A powerful and haunting piece of sculpture by Michelangelo is entitled: The Awakening Slave. It shows a body struggling to emerge from stone, to pull itself free. Part of the body is already clearly formed, the rest is still inchoate, hidden and imprisoned in stone. Few images capture as much the feeling of what it means to be human! Born as infants, we are helpless, with little self-consciousness, dependent, unable to speak, unable to really know ourselves and others, bound by countless limitations. In the moment of birth we partly emerge from the stone. The rest of our life is a struggle to be born further, to pull ourselves further free. But, very early, we sense that it is hard. We are so limited, in our intelligence, in our energy, in our psyches, in our emotions, in our moral abilities, in our relationships, and in our physical make-up. We push too hard and something breaks! There is only one place where we do not sense our limits, only one place where we can fly, free of stone…in our dreams.
In the kind of dreams that we dream in our ideals (not the kind we dream at night) we can truly dance, fly, love perfectly, be totally beyond our own and others’ limits. There are no limitations of energy, love, relationships or emotion in our dreams. There we can pull ourselves completely free from the stone and, then, turn around and look at our actual imprisonment. Unfortunately too many of us no longer dream. Dreaming is out of fashion. Realism, cynicism and despair are in vogue. To dream today is to be laughed at, ridiculed, to be regarded as naïve, childish and, ultimately, as pitiable. We see this, for example, in the common reaction to anything that is idealistic, romantic, virginal or contains the type of things we used to write poetry about. Nobody seems to be challenged be these things anymore to dream dreams, to push themselves into deeper and more special realms. Mostly these things are met with cynicism and disbelief, coupled with the urge to debunk and with the pitying condescension that we save for the especially naive. Kid’s stuff!
I am saddened by this critique. I have seen hopelessness, the lack of dreams, in 80-year-olds, in bad health, shunted off, unwanted, to die in auxiliary homes because nobody wants them any longer. It is justifiably hard for them to dream! But when I see, basically, the same hopelessness in gifted, beautiful, richly endowed young people with every practical reason in the world to be dreaming great dreams, I can only be saddened. Despair…and so young. Why? We’ve stopped dreaming. We have gotten sucked in by an un-virginal cynicism of an age that confuses despair with realism. We have stopped struggling and, bottom line; we have despaired that we can ever have a profound relationship, a real romance, genuine community, aesthetic love or full sexuality. Velief in them is like belief in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. That’s for kids! We have settled for what we can have, second best, and are cynical about any more idealistic realities. Those of us who are married are no longer trying to attain the optimum with our partner. We have settled for some less-demanding second best, or are looking elsewhere. Those of us who are celibate are no longer trying, with all the incredible tension this involves, to love genuinely, yet celibately. Our cynicism has declared that the ideal is impossible and so we become either a sterile old bachelor or maid, or we live a double standard.
All cynicism is despair, pure and simple. All refusal to dream dreams of something beyond is a giving up, a resignation to mediocrity, a self-imposed condemnation to remain partly unborn, in prison. Despair is simply the defeat of our dreams of greatness. Few things mire us as deeply in the stone as does our refusal to believe in the ideal. “There is only one real sin,” Doris Lessing once remarked, “and that is calling second best by anything other than what it really is, second best!” Moreover it is important that we do not just dream alone. Dreams need to be shared. What we dream alone remains a dream, what we dream with others becomes a reality! Pain and imprisonment result because people have no one to dream with. No person can cut themselves free of the stone by themselves. We achieve nothing truly in isolation. We need to dream and to share those dreams: Build dream castles in our minds, ideal loves and communities in our hearts. We cannot get fully out of the stone in fact, but we can in desire, in our dreams. They are the chisel which we can use to slowly cut away the stone and enable ourselves to emerge to further birth. Everything can be overcome if we dream. Through dreams we see the end of our exile.
Does all this sound like the ravings of an unrealistic dreamer? The naive daydreams and the wishful thinking of a young man out of touch with reality? The rantings of someone with delusions of grandeur? Perhaps! They are the dreams of a young man, a very idealistic one in fact. And, yes, he has delusions of grandeur! But they aren’t my dreams. You can read about them in the 17th chapter of John’s Gospel.