Since writing about what happens when your 20s weren't what you expected, I've heard from many readers whose lives haven't turned out as they imagined. People of all ages echoed the idea that we don’t know how to suffer well, that we have illusions about the way life is supposed to go. Many talked of being unsure how to move forward, how to absorb these losses in a way that honors God.
In that article I talked about the need to grieve our shattered dreams but didn’t have space to talk about what that looks like. The idea of grieving our dreams may sound a bit too touchy-feely, invoking images of a weeping therapy circle. We aren't comfortable with grief, and unless an event falls in the category of “Really Big Tragedy,” we often view grief as un-American, and more concerning, un-Christian. It’s easy to label people who talk openly about their sadness as joyless whiners or frail weaklings. Although it is a delicate dance between godly grief and self-pity, the Bible teaches that grief is part of the human experience (Eccl. 3:4, 2 Cor. 6:10).
So how do we learn to grieve our shattered dreams with hope?
1. Understand our typical responses to loss. Listen for whether any of the following reactions to painful situations sounds familiar. One option is denial, coating any negative situation with a layers of unrealistic optimism or pouring energy into solving other’s problems, avoiding our own issues. The art of distraction is another popular choice, as we maintain a dizzying schedule that ensures we are always in motion, never alone with our thoughts. From hard-core addictions to seemingly innocent pleasures, we love anything that helps us escape from pain. We also love solutions, research, and detailed plans to fix anything but use this feverish work to ignore the effect of difficult events. Some of us love the pool of pain and choose to dive in and swim around until we get pickled in self-pity.
When we honestly acknowledge our knee-jerk reactions, it becomes apparent we need a better way to deal with crushed expectations.
2. Get comfortable with grief. The word grief may seem too intense for what we are experiencing, and I’m not suggesting our summer wardrobe should be black and sackcloth. No doubt there are varying degrees of grief in proportion to each loss. Grieving doesn’t mean we should begin construction on a wailing wall in the backyard if we don’t get the job offer we wanted. But when we face the death of a dream, we should expect a time of grief to follow the loss. Depending on the level of tragedy, this grief may affect the rest of our life.
We also need to get comfortable with the fact that we all grieve differently. What is right for you is not necessarily right for me, and we need to be careful to not require we all do it the same.
3. Adjust our expectations. In the last article, we discussed how many of us had expectations for our 20s that were not rooted in reality, that we believed we were immune from living in a sin-and-death cursed world while we were young. When we understand the effect of the fall, our expectations for life change (John 16:33). It doesn’t mean that we should seek out hardship or expect all of our dreams to fail, but that we shouldn’t be surprised when struggles comes, when relationships and jobs are hard.
We must be careful we don’t air-condition our souls, becoming intolerant to any degree of pain. And we must never forget this earth isn’t our real home (2 Cor. 5:1-9).
4. Acknowledge what is real. If we want to grieve well, then we have to be honest with ourselves and God. Prayer during these times can be the last thing we feel like doing; we are often unsure how to engage with God when hurting. One refreshing thing about Scripture is that we meet people in the middle of questions and pain, giving us words when we have none. These are not people reciting perfect testimonies after they see purpose in their suffering but honest strugglers like us (Psalm 42, 62, Lam. 3, 2 Cor. 12:1-10).
It is mind-blowing to realize that Jesus understands what we are experiencing in this life. When we admit we need help, he meets us in our desperation and gives us all the grace we need (Hebrews 4:14-16).
5. Learn to see hope. When we face the reality of the broken world, it becomes clear that we need help outside ourselves, something more sure to hope in besides our ability to make life go according to our plans. We have to fight every day to see hope in the person of Christ, that he is the solution to our most important problems.
This hope doesn’t eliminate the hard things in life, but it drastically changes our perspective when we believe the promises of God, that one day all that is wrong will be made right, that we will get to dwell with God where there is no more pain or death (1 Peter 1:3-9, 1 Thess. 4:13, Rev. 21:1-4).
6. Include people in the process. We were not designed to live in isolation. We need people to walk with us through shattered dreams. I’m not suggesting we rent loudspeakers and broadcast our problems, but that at least a few trusted friends should know the messy details of our lives. During one of my hardest seasons, a friend asked me, “What could God be doing in this?” And then he helped me brainstorm possibilities when I stared at him blankly. It was such a simple question, but it reminded me again that one of God’s greatest gifts is people to weep when we weep, to encourage us when we feel like quitting, to help us see hope when we only see despair (Romans 12:15, 1 Thess. 5:14, Heb. 10:24).
I pray that what I've written doesn’t feel like a to-do list, as if six steps and a thousand words will efficiently clean up the mess of shattered dreams. Rather, I pray that God may use these reflections as a beginning, a reminder of hope, and a glimmer that there is life after crushed expectations.
Here are some recommended resources for further reading: