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This Is the Year of Broken Dreams

What is 2020's onslaught of death and disappointment doing to our minds?

What's that sound?

Sobs. The click of locks. Echoes in empty stadiums. The syncopated whoosh and thwap of ventilators. Children being told "No." Coughs.

It's hammers hitting nails, boarding up businesses. It's footsteps pacing floors at 3 a.m.

Collectively, it is the bump and shriek of shattered dreams.

Before this year, we thought of broken dreams as singular: one individual, one dream — then bang. Breakup. Collision. Stroke.

But now, from near and far, we witness heartbreak constantly, sequentially, as one hears drum machines. By summer, we are already burnt out on broken dreams.

They have become a mass phenomenon, a syndrome. Rife. Not just one raging fever. Not just one shut shop. Not just one layoff notice, pawned ring, unpaid rent. Not just one cancelled wedding, exhibition, concert, tournament. Not just one oboeist or chef or tattoo artist unemployed. Not just one player sidelined for one game.

More, more, more, more: Remember exponential notations from algebra? Those abstract, anodyne, cute little numerals floating alongside bigger ones like birds?

This year, dreams break around the world in sheaves, cascades, biblical-plague waves, savaging families, streets, schools, cities, industries, traditions, nations.

Their cost is not just financial or medical but also emotional. Watching dreams shatter left and right, knowing ours might be next, how can we comprehend, much less process, such loss? Studies show that even hearing about fearsome circumstances raises the likelihood of developing PTSD.

This year, we hear:

About the man who spent his life savings creating a café he had to close in March. The archeologist whose dig was meant to start this spring. The pair who booked, then cancelled, what they knew would be their last trip home.

The artist set to debut at a now-cancelled-forever festival. The high-school debater for whom this would have been The Year. The owner of that motel chain. The grieving newlywed. The would-have-been Olympian.

Like seven billion sudden conscripts, we march through broken-dream battlefields strewn with the sick, the dead, the doomed, the destitute, past shuttered storefronts, and sealed schools.

Can our shock-blistered brains calculate not only the multiplicity of broken dreams but their lengths, depths, breadths, concentricities — outwards and upwards, down the generations, down the years?

Shattered dreams shatter more than just their dreamers. For each cancelled class, count each measure of French or chemistry unlearned and friends unmet and social skills ungained, each measure killing a parade of possibilities. Count those dreams slain before their would-be dreamers knew themselves as such. For each closed business, count its owner, staff, and loyal, trusting customers.

We cannot simply stand and watch, unmarked. We cannot help but hurt, not just because empathy burns, but because this crisis — its literal contagiosity, its as-yet-unknown end — triggers our mortal fear while corroding the ostensible insulative power of the bystander effect.

It forces us to feel. It forces us to learn whole new emotional arithmetics, this history-book-worthy horror, this Mad Maxian reality, this exponentiality enfleshed. Are we changing? Will all this witnessing echo in us eternally? Is trauma rewiring our brains right now?

We will remember this year like medieval tapestries chronicling tragedies, in which decaying corpses litter hillsides while angular soldiers shake their fists and swords at God uncomprehendingly.

Fancy machines cannot deliver us from daily scenes — seen, televised, imagined — of death and debacle and decay. The globalness and constancy of watching others fall keeps rekindling our fear.

Also our grief. Sorrow. Anxiety. Panic, distraction, 2020-isms such as shame regarding shattered dreams that we are mocked for mourning because some say they were inessential to begin with.

Boredom. Mistrust. Helplessness that feels foreverish. Yearning. Anger. Uncertainty. Regret. Nostalgia for 2019.

And yes, faint hope. Resilience. Ingenuity. Charity. Kindness. Diligence.

Dread. Xenophobia. Frustration. Isolation. Guilt: for spreading germs and/or surviving. Disconnect. Compassion — then its overload, that cauterizing short-circuit we mistake for ennui.

We are the ones they will study someday after the universities reopen and space-suited scholars wonder how we braved such fear and witnessed such destruction so unprecedentedly and for so long.

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