Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Dreams, how do they work?

So anyone who knows me knows I walk a bizarre line between reviling and embracing gypsy culture-- I think this stems partly from the "but they're my enemies!" phenomenon (I'm reminded of when I saw Yale's production of Assassins with a fellow Russophile-- one of the protagonists was Polish, and we both found ourselves liking him though had it been a musical about Russians [perish the thought] he certainly would have left a bad taste in our mouths) and partly because (and this will get me into hot water!) there is frankly quite a bit of overlap between the peasant Slavs from whom I'm descended and the gypsies about whom my grandmother so energetically rants.

I bring this up to address one of my stronger superstitions: that dreams are of immense import. "Tristyn drunkenly recounts a dream" is a genre with which many of my friends will be familiar; "Friend X tells Tristyn she's being ridiculous for worrying about a dream" is certainly one I've encountered plenty of times. Apropos of a particularly unsettling dream I had last week, I thought I'd take this opportunity to explain why Serious Dream Consideration is not as ridiculous as it seems.

To make this easier, I'll briefly recount the dream: I was in my parents' living room, very ill and on the verge of death-- it was understood but unsaid that I was expected to die within hours, though no one knew exactly when. The only people there were my mother and a small group of friends from college. I was frantically running about, trying to figure out how I wanted to spend my last hours and what I wanted the last things I said to be. My mother was very anxious that I calm down and lay down in a very comfortable chair they'd prepared for me-- it was again understood but unsaid that once I lay down, I would not wake. All the friends that were there were from the "Pythagorean Brotherhood" and I finally, inexplicably requested that we sing our anthem, much to the consternation of my mother, who in addition to not being fond of said organization, did not think this an appropriate way to "adjourn" (forgive the pun) my life. None of my other family members or friends were there, and in fact the friends present were ciphers--- in the dream I knew them to be members of the brotherhood, but none of them had faces recognizable to me. I remember quieting everyone down to give my final soliloquy, and at that point the dream dissolves into nothingness.

I took this dream as a Very Bad Sign. Why? Not simply because it was about my death-- as in tarot, death in dreams does not always, and in fact rarely, augurs imminent demise. I took it as a Very Bad Sign because nowhere in the dream was there any religious imagery, and in fact in the dream I thought nothing about the Church, God, the hereafter-- any of it. As soon as I woke up and began to process it this stuck out to me immediately and left me profoundly unsettled. Why?

Dreams are in many ways like the tarot: they do not necessarily act as a medium through which the Divine (or the Satanic) can work, but they definitely can function as windows to better understanding ourselves. When explaining the tarot to superstitious Catholics I explain that the cards themselves have no power, nor by doing readings am I invoking some unholy force, but that simply through the construction of narrative and the reading of symbol the reader and the querent together open a window into the querent's own mind-- the absurdity and distance of it allows us to examine ourselves in a new light-- man is very adept at interpreting things such that they make sense to him, and so we are able to map the symbols of the tarot onto our own lives and use them to help us think through our problems in novel ways.

Dreams are much the same. There is the simple fact, first of all, that the majority of the time dreams reflect what we spend most of our waking time thinking about. Now we get to why my dream bothered me so much: even in the moments before I would face my Creator, I thought nothing of Him, my sinfulness, my unrepentence. This unsettled me because I knew its message to be true: I spend all of my time indulging vanity, pettiness, vindictiveness, self-pity-- and none of it, no matter how many Christian blogs I read, strengthening my relationship with God.

Had I been good enough to ask myself whether my spiritual state was healthy, I would have known the answer-- but I didn't, and we are all of us very, very good at letting such questions sit in the recesses of our minds wholly ignored.

There is some part of us, however, that ignores the superficially self-preserving biases of our fully conscious selves, and that gives voice to the long ignored questions that sit quietly smoldering so long.

The tarot is one way of seeing them, and dreams another.

I think the long tradition of dream interpretation among superstitious folks of all stripes is an example of what I'll dub "unearned knowledge"-- things that are valuable, good, true, that were such long before they were vetted by science or philosophy. The old German saying alluding to symptoms of cystic fibrosis I mentioned last week is another such example. Tradition and culture bear more than we know-- that's essentially the point! This isn't to suggest that the hard sciences are simply rediscovering already known truths, although sometimes they do, but simply that we be humble in evaluating "absurd" cultural practices, and that we be truly liberal in our open-mindedness, and truly open in our scientific curiosity.


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