Have you ever seen a hamster in a Habitrail cage? When I was a boy, I had a buddy who owned two hamsters. They lived in Habitrail cages, which are plastic containers with connecting tubes and exercise wheels.
During the day, the hamsters slept a lot and occasionally ate. At night, they scurried through their tubes and ran forever on their exercise wheels. The hamsters had their routines, but it all looked mindless to me.
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People are a lot like hamsters. We spend a good deal of our lives sleeping, eating and then scurrying off to work. We labor forever on our career treadmills.
It can seem pretty mindless, just like those hamsters on their exercise wheels. Over time, a lot of folks lose their sense of purpose and meaning.
They succumb to the vast torrent of daily meetings, deadlines, tasks and soul-crushing mediocrity. They give up.
Booze, drugs and sex might fill the void for some, but the escape is temporary. Soon, Monday morning arrives and everyone gets back on their treadmills.
Mortgages have to be paid. The kids need braces. Decisions for matters small and large seem endless.
So we soldier on. Working, raising our kids, trying to eat right and exercise more. But deep down, we sense something long forgotten in our hearts.
The significance of living
My father used to have a short meditation by Howard Thurman framed on his office wall. As a boy, I had no idea who Howard Thurman was. We didn’t have the internet back then.
Today, if you look up Howard Thurman on Wikipedia, you’ll learn that he:
“…was an influential African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader. As a prominent religious figure, he played a leading role in many social justice movements and organizations of the twentieth century. Thurman’s theology of radical nonviolence influenced and shaped a generation of civil rights activists, and he was a key mentor to leaders within the movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Fast forward a lifetime. My father passed on, and many of his office items were boxed up in storage. For years they hibernated in a dark cabinet in my mother’s garage.
Then one day, when age and Parkinson’s disease coaxed my mother into an assisted living community, I set about helping her move. In the process of downsizing, I rediscovered Dad’s office items in the garage.
There, amongst some diplomas and dusty books, I found the framed meditation by Howard Thurman. I’d read it a few times as a boy but was too young to appreciate its meaning.
I held it up to the light in the garage and read the entire document. Its wisdom immediately struck me. I was old enough now to appreciate it.
I’d been working for several years, and was raising a boy. I knew something of responsibility, money woes and career fatigue. I experienced sacrifices and delayed plans.
I guess I felt a bit like those hamsters. Working, going through the motions, but not feeling comletely alive. I wasn’t doing all the things I thought I’d be doing.
I loved my family and was thankful to have a good job. But a part of me felt like my life was unremarkable. Insignificant. Just another cog in the wheel of humanity.
Maybe you’ve felt this way before? Perhaps even now? So what do we do, when our spirits deflate and the responsibilities of life blur the significance of living?
The quiet persistence in the heart
We all want to matter. We want to know that our work and pursuits in life have purpose. Meaning. Significance.
For some, there is no struggle. They find deep fulfillment in their work and families. But for many, their hearts are heavy. Maybe they hate their jobs, or feel stuck in life.
How do we regain our significance for living? How do we recover that passion in our heart?
I’m not talking about the dreams of slumber, although sometimes they will offer clues. Rather, I’m suggesting you spend some serious time remembering, or discovering your dreams.
“Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard.” — Anne Sexton
Listen hard to your soul. What dreams are lurking deep inside, longing to be revived? Or discovered for the first time?
Let’s return to that Howard Thurman meditation my Dad framed in his office. It was titled, “Keep Alive the Dream in the Heart.” Here are a few excerpts:
“As long as a man has a dream in his heart, he cannot lose the significance of living.”
“Men cannot continue long to live if the dream in the heart has perished. It is then that they stop hoping, stop looking, and the last embers of their anticipations fade away.”
Dreams are immensely important in our lives. They don’t have to be “some great and overwhelming plan,” according to Thurman. We don’t have to change the world. But we do have to satisfy our hearts. As Thurman wrote:
“The dream is the quiet persistence in the heart that enables a man to ride out the storms of his churning experiences. It is the exciting whisper moving through the aisles of his spirit answering the monotony of limitless days of dull routine. It is the ever-recurring melody in the midst of the broken harmony and harsh discords of human conflict. It is the touch of significance which highlights the ordinary experience, the common event.”
What are your “touches of significance?” Those fulfilling pieces of the dream you have. My cartooning and painting were the “touches of significance” that kept me going during some difficult career years.
Despite a successful, twenty-six year career in law enforcement, my dream was to become a full-time artist and writer. Except, I knew it would be unfair to my family to walk away from the salary and benefits my police career provided.
So, I kept my creative dream alive by side-hustling. Evenings, early mornings and weekends allowed time to write, cartoon and paint. I kept the dream alive. I carved out time for my art, and it sustained me.
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” — Howard Thurman
I worked hard but planned carefully. Eventually, I reached a point where I could afford to retire a few years early and become a full-time writer and artist.
I held on to my dreams, and they held on to me.
A reader recently emailed me and shared the “uncomplicated joy” he felt watching his sons play soccer. He may not be a famous artist, but he’s discovering an important truth:
The joy of creative expression is its own reward.
Having dreams are vital in our lives, but they need not be dreams of fame and fortune. In fact, during my law enforcement years, just dreaming of my landscape painting was enough to fulfill me.
I used to dream about my creative growth. Along the way, I’d take painting workshops and practice whenever time allowed. Breakthroughs were thrilling and gave me such a sense of significance and accomplishment.
Becoming a famous artist wasn’t my dream so much as becoming an accomplished artist. I’m still learning and growing, but the dream sustains me.
Finding the uncomplicated joy in your dream is a good start. Maybe you want to become a famous recording artist? Or a movie star?
Nothing wrong with dreaming big. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find significance and uncomplicated joy in smaller achievements. It might be a great performance at an open mic night, or a local play you performed in.
Castles in the air
Every life is significant. Every life matters. A child cares not if her mother is rich and famous. She loves her mother as she is. The little boy may idolize Spiderman, but he loves his father more.
Sometimes, we don’t give ourselves a break. We get down on ourselves and feel small and insignificant. We see magazines with beautiful people. We don’t look like them, so we think we don’t matter.
Often, our culture gets it wrong and celebrates the superficial. Beauty, money, and fame. These things are not inherently bad but dig a little deeper. Maturity and wisdom will show you more important attributes. Like kindness, charity and love.
There’s a splendid Tim McGraw song titled “Beautiful people.” It celebrates the beauty of ordinary people living significant lives. Like one guy in the song named Carl, who visits sick kids on Christmas, dressed as Santa Claus.
Carl may not be rich. In fact, he’s missing a front tooth. But the sick kids don’t mind that one bit. Because he’s taking the time to be Santa Claus for them. He’s giving of his time to enrich the lives of others. Now that’s beautiful.
You knew how to dream when you were a kid. Remember? Heck, I dreamed of becoming a professional tennis player like my idol, Jimmy Connors. I didn’t become a tennis pro, but I did win tournaments and found great significance and personal joy in my tennis years.
What’s long forgotten in your heart? What dream is buried within you? If none come to mind, then take Anne Sexton’s advice. Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard.
It matters not your position in life. All that matters is that you have a dream. That special something that quickens your heart and warms your spirit.
Because a dream is always there with you, inspiring you to grow. To remind you that you’re significant. You matter.
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” — Henry David Thoreau
Keep dreaming. Build those “castles in the air” so you can keep an eye on them. Start crafting a life around those dreams. Carve out a little extra time in the mornings, evenings and weekends. Make it happen. You can do it.
My Dad had dreams. Some of them came true. Others did not. Clearly, Howard Thurman’s wisdom was important to my father. It became important to me. Hopefully, it will become important to you, too. Good luck!
“As long as a man has a dream in his heart, he cannot lose the significance of living.” — Howard Thurman
Before you go
I’m John P. Weiss, fine artist and writer. Get on my free email list here to receive the latest artwork and writing.
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