I have some recurring dreams from time to time, all with the same fundamental themes of guilt, shame and failure. My brain’s Dreams Productions isn’t very creative.
Why? It could be trying very hard to tell me something. I think it’s a bit of a miswiring- a sort of PTSD-lite, an evolutionary hangup meant to protect me from harm and danger. This danger no longer exists, or perhaps never truly existed.
Anyway, the dreams. I’d like to address them, and hopefully “resolve” them so I don’t have them anymore. They’re not debilitating, but they do reduce my quality of life. I’m curious about what other interesting dreams I could be having if I stopped having these ones.
1: The first and most persistent dream is grounded in School. I dream about being a student, being late to school, forgetting to do my homework, being insufficiently prepared for examinations, getting into trouble. My parents get called up, my teachers get upset, and so on. My associations and connotations with school are predominantly negative. Perhaps to address this I should visit my old school, or talk to my teachers, or just meditate and reflect on this for as long as I have to. I was always a bit of an outsider and an outcast.
I’m no longer entirely sure of what my thoughts were about my circumstances at the time- each time I reconstruct my memories, I corrupt them slightly with new information, new knowledge, new perspectives.
What’s always been kind of surprising is that I feel like I wasn’t all that bothered by school. Or I think that’s how I felt. It’s hard to say. But I have some data points from when I was at my most stressed and anxious. I have writings in diaries from the time where I made plans to study, failed, and then beat myself up over it. I constructed extensive rationalizations to try and explain my failure and misfit. Sour grapes- I convinced myself that I didn’t really want to do well, that I didn’t like the system and simply couldn’t play along, couldn’t jump through the hoops. I told my GP tutor as much, this I remember. I remember an older adult friend telling me on a separate occasion that as I grew older I was going to have to learn to do things that I didn’t like doing.
I suppose there is sometimes (often? almost always?) a kernel of truth in every instance of suffering. If you’re suffering from internalizing a falsehood, the truth itself will set you free. That’s relatively easy to do. But the hard part comes when it turns out that… even after you subtract the anger, resentment, guilt and shame, you find that you were indeed responsible (to some degree) for whatever damage was done. The withering criticisms of close friends hurt the most, not just because of the sense of betrayal (which may or may not be misguided- obsessing over this is a chronic loop), but because they were probably right in some way that you know to be true. Yet it’s usually difficult or painful to acknowledge. We focus on the delivery of the message, and the inaccuracies, but the fundamental message can still be valid, useful.
The challenge is to acknowledge the failures without adding more anger/resentment/guilt/shame to the mix. Or even a sort of righteousness or delight at the moment of acknowledgement. Not only is it damaging and counter-productive , it distracts from the hard, unsexy work of correcting whatever was mislaid to begin with.
So in my case- my failure as a student was multifaceted. The response from my context was blunt and imperfect, which is understandable because people are blunt and imperfect and I am not at the center of anybody else’s universe. My reaction to that response was also blunt, wanton- carpet bombing.
Why did I fail as a student? Partially because of who I was, partially because I was never taught properly in a system that wasn’t designed to handle me, partially because I didn’t have the right context, perspectives, role models, attitudes. I was relatively powerless and used what little power I had in a very unenlightened, blind, messy way. I’d panic, kick up a dust, and get even further blinded.
This is why meditation is so important. It lets the dust settle.
I imagine the next stage will involve transcending the need to rationalize and reason through the dust. Guilt, shame, anger, bargaining, reflecting, eventually truly letting go. I have not let go yet, but it’s dawning on me that I will, eventually. (Death is the final limit- I can’t hold on to anything when we die, there won’t be an I to do any holding. So the next question is- how long do I want to play this game of pretending that I need to try and hold on to my issues? “Just a little longer,” I hear.) I have not truly forgiven myself. I will. It’s hard work, it’s unfamiliar work. It requires a lot of letting go, a lot of reorientation- which often amusingly seems like “a whole lot of nothing”, which is a waste of time in a world where time should supposedly never be wasted, always spent doing, striving, achieving. But we are human beings, not human doings. Downtime is necessary, even sacred. True downtime.
2: The second set of dreams overlaps with the first, and usually involves me being a disappointment to my loved ones somehow. Some sort of failure, some sort of wrongdoing. The example that comes to my mind is me trying to help some girl cheat on her exams- I tried to reason her out of it at first, but she seemed so pitiful that I felt that I simply had to help her. What’s with the hero complex? I’m not sure. Seems I’ve always had it, but it must have started somewhere. I’ve always had a soft spot for weaker versions of myself. I’m not sure if that will change or if that can be changed, and if it can be changed I’m not sure I should do it. What I do need to change is my approach. I shouldn’t help weaker versions of myself by helping them carry their loads (weakening or stagnating myself in the process). Instead I should strive to be a stronger version of myself.
Here I find myself reflecting on a quote that hit hard- a college professor telling his students, “you all have a bit of save-the-world in you, that’s why you’re here. You need to know that it’s okay even if you only save one person, and it’s okay if that person is you.” Self-love is radical. This isn’t new, it’s probably as old as human existence.
Why do we even want to save the world? Or rule it, conquer it, take it over, dominate it? Why is this such a dominant trope?
I think there’s at least two parts to it. One is that we’ve suffered in some way, or witnessed suffering, and we want to diminish it. The logical final step is the total abolishment of all suffering. (There are lots of different manifestations and interpretations of this. Some are horrific- assuming that some Other is responsible for suffering, and that the Other should be vanquished. Hello Facism. Another is the technocratic approach- solve suffering with science and Google. There’s the “make art, is cathartic” approach. The interesting one is the “Buddhist” one, as I interpret it- that suffering is attachment and illusions. Feels a bit convenient, though maybe ultimately valid/true.)
Another is that we want approval and validation, and there is no better way to be noticed or relevant than to conquer the whole world. At least, it must seem so. I imagine one who pursues conquest to fill a void will, upon completing his conquest, find that he isn’t exactly satisfied.