When I think about dreams, like many of you, I think about this picture. I was eight when I watched Neil Armstrong step off the Lunar Module onto the surface of the Moon. I had never seen anything like it before, and I’ve never seen anything like it since.
We got to the Moon for one simple reason: John Kennedy committed us to a deadline. And in the absence of that deadline, we would still be dreaming about it. Leonard Bernstein said two things are necessary for great achievement: a plan and not quite enough time.
Deadlines and commitments are the great and fading lessons of Apollo. And they are what give the word “moonshot” its meaning. And our world is in desperate need of political leaders willing to set bold deadlines for the achievement of daring dreams on the scale of Apollo again.
When I think about dreams, I think about the drag queens of LA and Stonewall and millions of other people risking everything to come out when that was really dangerous, and of this picture of the White House lit up in rainbow colors, yes —
celebrating America’s gay and lesbian citizens’ right to marry. It is a picture that in my wildest dreams I could never have imagined when I was 18 and figuring out that I was gay and feeling estranged from my country and my dreams because of it.
I think about this picture of my family that I never dreamed I could ever have –and of our children holding this headline I never dreamed could ever be printed about the Supreme Court ruling.
We need more of the courage of drag queens and astronauts.
But I want to talk about the need for us to dream in more than one dimension, because there was something about Apollo that I didn’t know when I was 8, and something about organizing that the rainbow colors over. Of the 30 astronauts in the original Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, only seven marriages survived. Those iconic images of the astronauts bouncing on the Moon obscure the alcoholism and depression on Earth.
Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, asked during the time of Apollo, “What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?” And what can we gain by the right to marry if we are not able to cross the acrimony and emotional distance that so often separates us from our love? And not just in marriage. I have seen the most hurtful, destructive, tragic infighting in LGBT and AIDS and breast cancer and non-profit activism, all in the name of love.
Thomas Merton also wrote about wars among saints and that “there is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace.” Too often our dreams become these compartmentalized fixations on some future that destroy our ability to be present for our lives right now. Our dreams of a better life for some future humanity or some other humanity in another country alienate us from the beautiful human beings sitting next to us at this very moment.
Well, that’s just the price of progress, we say. You can go to the Moon or you can have stability in your family life. And we can’t conceive of dreaming in both dimensions at the same time. And we don’t set the bar much higher than stability when it comes to our emotional life. Which is why our technology for talking to one another has gone vertical, our ability to listen and understand one another has gone nowhere. Our access to information is through the roof, our access to joy, grounded. But this idea, that our present and our future are mutually exclusive, that to fulfill our potential for doing we have to surrender our profound potential for being, that the number of transistors on a circuit can be doubled and doubled, but our capacity for compassion and humanity and serenity and love is somehow limited is a false and suffocating choice.
Now, I’m not suggesting simply the uninspiring idea of more work-life balance. What good is it for me to spend more time with my kids at home if my mind is always somewhere else while I’m doing it? I’m not even talking about mindfulness. Mindfulness is all of a sudden becoming a tool for improving productivity.
I’m talking about dreaming as boldly in the dimension of our being as we do about industry and technology. I’m talking about an audacious authenticity that allows us to cry with one another, a heroic humility that allows us to remove our masks and be real. It is our inability to be with one another, our fear of crying with one another, that gives rise to so many of the problems we are frantically trying to solve in the first place, from Congressional gridlock to economic inhumanity.
I’m talking about what Jonas Salk called an Epoch B, a new epoch in which we become as excited about and curious about and scientific about the development of our humanity as we are about the development of our technology.
We should not shrink from this opportunity simply because we don’t really understand it. There was a time when we didn’t understand space. Or because we’re more used to technology and activism. That is the very definition of being stuck in a comfort zone. We are now very comfortable imagining unimaginable technological achievement. In 2016, it is the dimension of our being itself that cries out for its fair share of our imagination.
Now, we’re all here to dream, but maybe if we’re honest about it, each of us chasing our own dream. You know, looking at the name tags to see who can help me with my dream, sometimes looking right through one another’s humanity. I can’t be bothered with you right now. I have an idea for saving the world. Right?
Years ago, once upon a time, I had this beautiful company that created these long journeys for heroic civic engagement. And we had this mantra: “Human. Kind. Be Both.” And we encouraged people to experiment outrageously with kindness. Like, “Go help everybody set up their tents.” And there were a lot of tents.
“Go buy everybody Popsicles.” “Go help people fix their flat tires even though you know the dinner line is going to get longer.”
And people really took us up on this, so much so that if you got a flat tire on the AIDS ride, you had trouble fixing it, because there were so many people there asking you if you needed help.
For a few days, for tens of thousands of people, we created these worlds that everybody said were the way they wish the world could always be. What if we experimented with creating that kind of world these next few days? And instead of going up to someone and asking them, “What do you do?” ask them, “So what are your dreams?” or “What are your broken dreams?” You know, “TED.” Tend to Each other’s Dreams.
Maybe it’s “I want to stay sober” or “I want to build a tree house with my kid.” You know, instead of going up to the person everybody wants to meet, go up to the person who is all alone and ask them if they want to grab a cup of coffee.
I think what we fear most is that we will be denied the opportunity to fulfill our true potential, that we are born to dream and we might die without ever having the chance.
Imagine living in a world where we simply recognize that deep, existential fear in one another and love one another boldly because we know that to be human is to live with that fear. It’s time for us to dream in multiple dimensions simultaneously, and somewhere that transcends all of the wondrous things we can and will and must do lies the domain of all the unbelievable things we could be.
It’s time we set foot into that dimension and came out about the fact that we have dreams there, too. If the Moon could dream, I think that would be its dream for us. It’s an honor to be with you.
Thank you very much.