Brick Walls and Childhood Dreams

Last updated: December 2013

A month or so ago I watched a motivational TED Talks video at work in my special ed students' "Life Skills" class. Most of the kids were bored out of their minds and messing around on their iPads instead of paying attention to the video. I became pretty engaged in it though and jotted down some notes in my scribble-filled notebook to hopefully remember to go back and watch the rest of the video since we didn't get to finish it. Well, I just found those notes again, about "brick walls" in our lives and their purpose in achieving our childhood dreams. I had no clue who the speaker was or the title of the lecture, so I just googled one of the quotes I had written down:

"Brick walls are there for a reason. They help us realize how badly we want something."

I found what I was looking for pretty quickly, thankfully. The lecture was by Randy Pausch, a professor of computer science and human-computer interaction and design at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His name and his story clicked in my brain and I remembered hearing about his book when it first came out some years ago--The Last Lecture.

In 2006 he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and given a terminal diagnosis in August 2007, with "three to six months of good health left." In September 2007, he gave his "last lecture" to an audience of hundreds of colleagues and students at Carnegie Mellon titled, "The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams." I just finished watching the entire video and I'm really glad that I did. There are some parts in it that I wasn't quite as interested in, such as the computer programming and virtual reality stuff, but the main messages resonated with me. In the lecture he mentions "brick walls" several times, and ever since I first saw the video in class, I've been thinking about my own brick walls and the struggles I've felt trying to figure out who I'm supposed to be in this world, and how to live the life that I really want.

How does this fit in with having RA? Well, I would say that having RA is definitely similar to having a huge brick wall in your life. It gets in my way all the time; I smash into it over and over, trying to climb over it, or punch a hole through it. RA is often a strong, seemingly impenetrable, stubborn jerk blocking me from happiness. That's a pretty pessimistic way to look at it, I know, but that's often how I feel.

In the lecture, Pausch stresses that brick walls can be a good thing. They let us show our dedication to our goals and passions in life. And they're there to separate us from the people who don't really want to achieve their childhood dreams. That is a better way to look at it, I suppose. But I probably first need to actually figure out what all of my brick walls are, in addition to the big, glaring one--RA.

Living with rheumatoid arthritis: Living every day with chronic pain can certainly get in the way of achieving your dreams. Pain is pain--it hurts. And it makes you exhausted and depressed and anxious and fearful and a whole host of other bad things. It can create a vicious cycle of negativity in your life: I don't feel well so I can't do things...I'm not good enough because I can't push through this...If I were stronger I could accomplish more and be a better person, etc. Despite these things, I have seen firsthand that having RA doesn't mean you can't achieve things in life. It might take you longer, but you can still do it. I try to keep reminding myself of that.

Self-esteem/self-confidence: This is probably a no-brainer, but if you fear that you're not good enough, you're never going to be good enough. Having a self-defeating attitude can definitely bring about a bad self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. I know this and I'm working on it. But it's not easy when your brain has been trained to think this way since you were a kid. Surrounding yourself with good, supportive, positive people in your life helps with this, I think.

Impatience: Lately I've been struggling with the fear of "time running out" and not being able to do the things I want to do in life, based on society's expectations of having to accomplish things by a certain age. I think that's a stupid rule, but I do worry about it, despite knowing better. But I'm still young and I'm not dying or anything, so I really need to calm down. A good friend of mine once told me that there is no "right" or "wrong" way to do things in life. Everyone has his or her own timeline and there's nothing wrong with that.

I'm sure that I have many more brick walls, probably offshoots of these main ones I mentioned. Thinking about them in a more positive way is a new, strange thing for me. But I'm trying to see the good in them, because otherwise they will just drag me down.

In Pausch's lecture, he mentions several lessons he's learned to successfully achieving your childhood dreams and I agree with all of them:

  • Recognize the importance of the people in your life and the roles they play: parents, mentors, students, teachers, friends, colleagues, bosses.
  • Never lose your childlike wonder--it's what drives us
  • Help others
  • Loyalty is a two-way street
  • Show gratitude to others
  • Don't complain, just work harder
  • Be good at something; it makes you valuable
  • Work hard!
  • Find the best in everybody, no matter how long you have to wait for them to show it
  • Be prepared: "luck" is where preparation meets opportunity

So what are my childhood dreams? When I was a kid and we would have to do an assignment in school about what we want to be when we grow up, I would always answer that question as, "I want to be an artist." Through the years there were different stages and incarnations of that statement--I want to be an author, or an illustrator, or a painter, or a photographer, or a pianist, or a designer, etc. Today that dream of being an artist has evolved into me wanting to be a successful writer and photographer, whether that's in a fine art capacity or journalism or both. And, happily, some good things have been starting to happen thanks to some of the lessons Pausch outlines in his lecture: hard work, preparation, loyalty, a good network of people.

I am very grateful for the writing and photography opportunities that have been coming my way lately and I hope that there will be even more in the future. However I do always worry, in the back of my mind, about trying to achieve what I want in life while having RA. I adamantly and fiercely do not want it to block my path to happiness or stop me from becoming the person I'm meant to be. So I vow to recognize the good in my brick walls and to break through the bad parts and the limitations they throw up in front of me. I hope you all will do the same.

"The inspiration and the permission to dream in life is huge, and we shouldn't lose sight of that." Randy Pausch, 1960 - 2008


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