Walking through the Jewish section of a large, city graveyard, I came across this inscription on a headstone: “A man’s dreams are seldom, if ever, realized.” Though years have passed since I stumbled upon this particular grave, I have never forgotten what it said and have often pondered its meaning.

“A man’s dreams are seldom, if ever, realized.” The profundity of such a short statement is not easily plumbed; the more I think about it, the deeper the meaning seems to go. Why would someone choose to put this particular message on their tombstone? Surely they would realize the significance of putting anything on their headstone because of the simple fact that it is so, well, permanent. It is truly the last thing a person has to say about what they consider the most important message they wish to leave the world with.

One has to choose their words carefully when those words are going to be inscribed on granite. Unless you are an individual of means, the typical real estate your average headstone comprises is not great; your message must be succinct, to the point, with no unnecessary wording. Whatever message you want to leave, it would, I believe, be one that sums up in a few words what you feel is the most important truth you learned in your long—or short—pilgrimage on this planet.

This Jewish man’s inscription on his headstone points to me that he was a deep thinker, perhaps even a philosopher. Obviously, he failed to achieve what dreams and aspirations he felt he should have achieved. The brute force of this disappointment, the monumental failure to achieve any lifelong dream, hope or goal, is shattering to your average American who believes success and accomplishment is their birthright.

This is a haunting and disturbing inscription for me on multiple levels; for one, it speaks of disappointment and failure in life, an oddity to choose to put on one’s headstone when the point of such a message is thought to be inspiring and hopeful, expressing gratitude for a life well lived and filled with love of family and fond memories.

I’ve been a searcher for truth and meaning my entire adult life, desiring to go beyond the empty and vain pursuits of much that has come to be identified as the “American Way”: ease, comfort, money, nice house, new car, latest technological gadgets, travel, eating out, endless entertainment, etc. And what has caused me to think this way can be summed up this way: faith and belief in God, the Creator of the Universe.

Perhaps the Jewish man whose inscription on his headstone has caused me much introspection walked long before me to similarly pursue the God of his forefathers, causing him angst in his journey to find ultimate meaning and fulfillment in his own life as he searched far outside the boundaries of the constraining and suffocating materialism that governs much of daily life in Western Civilization.

Maybe it was the realization that he could never achieve the spiritual values he longed to embrace that caused him to leave that inscription. Perhaps he felt he missed the mark of the spiritual maturity/perfection he found in the scriptures which guided and governed his life, feeling that he could never quite break free from the shackles of modernity that chained his mind and soul to an earthly and ultimately meaningless existence as he pursued the trappings of “success.”

Who knows exactly what he meant? If I am fortunate enough to one day meet him, maybe he will say, “Roy, you score a zero on what I actually meant when I left this message.” So much of life is consumed and wasted on trying to figure things out when the greater part of life is shrouded in mystery and shadows.

A man’s dreams are seldom, if ever, realized. The enigmatic meaning surrounding this snippet of wisdom may forever elude me, but it has done wonders to my life in seeking to understand why anyone would leave such an astonishing and weighty message on a tombstone.

There’s a certain humility to this saying, isn’t there? This Jewish man was obliquely admitting he was a failure; he was saying that his dreams were not realized, that the things he wanted to accomplish eluded his grasp. Was he a materialist at heart, desiring to climb the corporate ladder and sit on its pinnacle as top dog, earning a huge salary and surrounding himself with the triumphs of “success”: new cars, trophy wife, spacious and elaborately furnished home or homes, country club memberships, expensive clothes, etc.?

Were these earthly “things” the substance of his dreams that he failed to gain or accomplish? Maybe, and if so, he chased the typical American dream that ultimately leads one to emptiness and dissatisfaction.

Still, even if he did mean such shallowness, he is humble to admit his failings. Again, a message on one’s tombstone is not the usual place to advertise one’s failures: you want to leave a message of meaning, even hope and perhaps of accomplishment, but this seems to miss the mark on all counts. Again, a humble attitude.

It would be tragic indeed if he deemed his dreams to be the typical, vain trinkets so valued by modern day, American society: money, possessions, rank, expensive clothing, title, position, etc. You know, “he who dies with the most toys wins” mentality.

No, hopefully what he meant was that he saw that the true values in life were those money, pomp and pride cannot purchase: wisdom, humility, compassion, justice, honesty, love of the Lord, holiness, etc. Maybe he felt that these attributes were the dreams he could not quite realize or feel he came to embody. If so, he would be a rare soul, and one whom I admire and desire to emulate.

(This post edited Feb. 1, 2024)

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