When I was 17, I joined the Marines. I had never been on an airplane, never been away from home, never seen the ocean, never spent time with people who were different than I was in any significant way. The Marines would change all of that for me.
But I was scared. In a big way. During Boot Camp, you are never alone. You even used the bathroom in large rooms with no stalls. Huge group showers. Bunk beds in large barracks. No solitude at all. No place to cry. No place to think.
I would lay in my bed at night, alone with my thoughts, exhausted from the day’s activities, convinced I was a poseur, far from home, and convinced I was going to fail – and the idea of all that scared me to death. It was there that I learned to dream of a better world.
As a survival technique, I would play movies in my head about what life would be like when “this” was over. Boot Camp was 13 weeks of hell, after which you got 10 days off at home. In my bunk, late at night amid the snores and farts and nightmares, I would pay in my head a movie of what I would do on those 10 days.
I saw myself, in my dress blues, visiting the grocery store at which I had worked. I envisioned my girlfriend and I cruising the strip in my hometown on Friday night. I pictured a hamburger from the gas station I had often ate lunch at, with juices dripping down my chin. The more scared I got, the more vivid my movies became. And I survived.
And on those 10 days off, I did all those things, and more. I dreamed of a better world as a means of surviving the current one, and then I brought that world into existence.
I have used this technique constantly since then. Some 13 years ago, I moved to a new city with $800 and a backpack full of books and a vague idea of what I was going to be. I slept on the floor in a rooming house, where I would hear rats scurrying about after I turned out the light. I literally ate beans and rice for every meal for months. I was unsure how I was going to survive. But I would close my eyes and dream of an organization that would change my city. I saw myself on stage, giving keynote talks. In the movies I played out in my head, I was respected, and I did work that mattered. All of that came to pass.
Some years later, I was married, and the leader of a grassroots organization that was making an impact, but no money. I was behind on rent and terrified I was going to fail and not be able to provide for my family. I would lay in bed at night, exhausted after a day in the trenches, and dream of owning a house. I played out movies involving my tending to my garden, me tending my chickens, me sitting in my study lined with books. I played that movie in my head so often I can still see it if I close my eyes. As I write this, I am in my study, lined with books. I just came in from watching my chickens play in their coop as I walked through my garden.
Sometimes, the world sucks. It sometimes sucks hard. I don’t have to give you examples – hell, all of 2020 is an example. We look around us, we hear the news, we see the chaos, and we wonder how we are going to survive it all.
My advice to you is to do what I am doing: Dream of what the world, your world, will look like when this is over. Picture the people you will visit. The places you will go. Make it as detailed as possible. Don’t just see a picture in your head of you at the beach, but make it a movie. See the sand between your toes, smell the salt air, hear the gulls in the wind. Watch your kids build sandcastles. See the tide come in and watch the waves chase the sandpipers on the shore.
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said that the people who survived the death camps were, by and large, people who had a reason to survive. They dreamed of what they would do when the war was over and they were liberated. They dreamed of grandchildren yet unborn, of people to see and hold, of experiences they still wanted to have. They dreamed of a better world than the one they were in.
And so can you.