1. We give what we most want for ourselves to someone else.
I’ve been teaching my whole adult life. Graduate students, college students, high school students, people on retreats, inmates in prison. I love to teach—it is my second favorite thing to do, after writing. I do everything within my power to understand the inner lives of my students and to figure out how to help them learn more effectively. The patient focus I offer my students is something I sometimes long for in my own life, but find it enormously difficult to ask for. When I do, I become embarrassed and confused.”Who, me?” says that voice inside. “Me? I’m fine. I’ll get by.”
2. We tell ourselves that this one thing is going to hurt our marriage.
Ah, the convenient excuse of the husband! By which I do not mean that it’s fine to go do something that you know is going to wreak havoc on your partner’s well-being (say, have an affair with a cute divorced dad at your child’s school). I’m talking about using your marriage as an out. A few years ago, I was feeling depleted in every way. The stresses of parenting, working, keeping it all together had left me with an empty gas tank, and I desperately wanted to get away for a few days to fill up again. A few days. Solo. No husband. No kid. No dogs. No chores. I booked myself into a three-day silent-meditation retreat but nearly canceled as my departure date approached. How would my husband manage? What would he eat? Would he remember our son’s dentist appointment? Would the dogs pee on the rug? Would he hate me for having abandoned him? But then, as my trip loomed, I realized that the anxious, nattering voice in my head was all about me. I was nervous. I was stepping outside my comfort zone. I hadn’t been away alone, except for work, since starting a family. I was terrified of the silence, and of what I might discover within it. I had nearly denied myself something I was craving, without being honest about the reasons why. And I was using my poor husband as my way out. Imagine the misplaced resentment I’d have felt had I not pushed myself into doing what I needed most.
3. We claim we can’t afford it.
And, to be fair, sometimes this is true. We want the vintage convertible, the suede, knee-high Manolo Blahnik boots, the kitchen renovation complete with a pizza oven. (Okay, to be clear, this is my wish list.) And it’s the sensible, adult thing to do to eschew these shiny pleasures in favor of the deeper, infinitely more important contentment that comes from being able to sleep through the night unplagued by credit-card debt. But what about those times when “can’t afford it” is just another way of saying “you don’t deserve this thing you want so badly.” I am not, nor have I ever been, good with money. But I do have friends who are, and I see that they have no problem feeling as if they’re worth the things they long for. A special vacation? They save up for it. A new winter coat? They pin images to their Pinterest boards and work it into their budgets. It seems that affording what we want has at least something to do with believing we have a right to name our desire.
4. We plan to do it—as soon as it’s a less stressful time.
Once our kids are in high school. Or college. Perhaps when we retire. When circumstances are just right. And, so, we defer our dreams, or stockpile them, counting them like sheep as we fall asleep each night. When my mother was terminally ill—at 80, with lung cancer—she turned to me one day. But I was just getting my life together, she said, her voice quavering with regret. After her death, I cleaned out the small office in her apartment and discovered an entire closet piled with empty notebooks, unopened packages of file folders and boxes of pens. She had wanted to be a writer. She had big ideas for projects, stories she always intended to set down on paper. But there was always something she needed to do first. Did she avoid what she wanted out of fear or insecurity? Maybe she was afraid that if she tried, she’d find out that she didn’t have what it took. Paralysis set in. It was safer, it seemed, to dream it than to do it. There was always more time.
5. We put ourselves down.
Oh, the list of ways in which we can make ourselves smaller, and in so doing, ensure that we will not get what we most desire! Maybe we overeat. Or starve ourselves. We succumb to shyness or insecurity. We self-medicate with sugar. Or booze. Or sleeping pills. We choose the wrong romantic partner, one who will clip our wings. We all have ways of sabotaging ourselves. As a young woman, I specialized in entanglements with men who had flashing neon warning signs all around them. One was a narcissist, another was tremendously competitive with me. If I had stayed with any of them—instead of choosing my husband—I would not have become who I am today. I had been so afraid of a dream so deeply held, I couldn’t even have voiced it, the dream of growing into myself.
6. We forget what we want most.
Of all the ways in which we deny what we want most, this one is the most insidious, because losing sight of our dreams means—in some important sense—that we have lost sight of ourselves. Stop reading this very moment. That’s right—close your eyes. Silently ask yourself: What is the heart of the matter? Repeat this question like the medicine it is. What is the heart of the matter? Because the heart of the matter is beating inside you. It hasn’t vanished. But first you have to become aware that it’s gone. Now, go find it once again.