Man partly is and wholly hopes to be (Robert Browning)
Unlike the animal kingdom, which is content to BE, we are driven by an urge to BECOME. Become what? The poet Robert Browning (1812 ~ 89) described it as a desire to become COMPLETE. Like a car without gasoline, something is missing. Like that car, we need to be filled (fulfilled).
Another way to describe this primal urge is to say we need to become MORE. More what? More than we are. We have a hunger to expand, extend, and express ourselves. José Ortega y Gasset (1883 ~ 1955) described it this way, “Life is a petty thing unless it is moved by the indomitable urge to extend its boundaries. Only in proportion as we are desirous of living more do we really live.”
Dissatisfied with the limits nature has imposed on us, we wish to go faster, further, deeper, and higher. So we invented bullet trains, steamships, submarines, and spacecraft. Like Star Trek’s crew of the Enterprise, we wish to go where no one has gone before.
As well as natural wonders, the world is filled with the wonders of man. The pyramids of Egypt, the luna landing, and all of our other achievements were once the aspirations of common men and women. The hunger of our soul expresses itself through our dreams and aspirations, which we chase after until they are realized.
Our aspirations are as important as life itself; they are the breath of life. Unless we aspire, we will expire. Our aspirations are revelatory. They tell us who we are, what we can become, and where we are headed. Arthur P. Stanley (1815 ~ 81) explained it this way: “There are glimpses of heaven to us in every act, or thought, or word, that raises us above ourselves.”
Another word for aspiration is ambition. Unfortunately, however, ambition also has negative associations. Ambition, for example, can be a quest for power or control over others while aspiration is an urge for personal growth. Also, ambition can be a hunger for possessions while aspiration is a hunger for experience, such as that found in the rapture and enchantment of nature.
Before aspirations can propel us forward, we must aspire. Before our dreams can come true, we must dream.
So, this is the first lesson. If we are not already dreaming of loftier things, it is time to begin. The reason it is so important to do so is once we aspire, the journey begins. This is magical. Once we dare to dream, we set out on that dream. In other words, no dream, no adventure; no aspiration, no growth. Here’s how Anna Jameson (1794 ~ 1860) described it, “What we truly and earnestly aspire to be, that in some sense we are. The mere aspiration, by changing the frame of the mind, for the moment realizes itself.”
Our aspirations, then, are our goals. And what is a goal? It is a dream with a deadline. Get rid of the deadline and all that remains is a wish. This is the second lesson. If we want our dreams to come true, we have to set deadlines. Let’s say I read about New York and now dream of visiting it. So, I set deadlines. By the end of the week, I’ll find out how much it will cost to stay there for a week. By spring, I’ll set aside the money for my trip. And by May 15th, I’ll arrive in New York. My aspiration, then, is no longer a dream; it is now a plan.
Just as an aspiration is magical because it sets the wheels in motion, the decision to act is magical because it is only after we make a commitment that the road is cleared. This is the third lesson. You see, making a commitment is like drawing the drapes and opening the curtains of a window in our mind. Once we do so, the light streams in. Answers to questions are revealed, solutions appear, and roadblocks are cleared.
Let me give three quick examples. Kirk Douglas lost the power of speech after his stroke. For a man who earned his livelihood by speaking, this was devastating. He sank into a deep depression and decided to commit suicide. With his wife still in the house, he went into another room. He sat down with a pistol and began to place it in his mouth. But as he did so, he struck a tooth and exclaimed, “Ouch!” There’s something funny about being concerned with a tooth at the moment you are planning to destroy yourself. This strange juxtaposition of facts jarred Kirk Douglas enough to cause him to lower the pistol and resolve to go on living. Before the commitment to life was made, all he faced was the excruciating pain of being unable to speak. Yet, once he committed to life, his mind cleared and answers appeared. “Why not hire a speech pathologist to help me regain the power of speech?” he thought. So, that’s what he did. And today, he’s speaking again.
When Edsel, President of the Ford Motor Company, pleaded with his father, Henry, to design a new car, Henry Ford made a commitment to do so. The act of doing so released a vision of a new “en block”, or one piece, V-8 engine. When he revealed his dream to his team of engineers, they all told him it would be impossible to create. Yet, once they shared the resolve of Henry Ford, answers began to appear. As a result, in 1932, Ford was able to release an engineering triumph, his Model B, equipped with the world’s first V8 engine.
Alarmed by the progress of the Soviet Union, President John F. Kennedy announced in April 1961, the United States planned to land on the moon by the end of the decade. The Administrator of NASA, James E. Webb, objected to Kennedy’s plan since he sought congressional funding for a general exploration of space. However, Kennedy had the foresight to focus on a specific goal (a manned luna landing) and set a deadline. After NASA accepted his commitment and made it their own, solutions appeared. Because of NASA’s resolve, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin (“Buzz”) Aldrin placed the first footprints of man on the surface of the moon.
How do we smash barriers and arrive at new domains? By aspiring and committing. Perhaps our march forward can also be called the AAA formula: Aspiration, Action, Achievement. How high should we seek to fly? As high as we can. For as William Blake (1757~1827) wrote, “No bird soars too high, if it soars with its own wings.” I’ll end with some helpful advice from William Faulkner (1897~1962), “Always dream and shoot higher than you know how to. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”