Like most young women my age, I started my freshman year of college full of ideas about selecting the perfect major and perfect life plan that I thought would fit with my personality and life goals. Of course I also wanted to ingratiate myself to my then-boyfriend and appear marriageable. Our relationship became serious and we started talking about getting married. It seemed we both had very similar plans and ideals for our future. We were going to marry, I’d graduate, and then we’d have children and I would become a full-time stay-at-home mom while he was the sole financial provider for our family. Even though I knew this path “we” agreed on was not truly the best path for me, I felt this trajectory was expected, I was in love, and I assumed he knew my path better than I did.
Luckily for me, this relationship did not work out. However, it terrifies me to recognize that had he proposed, I would probably have said yes and my life would have taken on a very different shape and course. Not necessarily a bad life, but one that wasn’t my truth and one that didn’t meet my intellectual, spiritual, and academic aspirations or needs.
I am not interested in maligning my ex-boyfriend, or berating myself for my mindless behaviors at the time. I believe my experience was evidence of how we were both shaped by our culture and were trying to live our lives according to a prescribed script.
In a recent interview, Whitney Johnson, author of the book Disrupt Yourself gave some excellent advice to Aspiring Mormon Women readers, as she quoted Elder Holland: “God is anxiously waiting to answer our prayers and fulfill our dreams, but He can’t if we don’t pray, and He can’t if we don’t dream.”
I feel like that epitomized my experience my first two years in college. I was afraid to pray in any meaningful kind of way, and more than anything, I didn’t dream. I had bought into this vision of how my life was “supposed” to look and how it was to play out and I didn’t give much thought to alternative options.
After my romantic relationship ended I was able to clear my head a bit, I began to expand my horizons and dream about what I wanted to be and become, and how to accomplish those goals. I can’t express how grateful I am that I was suddenly forced to take my own life by the reins, instead of relying on what others thought I should be and do.
I don’t think my experience is unique. In fact there is an entire syndrome (the term syndrome loosely used) to describe my experience: the Ophelia Syndrome. In short, the Ophelia Syndrome is an idea taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet; Ophelia is Hamlet’s young fiancé. Throughout the course of the play she is acted upon, used, manipulated, and eventually driven mad by the forces and decisions of the characters around her. She does not make active decisions for herself, but is only reactive, acted upon. At one point she says to Polonius, head advisor of Hamlet’s father, the King, “I do not know my lord, what I should think,” and Polonius, responds, “I will teach you. Think yourself a baby…”
In our culture, we women know pretty clearly what is expected of us, or at least what is the more “ideal” path to follow. There seems to be an increasing tension between pursuing education and a career while continuing to pursue the ideal model of Mormon motherhood. How many women are pursuing a major and career as a “back up plan?” Or how many women are choosing majors because they believe those majors will lead to more family friendly careers? I’m not suggesting these are bad motivations or considerations in navigating the myriad choices of majors and careers. But, I worry how often our fear of stepping outside this script gets in the way of us identifying our personal truths? And subsequently gets in the way of our ability to receive inspiration and divine guidance because we hadn’t even dreamt up the question we really want to ask our Heavenly Father?
I listened to and followed, for a long time, the prescribed script I thought I was supposed to follow. I not only didn’t know what to think for myself, but I didn’t even recognize that I wasn’t thinking! I was embedded in a wave of others’ thoughts and opinions and I let that wave’s momentum carry me forward. It wasn’t until my first college boyfriend broke up with me, leaving me with a pile of unrealized dreams that were not actually mine, that I was jogged out of my narrow haze. I finally took the time and space to identify the dreams and goals for myself, and I finally learned to ask the Lord for His guidance for me, specifically, instead of relying on cultural norms and expectations to shape my life.
After my boyfriend broke up with me, I made my very first life decision that I can attribute completely to my own thoughts and desires: I applied to go on a study abroad to Spain. That spring term in Spain felt enlightening and liberating for me, and was the beginning of a completely different life trajectory: a trajectory full of my own dreams. This also opened a brand new dialogue with my Heavenly Father: a dialogue in which He gently guided me to discover my talents and passions and invited me to ask for His guidance and support as I pursued a completely new and different path.
I don’t think it’s necessarily easy to find one’s own voice or dreams in the morass of the other voices available; whether they be voices from our past, from our families, friends, boyfriends/girlfriends, religious leaders, cultural icons, teachers, etc. And these voices and opinions aren’t necessarily bad or designed to lead us astray. I think most of the time these voices are well intentioned and full of love, which is why we trust them and adopt them without critically examining them. It requires bravery to start dreaming up our own goals, especially if those thoughts and dreams diverge from those voices all around us. But we each have that capacity for brave dreaming inside of us.
While my journey required a break up and a study abroad to start my own explorations, I don’t think young women need a major event to start dreaming. My hope is that we can encourage a culture of exploration, passion, risk-taking, and ambition in ourselves and all the women around us. Let’s dare to dream! Let’s dare to expand our visions and explore the depths of our passions. As Elder Holland said, the Lord is waiting to fulfill our dreams, let us define and follow our dreams, let Him support us through all the unexpected twists and turns, highs and lows, failures and successes. It is only when we dare to dream and follow our own dreams that we find our power.
Where has your brave dreaming taken you?