Four months ago, as I watched the movie "Apollo 13" with my students in a leadership class, I started sobbing during the rocket launch sequence. I ran out of the room and hid in my office so my students wouldn't see me fall apart. When I finally came back, as composed as I could manage and steeling myself for the rest of a movie that had inspired me since my teenage years, I asked myself: What just happened?
I hear a lot of people answer the question "How are you?" with the expression, "Livin' the dream." It's usually said with irony; I've never heard anyone mean it sincerely. But the phrase has stuck with me, and I've longed to be that person who does say it and mean it.
For years, my dream was to be an astronaut. Yes, I was one of those kids. I'd wanted to be an astronaut since 5th grade, when an astronaut came and spoke to my class. I'm a space geek who grew up watching "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" with wide-eyed wonder. To this day I can tell you the names of the original Mercury Seven astronauts and the order in which they launched.
My parents sent me to Space Camp in middle school, I studied math and science in high school, and I graduated from Stanford with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, a master's degree in aeronautics and astronautics, and a commission as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. Despite having far from acceptable vision by NASA standards, I kept working for my dream. I earned a PhD in astronautical engineering. Once NASA started accepting candidates who'd had corrective eye surgery, I got LASIK. I excelled in the Air Force, I was a leader and a team player, and I was going to be the first person to run a marathon on all seven continents and on the International Space Station.
Finally, the day came to call on all I'd accomplished. I applied to be an astronaut in January 2012. Despite thousands of people applying for very few slots, I truly believed I had a chance. I felt giddy just hitting the "apply" button. This was it! My dream!
About three months later, I got the news: I was rejected on medical grounds. It turned out that my eyesight before LASIK was so bad, it disqualified me anyway, despite my current 20/20 vision.
To say I was devastated is something of an understatement.
I wrote pages and pages of reflections in the days that followed. I called my family and friends and cried. I put all my "Star Trek" DVDs out of sight. I didn't know what to do, couldn't imagine how to move forward.
Today, several years and many more deep reflections later, I'm so grateful for that experience. For the whole journey. And most particularly, for the healing power of gratitude.
I know that part of my devastation was fear. I'd wrapped up so much of my identity in this astronaut dream, I didn't know who I'd be or what I'd do without it. I'd told everyone I'd ever met that I wanted to be an astronaut, and most of them responded that they could absolutely see me doing it, and that I would be perfect for it. What would I tell them now? How could this really be it? Wasn't there one more person I could convince, one more thing I could try? The word "no" wasn't really in my vocational vocabulary or understanding. I'd grown up believing I could do anything I set my mind to, and I truly believed I'd make it into the astronaut corps. I was high in the sky on all that I'd achieved, and crash-landing back on earth was a reality check I'd never really thought I'd have to face.
I drifted for a few years without a big career goal. It might not have seemed like it to the outside world; I still had a great career in the Air Force, and I was going places. But though I settled into post-astronaut-dream life on a path that still looked like traditional "success," my heart started to wander. I read emerging and ancient wisdom on topics ranging from mindfulness and being present, to living with intention, to redefining success, to thriving. I began to envision a life of meaning and fulfillment where I could explore the universe within myself, inspire others to do the same, and skyrocket love, compassion, and kindness in the world.
Five years after the crushing news, I'd separated from active duty and joined the Air Force Reserve, where I followed my passion for leadership and inspiration through teaching while also living mindfully and setting my own priorities. I'd married an amazing man. I'd gotten certified as a professional life coach.
Through the coaching process I did more inner work and arrived in a place of peace where I could integrate the phases of my life. I felt like I was "livin' the dream" after all, because I was me, and all the things I'd done and been while pursuing my astronaut dream had made me me. So really, though I hadn't actually become an astronaut, I'd tasted the fruits of all the experiences, qualities, and insights that dream gave me and inspired in me. I knew I wouldn't be where I was or who I was without it. That realization felt awesome and uplifting, and I was happy.
And then we showed "Apollo 13" in class. I hadn't seen it in years, but this was a movie I'd internalized when I was young. I saw it countless times growing up, loved everything about it, knew every line, and always cried in several scenes because it was so inspiring, such a testament to hope, greatness, and the beauty of the human spirit.
This time, it wrenched something else deep inside me, and I didn't just cry, I bawled.
What just happened?
I'd thought I was ok. I'd come to that marvelous and profound realization that I was still living my dream, just with a different conclusion. It had been several years, and I'd done all this inner work. What could still be wrong?
And then I realized… I had rationalized my loss, but I hadn't completely grieved my dream and moved on. The inner work I'd done had gone deep, but I still hadn't reached the core. It was easy to say my dream was still a part of me and I was living it. It was harder to believe it. It was even harder to feel it deep inside and know it was true.
This re-triggering event led me to a new, simple desire: I want to be able to watch "Apollo 13" with normal tears of awe and inspiration, without this added grief, without this sense of loss for what might have been. Basically I asked myself, May I please watch this movie without having an existential crisis of faith and identity?!
Through one powerful discussion with my own phenomenal coach, I figured out how.
I've helped others and even myself reframe deep issues, disappointments, challenges, and regrets by remembering what we're grateful for in those situations or relationships. Yet it hadn't occurred to me until this moment to write a "gratitude letter" to my astronaut dream.
Gratitude is the path, the bridge, to that deep, inner truth. It gives us the power to shift from sadness and fear to joy and happiness. It helps us shift into a new world. Today I recognize the goal behind the goal, what I really wanted from the beginning when I set my sights on the stars. Today I live in a world where I have the power to inspire others to greatness the way astronauts always inspired me.
To my astronaut dream, I say:
"Excellence is the result of caring more than others think is wise, risking more than others think is safe, dreaming more than others think is practical, and expecting more than others think is possible."
Thank you for inspiring me to excel through a lifetime of following and living by these ideals.
Thank you for accompanying me for so many years, and for the incredible experiences that I will treasure always… from Space Camp to the Air Force, from "Apollo 13" to "Interstellar," for the values of integrity, service, and excellence, for world travels and inner journeys … you are an eternal source of joy and inspiration.
Thank you for the belief that you were possible. Thank you for the sheer exhilaration and giddiness of hitting that "apply" button.
Thank you for helping me aim for the stars, inspiring me to achieve remarkable things, and giving me the confidence, courage, and skills to arrive at a crossroads, recognize the difference between doing and being, and choose "the road less traveled by."
Thank you for freeing me to pursue my underlying dreams and to reach my stars in other ways.
I see you, and I see that you are not me. You are an integral part of me, and you shaped a huge portion of my life, but I am greater than you. I am more than you. When you were shattered, one of my friends said, "When people tell you how they can picture you being an astronaut, it's because they see something so great and wonderful within you, that no dream seems beyond you." Success isn't being an astronaut. It's being that person for whom no dream is impossible.
Thank you for my success.
Last week we taught that leadership class again and showed "Apollo 13." Did I cry? Of course. I always do. But I didn't run out of the room. I watched it and grinned through my tears, feeling the joy and childlike wonder that space and the greatness of humanity inspire in me.
Then, just yesterday, I ran into a former co-worker who asked what I'd been up to lately. When I told him, he responded genuinely, "Wow! So you're living the dream!" I laughed, thinking of all it had taken to bring me to this place where I could answer simply and sincerely, "Yes, I am."
Living my dream.
Melissa Corley Carter, PhD, is a Certified Professional Coach and a rocket scientist exploring the inner space where science meets the soul. She's a native Texan living in Virginia, and she enjoys barefoot running, hot yoga, reading, writing, and being present with family and friends. She loves to inspire and be inspired. Find out more about Melissa and mcSquared Energy Coaching at her website.
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