In every life, of course, there is unrealized potential. Soon after birth it is probably at its greatest, for the choices we make inevitably reduce the ones we have at our disposal. That is not to say that new choices, new potentials, do not grow out of the lives we build, day by day. The youth, first able to articulate her dreams, may see the future in terms of what might happen to her to enrich her life. (Itís seldom in her imagination that outside forces might bind or reduce her opportunities.) Eventually, she may come to a measure of confidence about what she might do herself to create the life she wants.
But what has gone before always shapes what will come. That ever-so-slight deformity in a foot bone, created perhaps in the womb, affects the later gait, and the gait affects the eagerness to walk or to runóall, perhaps, outside of consciousness. In more primitive times, it might even affect the chances of survival to the reproductive years, and thus the flow of evolution itself. At least, for the self-motivated person, failures in the past are likely to have an effect upon what he reaches for.
So youth dreams dreams built on what it knows, or thinks it knows. Lucky is the one with courage to imagine immense possibilities. In childhood, a boy may see a movie and decide he wants to be a cowboy, or an astronaut. He may adore his father and want to be a bus driver, just like his dad. For him, what else is there? A lot of things enter into the making of dreamsóand the making of lives.
Once the path is trodden for a way, a great many choices already have been made. The possible future not only looks narrower, it is narrower. We discover our talents and our personal limitations, as well as the conditions in the world that limit our possibilities. It becomes harder to change directions after we have invested years in our present path.
Still, we may harbor dreams from our youth that we have set aside for other, more immediate or more realizable, goals. My father drove buses most of his life because he had to support his young family, and his dream of designing and building houses required more years of low-paying apprenticeship than he could afford. I once passionately wanted to make socially relevant documentary films, but had to fall back on a proven record and practical skills in another field, until the dream gradually faded. Those unfulfilled dreams are a part of us, just as much as are our present abilities. They color our lives. We respond differently to things and people because of them. Whatever it was that inspired them to begin with is never completely replaced by practical reality. These missing pieces may be invisible to those around us, but they can haunt us in our sleep.
Our dreams for the future include, for most of us anyway, a "perfect mate." Itís a rare young person who has never compiled a mental list of desired characteristics of that "one" for whom they search or for whom they wait. The list changes with time and experience, of course. Sometimes someone comes along who seems to fit all the specifications, only to remind us eventually that we have other needs, as well. The list may grow more detailed, or it may, like our other dreams, get pushed into our unconscious, to affect us subtly, coming to the surface at odd times. Perhaps it is fortunate when we sometimes become convinced that this person is "the one," even if he or she does not match precisely the dream mate from our early reveries.
Maturity, of course, is a process of recognizing reality and balancing our desires against whatís possible. A lifetime to a twenty-year-old is almost an eternity. To a sixty-year-old, itís startlingly brief. "The days dwindle down," as the song goes, "to a precious fewóSeptemberóNovember . . ." The amount of time, and therefore of choices, is limited.
Most of us learn to accept that fact, to let go of dreams and concentrate on this moment, this life, this person. The next line in the song is, "And these few precious days, Iíll spend with you/These precious days, Iíll spend with you." Itís not necessarily a giving up, an abandonment of the search, but of simply choosing whatís important now. Regret is too costly of precious time.
And yet. One reads something in a magazine, words eloquent and rich, oozing effortlessly into the mind, and one realizes how much of life has been missed. How much is out there in the world, never tasted, never to be tried. Music one has never sung. Clouds one has never soared among. Poems one has never moved from heart to paper.
I once stood on a cliff overlooking San Francisco and its bay at night. Lights, everywhere, delineating the shoreline and the skyline. I counted seven airplanes, all in a line, homing into the airport on the bay, arrivals just minutes apart, each one filled with people looking out of little windows at the same sparkling metropolis, their insides filling with anticipation. I thought, What I would give to live here, on this mountain, soaking in this vista every night, being part of this wondrous world!
"What might have been" is not a productive thought to dwell upon. I did not make my home on a mountain over San Francisco. I didnít learn to play music. I didnít learn to draft a poem. I didnít learn to fly. I did not give my children what I might have. (I donít even know what of me they hold.) It doesnít matter now. Iím not an edifice, planned and constructed according to some grand design. The missing pieces of what I might have been are not missing, at all. They are still here, stones at the bottom of the stream, swirling the passing water deep down. Unseen at the surface, they have nevertheless shaped the flow of my life, and probably that of other lives, more than any of us know.
Donald Skiff, January 20, 2005