Finding New Dreams

If following your dream leaves you feeling strung out and broken, then maybe you need a new dream. There’s a world of difference between wanting something very badly and feeling strung out like a crack addict when you don’t have it. There’s also a huge difference between the normal aches and pains of disappointment versus feeling broken inside.

When I read the recent news story of the woman professor who allegedly shot and killed her colleagues at a faculty meeting (as opposed to another setting), I figured that it was motivated by a romantic triangle involving another faculty member. If it turns out the alleged killer was motivated purely by a career setback (not getting tenure), then she’s even more unusual than one would expect. Unlike men, women generally don’t commit violence over career frustrations. Instead, romantic triangles are the typical scenario in which women commit acts of aggression. Most of the female defendants I’ve represented in telephone harassment, criminal damage to property, and battery cases committed these various offenses against other women that they considered romantic rivals for a particular man’s affection.

In general, most of the mental anguish in women’s lives revolves around relationships; dysfunctional or missing relationships. This is true even for normal, healthy women. This is why there’s so much fury and pain during discussions of single parenting and marriage. Especially Black women’s discussions about single parenting and marriage.


Real life is a mixture of both fulfilled and frustrated hopes. Unlike the message of many inspirational materials that pretend that a “yes” for our dreams is always just around the corner if we persevere, the reality is that sometimes “no” really means “no.” Sometimes, “no” really means “never.” Experiences like infertility (whether by a medical condition or by simply aging out of the childbearing years) and crippling accidents can’t be wished away.

Worst of all are those experiences that divide your life into Before and After. Before and After a terrifying medical diagnosis. Before and After being disfigured. Before and After the death of a spouse or child. Those who have strong faith can live in the hope of a miracle. Meanwhile, what do we do with the broken pieces of our dreams?


When I look around, I see three main ways that African-American women cope with heartbreaking, soul-wounding disappointments. I’ll use what typically happens during Black women’s discussions about single parenting and marriage as an example.

The first coping behavior is the “sour grapes” approach where women pretend that their broken dreams aren’t broken. There’s the faction of single mothers who loudly assert that single parenting is as good or substantially the same as married parenting. Then there are the single, never-married, child-free women loudly stating that marriage (and the lack of it in their lives) isn’t such a big deal. I understand the urge to save face that both groups of women feel, but it’s better to remain silent than to speak ideological falsehoods that have done damage to African-American women (“Marriage is overrated. Black women shouldn’t be obsessed with marriage,” and so on.)

The second response to disappointment is to be live in bitterness and resentment. This response comes in two flavors: overt and covert. We know what open bitterness looks and sounds like. This is when the broken shards of failed dreams openly slice and cut into the person who is still trying to hold onto them.
But you need to know that there’s also an undercover, covert style of living in bitterness and resentment. In Black women’s discussions about single parenting and marriage, this covert bitterness is exemplified by a third faction. The third faction consists of those married Black women who get ego boosts from hectoring the first two groups under the guise of being helpful. There’s often “trouble in paradise” with their marriages, and lording it over both categories of single Black women helps them pretend that their marriages are healthy and wholesome (when they’re not).

The last, least common, and most difficult response to disappointment and heartbreak is to calmly acknowledge the frustrations, failures and disappointments in one’s life. To lovingly pick up the broken pieces of failed dreams, put them in a jewelry box, and try to feel thankful for the lessons learned while following them. I believe the “sour grapes” approach is disrespectful of both oneself and the failed dream. The failed dream was a cherished part of one’s life. It was a precious stone. Who knows, maybe it can be refashioned into another piece of jewelry. If used properly, it can be a stepping-stone to a new understanding that propels you forward.

For the discussions mentioned earlier, this final faction would be the rest of us—straight or lesbian; single, partnered or married—who are honest about the behaviors and beliefs that are mistakes. And also honest (at minimum with ourselves) about whatever mistakes we’ve made in our own lives (there are always mistakes—some just aren’t easily visible from the outside), and are trying to move forward.


Let me give a word of warning while I’m mentioning Black women’s conversations about single parenting and marriage. Be careful of what you let into your heart and mind. Keep in mind that folks are often working out their own issues during these sorts of conversations. There are two spirit-wounding extremes that I often see in these conversations.

The first one is what an astute commenter over at What About Our Daughtersnamed BlkSeaGoat referred to as “the destructive art of positive affirmation” during a discussion in response to this post. He explained that this is the normalizing of dysfunction. [Examples include ideas such as, “Single parenting is just as good as having two parents. Marriage is only a piece of paper. I grew up without a father and I turned out just fine,” and so on.] This is as harmful as telling children that it’s okay to go play on the interstate highway.

The second spirit-wounding extreme is to pronounce people irrevocably “dead on arrival” because they’ve experienced mistakes, failure or disappointment in an important aspect of life. So, ignore those people whose underlying message is that you’re “DOA” and your life has no value because:

  • You’re single.
  • You don’t (or can’t) have children.
  • You’re an unwed single parent.
  • Your children’s father abandoned you and your children.
  • You were involved in an abusive relationship.
  • You remained in an abusive relationship for many years.

To acknowledge that you’ve made errors in judgment that have led to heartbreaking disappointments is not the same thing as being DOA. Your life has value. I work with and defend people whose very existence is a plague on humankind. If you’re not that type of individual, then your life has value. There’s still the promise of finding extraordinary fulfillment in life. Sometimes in ways and places that you never expected. That is, if you ignore the people who are pronouncing you dead under the guise of upholding a principle or value. That is, if you properly take care of your wounds, gather up the pieces of earlier broken dreams, and keep moving forward.


It takes discernment to recognize the difference between accepting what genuinely can’t be changed and accepting defeat. There’s a huge difference between accepting that some things are beyond our grasp, as opposed to not reaching for everything that is within our grasp. Here’s a tip: Accepting defeat always involves accepting mediocrity of some sort; usually accepting mediocrity across several dimensions in one’s life. Accepting defeat means not grabbing for the good things that are within our reach. Just because you can’t have one thing doesn’t mean that you can’t have something else that is extraordinary (or even several other things that are extraordinary).


Sometimes hanging on to a failed dream creates a gaping wound in a person’s life that makes it impossible for them to see anything else except what’s missing. This is when it’s time to turn in the old dream that has become a source of agony, and find a new dream. There are the normal aches and pains caused by having a still-appropriate dream (temporarily) frustrated. And then there’s the soul-rending agony of clinging to a broken dream that you need to release. It takes discernment to recognize the difference.

Finding new dreams does not mean settling for lesser, smaller dreams. It means finding different dreams. Sometimes this means significantly restructuring an old dream that has been tempered by experience and reality. [Such as by moving to an entirely new city or country where the odds of success are better.] Sometimes it means finding an entirely new dream. Each woman’s particular dreams and circumstances are different. Real life is a mixture of both fulfilled and frustrated hopes. May we find the wisdom and courage to pass through life’s inevitable disappointments with resilience and faith in the future.


It occurred to me that since this is an extremely difficult subject, it might be best for me to give some clear examples of what I’m talking about when I say “find new dreams.” It means either: (1) to restructure the old dream to accommodate experience and reality. Or (2) to find an entirely new dream.

About the woman professor who allegedly killed some of her colleagues: If this was purely about not getting tenure, then it would have been better for her to find another dream. I’m not familiar with how tenure works, but maybe there were some other ways she could have ultimately achieved the same goal. Maybe she could have done what many aspiring doctors do when they can’t gain admission to any accredited U.S. medical school. Which is to start medical school overseas and then return to the U.S. You’d be surprised at the number of (White American) physicians who quietly began medical school overseas because they couldn’t get admitted here. Some of them gain admission to a U.S. medical school after starting overseas. Some of them graduate from foreign medical schools. Large numbers from both categories then come back to work at respected, U.S. hospitals.

If this strategy doesn’t work in terms of tenure, then maybe she could have found tenure at a respected foreign university. Finally, if it turned out that tenure was not going to be a part of her life (after exhausting all the possibilities), then she should have looked for another means of fulfillment.

About the Black women who are holding out for marriage and family life with an African-American Prince Charming: In most cases, it would be better to turn in that old dream, find a non-Black Prince Charming to marry, and raise children with him. For those women who are infertile while clinging to the dream of a Black Prince Charming, it would be better marry a non-Black Prince Charming and then adopt children with him. This is healthier than giving up altogether on marriage, or dying on Fantasy Island while holding out for “nuthin’ but a Black man.” It’s also healthier than the other extreme of pretending that marriage doesn’t matter (while settling for shacking or being an eternal jump-off).

My point is that people need to examine what their dreams are doing to them. And it’s very difficult to do this in an African-American subculture of magical thinking, that is surrounded by a general “Rocky—gonna fly now” pop culture. If a cherished dream is destroying you, then it’s time to make a change.

February 13, 2010   57 Comments