Wide, inquisitive eyes absorb that earnest message they see on brightly colored posters that line the walls of the typical elementary school: “Reach for the moon — even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” “You can be anything you set your mind to.” “Don’t let anything get in the way of your dreams.”
Lies, apparently. All lies.
There’s nothing like an election cycle to shake the gold dust and glitter off of life. It’s like watching a child draw their first picture. She proudly picks up the blue crayon to draw a dinosaur — perhaps a T-Rex. “Don’t draw that dinosaur and why in the world are you using the blue crayon! That’s not realistic!” as you wag your finger in the child’s bewildered face.
And therein lies the beginning of the box — the box that will forever restrict that little girl’s future — unless she is coaxed to freedom; or by sheer will, breaks out of the box to pursue her true potential.
It’s ironic that the American Dream started as a vision of 13 colonies that imagined a life free from the oppression of the British Empire. The beginning of the end of the Transatlantic Slave Trade began with a vision that slaves had — they imagined a life where they were free — the way life was intended. Their present shackles did not prevent them from dreaming of freedom. Those dreams fueled the resistance that eventually shattered the inhumane practice. Imagine if those slaves were more concerned with being ‘realistic,’ instead of seeing beyond reality to break free.
Human beings are able to fly because some hapless soul dreamed he could fly like the birds of the air. A Black man sits in the White House in part because he did not accept the reality that being raised by a single-mother disqualified him from dreaming of a life bigger than what was offered on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The boundaries of ‘reality’ are set according to our ability to imagine beyond what we see, feel and believe about our present life and our present world. In other words, “reality” isn’t an actual thing. It’s a shapeshifter — ever changing by force of the power of our imagination and the willingness to tangibly act on that imagination. Put differently, your imagination is actually the blueprint for your reality. All that’s left to decide is the kind of work you put into building from that blueprint.
That being the case, being ‘realistic’ is, quite frankly, overrated. ‘Realistic’ in the realm of politics and policy often serves as the mask for sheer laziness — used to justify the unwillingness to fight for what one truly wants and to settle instead. It doesn’t take much work to go along with the status quo — and often, it’s a lot more comfortable than daring to do, and to be, more. In the political realm, being ‘realistic’ has all too often signified a desire — not to do the right thing — but to take the path of least resistance. ‘Realism’ sometimes serves as the mask for fear, whether fear of the challenge, fear of the responsibility of independent thinking and action, or fear of the unknown.
The fearful are draped with the cloak of cowardice, but call it ‘being realistic’ — stifling the creative power of vision that stirs hope and drives change. Realism has no transformative power. Instead, realism becomes the excuse for maintaining the status quo. And realism, all too often, breeds mediocrity, for individuals and societies as a whole.
We don’t change deeply entrenched societal systems without invoking the imagination of the dreamers. It’s the vision that creates the impetus to make that dream a reality — whether it’s a single-payer health care system, affordable college, a criminal justice system based on actual justice or a society where flesh and blood people have more power than soulless corporations.
There’s nothing sadder in life than knowing your heart’s desire, but settling for something less because someone told you that the less was more ‘realistic.’ Anyone who’s ever overcome a challenge in life knows the exhilaration, the sheer joy, in the daring; that the daring is as important as the outcome, if not more so. Truth is, we don’t know how things will turn out, but the journey reveals the richness of life and the opportunities for growth and change.
I knew that tackling an Iron Man soon after I learned how to swim was ‘unrealistic.’ But that didn’t stop me from swimming mile after mile every morning to train for it. And when I, gripped by last minute jitters, still plunged into the river that unforgettable morning, a guardian angel, a woman I didn’t even know, swam next to me the whole way.
By the time I emerged from the water, I knew I was going to finish the race. Overcoming that challenge, with a little unexpected help along the way (some call it Providence) only positioned me to tackle even greater challenges. And so it is with life.
The activation of our imagination is the catalyst to unlocking our potential as human beings. It is the beginning of our creative power and the single-most powerful tool that pushes us beyond the limits of the circumstances of our birth. And yet, far too often, the word “realistic” is cavalierly tossed around with a hint of self-serving arrogance as though there’s virtue to be found in trampling on the power of our own creative potential.
At a time when we should be pushing for transformative change at all levels in our city, state and country, so many have used the yardstick of ‘realism’ to measure which candidates they choose to support.
Yet, no one who has ever done anything of note in history did it by being ‘realistic.’ Indeed, it’s always been our ability to stretch beyond the realm of reality — whether inventors, activists, artists, etc. — that has facilitated the transformative in history and has driven us to create something new, something different from what we currently have and what we currently see.
That people could be so uninspired, so bound by the status quo, so accustomed to low expectations out of life, out of this country and out of its political system, saddens me. They’ve accepted that the American Dream was really an illusion and, under the guise of being ‘realistic,’ have stopped fighting for the dream altogether.
The antidote is to imagine again the quotes on those colorful posters we saw in school hallways throughout our childhood; and not just to recreate the images of those words in our minds, but to actually believe them.