The Darwinian fate of Dreams, redux

My blog just blew up yesterday as someone shared an essay written some 4 years ago. Thanks whoever you are! Its a good essay about the precarious lives creative people have, written after my worst ever sale. I encourage you to read it if you haven’t. You can find it at:

In response to the many comments I received after I first posted this I had to think through what it means to follow one’s dreams. What are dreams and why should we follow them? Some commenters felt that dreaming gets us into trouble, and that its more important to be practical minded and sober than wishfully intoxicated. Some dreams are not fit for this world and need to be killed before too much time is wasted on them. But is that right?

Here is what I said:

Dreaming, like any other ability or talent, needs nurturing and training. And sometimes we have to give up one dream to pursue another. So even failed dreams can be the compost for new dreams to find nourishment. And sometimes the plant is made healthier by cutting away dead or failing branches. And sometimes it just takes too much water to sustain a plant that was damaged from birth, and never will survive. Sometimes its best to cut life support. Sometimes a dream is just not fit for our world….

But then sometimes its also important to let a dream have its day in the sun despite all that. Sometimes its important to feed that dream despite knowing that it won’t go anywhere. Sometimes the point of a dream isn’t how much it leads us into the future, but what it is right here and right now. Sometimes a dream needs to be respected just for having been dreamed. “This is MY soul speaking” says the artist. And who is right to tell her that the dream she is dreaming is wrong?

If the world is not set up to support that dream is there something necessarily wrong with the dream? Maybe instead there is something wrong with the world that does not support it. Isn’t the point of dreams that they are not the world? That they are something different? Something new? Aren’t dreams born into this world as a sometimes violent tear in the fabric of reality? By their very nature, dreams are not of this world. So how can the world’s support ever be a measure of the ‘fitness’ of the dream?

But we can also make the world more like our dream. Isn’t the point of dreams that we can sometimes follow them and change the world? That we CAN make it different? Isn’t following a dream this magical opportunity to imagine something different? And if it is simply being measured against the status quo, what dream would ever pass muster? Don’t dreams succeed precisely because they DO change things? That the world now IS a different place?

Isn’t it also right to dream the seemingly impossible? To challenge ourselves beyond our known limits? To find new limits in previously undiscovered territory? Don’t we have to deny playing it safe just to have these dreams? Is that wrong? Are only the easy births worth supporting?

If we make it a Darwinian scenario aren’t we just saying that only the easy dreams get to survive? That its the luck of the draw that there are are doctors and a support team to gentle the newborn infant into its swaddling clothes? And that dreams born into a war zone, or born into poverty, are just out of luck? That they are right to die off? That their fitness for the world was that they were born into poverty and strife?

That just seems wrong to me. And if that is the case, then we can’t afford to measure our dreams simply by which of them survive long into this world. That makes it an accident of history whether something makes it or fails. Do we truly wish to measure dreams on those terms? If Michael Simon’s pots had never reached an audience, if YOU and I had never gotten to see them, would his dreams of beauty and function have been wrong? Would they have been unfit simply because there was no one at that time and place who could appreciate them? Are we saying that the tree never made a noise because it fell in a forest where no one could hear it?

And how much beauty is still out there languishing for lack of opportunity? For lack of an appreciative audience? How many dreams get squashed simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time? The validity of a dream simply cannot be measured by the contingent circumstances of how well it survives in the world. Sometimes the measure is how well it survives despite the world it is born into. Just ask van Gogh…..

Sure, some dreams can make a bigger difference, and some dreams don’t make any ripples at all. We tend to notice the ones that DO survive and change things. But do we only celebrate the dreams that shake mountains? Do we only praise the dreams that get born in fancy hospitals to wealthy parents? Or are adopted by privileged families? Is that the real test? The dreams that through worldly Darwinian contingency DO have an effect on the world at large? Are the dreams of the quiet hermit on the lonely mountain top any less worth dreaming?

It is the ability to make dreams real that ends up getting celebrated instead, if we put all our marbles in a Darwinian sorting matrix. Do we want to only recognize dreams of the people in positions of worldly power, where its simply easier to make dreams come true? Isn’t a dream its own integral value no matter who is dreaming it? No matter where its born and into what circumstances?

Isn’t predicting the potential efficacy of a dream in the world in a sense like trying to measure how well a car will run based on the color it was painted?

Don’t all sorts of other things have to line up for one dream to survive and for another not to? And yet, the fitness of the dream is in question, not the fitness of the circumstances it was born into. Does that make sense? A child born into poverty starts out with incredible disadvantages, and if that child gets pulled down how can we in good conscience put all the blame on that child? Is the way the world actually is the best sorter for which dreams make it and which do not? 

And isn’t THAT the point of dreaming in the first place? That there is more to value than simply what is? That we can escape the inequity of our circumstances? If only we dream big enough. And if only the hand of Darwinism isn’t there to slap us down.


Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Creative industry, Creativity, Ephemera, Imagination, metacognition. Bookmark the permalink.

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