In Nick Hornby’s novel A Long Way Down, a character named JJ finds himself atop a London high-rise on New Year’s Eve, intending to “fly off that roof like fucking Superman” because his dreams have been, he feels, irreparably smashed. His band has broken up after a few years of tantalizing, middling success that he expected would lead to stardom, and his girlfriend has lammed it along with his hopes and ambitions. He’s an American living alone in London, but there’s no glamorous ex-pat life for him. His version of a moveable feast is delivering pizzas for minimum wage. He’s too broken and heartsick to pick up a guitar and play for fun or money.
JJ seconds Oscar Wilde’s observation that “One’s real life is so often the life that one does not lead,” explaining his rationale for suicide this way:
My real life was full of headlining shows at Wembley and Madison Square Garden and platinum records, and Grammies, and that wasn’t the life I was leading, which is maybe why it felt like I could throw it away. The life I was leading didn’t let me be, I don’t know… be who I thought I was. It didn’t even let me stand up properly. It felt like I’d been walking down a tunnel that was getting narrower and narrower, and darker and darker, and had started to ship water, and I was all hunched up, and there was a wall of rock in front of me and the only tools I had were my fingernails. And maybe everyone feels that way, but that’s no reason to stick with it. Anyway, that New Year’s Eve, I’d gotten sick of it, finally. My fingernails were all worn away, and the tips of my fingers were shredded up. I couldn’t dig any more. With the band gone, the only room I had left for self-expression was in checking out of my unreal life.
The French-derived adjective “manqué,” which comes from the verb manquer (“to miss”) conveys this sense of having failed to live up to a specific ambition. The etymology goes all the way back to the Latin mancus, meaning a maimed hand. So it’s interesting that musician manqué JJ uses the metaphor of digging through a wall with shredded fingers to express his wrung-out despair.
A lot of us, early or late in life, reach this point of having to give up on cherished dreams. Marathon strings of snafus and foul-ups, lots of A’s for effort but no true-blue triumph, years or even decades of misfires and washouts have made cutting our losses and charting a new course seem the better part of wisdom. You might feel that you’re maimed, schlepping your lost self around like a wrecked appendage.
American society encourages ambition and optimism, champions the reach that exceeds the grasp. Such cultural fanning of the fireball personality has no doubt contributed to countless hot-damn, beat-all achievements. But that smiley, thronging rah-rah climate also makes it hard to tell the difference between the self-defeating “quitter” mentality and the maturity to recognize stubborn facts. When your returns diminish to the point that you need a nanometer to measure them, it’s probably time to pack it in.
But man, is that a tough decision. You’ve fed and trained and nurtured and groomed your aspirations for so long and with such passionate single-mindedness and tender devotion that it’s painful as hell to finally admit that that hound won’t hunt.
It’s easy, then, to make the mistake of thinking, as JJ does, that if your dreams are dead then your best bet is to slink after them into Headstone City.
But you can learn what legions of others before you have—that the Boulevard of Broken Dreams is not a dead-end thoroughfare. It’s got plenty of crossings, and though it never merges with Easy Street, you can eventually turn off and watch its jammed and honking sorrows shrink to specks in your rear-view.
Sure, the departure of dreams that lent structure and purpose can make a jumbled, shuddering mess of your life for a while. The fact that you coulda been a contendah and missed that chance somehow might tempt you to think that now you’re just a bum.
But that all-or-nothing calculus, for all its galloping emotional horsepower, is about as useful in guiding your decisions as what comes steaming out of a stallion’s ass.
In her book The Myths of Happiness, researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky devotes a chapter to the psychological fallout of dreams deferred or abandoned. She augments the chapter’s title, “I Can’t be Happy When…I Know I’ll Never Play Shortstop for the Yankees,” with a follow-up list of examples:
- I’ll never be a doctor or an astronaut
- I’ll never sleep with a lingerie model
- I’ll never be first violin or a prima ballerina
- I’ll never live in Italy
- I’ll never have kids
- I’ll never be as rich as Warren Buffett
- I’ll never be a guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show
- I’ll never be thin
This comically broad range of examples suggests what most people acknowledge and plenty of research has supported: that setbacks and reversals and disappointments and self-reproach are universal parts of human life. Lyubomirsky cites a study indicating that ninety percent of us own up to harboring deep regrets. (A future study will show that the other ten percent harbor denial or amnesia.)
Our dream-beggared lost selves tug regrets behind them like a string of rusty cans. Although these busted dreams and sorrows are essential, even meaningful parts of the human condition, some of us refuse to look squarely at such realities unless we’re straitjacketed with our eyes pried open like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. Or unless the suffering caused by resisting reality just becomes too great.
JJ, for instance, finds himself in a walled-up tunnel, but not really for the reasons he thinks at first. It’s not his lack of success, but the way he wet-shirts illusion that’s got him soaked in despair. His dreams were so vivid and addictive, so fueled by high-octane legends about the bliss and glory of stardom, that he mistook them for reality. Positive visualization, carried to such extremes, entails risks. When you try to force your vision onto a world that won’t accommodate it, the recoil can send you wheeling ass-over-elbows into sunless scrapheaps of the soul.
The more we splutter and muscle against what we don’t want to be true but can’t change, the more we suffer. Not only that, but as long as we’re belting out our jeremiads and furiously bucking implacable fate, we’re not scanning the canyon for trails that could lead us to promising new borderlands and boomtowns.
Lyubomirsky compares the responses two friends of hers had to relinquished dreams. Jason, after years of effort and patchy success, gave up on his dream of becoming an Olympic marksman, while Jennifer gave up on being a Broadway actress after a decade of acting classes, auditions and rejections. Jennifer’s despair at her lost actress-self consumed her; she purged all reminders of her thespian life and let bitterness shadow new ways forward.
In A Long Way Down, JJ reacts like Jennifer at first—he stops making music altogether and imagines he’ll never write, sing or play again. No wonder he wants to die.
Jason, on the other hand, “faced head-on his regrets about never becoming an Olympian, conceding and accepting them, and resolving to turn in an entirely different direction by playing golf—becoming a weekend warrior rather than a professional…he pushed himself toward a new goal that honored his passions and strengths, thus opening himself up to a more complex and satisfying future.”
Lyubomirsky connects these anecdotes to the work of psychology professor Laura King, who studies people’s responses to forsaken goals and loss of their “possible selves.” King’s research reveals how maturity and resilience are born of clear-eyed reflection on loss:
Although reflecting on things we could have done, but didn’t, or things that we did, but shouldn’t have, or on awful things that happened to us over which we had no control, makes us feel bad in the present moment, King argues that the capacity to genuinely accept and confront one’s regrets—to reflect on what might have been—can only be accomplished by a mature individual. The intriguing twist is that the process of reflecting on regrets can itself accelerate maturity. Thus, having lost possible selves—lost prospects and lost goals—can be seen as an opportunity to develop and mature into a more complex and ultimately happier human being…
Analysis of hundreds of people’s narratives about their once hoped-for futures—futures that are no longer possible—suggest ways that we can all achieve the optimal state, namely, that of an individual who has come to terms with legitimate losses in his life and whose happiness is grounded in reality. Such a “happy and complex adult,” in King’s words, is humble, courageous and has meaning in his life.
Courage, meaning and happiness based on what’s real—that’s not a bad payoff for the painful work of accepting inevitable loss. Lyubomirsky cautions against excessive rumination, the counterproductive thought loops that snag on negativity and spin us in vicious circles of despair. But if we process loss while skirting such pensive rip tides, we can cast off the millstones of dead dreams and ride spirited new currents. One study Lyubomirsky cites argues that “to be truly unburdened by regrets involves freeing ourselves from those lost possible selves—the neurosurgeon self, the grandparent self, the handsome self, the small business owner self.”
JJ is eventually able to jettison the lost rock-star self that’s been weighing him down like the heaviest metal. And he doesn’t have to kill himself to achieve this liberation. Together with the three people he meets on the high-rise roof that New Year’s Eve—each of whom intended suicide—he goes on grappling with loss and depression. Eventually, once he drops his resistance to what’s real, JJ finds light leaking through fissures and rifts in those tunnel walls, and begins to make his way out.
Pivotal to JJ’s recovery is his recognition that he hasn’t lost what he values most—the ability to make music. His former bandmate and ex-girlfriend pitch in to buy him a new guitar, and he starts busking on the streets of London:
First day out it felt fucking great, because I hadn’t held a guitar in so long, and second day out was pretty good, too, because the rustiness had gone a little, and I could feel stuff coming back, chords and songs and confidence. After that, I guess it felt like busking, and busking felt better than delivering pizzas. And people do put money on the blanket. I got about ten pounds for playing “Losing My Religion” to a whole crowd of Spanish kids outside Madame Tussaud’s…
So JJ had been wrong, almost tragically so, in thinking that the only mode of self-expression left open for him was checking out of his life. I’d wager this is true for all of us who considered suicide when our ambitions tanked. Dreams deferred, denied or forsaken don’t have to sag forever like a heavy load, or splinter your life into meaningless shards.
You haven’t bought a one-way ticket to Palookaville. You’re not some frostbitten castaway bound for the Island of Misfit Toys.
Maybe the seeds you planted didn’t grow into the crop you’d hoped for, but that doesn’t mean you’ll never see any kind of harvest. As long as you’re above ground, the soil’s still rich and loamy. So plant your fields again and till them even when it pains your spirit and strains your spine. Keep turning those furrows through the sweat and sorrow and blood and thunder.
Then keep an eye out for the wheat that springeth green.