On Dreams and Dreaming

There was a time I didn’t dream.

I say “a time”, but in fact, for the majority of my life I did not dream, in either the general or metaphorical sense.

I was a heavy user of marijuana, and a heavy user of caffeine, and that certainly accounts for the poor sleep quality that led to a lack of dreams at night. Once I quit thc, caffeine, stimulants, and other psychoactives, I’ve dreamed every night since.

Dreams of the night are odd. I’ve read that they’re for memory consolidation, for working out issues that the day brings, and for improving skills. I keep dreaming about being a cape, a superpowered human. I’m not sure what to take from this. It’s certainly true that I want to save the world, but it’s not as though I can expect to fly, or fight other capes to do so. Likewise, I am unlikely to be a bender, and manifest fire or throw rocks to that end. I’m not sure what the point of any of this is except to grind ever deeper, “Be a hero. Be a hero. Be a hero.”

The dream (ambitions) sense is a bit harder to explain. Hard to explain isn’t really the correct way to say that, unless I include the sense in which it is difficult for me to type these words, in preparation to putting them out for the world to see; the explanation is quite simple: cowardice. I had no ambitions, because to have ambitions was to invite a great deal of work into my life to achieve them, and to invite the risk of failure. To allow the possibility of putting in the work, and not achieving my dreams regardless.

Certainly, any time we form an ambition, this is a possibility. Some things are limited as to how many people can do them – there can be only one first human on the moon, or Mars. There are only so many slots open on the Lakers. There’s only one President at a time.

Others are talent or other ability limited – there are few blind great painters, few (unacquired) deaf composers, almost no paralyzed jugglers. How many teenagers have acquired a guitar, dreams of being the next Hendrix in their minds, only to learn that their ambition exceeds by far their native talent.

I’ve been thinking a fair amount about this lately, and worrying that I don’t have the talent to achieve my dreams. If you don’t know, I want to do meaningful work on the alignment problem – I want to help making artificial intelligence that wants the same kind of outcomes that humans want, as opposed to filling the universe with paperclips or tiny molecular smiley-faces or orgasmium or something. It’s not easy work, and I’m coming to it at a disadvantage – it’s not like dropping out of college twice puts you in a great place for this. Staring at math books and feeling stupid, I wonder if I’m mad to have taken up this ambition.

There are times I am vexed that the world is in such a state that I feel called to save it. I derive a lot of pain from thinking about the state of things. It’s not that…

As I’ve said, I’m grateful that, if such a time is going to have happened in the universe, I’m here, to do something about it. I think were I born into the Culture I would go through life kind of dissatisfied. I want to matter, I just don’t know if I can get there.

On the whole, regardless of the pain, I’m glad I learned to dream. It hurts not to know if I can measure up, or worse, the days I think I know that I can’t, but the grey times, with no dreams by day or night, I think they were worse. Waiting for time to pass, so that something interesting happened out in the world to hear about, or a new book I could read came, those times were so much less than now, having something to work for, a dream to chase. The pain if I can’t?

Hurts.

But it’s still better than the sucking void of the grey days.

If you’re afraid to have dreams, because of the fear of missing, and plunging into that pain, my advice is to risk it. Put yourself where the pain is a possibility, because to hide from it is so much worse.

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