My childhood dreams are shattering as I approach adulthood

I used to believe in fantastic things of the imagination; now they all seem to be dead.

Published March 21, 2008 10:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

When I was little (a time I miss) I would sit in the garden talking to stones because I was positive they could hear me. I slept under my bed because I knew there was a quiet man, thin and in a suit, with a bald shiny head and a long shiny knife and a pair of black shiny shoes, who checked for me in my bed every night. I pressed the wart on my dad's thumb because I was sure that every time I did, somebody got a wish granted. I spent hours building tiny homes for fairies: moss for the rugs, curved pieces of bark for the roofs, little chimneys and hearthstones, and beds made of flower petals. When my mom would complain about my dirt-stained shorts and muddy, tangled hair and grungy fingernails, I would explain that I was just doing my job. After all, without me, where would all the fairies sleep? Months later I would come back to look at my beautiful little homes and I would find them full of roly-polies and damp with mold. I was puzzled at first, but it started to sink in. The fairies didn't use my houses. The fairies never existed. And one day my dad came home with a flat pink spot on his thumb. He had had his wart removed.

Later in my life, after all those rituals had faded (sometime in middle school, I think), I became enamored with Peter Pan. I've always had an intense fear of growing up, and Peter Pan was my ticket out. He was the last one of my dreams, but I completely believed in him, completely trusted him and never told any of my friends. I would sit in the basketball court in our backyard and whisper for Peter, in case he was hiding in the bushes. I would hug myself and envision us rising over the treetops, walking cleanly away from everything, never looking back. I wrote "Peter Pan: Enter Here" on a Post-it note and stuck it to my balcony door (always kept unlocked). I realized that he probably couldn't read, so I included a picture of a door opening. I turned 10. Then I turned 11 and 12 and realized that soon it would be too late, that I would be too grown-up for him to take me away, so I desperately started bargaining. I promised I would be better than Wendy, better than any of the Lost Boys, if only he would come for me. He never did. It left me empty and devastated and angry, and I still feel it burning me whenever I remember those times.

I felt foolish and I felt lied to, and, perhaps in response, I started lying. Now I lie uncontrollably, compulsively -- anything is game. I once faked stomach pain so intense I went to the emergency room for five days. Apparently I writhed and sobbed and shook even when I was on so much morphine I couldn't remember anything. I couldn't form coherent sentences, but I could lie. Something feels wrong about that, as if lying is like breathing. The strangest part is that I've never felt genuinely bad about that lie, or any of the lies I've told. I know I should, and there are rational reasons why lying is bad; I just can't take any of them to heart.

It's stupid and petty to call the death of childhood fantasies a betrayal of my trust, but that's what it feels like. All the beautiful things I believed are gone, and now I can't believe anyone or anything. I realized how easy it is to be lied to, how easy it is to lie, and now I've lost both my ability to trust and my own trustworthiness. I'm 18. I'm young, and most of what I feel qualifies as teenage angst, but this seems different. Something feels dead inside of me, and I don't know how to revive it. I don't know if there's anything left to revive.


Dear Anonymous,

Deeply intuitive, highly sensitive people must become accustomed to having their dreams shattered. Those dreams will be shattered night and day, day in and day out; you can almost hear the sound of them shattering; it sounds like the shattering of glass that is part leather; it sounds like the shattering of the sea. In fact the sea is an endless shattering of waves just like our dreams: You hear them crashing all night long. You sense the passionate aspiration of the wave, how it reaches toward the sky before it falls; you know also how long was its gestation, how it formed way out beyond the reach of ships or planes in this or that tempest -- all tempests being more or less the same to a wave. They're just energy. Night after night you hear it, each wave traveling thousands of miles, reaching the shallows, aspiring to a height that in being reached breaches its form, and tumbling over. That's the sound we hear night and day at the ocean: the sound of dreams shattering.

That's what we hear on the street, too, as we go about our business, the sound of dreams shattering on the pavement, collapsing into foam and noise.

What can you do? Well, you can celebrate. You can dance about it. This constant shattering is the universe in motion; everything shatters like the waves of the sea. We all shatter. Everything vibrates, is porous, is temporary; it all moves. Liquids course through us; invisible particles pass through us; chemicals enter us and exit us; we are factories of oxygen and nitrogen and carbon; and, as thinking creatures, we have antennae of the most sensitive kind; we pick up rare signals from unknown transmitters that leave no signature; we divine patterns in the air. We sometimes almost see the whole thing before us. And then it shatters. It all shatters.

Welcome to the shattering world. Welcome. You are young. You are young enough to remember being able to see into the nature of the world easily. Kids can do that. They see right through what we take to be solid. It isn't solid to them. It's more like what it really is, a temporary vibration, a cluster of waves on pause, something shimmering in the air that you can just barely make out. That's what we're living in.

If you give the population certain kinds of tests you find that most people are well suited to ignoring all this, well suited to propping up the illusions that we live with: that what you see actually exists, that we live in a physical world, that laws hold, that you get up in the morning and you do your work and go to bed at night and raise children and that's that. It is not hard to imagine why this might be so; in the long evolution of humanity it was often the case that tribes needed to eat, and those who could kill or farm or cook would be more highly valued than those who claimed to see inside the hearts of trees and artichokes. So most of us are well suited to the workaday world. But not all. Some of us insist on looking inside the invisible heart of creation. We think there's something there. We stand on street corners trying to explain what we know. We go mad. We become rock musicians or mystics, or we go into the woods for solitude, or we seek religion or science. You know, the whole deal with kooks and whatnot. That's us. You and me. Bunch of kooks.

But we must get jobs or we don't eat. We must do well in school. So we must all agree that this illusory world of important work and money and relationships is the real world. We must agree that it is real in order to stay motivated and out of jail. We tacitly conspire like theatrical producers to put on a ridiculous play that has been selling out on Broadway for 10,000 years. Our cultural project requires this unending and often exhausting suspension of disbelief, to shut down what we hear inside our heads and pretend that this is not just a fleeting moment among the stars, that we actually are here on this earth to promote democracy and find a better mouthwash.

And that is the job to which you are being called now. True, it is sad. You are being called to join this army of citizens who toil night and day in support of an illusion. You are being called to renounce what you know and who you are. It is sad, but it is also a rite of passage. And it is just another role in the play.

It's like joining the army. You get up early and put on a uniform and march out there to kill the enemy that you used to love, the world of the "imagination."

The important thing to realize is that everything you are experiencing as a young person making the transition to adulthood is normal. It sounds crazy but it is simply the truth of the matter. When we are young, we see easily what physicists and mystics know only through a lifetime of arduous study: that matter is a vibration, sort of, and that everything is energy, sort of, that invisible worlds exist, and that language can only capture the edges of this eternal and infinite reality.

So let me tell you about my dentist. My dentist says to me the other day, Cary, you are a thinking man, so think about this. My son, he says, is in college up at Davis, and he's home on break and he says, Dad, do you believe God is all powerful? If God is all powerful, can he create a weight that is too heavy for him to pick up?

And I am floating very high on nitrous oxide by this point, so I see it quite clearly. To a human pretending to be a god, that's an insurmountable contradiction. But to a god, it's no problem at all. The problem is language. Our language is not the language of God. Mathematics is the language of God. I feel sure that mathematically such an indeterminate state of being both all powerful and able to create things that defy one's omnipotence is amenable to description -- like you can describe quantum states and stuff like that. I'm no mathematician, but I feel confident it would be no problem if I spoke the language of math. I'm not sure I got it across to my dentist, as I was pretty high on nitrous, but I meant to tell him. So Dr. D, if you're out there, that's my answer.

Here is one more thing and then I will shut up: We know that most of what we intuit is actually real, in the sense that we are constricted more than expanded by our senses, in the Blakean sense: We begin as eternal, capable of infinite knowledge and understanding, and are increasingly bound and blinded by our senses as we live our earthbound lives. So we treat our various arts as illusion, in order to continue with our daily routine. We pretend that the arts, the sciences, the ideas of mystics and saints, that those things are the realm of illusion and unreality when in fact the opposite is true.

This shaking thing bound with baling wire and string, this prison routine of paperwork and punishment, this mechanical bird we operate: This is the illusion. What you saw in the woods, the things you make in your mind, those things are closer to what is real.

But don't tell anybody. Instead, you have to find ways to embody this vision so that everyone can agree it's not actually real. You have to become a maker of films or pottery. You have to put it in something physical so people can say, Ah, what a nice vase! Let's put some flowers in it!

Creative? See pp. 164, 223 and 233.

"Since You Asked," on sale now at Cary Tennis Books: Buy now and get an autographed first edition.

What? You want more advice?

  • Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
  • See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum.
  • Ask for advice or make a comment to Cary Tennis.
  • Send a letter to Salon's editors not for publication.

  • By Cary Tennis

    MORE FROM Cary Tennis

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------

    Since You Asked