Why Do We Dream?

Would a life of only agreeable experiences be as rich and profound as a life of at least some struggle and suffering?

✎  Wayne K. Spear | February 1, 2018 • Personal Essay

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HY DO WE DREAM? Why the dreams of stress and misery, of being lost, of wandering, missing the train and having no phone nor money, sometimes not even clothing. The dreams are always of failure and disappointment, always of appointments about to be missed. A wrong bus taken, a wrong turn on a highway that allows no going back. And there I find myself, alone, in a wilderness, sometimes at a border I must but cannot cross. There is a sense of urgency, a deadline, a nameless necessary place I cannot reach. There is no one to call, nowhere to go. What is to be done?

I pick up the boxes or the bags, or whatever burden I am compelled to carry. A wagon, or a set of luggage. Something awkward and useless, but indispensable, on a path of deep mud. A cold wind, water, rough stones underfoot. It is dark, and the rain is heavy. My vision is obscured, by snow or by fog. I am miles from anywhere, from everywhere, arms filled with something that does not help me on the voyage but which I must carry, for reasons unknown. I don’t know who has given me these possessions, if that’s what they are, or where I will take them. There is always one thing I have managed to drop or otherwise misplace—the one, critical thing. A passport or a receipt, a map, instructions, a phone number. It is gone, and though I search for it again and again, I find nothing. I cannot go home or reach my destination. I am suspended in a story with no arc and no momentum. I may well remain here forever.

The landscape changes in an instant. I am on a bus, but now I am in a boat. We reach the shore, and I step out, but the dry land is suddenly an ocean and the boat is slipping away too fast for me to swim. I call out but no one hears, and I watch the boat get smaller and then vanish. The ocean becomes desert. I drag my belongings through deep sand. Nothing makes sense. Why am I in a desert? I know only that there is an appointment which must be kept. To miss it is to suffer an unbearable blow. I must find a phone. I must let them know that I have been delayed, that I am doing my best to arrive, only give me more time. I am trying as best I can, I will tell them, and I will be there. Just give me more time.

I have this dream almost every night. A dream of terror from which I wake in a panic, my heart pounding. My mind torments me in my sleep for reasons I cannot understand. I am lost without recourse and the world I have known slips away, but there is nothing I can do. A dream that means nothing, that warns me of nothing, that solves nothing. Why do I dream?

A night arrives when I lie down for sleep and I tell my mind the dream I want to have when I am gone. Where I have got this idea, I can’t say. It is an experiment, an act of desperation. I describe the dream in as much detail as I can manage. I don’t want to leave anything to chance. So I describe what I am doing in the dream, perhaps floating in water (but not drowning!) or flying in air (but not pursued!) and I choose a place, also, such as the tropics or a Mediterranean port town, Venice, or a house from my childhood. And the people I want to see there, I specify this too. What will we talk about? The happy times, things that draw laughter, beauty. All that is impossible in life, I describe. The departed will be there. I will breathe underwater. I will have dinner with the dead and a journey into space. I know that my mind has an agenda, to introduce monsters, so I interpolate the fantastic on my own terms. There will be palaces and ocean creatures and other-worldly beings, not of the menacing variety but come to reunite with their sundered kin.

They come not bearing unresolved guilt, but joy. Everything that has been buried remains buried, including the mind, submerged and inscrutable, burdened by its inheritance and longing to be set free. And so I am clear about my desire. I would prefer not to see the half-rotted faces, the ghosts, the brutal finality of cul-de-sacs. I don’t wish to be trapped or lost or set on a fool’s errand. I want to feel love, and not terror or sadness. I tell this to my mind as I prepare for sleep. I know that life is loss and pain, but if one can confect a dream, then why not a dream of happiness?

To my surprise I find that this works, even if imperfectly. The departed return to sit for tea. There is no grief, no dragging of luggage through a useless desert. I discover that the imagination invents pleasure as easily as it invents pain. Would a life of only agreeable experiences be as rich and profound as a life of at least some struggle and suffering? Perhaps, but this is invention, not life. In life, no one chooses the losses, the pain, the tragedy. In life, one is chosen.

The suffering return from their journey bearing wisdom. We whisper in their presence, awkwardly, our faces grown longer. Wherever they go, those who suffer find streets of dark water, and when we stumble upon them we phrase our greeting with care. They did not ask for the journey, and we don’t want to know too much about it, but they return holding a marvellous gem that they alone can explain. A gem from a dream of the departed who haunt them. A dream not of the day but of the relentless, interminable day. A fascinating gem that I do not want to ever hold.

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