Graduations, camp and more is canceled. ‘What can we say that does not risk pablum or platitudes?’
“What happens to a dream deferred?”
With this question, Langston Hughes began his poem “Harlem,” inquiring what happens to a person who discovers their long-sought dream to be unobtainable. Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Does it linger and fester? Or does it, as Hughes suggests in his allusion to the Harlem riots – explode?
Hughes’s question presently sits on the hearts and minds of an inestimable number of students, from elementary to college — our present-day montage of dreams deferred due to Covid-19. The month of May is meant to be filled with proms, graduations, end of year athletic playoffs and packing lists for summer camp. Instead, summers abroad have been cancelled, job offers have dried up and long-planned reunions put on hold.
The other day my daughter shared with me that her final day of high school had come and gone without her realizing it at the time. My nephew, a fine athlete, had been looking forward to being scouted by colleges this semester. ACT and SAT exams now need to be rescheduled with a cascade of implication. Sometimes life gives us second chances, but not everything can be rescheduled. Many dreams have been deferred; an equal number have been derailed and denied.
It is a suffocating thought to consider the number of young dreams deferred — a thought made even heavier with such an uncertain road ahead. Nobody knows what campus life will look like in the fall. Like ships lined-up waiting to find safe harbor – our children suffer from an anticipatory grief contemplating the losses still yet to come.
What can be said in response to these dreams deferred? What shall we say to our children and grandchildren?
Far easier than knowing what to say is to begin with what not to say — how not to respond when your child learns that camp is cancelled, an internship rescinded or your nephew graduates college without a job.
First, avoid drawing your response from the “At least you are not dead” category. When someone is suffering – spotlighting weightier losses makes that person feel that you don’t feel that person’s pain to be real. It may come from a good place, it may even be intellectually defensible, but it does not serve to validate a person’s sense of loss – it does just the opposite.
This also goes for “Imagine what it was like to be born in the Depression” response or “to have lived through a pogrom.” It may be true that someone else, in another time and place, has also suffered, but historical perspective does not soothe.
Nor, for that matter, do other forms of deflection. You can’t tell someone that graduation is not about the diploma but about the hard work that led up to that day. For that graduate, it is all about the diploma. You can hold these thoughts in your head — just don’t share them. Not yet and possibly not ever.
The “silver lining” response is also fraught. “Camp is cancelled … what a great time to take up an instrument or read a book.” It may be sound advice, but just don’t say it to a person who is staring eye-to-eye with a dream deferred.
The same is true of the suggestion that this will help us reexamine our priorities, teaching us about the fragility of life or the importance of treating the environment with care. The Talmud tells of an exchange between Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Hiyya as the latter lay on his sick bed. Rabbi Yohanan asks Rabbi Hiyya if his suffering is dear to him – a question to which Rabbi Hiyya replies “I welcome neither my suffering nor its reward.” Not all lemons produce lemonade, most kids (and adults) would forgo any silver lining if present pain could be avoided. We do ourselves and our loved ones a terrible disservice by sugarcoating suffering with pithy bromides.
So what can be said? What can we say that does not risk pablum or platitudes?
It is not one size fits all, but I think my teenage daughter came pretty close when I asked her what a parent should say if summer camp is cancelled. She said to me, “Dad, what I need to hear is an acknowledgement of the pain of the situation. Let me know that you know how much this sucks. Don’t tell me to move on. Don’t tell me that other people are suffering more. I have looked forward to this summer all year, for eight years, and to not have it happen is a hurt that I am not even able to process. What I need from you, and what every kid needs from every parent, is empathy. I know it is not the end of the world — but right now it feels like it is. So support me as I go through this, but know that this is a “me” problem that I need to solve. I need to let myself grieve, I need you to be present and I need you to give me space, and confusing as that may sound to you, it makes perfect sense to me.”
My daughter said all that to me, and a whole lot more and we sat and shed tears, and much as I wanted to fill the moment with words, I think the most important thing I did was saying nothing. There is a reason tradition teaches that when greeting a mourner one is supposed to say nothing; instead, one waits until the mourner speaks to you. Loss is best acknowledged with tears, hugs and silence — not words. Perhaps the best response to a dream deferred is to affirm a person’s pain and remain present until they can regroup.
From Adam and Eve cast out of the Garden to Isaac bound on the altar to Joseph thrown into a pit, the story of humanity is a tale of individuals seeking to reconstitute themselves in the face of dreams deferred We know our present losses are an extension of that ongoing human drama, but it is a knowledge that does not ease our pain. Today we stand outside the garden, bound on the altar, thrown in the pit, nursing countless dreams deferred. From the depths we cry out, seeking the presence of God and God-like friends and family who acknowledge our pain, sitting at our side, weeping as we weep, and ready, when we are ready, to help us take a step forward.
Elliot Cosgrove is the rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.