May you never fulfill all your dreams

[Versión en español aquí.]

Around Christmas, I was reading the book The Secret of Scent, by scientist Luca Turin. It is a beautiful book about his rather controversial theory of smell, and at the beginning I encountered the following passage:

“The only place you will find Fougère Royale today is the Osmothèque in Versailles, the world’s only proper perfume museum. (…) Take the suburban train from Gare Saint-Lazare to Versailles Rive Droite, a twenty-minute ride. Get out of the station, which already feels provincial with its line of waiting Mercedes taxis, their idle drivers chatting to each other, and set off down the interminable Avenue du Parc de Clagny. The entire suburb emits the sadness of fulfilled dreams.

That last (bolded) sentence struck me especially hard. It made me stop reading, and ponder about its meaning. You probably found it as weird as I did when I first read it.

For most of my life, I have tried to excel at everything I do, not for competition’s sake -even though I can be really competitive, it rarely is my motivation to do anything-, but for my own sake. At some points I have struggled with my motivation to do so, or with the point of making an effort when you can already be good enough without trying too much. I have also struggled with avoiding getting caught in the trap that “success” represents.* And I have struggled with the issue of how to cope with the fact that there are certain things in which I seem to be predestined to be hopelessly clueless about (eg. dancing); or with the fact that since the available time is finite, you must actually choose which things are worth it to you, and which things aren’t! The lessons that I have gathered about this connect deeply with this notion of an “inherent sadness” contained in fulfilled dreams.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that I hope you fail at everything or that fulfilling your dreams is not a good thing. But I am saying that fulfilling all of your dreams is actually a very sad thing, because it means that you have run out of dreams.

Dreams aren’t necessarily grandiose. Learning a new language, learning to dance, or learning how to play that instrument you’ve always wanted to play, are all as good dreams as becoming as astronaut is. Learning how to take great pictures. Learning how to draw. Maybe seeing muscles where there’s always been fat. Or having children and being a good parent to them. It doesn’t really matter which dream you want to pick.

Because dreams aren’t about the achievement. They are not about the destination, but about the journey. And they are also about a journey that never ends. About a destination that doesn’t really matter. About our Ithacas. Dreams aren’t something to make us sad if we don’t quite get there. They are something to make us happy while we pursue them. And they are also something to enjoy when we reach them, before we embark on our next expedition. Even the happiest of journeys have plenty of setbacks and obstacles in them -and probably, if they didn’t have them, they wouldn’t be so happy: the exhilarating feeling that we get after surmounting something we didn’t think we could is one of the biggest proofs that we actually need the bad to have the good.

And dreams help us get up in the morning. They keep us going when we’re having a hard time [as Nietzsche put it: ‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.’]. They give us purpose. And they give us a chance to shine, to grow, and to become a better version of ourselves. Perhaps more importantly, they also give us the chance to see all that we have already achieved, and all the things that are suddently no longer beyond our reach. They give us the chance to look at the path we have treaded, and to all the paths that lie ahead. Running out of dreams means that we chose to turn back in our journey. That we chose to set up camp. Or that we chose not to keep walking. And the day we stop walking, is the day we begin dying.

Keep walking. Always.

May you never fulfill all your dreams.

[* “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.” (Victor Frankl)]

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