sadly laced with emotional difficulties and coping with drugs or alcohol. I am afraid that this man is not alone.

It is not much different for the professional athlete. The average time in the NFL is 40 months. That’s 20-plus years of dreams over in just 3.3 years . . . if you make your dream at all. The post-NFL struggles of athletes are more familiar than the struggles of astronauts.

Sadly, I think I have been pretty quick to judge them. I ask myself, “How can they throw away everything?” or “Why can’t they just deal with it like the rest of us?” My guess? Everyday looks ordinary when you have done something extraordinary.

Finding joy every day

This is not an encouragement to push your dreaming kids or grandkids into ordinary things. Instead, it is an encouragement to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. It is easy to give thanks to God when you are at the birth of your children, you land a great job, or you nail a presentation. But then what do you do? It’s frightening when only the “highlight reel” is worthy of thanks. You may not have gone to space, but you have your own great moments. Give thanks for these. Enjoy the tremendous blessings that God has poured out into your life. Bask in the joy of reaching a dream. But on the way up and the way down, recognize that there is more to life than the highlights.

A tradition in my house growing up on Thanksgiving was to choose one thing for which we could give thanks. The list most often included family, friends, faith, and health. That makes sense, but God calls us to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18), not just once a year or for the highlights. We should give thanks to God for fulfilled dreams but also thank him for the ordinary—the joy of a summer breeze, the delight of your child’s smile, the loving hand of your spouse, the greeting of your dog, eyes to see, a heart to love, beautiful flowers in your garden, water from a font poured on a head, the miracle of a sacrament, and a man who appeared so ordinary that “he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). But that ordinary-looking man brought the extraordinary—forgiveness in his name.

Like you, as a kid I dreamed of doing something awesome. It is true that if your goal in life is awesome, you just might reach it. But along the way, find joy in the ordinary too. With a thankful heart, you reach it every day.

Jared Oldenburg is pastor at Eternal Rock, Castle Rock, Colorado.


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Author: Jared J. Oldenburg
Volume 103, Number 11
Issue: November 2016

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