when you wish

when you wish - silhouette of boy reaching for star - The Best Advice So Far

I love the idea of wishes coming true.

To this day, whenever I hear the original 1940s version of “When You Wish Upon A Star,” I’m transported back to 1975, a wide-eyed boy of seven or so, kneeling in my pajamas in front of the tube model TV as the opening credits to The Wonderful World of Disney begin to play. I inhale slowly until I can take in no more breath, a sort of electrifying crackle in the air. Magic is real and I am part of it for the next hour.

My first trip to Disney World came a few years later. Though nearly 35 years has passed since then (and having only been back once in all that time), I can still envision exactly how it looked to me that very first time I entered the park, the enormous castle from the television show rising up to beckon me.

Even before experiencing a single ride or attraction, meandering slowly through the souvenir store at the head of Main Street was a wondrous and wide-eyed occasion. The rows upon rows of identical character figurines – unsullied as of yet by the awareness of concepts like commercialism and minimum wage jobs – was almost intoxicating, like a vast hall of mirrors. I pick many of them up and feel their heft, running my thumb and fingers gently over the smooth and shiny ceramic surfaces. I study their expressions, which seem meant just for me. I have a sort of fluttery feeling inside, like when you’re falling upward very fast in a dream – a feeling I couldn’t identify then, but which I now recognize to have been joy.

My first ride was “It’s A Small World.” In order to provide that link for you, I watched the video of the ride again just now. Not gonna lie – I cried. I cried because I still remember so vividly how that ride made me feel as a kid; and just now, it struck me that, while I can enjoy it and be nostalgic, it’s impossible for me to ever really see the world again the way I did the first time, as a child. I didn’t see veneers and dolls and moving parts and gears. I was being personally welcomed by an entire world of characters who were interacting with me of their own volition, happy that I had come. It might seem silly to you, but I think my lifelong love affair with people and culture and language began on that ride that day in 1982.

Why all the reminiscing?

I guess for me, the idea of wishes coming true has always been inextricably associated with Disney. I still find myself singing that old theme aloud often:

When you wish upon a star,
Makes no difference who you are,
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you.

If your heart is in your dream,
No request is too extreme;
When you wish upon a star
Like dreamers do.

Fate is kind.
She brings to those who love
The sweet fulfillment of
Their secret longing.

Like a bolt out of the blue,
Fate steps in and pulls you through;
When you wish upon a star,
Your dream comes true.

So simple.

So pure.

So inspirational and uplifting.

Unfortunately, it’s also complete rubbish.

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In fact, when you wish upon a star, what actually happens is …

… is nothing.

Unless you want to count wasting more time that you actually could have invested into getting somewhere with those dreams of yours.

I’m sorry to tell you that no one steps in while you’re gazing out the window and just “pulls you through.” As I see it, getting through to the other side of something implies pretty heavily that you were already in motion, not simply lounging about hoping to be transported by pumpkins-turned-coach.

Anything your heart desires will come to you.

Really? Anything? Just for wishing it to be so?

Then why aren’t we all thinner?

Or more muscular?

Or wealthier?

Or smarter?

Or less lonely?

Or just plain happier?

Now, I’m not naïve enough to be thinking that most adults literally believe that making a wish on a star or a birthday candle or a coin tossed into a fountain will change things all that much (though some do, to be sure). But how many of us are wishing on scratch tickets or votive candles, waiting for ships to come in, or angrily demanding that the universe get around to evening things out for us?  Isn’t it all just various forms of wishing? And how are those kinds of wishes working for anyone?

I want to be clear. There is a difference between wishing and maintaining a sense of hope. There are many things in life over which we truly have no control, times when no amount of work on our part will change the outcome. It’s in such circumstances that being able to differentiate between hope and wishes is vital.

I told you last week that my cousin Dawn took her own life last month, leaving her teenage son, Seth, to face not only the trauma and grief of the present, but a very frightening and uncertain future. In grief, we often wish. We make bargains with our notion of God. The “anything your heart desires” from the Disney song is that you will wake up tomorrow and find the person you’ve lost alive and well again, that it will all have just been a terrible but temporary dream and that things will go back to the way they were. If wishing made things come true, Seth’s mom would reappear, healthy and happy. But she isn’t here. And she won’t be.

Wishing to undo what is done, though understandable, is simply wasted energy – a tide that, if left unchecked, will build up against the dam of the impossible, growing into a surging tide of anger or depression. It’s going to take daily mind and soul work – hard work – for Seth to get from each today into the tomorrows that lies ahead.

And for the rest of us, wishing him well will do equally little good.  Wishing will not transport him to the agencies that can help sort this out. Wishing will not get him through school. Wishing will not pick up the phone and check in with him as often as it takes, nor will it speak the encouraging words he needs to hear or sit with him when he needs to cry or just be quiet with someone. Wishing will not pay the bills and put food on the table. Those things happen only if people make the consistent and specific choices to do the hard work of helping, day by day.

This seems a great time to thank each of you who has gone beyond wishing and reading to making a donation to help a hurting kid you don’t even know. I’m a writer, but even for me, it’s hard to express my gratitude in words.

Hope, however, is exactly what we need when some of life’s choices are beyond our ability to influence.

When we suddenly lose that job in a bad market.

When someone we love leaves us.

Or gets sick.

Or dies.

Hope gets us up in the morning.

Hope is that voice that assures us that, while we do not get to choose everything that happens in our lives, we still always have a choice. A choice about what we will do from here. A choice about what happens next.

Hope is what allows us to believe that those daily and even minute-by-minute choices that can seem at once unbearable and inconsequential matter. That they are making a cumulative difference. That tomorrow can be better than today.

Yet even in these times where it’s hard to see our choices, wishing does no good. We must do the hard work of putting one foot in front of the other, of letting people in, of choosing to trust or even to laugh in a moment; otherwise, the future will look much the same as the present.

Fortunately, for most of us most of the time, our wishes are not directed toward such weighty and permanent things. Rather, they are little more than inspired-sounding excuses to do nothing to change circumstances that lie well within the realm of choice.

Chapter 5 of The Best Advice So Far, entitled “Unfairness,” ends this way: “If I want my life to be different from what it is, I’m the only one responsible for bringing about that change.”

The Best Advice So Far: If I want my life to be different from what it is, I'm the only one responsible for bringing about that change.

Don’t get me wrong. I keep things pretty magical and I’m the least cynical person you’ll meet.

I still pick up pennies for luck and suspend disbelief quite adeptly to indulge in the notion that the ocean likes me better than everyone else on the planet. I’ve even sat on the hood of my car, staring into the night sky and making my own wishes on shooting stars. I love the romance and childlike wonder of it all.

But the reality is that, after those moments of indulgence are over, dreams-come-true are not the result of wishes, but of an awful lot of focus and just plain hard work done with consistency.

The Best Advice So Far: Dreams-come-true are not the result of wishes, but of focus and hard work done with consistency.

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