I dream of living a heroic life but I fear I'm just mediocre

What can I do to realize my fantasies? Do I have any free will at all?

Published April 19, 2007 10:45AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I read "Slaughterhouse-Five" nearly 15 years ago, and I hated it. I hated it because I couldn't deal with the idea that we have no free will.

I've always suspected that my life would be one of great mediocrity, but goddammit, I want to be great at something besides mediocrity. I want my life to mean something. I want to leave this place better than I found it. I want my life to matter. But if I have no free will, then I have no ability to change my mediocre ways.

I have some big fucking dreams, Cary, and they are wonderful dreams. They are dreams where I save innocent lives and build magnificent machines and start wonderful organizations and spread spiritual faith and fuck beautiful women and travel the world and befriend convicted murderers and rescue stray dogs and start overdue revolutions.

But, truth be told, I don't do much to make these dreams happen. And maybe ... maybe I don't have what it takes to change the world. Maybe I'm supposed to be the kind of guy who raises his kids to be good people and builds pinewood derby cars and works at an anonymous job and goes to church and marries a good woman and buys a house on a cul-de-sac and fears convicted murderers and rescues stray dogs and watches the revolution from afar, living vicariously through the revolutionaries while silently screaming, "Viva la Revolución!"

I've got a good woman, and she'd love to marry me. She'll even help me explore my dreams, as long as I promise to come home every night and fall asleep next to her.

Cary, how do I figure out whether my destiny is to change the world or to settle down into an average life? And if it's the answer I think it is, how do I let go of my dreams of saving the world and embrace the realities of Tupperware and Easter bunnies and furniture sets and falling asleep in the arms of a good woman every night for the rest of my life?

Charlie Pilgrim

Dear Charlie Pilgrim,

We find out who we are by what we do. That's all I know.

I was looking for something light. But then I got your letter. Why am I answering your letter? I need to find a nice, lighthearted question: What are better, cats or dogs? What's the best shade of lipstick? Kissing on a first date: Yes or no?

Instead, you have to bring up Dresden. Free will. Vonnegut, bless his soul. Billy Pilgrim. Bach. I've seen Dresden. Even now, you sense the immensity of destruction.

Yikes. Come on. Let's lighten up. We dreamers need a light touch. Otherwise we get into trouble. We get into trouble when the gap between our dreams and our lives is too wide and too deep. We fall in.

Life happens in the particulars. It's the tangible stuff. That's where it happens. Thomas Edison in the workshop: He found a material that worked. He didn't dream it up. He found it in the world and used it well.

Here is one practical thing you can do about your impossibly abstract dilemma (hint: It's not either/or and never was/will be): Pick one dream and go deep with it. You can't do all those things. So pick one and work it. If you can't pick, then rank them first. Rank them in importance and pick the top one. Then get into it in detail. For instance, take the saving-lives one. Where did that come from? Is there saving lives in your history? Did your dad or your grandfather or your mother or grandmother or any friends save lives? Who saves lives? Firemen? Policemen? Coast Guard members? Lifeguards? Did you ever want to be a fireman or policeman, or doctor, or emergency medical technician? What real-world route is there to saving lives today? Is that a feasible thing? Is it something you want? Not the magic part, but the real-world part. Is it doable?

Likewise with the building of magnificent machines. Is the machine part relevant? Do you like machines? What kind of machines do you like? Do you like to invent things? Is there invention in your family, in your background? When you were a kid, did you enjoy reading stories about inventors? If you could build the most magnificent machine that has ever been built, what would it be? Would it be, for instance, a machine that builds beautiful houses in the desert from scratch? Would it be a machine that replaces the body? Would it be a machine, perhaps, that interprets our dreams and turns them into reality? Would it be a machine that detects crime from space and places an impenetrable bubble around the criminal? What kind of a machine would it be?

If there is a particular machine you would build if you could, perhaps the machine is a metaphor for some more concrete desire -- to stop crime, for instance, or build buildings. If not, perhaps your interest in machines is quite literal, and you would find satisfaction working with machines.

So what I'm saying is work with these dreams, sketch them out, follow their implications, trace them back to their sources if you can. It is not an either/or proposition. These dreams are clues to who you are.

And yes, it usually turns out that we are in miniature the dreams we produce. That's OK. We are, most of us, just little people adrift with our dreams.

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