For most of her life, Lillian had a dream to live and work in New York City — it’s how she pictured her life since high school. When she finally arrived, she discovered that one of her longest-held desires was changing. NYC had played such a big role in how Lillian thought of herself — what would it mean for her to let that dream go?
One of the weirdest things about reaching your 20s is accepting that some doors in your life have closed and that you’re nothing your 13-year-old self thought you would be.
“Who do you want to be when you grow up?” adults would ask us. “I don’t know, maybe I’ll be an Olympic athlete or a rockstar,” we’d reply casually. When you’re a kid, picking a dream is like scanning through the menu at a diner. “Will I choose the shrimp florentine or the french toast?” “Will I be a brain surgeon or a Rockette?” The options are limitless — the only constraint is our whimsy.
My dream was always living in New York City. When I was 13, I bought a map of the city and taped it onto my wall. Five years later, I did the same thing in my college dorm in Florida. Four years after that, I arrived in NYC and proudly taped the map to my wall. Three months ago, I took the map off my wall, threw it in the trash, and moved out of New York.
Just like that, after more than 15 years of pining away for the Big Apple, I was done. As the bus departed from the city in a cloud of grey exhaust, I looked out the window — a greasy, half-face smudge left behind by a previous sleeping commuter obscured my view. But through the dirt and grease, green fields were approaching. In a rush of overwhelming emotion, all I could think was, “I don’t want to go back.”
For weeks I expected my longing for NYC to return. I kept checking within myself the same way you repeatedly check the fridge for food, aimlessly opening the door and expecting food to appear. But it never came back.
We all expect failure to be the worst-case scenario when it comes to lost dreams — but what about when you simply don’t want your dream anymore? It’s a strange moment when you reach adulthood and realize you’re done with a big part of your identity. For my whole life, I always knew what the next step was going to be and suddenly, I had no clue. In a culture that defines a person’s success by the dreams they pursue and achieve, desiring a different path can be wrought with shame and a feeling of purposelessness.
But the loss of a dream forced me to ask one of the most important questions in life: “Who am I, really?” Soon, I realized that anything I can lose can’t possibly ground my identity and self-worth. When something as fickle as a dream can come and go, where can I find a firm foundation? Eventually, I came to the conclusion that my identity and purpose was only safe if I built it on the one thing that is forever unchanging: God.
Of course, God gives us many dreams and passions. But I realized I was pursuing the dream itself, instead of God. Every night I lay in bed asking myself, “What do I want for my life?” instead of, “What does God want for my life?” Strangely enough, the death of my NYC dream was a time of rebirth. It gave me a clean slate to finally ask myself, “What is important in life and how do I live it out?”
As I let go of the old dream, I found myself desiring new dreams that aligned with my shift in priorities. Instead of pining away for a fast-paced, fashion-forward lifestyle in NYC, I began setting my sights on investing in community in a smaller city. Instead of writing for personal glory, I began writing to provide helpful, relatable insights for others.
It’s scary to reach your 20s and experience a drastic shift in goals, to essentially trust-fall into God’s hands. And yet, it has proven to be one of the most exciting times in my life. The loss of my dream was a blessing that actually saved me from pursuing a path of unfulfillment.
We all think we know what’s best for us and that our master plan will ensure the greatest joy, but we have too many blind spots. We can’t see what’s beyond the horizon; our desires are always shifting; we don’t know what challenges we need to face to become the people we were created to be (and we certainly wouldn’t choose them if we did).
I’ve learned that when I build my life on the foundation of being loved by God — when that reality is the most important one in my life — then other things fall into place. I lost the dreams I had, but that loss has allowed me to be led by God to new dreams. And to something deeper than happiness: joy.
We all face the fundamental quest to define our identity. I decided to place my trust in God. And I’m finding God to be faithful.