NDJ:6 Robert J. Winer, MD

It Was Just a Dream . . .

Most of my night dreams are prosaic, nothing to get especially stirred up about, plausible extensions of scenarios from my daily life, no more compelling than a typical daydream. But then there are the occasional vivid dreams, which may have a nightmarish quality or a feeling of joyous transcendence. I awake, and for better or worse they evaporate. It’s these latter dreams I want to talk about.

I don’t have the thought — it was just a dream — when I wake up from a bad dream. I just feel relief then, glad that it’s over and that I’m awake now. And so relieved that the horrible tidings weren’t true. That fluorescent orange junk wasn’t really spewing from the center of my chest, I haven’t been sawed in half and hollowed out, I don’t have just months to live. And I don’t think: it was just a dream.

“It was just a dream” is what I’m thinking when I wake up from a great dream, and that thought signals disappointment, probably bitterness. Why can’t I stage that fabulous show in my real life? Why can’t I fly? Why can’t I be sixteen? Why can’t I have her? That’s the crux of it of course, it was just a dream. But hold on for a second. It was real in the dream. Isn’t that the point of dreams – that they feel entirely true? So why do I discount the experience? Some of the most intensely pleasurable moments of my life have occurred in dreams (along with some of the scariest). Broadly speaking, I have two forms of consciousness — waking and sleeping — and phenomenologically each is totally compelling when I’m in that state.   The reality I experience when I’m dreaming doesn’t feel less real than the reality I live in when I’m awake. So why do I give short shrift to my experience in dreams?

The most obvious reason is that I can’t make them happen and I can’t control them. I’m not in the driver’s seat when I get on roller coasters either, but I do know roughly what the ride will be like, and I’ve chosen to hop on board. Not so with dreams. This is ironic, of course, because the dream is entirely of my own manufacture, even though I don’t have access to its construction. I think the catch is that when I wake up, I cannot choose to fall back asleep and pick up where I left off. (Occasionally that does happen, but certainly not at my bidding.) And in that moment I feel the loss.

The exquisite cruelty of the situation is that, as Freud reminds us, a dream is the realization of a wish. My good dreams aren’t just happy scenarios, movies I’ve stumbled into; they’re expressions of specific longings that are very important to me. That’s the rub. And so, when I awake, I have to bear that the realization of my desire has been deleted: it was just a dream. Moving through my days, I feel the ache of the dreams I can’t realize, the losses that can’t be undone. We try to make the best of what we have. Our lives are narratives of loss and incomplete mourning (it is in the nature of things that mourning will always be incomplete). Contending with our losses, we push forward. We try to reach the clearing of acceptance, the recognition that what has happened cannot be undone, the knowledge that we will always be living in the consequences. We mourn our murdered alternative selves, the roads that could not be taken; we weren’t there.

Memory is both a blessing and a curse, both the warehouse for storing my experiences and the graveyard that never lets me escape my deceased. Dreams are where we revive our memories and longings, breathe life back into them, but just briefly, for they deflate as we awake, leaving us empty-handed, for it was just a dream, a cruel tease. And so the thought “it’s just a dream” becomes a marker for my recognition that there’s no escaping the realities of my life, the choices made, the accidents befallen, the injuries suffered and inflicted. This is my lot. In a recent interview, Woody Allen said that at 73 he can no longer sustain the fantasy that young women would find him desirable. Age brings us that too, the cancellation not only of prospects, but even of musings. But we still have our dreams at night, where life is timeless and anything is possible.

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