Eve Fairbanks, a writer who lives in Johannesburg, is at work on a book about South Africa.

Jacob Ammentorp Lund/ISTOCKPHOTO

Sometimes I think the greatest source of human unhappiness is the gap between what we dream of doing and being and what we’re actually capable of. This gap we name “pain”: the longing, the sense of failure when we fall short.

On the face of it, it seems like the solutions are things like accepting ourselves or “living in the moment.” But is it quite so simple? A few years ago, I met a man in South Africa who’d nurtured the most astonishing dream. He’d grown up in a hut on the far side of a mountain that divided the cities from the total wilderness, without electricity, without books, where parents buried children borne off by a fierce Nature we’ve tried to forget under a tree with splayed roots so their souls didn’t return to carry other children away. He dreamed of getting a graduate degree and becoming a wealthy commercial farmer with huge estates and international accounts — which, in South Africa, would entail crossing practically every kind of class and cultural divide humankind has ever put up to prevent such a passage.

The journey involved indescribable torments. He got so far. And yet he fell short in the final stretch. Problems with loans, conflicts with the government officials who’d given him his land, and the increasingly difficult nature of commercial farming in the 21st century itself proved, in the end, a set of obstacles too great to overcome. He ended up back at his parents’, more destitute than he’d started.

When I listened to his story, I thought it was heartbreaking, one of the saddest I’d ever heard. The two of us became close, and I angrily wished he had never conceived of such a dream, so that he never would have been so shattered.

And yet it was undeniable that this dream, this vision, this ambition, had also given his life an aspect of great beauty. To hear him describe his vision was mesmerizing. The unreasonable can be so gorgeous. Once, while we were visiting his old high school together, the principal asked him to give a talk to the seniors about the value of having dreams. His face glowed, as if lit by an interior fire; the kids were captivated; I heard later that he’d inspired several to apply to university themselves.

What do we do with the fact that the dreams that give our lives meaning are often the same ones that bring us to our knees? Happiness requires something strange indeed: those visions, yet the capacity to appreciate the mysterious and warped things that came in their stead — the researcher who took a little hope from your dream, the upturned faces of the seniors in that class, the sweet tonic of hope itself, even if its twin was loss.