Thursday, Dec 1, 2022

Homeland Insecurity

In a perfect World

My husband suggested the title of this column, and it is a suitable one, I think. My own idea was to call the piece “Domestic Terror.” And, no, this article is not about ISIS or Al-Qaeda or any of their unsavory brethren. What I want to talk about is dreams.

Dreams are a big part of our lives. Most of us spend close to one-third of our lives asleep, and we spend a good portion of our sleep time lost in dreams. Some of those dreams can be extremely lifelike, stirring up emotions that we recognize all too well from our real lives. Others seem silly, a hodge-podge of bizarre scenarios with no rhyme or reason. And sometimes, if we’re lucky, we’ll have a dream that seems to touch on another dimension beyond this physical one.

The kind of dreams I’d like to focus on here are the ones that drag buried, or not-so-buried, feelings up from the silt of our unconscious mind.

I’m talking about the kind of dreams that our subconscious puts out there for mysterious reasons of its own. Such as, for example, the recurring dream that I’ve had, on and off, for many years now.

In the dream, I am about to host a whole slew of guests for Shabbos or yom tov. Then, on the very eve of that special day as I wait for my guests to arrive, I suddenly realize that I haven’t prepared a morsel for them to eat! Worse, I haven’t even shopped for supplies yet.

In the most recent iteration of the dream, I run down to the stores, conscious of the minutes ticking past and the enormity of the job ahead of me. In the supermarket, I remember that I have no meat or chicken and dash over to a kosher butcher store located conveniently right next door. There I am told to wait for half an hour until the store opens, when I will be the first customer in line. I spend the wait time trying to figure out just how many pounds of chicken cutlets I’ll need, for an indeterminate number of guests coming for an unknown number of meals. Talk about stress!

As you can imagine, I woke up feeling quite relieved to find that this painful ordeal had been nothing more than a dream.

I have entertained this kind of dream scenario from time to time throughout my married life. It is indubitably deserves the label “homeland insecurity.” When floundering through these particular dreams, I find myself experiencing a highly developed degree of “domestic terror.” A variation of the dream has me standing in line to board a plane for Eretz Yisroel—only to realize that I’ve forgotten to pack a suitcase. Help!

It’s not much of a jump to figure out that such dreams tap into every balebusta’s fear of not doing well by her guests. It also conjures up a universal fear of being unprepared in general. Maybe even a smidgin of fear about “packing our bags” and “setting our tables” for the transition from this world to the next. Who knows?

*****

Whatever one think of Sigmund Freud’s theories in general, he did the world a favor by introducing the concept of the unconscious. There is a layer of subliminal thoughts and feelings that underlies our daily, conscious experiences like magma beneath the earth’s crust.

Locked away out of sight, it is impossible to gain direct access to this layer. So we try to get a look at it indirectly, by examining things like our life choices, our compulsions, our neuroses, and our dreams. There is a plentitude of clues to be found in all of these areas. Clues that tell us a little bit about what is seething beneath the surface, the plethora of memories and emotions which we’ve buried deep. Those memories and emotions just may be the key to unlocking a closed door that has stopped you from understanding something about yourself. Who knows?

One way to gain access to the subconscious is to keep a dream journal. I tried this once. For a few weeks, I kept a notebook near my bed and used it to jot down the dreams that I remembered, immediately after waking.

Morning after morning, I kept a faithful record of the odd, disjointed and often inexplicable places I traveled to in my dreams. At first, the dreams were a disappointment. They seemed to be nothing more than disconnected morsels of nonsense which offered no new insights. Then, one day, I decided to read through the whole list of dream accounts at once, starting from the time I’d begun to record them. The results were surprising. Individually, the dreams might seem to mean nothing. When I followed the trail of my nightly dreams, however, I discovered a pattern.

Themes that I had missed when I focused on just one dream at a time suddenly manifested themselves clearly when repeated, in different contexts, in a whole slew of them. A central theme was hidden behind a wealth of different backgrounds, people and activities. But when all those extraneous things were stripped away, the message was the same. A message from my subconscious!

To tell the truth, I don’t even remember what the message was. But I do remember the thrill of uncovering it through a close perusal of my dream journal. Like a good teacher, my subconscious had been presenting the lesson to me in many guises, attacking the issue from a different angle night after night.

Eventually, like a particularly thick-headed student, I finally managed to “get” it. But only through seeing the totality of the dream chain. By discarding the obvious differences among the dreams and dismissing trivial or irrelevant details, I was able to coax out the single, shining thread that linked them all.

*****

Not everybody is interested in what their subconscious has to tell them. But everyone can benefit from having a troublesome riddle answered while they sleep, or from finding the solution to a thorny problem while they dream. Speaking personally, on more than one occasion I’ve dreamed the plot of my next story! Hashem has given us brains that continue working even when our bodies are on vacation. How handy is that?

Apart from the fascination of unraveling our own dreams, it’s also fun to figure out those of people close to us. It can be intriguing to witness another person’s fears and joys, as presented through all sorts of obfuscating analogies. The woman who runs around in a frenzy, trying to slam shut every window in a tall skyscraper lest one of her dream-children ventures too close… The man who walks through an empty house, delighting in the discovery of unforeseen corridors and doors that lead into new and ever more interesting rooms. The character from your past who appears to scold you for not washing out a pot correctly… And so on, ad infinitum. The list is as endless and as variegated as there are human beings.

They say that eyes are windows to the soul. Gazing into someone’s eyes can give you a peek into their thoughts and feelings, but dreams can do the trick, too. You may want to share yours with someone close to you and see what they have to say about it, or you may choose to keep your dreams to yourself for your own personal analysis. Either way, maintaining a dream journal is fun, and the insights into your inner life which may emerge can be truly eye-opening.

There’s a lot to be gained from getting to know yourself better. And your ticket to doing just that may be found in the dramas that take place inside your head when you lay it on your pillow at night. Who knows?

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