Death of the American Dream?

What happens when our child fails, the economy collapses, our parents die? Rabbi Sherre Hirsch on how we cope when life falls short of our expectations.

01.08.11 10:15 PM ET

I had big dreams. Not extraordinary dreams. No, I did not want to play for the NBA or become Oprah Winfrey, though that would be nice. My dreams were not small either. I wanted to marry, have children, celebrate the holidays with friends and family, and grow old with dignity.

As a rabbi, I frequently heard people lament: My dreams are not coming true. Life is not unfolding as I had planned.

I never imagined I would be single. I never thought I would get divorced. I never imagined that I wouldn't be able to have a baby or that I would lose my job. I never dreamt that I would lose all my savings and never realize the American Dream.

What happens when our dreams die? What happens when our husband leaves, our child fails, the economy collapses, our parents die?

Can we mourn dreams like we mourn the death of a loved one? Can we expect Kübler-Ross' five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance—before we begin to dream again? Or will we stop dreaming forever? Will we become hardened and say that life is unfair, death is inevitable, and dreaming is futile?

Maybe you are the person who says, "Everything happens for a reason." You may believe that this is all part of the Master Plan. You may be comforted by the idea that this loss will somehow make you stronger. Or maybe you are not that person. You may carry the pain like heavy luggage for the rest of your life and be comforted in not letting go of it. The pain becomes your identity in the world.

Maybe you will try to blame someone. "Madoff did it... If it wasn't for the president... The doctor misdiagnosed me... If there was a God." You may live your life in that rage, anger, and resentment and feel secure. Or maybe you will live like it was all a bad dream pretending that one day you will wake up from this nightmare.

When your dream dies, how will you respond? My grandmother danced at my wedding. I always assumed that my mother would be there on my daughter's big day. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer and died a few months later, my dream died too.

I could have pointed fingers or blamed it on a nightmare. I could have become complacent and accepted that this was the plan. I could have become the victim. But I knew that would not bring my mother back. I decided to use my experience to better the lives of others. Instead of saying, "Why me?" I said, "What now?"

I decided to use my experience to better the lives of others. Instead of saying, "Why me?" I said, "What now?"

I found people who could relate. I found people who had loved and lost. I found people who were simply confused. I found people who had completely given up. No one would have voluntarily joined this club of pain. But by sharing our struggles, we realized we were not alone. We eventually discovered that no matter how devastating our losses, we would not be destroyed.

In this past year, whether you have lost your business, your love, or your ability to dream, I invite you in this New Year to share your loss with others. If you do, you will find meaning. You will find hope. You will live. You just might reawaken their dreams or even one of your own, and one day when you least expect it, you will dream big again.