Listen to dreams: They might show the way out of this mess

dreams.
“The Way Home” by Shaun Tan (2011) – click for background

I woke up with a vivid dream Saturday morning after a good night’s sleep away from the troubles of the rehab project that has made me a vagabond for the last few weeks. As it turns out, many other people have been dreaming more lately, too — having “coronavirus dreams” now that the stay-at-home has given them more time to get some rest. It’s possible that whole communities or even societies may wake up to something new after we’ve processed what is happening to us during this strange time. I hope it is like waking up to healing and new possibilities.

My dream was full of symbolism and used situations reminiscent of my binge-watch of Sanditon. My memory of the dream begins with saying goodbye to a young protégé as she hops on the bus. I’m worried about her. But she is looking to her future and so interested in what is happening on the bus she doesn’t even wave goodbye.

I go on to my own train, standing in line to go underground. I realize I am in the wrong line and need to run across the street to go the other direction. As I go down the stairs, I have to ask a young man behind me to keep his social distance. I say I will get my mask out and wear it. Then I realize I do not have it because I do not have my briefcase.

I go up to street level and vainly look around until I see a briefcase across the street where I had been in line. There is a collection of them there, but none are mine. Now I am afraid I will not be able to get home, since my briefcase is the “command center.” But then I realize I took my wallet out and it is in my back pocket. At that point I realize I did not even bring my other bag with my clothes. I feel better after I comfort myself with the thought that I won’t need anything in the bags, since it was all worn out and I was intending to replace it, anyway.

My unconscious needs a long sleep to help me process my confused feelings about the period of change I am in! I’d like to be home. In my case, it is my actual new home that is not habitable yet. But it is also a new home for my next life, to which I am traveling. Dreams about going home are often the signs of spiritual development going on. We are built with a longing for Home that keeps reminding us we are on a journey through time. At this point on the journey, I am saying goodbye to attractive parts of me. I am negotiating with ignorant parts of me. I am dealing with anxious parts of me. I am comforted by the sense that I am carrying the most important part of me as I move into what is next. What’s more, I already feel I can let go of much of what I am losing.

Oprah
Chainsaw sculpture of Oprah. (click for background)

Oprah with a chainsaw

That heading is part of the title of Alfred Lubran’s article from the April 23, 2020 Inquirer.

In a person’s dream, Oprah Winfrey deploys a squad of bruisers into the streets to scare up an audience for her show. Her studio is a giant warehouse transformed into a hospital, with mattresses placed six feet apart. Opening the program with upbeat patter, Oprah offers a special surprise: She revs up a chainsaw and cuts off the heads of everyone in the audience.

The Oprah dream was one Deirdre Barrett, a dream researcher from Harvard Med School, collected by surveying 2,000 people throughout the world regarding Covid-19 since March 23. It reflects how we are living now: the feeling of being imprisoned that derives from being quarantined; the fear that something unspeakably bad is happening; the endlessly uttered admonishment to maintain six feet of distance from everyone else. I had a few of those themes in my dream, too!

Since the pandemic hit, we’ve been funneling anxiety into our dreams. Even though we’re asleep, thoughts of the coronavirus continue to spark in our brains. “COVID-19 is worrying our dreaming mind like our waking mind,” Barrett says. “Dreaming is thinking, only in a different state. It’s more emotional, less linear.” Our unconscious process is not censored for logic or appropriateness in the same way our conscious process is.

Joannie Yeh, a pediatrician from Media, had a virus-linked dream not long ago set in the Conshohocken IKEA, a favorite spot her family visited for hours on Saturdays.

In her dream, the store was closing, and she suddenly realized no one was wearing a mask or standing six feet apart. “It was strange because I was concerned, yet I was so happy to be there,” she said. “It felt nice to be among people again.”

A couple of elements didn’t add up in Mark Berman’s dream, either. A South Philadelphia graphic designer, he has a fear of heights.

Yet, in his subconscious, he was hiking along a snowy cliff — and smiling. Suddenly, he fell, but he caught hold of a ledge that saved his life. Soon enough, Berman found himself harnessed, first being yanked upward, then learning how to climb on his own. He accelerated as he ascended the cliff, which turned into the balconies at the Academy of Music. “A voice in my head was saying, ‘You’ll get through this,’ ” Berman said. “ ‘Just pull yourself up.’ ”

More sleeping means more dreaming

What Barrett is learning from her survey is that people are recalling more dreams than they ever have, and that the dreams seem more emotionally charged. Because many of us are sheltering in place and not working, we sleep longer. The longer sleep means more dreams and more memories of them. Dreams are loaded into sleep later in the night. We dream every 90 minutes when we go into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Each REM period of dreaming lengthens the more hours we sleep. So, if we sleep eight hours, the last REM period (the sixth or seventh overall in the night) is the longest, and can last for 30 minutes. “Typically,” Barrett said, “our last REM is when we have the most vivid dreams. The longer we sleep, the more intensively we’re catching up on our dreams.”

In her survey, people had either literal dreams that depicted precise aspects of the virus, or metaphorical ones that reflected the panic and chaos people are experiencing. She heard from dreamers who saw themselves get infected, then become unable to breathe. They sought medical help but couldn’t make it to the hospital. The biggest cluster of metaphoric dreams was about bugs, Barrett said: writhing worms, advancing cockroaches, grasshoppers chomping with vampire fangs. “We use the word bug to describe an unseen sickness,” Barrett said. That’s likely why we dream of them attacking.

By far the worst dreams Barrett discovered were endured by health-care professionals: “They were full-on, classic trauma nightmares.” Doctors and nurses were unable to slide tubes down patients’ throats. Ventilators choked to a halt. Injections became impossible as every needle broke. In some cases, patients turned into zombies who attacked anyone with a face mask. Other virus victims had to be chained to beds to keep them from killing neighbors. Doctors felt huge guilt in their dreams, as though they’d infected patients.

In one of the worst images, Barrett said, an Italian physician trying to get a better angle to intubate a patient stood on the hospital bed and lost his balance. He fell out the window, grabbing the patient who plunged with him. On the street, the doctor emerged without a scratch, but the patient had been beheaded.

“Healthcare givers’ dreams look as bad as a wartime population’s,” Barrett said. “They were uniformly horrible, and there was not a single mastery dream among them where they helped the patient live.” It is no wonder that many healthcare workers are already imagining a time “after the war” when they can get out of uniform for good!

The gift of dreams

Dreams can feel horrible or wonderful, or both in the course of a few minutes. It helps to discuss them. Parents will help their children if they take the time to listen. Instead of dismissing “bad” dreams or saying, “Don’t pay attention to them,” it is better to share them. Sharing in a safe place can defang them, if needed. The more we talk about our dreams, the better we understand them and the better we can deal with the stress they often represent.

In the Bible, as you probably know, dreams are often the place where people are given prophetic words or direction in the middle of distressing situations. Think of Joseph in prison (waking up, above) or Joseph and the holy family about to be hunted by Herod. Sometimes people wonder why no one seems to get these spiritually-supercharged dreams anymore. For one thing, they do get them. For another, Deirdre Barrett might remind us, people don’t sleep like they used to sleep. Their mindspace has been colonized by Dreamworks.

Lately, our pastors have been dreaming about who we are as the church in the new era that may follow the lockdown. These six distressing weeks, and counting, have also provided some space to dream as a whole community. As in my dream, I think we are seeing what we have that is most important. The pastor team and our other leaders and staff have been gelling in new ways and seeing the future in new ways. Our businesses got clobbered and will re-emerge in new ways. I hope the whole society feels chastened and comes back with a new look at reality after we see what callous capitalism has done to the poor, the sick and the imprisoned, and we see what our incompetent and strangely uncaring leaders are really doing in Washington, while the local and state leaders come through for us.

Maybe you are not privileged to start dreaming positive dreams yet. Your dreams may be more filled with trauma than with a bright future. I can certainly understand that. I hope you are finding a place to talk them over in your cell, your family, or with your pastor or therapist. The final end of the virus nightmare is uncertain, but that end will surely come.

If you feel unsuccessful at turning into a new mindset or dealing with your anxiety you can still have moments when you join in the community’s dreams. There is something new forming among us (maybe even in the whole country). I don’t think anyone is left out of it. Even if parts of us seem to be going in all sorts of directions and the cityscape of our insides is full of threats, the message to me was that the riches I need are still in my back pocket. We’ll make it home if we stay on the way of Jesus.

About Rod White

Pastor for Circle of Hope, http://circleofhope.net , grandparent, church planter, peacemaker, comrade, spiritual director, psychotherapist, silence lover

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