Growing up, we’re told that we can be anything. We’re taught to dream and imagine; we’re told that optimism beats realism every single time. Then we get older, and we start to lose sight of this idea. When we’re kids, we dream of being president. Yet when we inch closer to graduating from college and entering true adulthood, our most profound dreams are just that some company, any company, will hire us. 

This column isn’t about holding fast to dreams; it is more about how growing up unfortunately means realism and practicality overtake imagination and hopefulness. It’s not all bad, because I think most of us still hold a sense of optimism — it’s just less unbridled.

But isn’t this kind of peculiar? Societal norms seem to extinguish in adults the childhood idea that if you believe in yourself, you can do almost anything, and if enough people believe in something, it can be done.

I don’t plan to preach the benefits of dreaming big and never giving up. This isn’t a “hope-y, change-y” call to action. But it’s interesting that realism grows stronger as we grow up, because it is apparent that so many of the important things in the world function not because of anything real.

Let’s look at an example that we all know and love: money. Money in the United States is green paper. Again, it is paper. Paper that is colored green. So are the physical properties of this green paper what make it so valuable? Not at all. If I took a green colored pencil to a piece of loose leaf and handed it to you, you wouldn’t care.

Why? Money is valuable because everyone says it is. More accurately, everyone believes it is. It has no intrinsic worth in its chemical or physical structure.

So belief drives money, yet society tends to push people to be realistic, and, while not rejecting the benefits of belief, to focus more on action and pragmatism as life gets more complicated. My thinking is that we shouldn’t allow our kids to relinquish that youthful sense of belief.

Money and a variety of other things — the Federal Reserve, the U.S. government, human rights — are fictive constructs, not material truths. Of course there are Federal Reserve Bank buildings made of brick and mortar, and money is real paper that you can hold. These things do exist in the most elementary, physical forms. But their inherent value subsists only in our collective consciousness. Isn’t this naive and child-like?

So let’s not act like adults are so mature and perfectly realistic: They trade green slips of paper that they all agreed should have value. Then they use some of this paper to pay the government, because, well, everyone seems to think that’s how it should be. Some of them go to church every Sunday and worship things they have no idea actually exist. And nearly all of them, at least in the United States, preach that everyone has human rights, even though no doctor has ever performed surgery in which he cut open his patient and found the heart, blood vessels, large intestine, liver and … human rights.

It’s about time we regain a little bit of that childhood naivety — the kind that pushes you first to imagine, then to believe in yourself and in the notion that common beliefs are all we really need. Again, this isn’t all that much of a call to action. It is simply a plea to realize our hypocrisy: There is no reason we shouldn’t dream big and use our imaginations like children, throughout life. After all, we do it with money and government, religion and the economy.

So let’s try to always remember the power of collective beliefs. Let’s never encourage anyone to “grow up,” if all growing up means is relinquishing dreams because adulthood “realism” says they’re too imaginative and ambitious.

Billy Stampfl can be reached at bstampfl@umich.edu. 

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