Dreams and Their Limits


A Million Dreams

Rewrite the Stars



Let’s talk about the dreams. In both “A Million Dreams” and “Rewrite the Stars,” there’s a major theme about the human ability to create our own world. In “A Million Dreams” it looks like this:

‘Cause every night I lie in bed
The brightest colors fill my head
A million dreams are keeping me awake
I think of what the world could be
A vision of the one I see
A million dreams is all it’s gonna take
A million dreams for the world we’re gonna make

In “Rewrite the Stars” it looks like this:

It’s up to you, and it’s up to me
No one can say what we get to be
So why don’t we rewrite the stars?
Maybe the world could be ours

In Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic The Nature and Destiny of Man, he argues that the essence of what sets humans apart, the imago dei in which we are created, is our ability to mentally transcend ourselves and see possibilities beyond our reality. The dreams reflected in both these songs reflect that transcendence, in that we can envision a world that is different from the one we inhabit now. That is one-half of the equation that for Niebuhr explains who we are and how we’ve gotten to this point. The ability to see beyond ourselves runs through all of human progress. Living in the shadow of Walt Disney World, it’s not hard to find examples of where dreams can take you.

But Niebuhr offers this caution. The byproduct of our ability to see beyond ourselves is that we are, perhaps uniquely among creatures, aware of our finitude, both in terms of our mortality and our perspective. We can see other possibilities, but we don’t have perfect vision of all the possibilities or perfect judgment of which possibility is best. That awareness creates anxiety, which both fuels the urgency of our drive to make our dreams real and colors our lives with the desperation of knowing that we will someday run out of time. That anxiety coupled with the limits of our vision act almost as traditional theologians would describe the doctrine of original sin. They are inherent in who we are and drive us to make selfish choices that are bad for us, individually and collectively.

In the almost 80 years since Niebuhr made that argument, technology has continued to push back against the limits of our finitude. Not only are we living longer (and some are arguing we are nearing a point when our rate of medical advances could offer a form or immortality), but we are stretching the limits of what we thought was possible and creating new realities. It is tempting to believe that we are close to transcending limits altogether. Maybe we really can rewrite the stars.

In the Hebrew Bible, the story of the Tower of Babel is what we offer as a warning to those who would imagine that they can rise above our station as created beings and take on he role of the Creator, but a non-canonical contemporary example (from Disney himself) may be more persuasive: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Fantasia. Unintended consequences abound in all of the dreams we pursue; it would be wise to move with some humility in their direction.

That said, there have been some critics of Showman that say it fronts a philosophy of “expressive individualism.” They argue that this approach to life, which has as its highest good the full expression of whatever core identity a person finds in their heart, an expression they should pursue without regard to rules or norms of tradition or culture. (These critics hate Disney movies, btw.) Instead, they argue, you should stick to following the rules until they shape your heart to fit the “model answer”. This business about rewriting stars ignores the rules of astronomy.

This is another case where the culture-war mentality does God a disservice. Matthew Kelly is probably the leading voice on the third way here, although there’s also a theme in Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life that might be helpful. In both cases, the authors make the point that your destiny is found in your core passions, but by recognizing that God gave you those passions you can give yourself the best chance of achieving that destiny.

If you feel a passion for playing guitar, you still won’t be the best guitar player you can be by just continuing to strum out what you feel like playing without any guidance or instruction. The passion inside you is good; by following God’s guidance you can best live it.

You can best pursue your dreams if you are willing to acknowledge their source…and their limits.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: