Dreaming – the Message and the Medium, part 3

V.

So, to recap, emotions, mood, feeling tones are important in dreams, but they are also easy to overlook, either because the implications are uncomfortable ones or just through jumping to conclusions. It was the latter that happened with this dream last year.

In the dream, I’m in a grocery store with my mother—probably at a younger age, though it isn’t clear—and looking at the foods there. They have all sorts of interesting and exotic things. Purple coconuts! Blue kiwi fruit! Spiny melons! I go looking for something to eat on the car ride back—something I could never get anywhere else— and happen across a bun wrapped in clear plastic. It appears to be of the Asian variety, though the label declares it to be a Chocolate Mustard Bio Bun (with bogus trading cards). Sure, why not? But I decide to pick out a drink as well, just in case it turns out to be really foul.

The first thing I might note about the dream is that there’s an obvious reason why I might have found myself in such a scenario that night:  a couple days before the dream, I had caught the nasty stomach bug that had been making its way through the household, and I had eaten practically nothing since then. I hadn’t recovered enough to be hungry when the dream took place, but if the desire for food was there subconsciously, that would make it a classic case of dreaming as wish fulfillment.

I think many people would be inclined to find this a satisfactory explanation of the dream— but it’s just scratching the surface.  There are many details where the explanation falls short—to start with, the fact that I dreamed about choosing food to eat rather than eating it, and that curiosity seems to be the driving motive rather than hunger. Being (subconsciously) hungry may have contributed to the form the dream took, but there’s more to it than that.

DSCF9297_1
(Image Source)

Let’s consider that food. I could summarize my culinary philosophy pretty well with “sure, why not?” I’ve eaten pastries labeled only in Korean on many occasions, and if I do get excited about something in a grocery store, it usually is some kind of weird fruit, as in the dream. This is all familiar territory—but why this dream, on this night? Does it have to do with something more significant that’s been on my mind, perhaps?

I noticed that, in the dream, I was concerned with making a choice among many options. And that observation alone was enough for me to draw a connection with my waking life at the time:  I was deciding how I would spend the winter break. It was December 29—just a couple days before the new year, which was my deadline for making up my mind. It wasn’t exactly New Year’s resolutions, since I was planning to have everything done by the end of February, but it was the same basic idea.

In considering the dream, I wondered whether the decision my dream-self made was really a good one. Is choosing how I spend the break a decision I should be making so indiscriminately? In Germany, after all, mustard-filled doughnuts are a prank food—you’re supposed to trick your friends into eating them, not pick them out yourself. That they’re associated with New Year’s is another reason to think this fact is relevant. And then there are those trading cards, which are apparently “bogus”—that also casts doubt on the decision. In the dream, I was simply indifferent to them—but I could connect them to trying to “collect” information, which is something that I might easily spend the break doing. Untrammeled curiosity has its advantages, but it can easily turn into a way to avoid doing things that require real effort.

Is that really something I want? No, it isn’t. Time is precious, and the dream is showing that I’m not taking the decision of how to spend it seriously enough—or at least, that’s what I thought until the following night.

VI.

The following night, I dreamed that I was a part of a class in some sort of dojo-like situation. There was a new student there, a boy. But later in the dream, he went missing, and so I had to go out to search for him. I figured that it was probably a prank of some kind that the animals there had played—there were many of them there, of all different kinds, and they had been gathering together and acting strangely. Through questioning them, I began to suspect that a certain insect-eating bird was behind it. Two ponies went by, each carrying two large baskets on their sides, but I didn’t stop to search them:  I knew the ponies were far too sensible for this sort of thing.

But later on, it turned out that one of them had been carrying the boy, asleep, in one of the baskets. I followed them with a boat along a small river until I reached the grove where they had brought him. It turned out that the boy was from Wales, and missed his home, and they were trying to help by taking him there. I thought that perhaps we could work things out so that he’d be happier here.

The dream left me wondering whether I had interpreted yesterday’s properly—one point in particular. In the dream analysis of the previous day, I had identified the chocolate mustard bio bun as a prank food; in this dream, I identified something as a prank but turned out to be wrong about it. Was I also wrong about the dream interpretation? It could be a coincidence, but coincidence is the sort of non-explanation that prevents you from ever reaching a real one, and so I’ve got to take a closer look at this dream too.

The setting here seems to be mostly the work of imagination—I can’t link it to a real place, although it is vaguely reminiscent of the wildlife hospital where I once worked. Certainly, it’s the only place I’ve lived where I was surrounded by such a wide variety of animals, though usually not running around freely, as in the dream.

Other than that, the associations to the animals don’t seem to lead me anywhere. But the ‘received wisdom’ on animals in dreams that is currently in circulation—I think it originated with Carl Jung—is that they tend to represent the ‘wilder’ parts of you—instincts, drives, strong emotions, that sort of thing. That would make for an interesting interpretation here. One of the most common nightmare-scenarios is being pursued by a wild animal of some kind—but there’s no question of threat with the animals in this dream. They’re free, but not out of control – I even seem to be able to communicate with them somehow. And when a problem occurs, my response is not to panic, but simply to round up the usual suspects—and, in the end, to admit that a couple of them knew better than I do. If this is what’s going on in the dream, it’s quite a positive snapshot of intrapsychic relations—I doubt it’s something you’d see without at least a few years of working with dreams.

Ponies do seem to be a particularly steady, trustworthy kind of animal—clever ones, too. I understand that some people probably have quite different associations with ponies—but mine mostly come from dealing with one pony in particular. This makes the task of interpreting much easier than it would be, say, for someone who spent their life working with horses, since I don’t have so many memories or facts to sort through. Possibly relevant to the dream, this particular pony was adept at untying his own tether, and those of other animals as well—which did lead to them running around loose on occasion.

There are lots of ponies in Wales, right? So there probably is a connection of some kind there. But actually, the reference is a little puzzling since I don’t know much about Wales. Not even its stereotypes. Yes, those are a type of association, and not being nice doesn’t keep them from showing up in dreams, especially when there aren’t any personal associations to draw on. In practice, the things we know almost nothing about are the easiest to interpret of all – again, because there’s not so much sorting to do. I sometimes suspect they’re more likely to show up in dreams because there’s none of the ambiguity that comes with actual experience. Oh, well. Let’s see what the English have to say—courtesy of Flanders and Swann.

 

Flanders and Swann
(Image Source)

 

“A Song of Patriotic Prejudice”

 

The English, the English, the English are best

I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest.

The rottenest bits of these islands of ours

We’ve left in the hands of three unfriendly powers

Examine the Irishman, Welshman or Scot

You’ll find he’s a stinker, as likely as not.

(Skip ahead a bit.)

The Welshman’s dishonest and cheats when he can

And little and dark, more like monkey than man

He works underground with a lamp in his hat

And he sings far too loud, far too often, and flat!

 

Oh, right—music. The bardic tradition and such. Thank you, Flanders and Swann. I had somehow forgotten that.  And actually, when I look at the excessively long list of things I’m considering spending my break doing, there’s something that I now notice isn’t there— music. This dream isn’t explicitly offering advice– but could it be calling attention to that?

That was about as far as I had got by that evening. I had made some headway with the dream, but I still hadn’t cleared up the matter of how it was connected to the first one, and so it was still on my mind.

We had a guest for dinner that night—a friend of my aunt’s and uncle’s I had met only once before. I was still not quite on good terms with food again, but was present anyway. My uncle, as usual, hogged the conversation, mostly talking about the home improvement shows he’d been watching while he’d been down with the stomach bug. Our guest was not familiar with any of them, she said, but she did watch cooking shows—there was one she liked in which two teams of contestants each received a basket full of food—

Basket? At that word, she had my undivided attention. I’ve seen some pretty odd things happen over the years, many of them in connection with my dreams, and it would not surprise me so much if something odd were happening right now.

– and they had to use everything in the basket to make a meal, which often resulted in dishes with bizarre combinations of ingredients.

And that’s the solution right there—that’s why the bun isn’t a prank. It’s about including everything – thus the mix of national influences as well as the mix of ingredients – just as the second dream is about including everyone. I should mix things together, combine them, even if it might have some rather strange results.

In retrospect, it was clear that there was something important I had failed to consider in the first dream:  the mood of excitement that characterized it. It was not an unpleasant dream, and there was nothing in the dream itself that implied there was anything questionable about my attitude—other than the “bogus trading cards,” which I probably gave too much weight to. In the dream, I did not make them a factor in the decision at all, and that was actually a good response.  But I did not take account of that when I was considering it later, and so ended up going in a wrong direction—whereas I might have been able to figure it out if I had gone back to consider the dream more globally.

This is quite a good solution, but it leaves me with an even bigger question:  what the hell just happened? What are the chances of being handed the key to the problem like that from someone who couldn’t possibly have known they were doing it? There is a name for this kind of thing—synchronicity—but a name is not an explanation. I doubt I would have ever understood the second dream if it hadn’t happened; I rarely watch TV, I don’t think I’ve ever sat down to watch a cooking show, and I had never even heard of this one. It’s almost as if the dream were following associations that shouldn’t have been there yet—like day residue coming a day early.

But several months later, something finally occurred to me. There is the remote possibility that Katya, who does watch cooking shows, mentioned it at some point—once, I had even filmed her application as a contestant to one. That was between six to eight years ago, and while I couldn’t for the life of me say what the show’s name was now, I can’t think of many reasons why one would choose to make a soup out of jellyfish.

But I can guarantee that even if the knowledge of the show’s premise was already there, I would never have figured it out if the conversation hadn’t taken place that night. I only went to the trouble of dredging up the memories because something so unusual had happened, and it was only because it had happened that I knew what to look for. Otherwise, it would have just been another dream that remained a mystery.

-to be continued-

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Dreaming – the Message and the Medium, Part 2

III.

Dream incubation is the practice of trying to influence one’s future dreams while one is awake. This can involve anything from elaborate rituals to simply focusing on one’s intentions during the day.

Once again, the degree to which the dreamer is personally invested in the attempt seems to be the key variable for its success, but in an experimental context, this is very difficult to control for. To give a group of people a common intention for a dream incubation is like giving them a list of New Year’s resolutions to follow. You wouldn’t expect as high of a success rate as you would in people who were dedicated enough to make their own. And even when researchers have dreamers choose their own intentions, as some have, successes are rare—which is understandable, as people aren’t always as dedicated as they think they are.  The success itself is the surest measure of how strong the intention was*, but that doesn’t pass muster when the influence of intentions on dreams is what you’re trying to investigate in the first place.

But even if the circumstances that make for success are compatible with laboratory conditions, there’d still be a problem:  the response would probably not be comprehensible without interpretation. It might not even be recognizable as a response—if not to the dreamer, whose privileged relationship with his own dream often translates into a privileged understanding, then certainly not to a researcher who is duty-bound to ignore hunches of this sort.

Interpretation is considered even more dubious than incubation in scientific circles, and indeed, it may not be possible to demonstrate success using quantitative methods. Philosophers have considered a similar problem –  how to judge the accuracy of translation and, more generally, interpretation – but haven’t found a satisfying solution. It seems that there’s no way to prove that someone isn’t talking nonsense when they’re speaking a language you don’t understand. All you can do is trust that something meaningful is taking place—philosophers call this the principle of charity— and use the process of elimination to figure out what it might be. Success results in a fluent interaction – but there is no independent standard that can be appealed to.

This is no small concern within philosophy. In America, and, I would suppose, in other places where analytic philosophy is the dominant tradition, the principle of charity might be one of the first things that a student learns about in an introductory-level class. Professors know that it’s easy not to understand a book when you start with the assumption that it’s going to be nonsense; making sense of something is an active process for a which a null-hypothesis attitude constitutes a refusal to engage with a work beyond a superficial level. It’s basically an intellectual form of passive-aggression. Consequently, they try to keep students from falling into that trap. But scientists don’t seem to be as charitable as philosophers:  in a scientific experiment, trust as a condition of success automatically introduces the problem of confirmation bias—a problem it is far easier to avoid dealing with than to resolve.

But my own fieldwork, at any rate, suggests that there is more to dream interpretation than the confirmation bias at work. Once I had started working intensively with my dreams, I soon figured out that what I wrote in my journal often provided the impetus for dreams, and my notes on those dreams provided the impetus for yet more dreams. Such exchanges took place spontaneously, and I found what I wrote being corrected more often than I found it being confirmed. I learned a great deal about dreams from books, websites and various articles, but after a certain point, I was mainly learning from the dreams themselves.

This is why it is difficult to deceive yourself for long when you regularly engage in dream interpretation—at least, if you want to understand more than you want to see your beliefs confirmed, which is always going to be the sticking point. It is possible to interpret dreams incorrectly, but the process is self-correcting if you’re willing and able to receive corrections. This doesn’t remove the possibility of confirmation bias in any given case, but it strongly suggests that there are other factors involved—in other words, that finding meaning in dreams is not itself a species of self-delusion.

But it is unreasonable to expect either confirmation or correction from your dreams unless you’ve already made a fair start at interpreting. If you’re sifting through dozens of dream-reports for the occasional thing you understand, it’s just not possible. Without a certain level of precision, there’s no opportunity for correction, and no way that corrections could be conveyed to you anyway.

Even an absolute beginner, though, might find it useful to see how the process plays out. And just as it’s easier to get a grasp on the grammar of a language when you can see mistakes and corrections as well as successful instances, there’s a lot to be learned by seeing how an interpretation goes amiss.

IV.

But first, the basic principle—what it’s like when you get an interpretation right.

One of the features of dreams that is hardest to define is mood— the emotional “connotations” of people, objects and events, or of the dream as a whole. Overlooking mood is one of the easiest mistakes to make when you’re trying to understand your own dreams—at least, I often find that to be the case.

But I have to think this one is particularly prone to being overlooked because it’s so individual, and often seems to be at odds with what takes place in the dream. We don’t have a very good vocabulary for talking about mood, either—statements like “the place had a melancholy atmosphere” or “he had a sinister air about him” are the best we can do without getting poetic. And if you jump to a conclusion based on preconceived notions of what a dream means, those subtle, hard-to-define qualities have a way of vanishing from consciousness.

Here’s an example of what I mean by mood, and why it’s so important.

A while back, I had a dream where I had gone to a vaguely work-like place and found that many of my co-workers were dressed in beautiful Roman military uniforms. (This would have been a good time to realize, “Hang on, I’m probably dreaming—“ but my response was more along the lines of “I guess they’ve finally replaced flannel Fridays with something interesting.”) During most of the dream, I felt rather dejected for reasons that weren’t clear—it was one of those dreams without much of a plot.

Once awake, it was easy enough to connect the dream with concerns involving my workplace. I work as a transcriber, and what I record there is almost always less interesting than what I spend my free time writing—blog posts like this one, among other things.

Transcribing is a job where uniformity is the all-important principle. It’s the nature of the work, of course, but on occasions, even correctness takes a second place to it. There’s often more than one correct way of writing something, but they want everything to be consistent, and so it has to be one way rather than another. And it kills me little bit inside every time I have to write a German word without the umlaut or the compensatory ‘e’ after the letter. Do they think they’re just there to look pretty, or what?** And the job is one that requires physical endurance for me as well as the prolonged concentration it requires from everyone: sitting for a few hours a day is hard on my back.

Both these factors make the military context*** an appropriate representation—particularly the Romans, whose soldiers were well-known for their mass efficiency and for virtues like loyalty and stoicism. As you might expect from a people who borrowed their entire Pantheon from the Greeks, they were not known for their originality– something else that makes them an appropriate representation.

Caesar at the Battle of Alesia
(Image Source)

So the connection is made—I know which set of concerns I’m dealing with—and at this point, it becomes important to look at the details. In the dream, I find the uniforms beautiful. They evoke positive feelings, and that makes it impossible for me to read the dream as a critique of the people who are wearing it. Just think of all the less attractive ways I could have represented a group of people with the characteristics I’ve just described. And although the reason for my unhappiness in the dream was not made explicit, the fact that there is obviously something off about my own attitude emphasizes the same point:  there’s something positive there that I’m not seeing.

Many dreams draw attention to things that we miss in waking life, and often it’s the things that we would prefer not to see. This dream a very mild example, but I still could have considered it and thought: “This dream is about my workplace, which I find unpleasant. Roman virtues are boring, and I like the Greeks better anyway. The dream is showing me that I’m out of my element there, and unhappiness is the natural consequence of that.” And I could have supported such an interpretation with every part of the dream—except the beauty. And except for the fact that I would be finding nothing there I didn’t already know, which ought to raise a red flag anyway. Dreams have the power to change the way we see things, but not when we filter them through our present way of seeing as we interpret.

-to be continued-

 

*I’m sure many readers will be quick to disagree on this point, especially those who have tried to incubate a dream or induce lucidity and not had it work, in spite of wanting it a lot. I don’t consider this a counterexample because I think there’s more to the self than the bit that you experience as you, and the other bits have to be on board as well.

**To their credit, this problem has actually been fixed since the time of the dream.

***I’m sure that every dreamer has his or own themes, settings and so on that recur for no obvious reason; warfare is one of mine. When you find yourself having to interpret dreams with, say, military settings time after time, and you find them leading you to quite varied sets of concerns, the recurrence itself eventually calls for explanation.

I’m sure there are non-obvious reasons for this, and probably very interesting ones— but considered practically, it doesn’t really matter where such patterns originate. The important thing is becoming aware of how they subtly push us to view matters in one particular light rather than others.  On the theoretical side, this is also of interest because you would not expect to find such patterns if dreams arose as a sort of deterministic response to waking-life input. Our preferred metaphors may be appropriate for our waking-life concerns, but others may have been equally appropriate.

Dreaming – the Message and the Medium

…The next part of the dream took place in a museum.  Katya and Nina were there with me, some distance back, and there were many cats around.  On a raised platform in a sandy area was the statue of a three-headed dragon-like creature made of some black material.  A woman stood nearby, beautifully and elaborately dressed.  The robe-like dress she wore, red, brown and white, reminded me of the outfits of the figures on Minoan wall art. She also wore a white mask, ivory or similar, that covered most of her face.  She stood before me and bowed; I bowed back. She then began to speak to me rapidly in a foreign language, possibly Greek.  “Den katalaveno,” I told her, shaking my head. That is:  I don’t understand.… (September, 2010)

Minoan Ladies
(Image Source)

 

I.

One of the most interesting arguments against dreams being messages is based on the observation that no exchange takes place, as communication requires—no back and forth, no give and take, no chance for correction or elaboration. Dreams just aren’t the right sort of thing to be communicative.

The problem with this argument is that if you limit yourself to making observations—as a scientifically-minded person is likely to do, perhaps without even consciously intending to— then communication cannot possibly happen. Communication is indeed a two-way affair, and if you yourself aren’t a participant, you’re certainly not going to observe any taking place.

The argument is not wholly wrong, though:  a dream is definitely not a message, as is sometimes claimed. Rather, dreaming is a state—it’s the medium, not the message. Surprisingly, confusion on this fundamental point doesn’t seem to present a barrier to reaching a good practical understanding of a dream—at least, when the interpreter is experienced.

the-medium-is-the-message-2
Or perhaps not so surprisingly.

 

However, it may cause frustration for beginners, and may lead those who start from a biological point of view to reject dream interpretation prematurely. It also results in problematic hypotheses as to what it is you’re communicating with—a highly interesting question I’ll be leaving to one side until the very end.

But even if dreams are only communicative in a metaphorical sense, communication makes a far better metaphor than decoding. If you think of dream interpretation as breaking a code, then you’re likely to think that there might be a manual out there somewhere with all the answers—or that once you have a satisfying understanding of a dream, there’s nothing left to do—or, perhaps, to think that success can be quantitatively defined. But if you think of interpretation as part of an ongoing conversation, then much more is required—and much more is possible.

II.

I should emphasize that I think this question of dreaming as communication ought to be taken seriously, and that my view isn’t based on wild conjectures—or, for that matter, conjectures of any sort.  I first became convinced that it was possible because, at a critical juncture of my life, I asked my dreams a question and received an answer. And then I kept asking questions and kept receiving answers. They were answers I did not understand—this was a time when I had never yet attempted a dream-interpretation— but they were so clearly answers that the need for understanding them suddenly became important.  It was this that led me to explore the writings of Freud, Jung and other interpreters—not anybody’s proof or argument, not idle curiosity, but the need to understand.

This may sound paradoxical—how can you receive an answer that you don’t understand, but which you know to be an answer? But if you’ve ever traveled in a country whose language you don’t speak, you’ll know this is no paradox. The greater part of communication happens through a shared sense of context, through the form of what is exchanged rather than the content. If you know what a restaurant is, you can order a meal at one no matter where you are. Maybe you’re failing to observe the local etiquette, maybe the dish you receive isn’t the one you wanted—and I now believe that, in a figurative sense, both were true of my own early incubation attempts. But while I could not understand the dreams, but I could see my own questions reflected in them. It was clear that dreams were capable of behaving like messages—although there was still that question of what, if anything, was on the other end.

As I’ve said before, it’s never safe to generalize about dreams from your own experience, but I’ll have to do so here since this is an aspect of them that is rarely explored—and explored almost entirely by people who are already sure they know what’s on the other end. I won’t try to start entirely from scratch, à la Descartes – you’ll have to wait for Vestigia for that – but it is a point in question, and so I’m not going to start off making assumptions about it. I intend to stay as closely to the experience as possible, which means focusing on my own end of it. And when I can’t be sure of the factors that made that experience possible, I can’t offer advice, much less promise results—only offer a few educated guesses.

Certainly, an exchange like the ones I experienced can only happen when you remember your dreams regularly. In my case, I had already been recording at least one dream every night for two years before I tried doing anything with them, and so my recall was already quite good.

I also believe that my waking-life journal, into which all my attempts at interpretation were entered, played a key role. Writing thoughts down has a way of making them more solid, and it commits you to a definite stance that can be responded to. If your preferred method of interpretation involves talking things over with one or more fellow dreamers or a therapist, I’d expect the same effect—but again, only if it ends with a definite stance, however transitory it might prove to be.

Being in an isolated position probably helped make it possible, if only because it meant less distractions. From the time dreams became one of my most significant concerns, I was living in places where I was a stranger. Half the time, it was in places where I had only a limited grasp of the local language, and the other half among family members from whom I was keeping some rather big secrets, which is even more effective than a language barrier in preventing communication from taking place.

I also had questions I genuinely wanted the answers to and had reason to believe my dreaming mind was capable of answering, which shouldn’t be considered too lightly. To ask your dreams for the answer to a question is a form of dream incubation, and the rule there seems to be that you won’t get an answer unless you really want one. If it doesn’t matter to you one way or the other when you’re awake, why should you care more when you’re asleep?

This has been the major problem with experiments investigating dream incubation, which have so far failed to turn up any impressive results. People can influence their dreams through incubation, but they can’t simply decide to want something. Even knowing what it is they want requires an level of self-understanding well above our cultural baseline.  And if an incubation experiment was your first experience working with dreams, you’d have no idea what it is that would be answering your questions. I’m sure many people would prefer to receive no answer than to find themselves in such an exchange.

-to be continued-

Of Idiosyncratic Interpretations and Metaphor Mongering, Part 3

“Metaphor Mongering”

I wish I knew exactly what it was about interpreting dream-elements metaphorically that Dr. McNamara finds objectionable. It cannot just be because Freud and the ancient Greeks did so. As McNamara doesn’t state it outright, I can only infer from what he does say:  he has interpretations of the so called “typical dreams” or “universal dreams” in mind, and these were not arrived at in a sufficiently respectable way—hence the problem.

I have my own problem with this sort of interpretation—but again, it cannot be McNamara’s problem because his own preferred approach is open to the same objection.

Interestingly, the examples he provides in his article of interpretations of “typical dreams” are so far from being “idiosyncratic interpretations” that they come close to being clichés. As a starting point for trying to understand a dream, you could do a lot worse; I have a number of dreams in my own series in which an ID of some sort is involved, and it is obviously—obviously to me, at least—functioning as a representation of identity. Although, come to think of it, I’ve never seen any sort of ID dream on lists of “typical dreams” before.

I should explain that I put “typical dreams” in quotation marks because I think it’s a bit of a misnomer. Most classes of dreams that consistently make the list—flying, falling, being unprepared for a test, being pursued by a dangerous person or creature, being naked in public—aren’t actually common—just widespread, and more common than might be expected given their rarity in our waking lives.

It’s possible that these dreams are widespread because they’re based on experiences we’ve had in common—cultural ones, like school attendance, or language, or the conceptual networks that underlie it. But from an interpretive standpoint, this isn’t very helpful, even if true. As far as I can tell, the only thing that is special about such dreams is that knowing the scenario enables one to predict which kind of emotions characterized it.

And even then, I can easily find exceptions in my own records—for example, one dream where I was doing my laundry in a room full of washing machines while naked. It’s not characterized by feelings of vulnerability, embarrassment or anxiety, as every popular dream article ever written would lead you to expect; my dream-self didn’t seem bothered by the situation, and neither did the other people who were around. It’s still possible to read those emotions into the dream, if you’re determined to—but I suspect it had more to do with procrastination than with feeling exposed.

 

Noises Off Metroactive
(Image Source)

 

But I was talking about metaphors. It’s an interesting topic, and my own ideas about it are already available here and here. Suffice it to say that I’ve found them to occur frequently in dreams but far from universally, and that they are definitely easier to generalize about than associations since they are often based in language or are culturally linked.

“the dream code”

The term “dream code” implies a certain view of dreams; so does the term “interpretive scheme,” and even “system of interpretation.” But who said that there was a dream code to be cracked? Who said that the solution would be a scheme or a system?

It’s astonishing to me that nobody else even seems to be asking this kind of question. It’s even more astonishing that, to many people, a theory only seems to ‘count’ when it provides a single, simple explanation for a complex reality. To me, this is the first sign that something is wrong.

Most functional theories of dreaming assign it a single function, which starts sounding a little odd if you consider physiological functions. Bones allow us to move; they also produce blood cells. Kidneys do not just filter the blood, but regulate many bodily functions—and just think of all the things a pancreas does! All analogies have their limits, of course, but it does make you wonder:  would we have discovered everything we know today about the human body if we had used nothing but double-blind tests and statistically significant correlations? If physiology had developed independently from the observations of practicing physicians? It is not problematic to propose that REM sleep has multiple functions, but somehow, for dreaming even to have one seems to be a little out-there.

I think that part of the problem here has to do with how we think about functions. For something to be a function in the strict sense requires that it operate independently of intentionality—but for a mental phenomenon like dreaming, you cannot consider it apart from our intentions! One could argue that intentionality is the stuff that dreams are made on. It may be that they serve some function independently of the uses to which we can put them, but even if that were demonstrated, we would understand very little about dreams if we didn’t also consider the ‘accidental’ uses.

The ‘single function’ type of theory should probably not be considered a reversion to Aristotelian metaphysics, although it certainly looks like one at times:  rather, is a concession to the limitations of our experimental methodology. But we’ve been making such concessions for a long time, and I wonder whether people are starting to posit such theories without really knowing why. This, if true, would be intensely problematic. And somehow, there is no longer any expectation that scientists should consider the merit of claims made by the people who work with them every day, such as therapists and other dreamworkers. This is also problematic, and may be symptomatic of a larger cultural problem:  we live in a society where there is nothing strange in going about your day believing that large sections of the population are irremediably irrational—i.e., according to some definitions, somewhat less than human.

This is not an approach that somebody who is sincerely interested in discovering the truth would take. When you really want to know, you do not stop asking “why?” when it becomes inconvenient. There are always reasons, and a failure to look for them often represents a failure of empathy as well as one of intellectual integrity. And, more often than not, a system that is tacitly encouraging such failures.

But to go back to where I started from—the “dream code”. Like all metaphors, code-breaking as a metaphor for dream interpretation can be productive within limits – for instance, when dealing with one individual dreamer. It’s reasonable to believe that one person will be consistent enough over time in order for themes and patterns of interaction to be visible in a dream series, even if you know nothing about the dreamer’s life. But beyond that, I wouldn’t expect to find any discernible patterns—except maybe the ‘typical dreams.’

But considering these can only show us one side of dreaming, and I would expect even these patterns to change as our culture changes—which it is doing more rapidly than it ever has before. If so, I expect that those with statistical approaches will find their results increasingly hard to replicate, resulting in everyone who believes that dreams are brain static saying: “I told you so.”

I can only hope that this cultural change includes changing attitudes towards dreams—as seems likely, judging by the obvious boom in interest on the internet. The next generations of dreamers will no doubt come with their own sets of misconceptions and questionable assumptions, but at least they will be paying attention.

(Part 1)  (Part 2)

Of Idiosyncratic Interpretations and Metaphor Mongering, Part 2

“Idiosyncratic Interpretations”

There are many people out there who consider dreams to be mere brain static, unworthy of serious consideration; Dr. McNamara is not one of them. He believes that dreams are meaningful, and meaningful in a way that rewards interpretation. In one article on his blog, he has even offered his own speculation into what such an interpretive method would look like. His latest article, which was posted since I wrote part 1, is teeming with suggestive statistics, and contains enough citations to experiments, surveys and anthropological studies to make even the most dubious take notice. But when set beside the article I am considering here – “The Folly of Dream Interpretation” – it doesn’t quite square. It almost seems as if McNamara approves of dream interpretation, but only in the abstract.

Perhaps his views have changed somewhat in the intervening years; I know I’d be hesitant to stand behind everything I wrote four years ago. But it is striking that his insulting epithets target exactly those features that are essential to good dream interpretation. For instance—idiosyncrasy.

What kind of a thing does a dream have to be in order for an idiosyncratic interpretation to make sense? This question, at least, is easy to answer:  it has to be idiosyncratic itself. It has to take its form and content from the mental habits of the individual dreamer, making sense only when they are brought to bear on it. This is not always the case—there are few aspects of dreaming where you can safely dispense with hedge words – but in my experience, it is true often enough that dream interpretation must be tailored to the individual dreamer if it is to be helpful.

This is why reading an essay will always be a poor second to learning to interpret one’s dreams alongside an instructor. But I hope that offering techniques alongside detailed case studies is better than nothing, and I know that writing as both interpreter and interpretee allows me greater freedom and scope than would otherwise be possible, since the same idiosyncrasies that make my dreams obscure to others make them transparent to me. And while I’m aware that nobody cares about my familiarity with transcendental idealism or my antipathy towards the muffin salesman at the local farmer’s market, such minutiae often prove to be the key to understanding a dream, and so I can’t avoid dragging them in, even at the risk of being uninteresting.

Of course, it probably wouldn’t be helpful if I went around giving such interpretations of other people’s dreams without any participation on their part – which is why I don’t do that. A guess is still not an interpretation, even if it’s a good one. If this is what Dr. McNamara means by “idiosyncratic interpretations”—not interpretations that take the individual characteristics of the dreamer into account, but which are produced by individuals and applied indiscriminately—then I would have to agree that it’s something objectionable.

But for me, it’s the “indiscriminately” that’s the problematic part; it cannot be for McNamara because he believes that it will be a universally applicable system of interpretation that will someday be proven correct. At least, that’s what his choice of experimental methods would seem to imply:  if there are correlations between certain dream-elements and certain concerns, life events or outcomes of dream action, it seems unlikely that we could pick up on any that weren’t universal, or at least demographically linked, by using quantitative methods alone.

I think this sort of method is hopeless when it is not restricted to examining the dreams of individuals; perhaps an example will make the reasons clear.

Let’s Consider Fairies for a Minute

What sort of beings they are, what sort of associations they conjure up – that sort of thing. As a being that is, to my knowledge, universally acknowledged to be imaginary, they make a good example. OK, ready?

I think it’s likely that most people will have thought of something that has positive connotations for them—little, winged, flower-dwelling beings, or maybe more of a fairy-godmother sort of character. I also think it’s likely that fairies that appear in peoples’ dreams will reflect these associations. Unfortunately, they seem to appear so rarely that I can’t be sure:  I checked every single dream series on DreamBank—in German and in English— and it only turned up a single dream with a fairy in it. The Sleep and Dream Database is more difficult to use for mass searches, but a search of the Most Memorable Dream texts—a good bet if you’re looking for fantastic beings of any kind—only yielded one result as well. Here are the relevant sections of the texts themselves.

…The woman was pulled into the crash and killed. She rises as a fairy angel spirit. Bob is now a red devil suited spirit and she makes him chase her in an opposite direction from us to save us. We are now tiny, like fairies and walk through a hedge with beautiful purple flowers. We see on the other side a meadow with a fairy castle at the far end…. [DreamBank:  Barb Sanders #2: #3461, 04/20/99]

…i was alone in a magical world and had fairies for friends. it was fun because i could fly and make myself disappear…. [Sleep and Dream Database:  Most Memorable Dreams]

For what it’s worth, they do seem to be positive characters in both.

My own records yield four dreams with fairies, all of them from the same two-year period. They are of a rather different sort.

The dream started off like a video game, with having to fight fairy-like creatures.  They were similar to humans in size and appearance….  (June, 2010)

…  In the movie, fairy-like beings took over children’s minds, forced them to act on their behalf.  Some people knew about this, though, and were freeing the children, who then joined the fight against them….  (October, 2010)

In my dreams, fairies are something to be avoided. They are menacing creatures rather than helpful ones, as they tend to be in the older sort of stories, and at least a few modern ones. And while four dreams may not seem like a lot, it’s enough to make them the most frequently and most consistently antagonistic class of character in my dreams, somewhere above zombies, the mafia and Lovecraftian cultists.*

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(Image Source)

It is tentative—but even if it were completely hypothetical, it would be enough to illustrate the most significant problems with a purely quantitative approach. It is no mystery how the positive version and the negative version of fairies came into being:  portrayals in fiction, as the narrative framing in both my own examples suggests. I’d imagine you’d find the same sort of pattern with vampires, which recently received the same sort of mimetic reboot. But would both versions be interpreted the same way? A generic interpretation that tried to encompass both portrayals would be an absurdity.

Or could it be that I have a negative attitude towards something that other people feel more positively towards? That would be very interesting, and definitely more plausible—but it is far from obvious how a purely correlative approach would handle the discrepancy. For some people, I’d assume, fairies would be correlated with friendly interactions; for others, with aggressive ones. If the results turned out to be evenly balanced, there’d be no way to reach any conclusions; if it favored one side over another, it might turn out a result, but one that is wrong to those in the minority.

This is a major problem with any statistically-based approach:  it’s guaranteed to turn out wrong interpretations a certain percent of the time! And presumably, it would have no way of telling you whether you’re a dreamer for whom a given interpretation was correct that didn’t have a probability attached to it.

Not to mention another problem this example raises:  classes of characters so rare that statistical conclusions can’t be reached in the first place. And again—for me, it’s more closely linked to aggressive encounters than any other class of character. That’s got to be significant, but any way you cut it, a statistical approach would be useless.

And actually, there’s an even more significant problem—one that McNamara might not consider valid, but which a practicing interpreter will have probably had in mind from the very beginning:  the fact that reaching an understanding of a dream is not an intellectual exercise, but a process that, if done properly, gives a dreamer a sense of self-discovery, of felt meaning. You know you’re onto the solution the way you know you’ve managed to unlock a door after you’ve been wiggling the key around for a while. It’s not easy to explain such a thing, but I’m sure everybody knows what I mean, if only from movies and other media. It’s like what we feel when we witness an instance of dramatic irony, or poetic justice, or even find an object we had lost—suddenly, the whole thing becomes clear to us.

Merely looking an interpretation up in a book will probably not do this, even if correct:  it will probably just result in an interpretation being imposed over the dream because it lacks an organic connection with the dream itself. At best, a statistical method could merely do what the best dream dictionaries do already:  provide a dreamer with a place to begin thinking about their dream.

-to be continued-

*This list doesn’t include soldiers, who would rank higher by far if you were going by number of aggressive interactions, but they seem to me to belong to a different category altogether. The dreams don’t portray them as malevolent characters simply by virtue of what they are, like the ones on the list—something that marks them out clearly as carriers of projected fear and aggression. They may be threatening figures, but it’s a situational thing, not a personal thing.

Of Idiosyncratic Interpretations and Metaphor Mongering

In 2013, Dr. Patrick McNamara published an essay on Psychology Today entitled “The Folly of Dream Interpretation.” It is a provocative article—which is probably why I’ve been seeing it linked to so much lately —but for me, it wasn’t the provocative claims that were most questionable, but the assumptions about dreaming that were behind them. It seems to me as if the scientific establishment is in need of a bit of friendly provocation itself….

The Article

I first became aware of McNamara’s blog about six years and two laptops ago. It was a time when I was reading everything on dreams I could get my hands on, regardless of whether I was sympathetic to its views or not. As I recall, I was not terribly sympathetic to Dr. McNamara’s.

But somewhere along the way, I lost track of him, and have only just got around to revisiting the blog. My overall impression is that he has some interesting ideas, but in the context of an unworkable theoretical framework. But I’ll start with a brief summary.

McNamara has noted that there are countless sites on the internet devoted to dream interpretation, even though there is no scientific consensus as to which method of interpretation, if any, is valid. Websites offer “idiosyncratic interpretations,” “metaphor mongering,” and—the one I’m sure every interpreter is thoroughly tired of hearing—“nonsense.” He also disapproves of members of the scientific establishment offering interpretations to common dream themes. In both cases, the problem seems to be the lack of data supporting such interpretations.

The data we do have come from studies that show correlations between the appearances of certain elements in dreams—e.g., number of unknown male characters with acts of aggression. McNamara believes that it will be through massive numbers of correlative studies linking dream elements to waking experiences/behaviors that “the dream code” will be cracked.

There are several claims here I’d like to consider—but let me start with the one I find myself in broad agreement with.

Dream Interpretation Websites

Like Dr. McNamara, I am not overly impressed with the quality of much of what’s on the Web today. You can find sites that offer generally sound advice, but even what’s sound is often very poorly justified. It seems that people giving interpretations do not feel obliged to explain the principles by which they are supposed to work, and that the people receiving them do not feel the need to ask for any. This is an attitude towards authority that is, frankly, a little frightening:  it makes me wonder how many people are adopting the same uncritical attitude towards authority in other areas of life, such as politics, where it also seems to be growing rarer for people to give or to ask for reasons.

But dream interpretation may be a special case, at least in one respect:  the dream dictionary is—somehow—the default mode of interpretation in our culture, and perhaps, like an ordinary dictionary, it’s expected to be authoritative just by virtue of what it is. Some of them are honest enough to represent themselves as only starting places for interpretation, some even have research behind them—but as far as theory goes, you’ll probably get no more than a passing reference to Freud and Jung. And, because the dream dictionary is a cultural given, people are less likely to ask themselves: “What kind of a thing does a dream have to be for a dictionary to be the right way to interpret it? Do I have reason to believe that it’s that kind of thing?”

Unlike McNamara, however, I do not think we should wait for data that support one interpretive method over others before practicing interpretation. If we have even the faintest inkling that our dreams are personally significant, then they call out to be understood; sometimes they call out urgently. To say that we can afford to wait indefinitely implies that our dreams must not be very important to begin with—which is only a small step from not being important enough to consider at all.

We have to weigh the advantages of acting on incomplete knowledge versus inaction every day; and while inaction is often the safer option, it seldom offers us the possibility of enriching our lives. I do not like the suggestion that exploring beyond the frontiers of knowledge should be restricted to professional scientists. We may be living in the 21st century, but we still have opportunities for bravery, for acting masterfully, for enjoying life in all its colorful ambiguity—and this holds true even if we live in a culture that does its best to make us nervous and vaguely uncertain about everything.  I’m certainly not going to put off drinking coffee until nutritional science makes up its mind about whether it’s healthy or not, and I wouldn’t advise anyone else to, either.

More to the point, I do not think that a dream is the right kind of thing to be interpreted by correlating variables any more than I think it’s the right kind of thing to be interpreted with a dictionary. If we did wait for a scientifically confirmed method of dream interpretation, I’m afraid we’d be waiting an awfully long time.

 

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But let’s back up for a second—a google search for dreams turns up millions of websites. Millions! Six years ago, you were lucky to find a couple dozen websites specializing in dreams, and maybe a dozen more specifically devoted to lucid dreaming. Mind you, you had to wade through all the inspirational and aspirational websites—“follow your dreams,” etc.—in order to get to what you were looking for, and so it was difficult to say with certainty just how many there were out there. But I was able to keep up with all the ones I could find, and that has been impossible for a while now.

Millions of people are curious about dreams—this should be wonderfully exciting to the scientists who study them. As far as I’m aware, though, there has not been a corresponding boom in dream science since then—I’ve even read statements to the effect that there’s less interest than there used to be. I realize that this is partly a matter of funding, and that institutions are by nature slow-moving and resistant to change, but how much public curiosity is there going to have to be before the scientists start getting curious?

-to be continued-

Politics From Two Sides, Part 3

V.

I’ve never concerned myself much about things like demographics and target audiences, but in sending this out, I’d like to dedicate it to the cynical, the indifferent, those who are skeptical of whether any good can come out of political involvement—at least, through human design rather than chance, which, after all, operates equally well under all governments and leaders. Whether you are a disillusioned idealist or disenchanted with a system you are not yet qualified to participate in, whether you feel like you ought to care or just feel that you have better things to do, I think that there are good reasons to consider the matter from a new perspective.

Hang on, I think my soapbox is a little crooked. Give me a second—okay, that’s better. Where was I?

Perspectives are what I do here. It’s right in the title. Politics usually fall outside my purview, but this is something that affects all of us who are citizens of the United States. Life will go on after the election—life already has gone on. It always does. The initial disbelief, anger and panic have faded, and that’s for the best, but it would be a shame if people conclude from this that they don’t have to do anything now.

Doing nothing isn’t a position of neutrality:  it’s a form of acquiescence with the status quo. If we acquiesce in the way we live our lives, we lose our right to speak out against it. Life may always go on, but something important often gets lost in the process, even more so when an entire society has to start taking terrible things for granted to make life going on possible. We may not think of ourselves as political individuals, but if living authentic lives matters to us, then we cannot remain indifferent to politics.

Those who are already inclined to get involved should also consider this point. There are many forms of hypocrisy in the world, and in the political realm, the most common one is to excuse yourself for the same practices you berate your opponents for. Many people feel like they can’t be convincing advocates unless they make extravagant promises and sweeping generalizations and use every little slip-up on the other side to their own advantage—that if they don’t, they can’t compete with their opponents, and are hurting their cause. Or perhaps they believe that faith in a cause is incompatible with self-criticism—which is really the same issue at bottom. If you’re dealing with people who are certain, then you may feel like uncertainty on your part is likely to be taken for a sign of weakness rather than a recognition of ambiguity and the need for moving the discussion onto a deeper level.

These are reasons people may give when they do it themselves. But when their opponent does it, it’s because they’re liars, they’re sneaky and underhanded, they’re too stupid to know better, their followers are too stupid to apply even a tiny bit of scrutiny. But if their own were to start asking difficult questions, would they themselves start to wonder whether these people are really on their side?

The results of this are debates in which reality and the words being exchanged no longer bear any natural relation to each other—which is possibly why so many people choose not to say anything. To them, politics has become synonymous with hypocrisy. The extent to which “the media”—a much-used but rather odd collective designation—is guilty of this hypocrisy as well is probably the reason for much of the criticism it’s now receiving—usually from other bits of “the media,” oddly enough.

And as for those followers:  who knows how many of them are letting themselves get duped as a way of proving to the world what a great leader so-and-so is, thus earning more supporters on account of so-and-so being so popular? And the more polarized the dialogue becomes, the easier it becomes to take positions that, if you considered them candidly, you’d have admit weren’t chosen with much care. When the people on one side are obviously and demonstrably wrong, that makes the choice easier, right?

No, it doesn’t. And if you want proof of it, just watch them using the same logic over on their side. It will probably look a little different on the surface, and probably a lot more egregious. But as long as the people on one side can say “Why should I play fair when they’re not doing it over there?” then the people on the other side will be able to say it as well. And at that point, the question of who started it becomes irrelevant. The question you should be asking is “Who’s keeping it going?”

And it’s almost never a question that has only one answer.

But to be honest, I am not a purely neutral party regarding the current political situation. I believe that when considered dispassionately, one side of the scale dips significantly lower than the other. I’m willing to believe that “the media” is not wholly honest, that perhaps some sneaky things going on behind closed doors are not receiving the attention they deserve—but not when the accusations are coming from people whose dishonesty is apparent even on the surface, and who have thoroughly discredited themselves through their rejection of courtesy, responsibility and logic. Put less diplomatically:  I find Donald Trump an appalling human being. He is a narcissist, he is crazy—and not the good kind of crazy, let me add.

I don’t mean this as an expression of how appalling I find him, but as a statement of fact. I would not be discourteous enough to say it myself it if hadn’t become everyone’s business. Yes, he has been successful in the corporate world. Being insane doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re ineffective— if your society is insane in the same way you are, you might be very effective within certain limits. The trouble only becomes clear when you try to step outside them, and unfortunately, one of the consequences of crazy is that you are no longer capable of seeing where those limits are. Someday, at some critical juncture, Trump is going to have to choose between ego-bolstering and the good of the country. That’s what I’m afraid of. There are worse things that might happen, but this is the one that is going to happen just because of who he is and the position he holds.

We might wonder:  why do people like Trump?  Some of his supporters, I know, are glad to see him in office because they think he’ll make decisions that will increase their material well-being or because it upsets people they think of as enemies. But the main reason he’s got fanatics on his side, the people who will follow him no matter what he does or says, is simply because he isn’t a politician. He’s honest, they might say. He says things like they are. And that’s completely wrong:  he’s not honest. He’s even more of a showman than the rest of them. It’s just a different kind of show, and I’m betting that many of them know this, at least on some level.

But there is a kernel of truth to the claim:  people who try not to cause offense, who try to make themselves appealing to groups of people who find very different things appealing often end up appearing colorless, generic and lacking in integrity. And while that does not keep them from being effective policy makers, it makes sincerity impossible—it makes hypocrisy habitual.

Trump isn’t being honest, but he is being himself. That’s what people like about him; that’s what people hate about him. That’s character. Bernie has it too, and he had integrity as well, which is why I would have liked to see him in office, even though I’d probably be a conservative if conservativism hadn’t developed into such a toxic culture by the time I reached voting age. But since Trump is what we have, all we can do at this point is try for a response that’s constructive rather than the next step on the downward spiral.

I’d like to see a more open, thoughtful atmosphere within parties and between parties; I’d like to see a political atmosphere where the word “personal” is not invariably followed by “attack,” where politicians can take it for granted that they and their opponents are both doing what they think is right for the whole, and that the disagreement is simply over what that might be. These are cultural problems and not political problems as such, which suggests that it will have to arise outside the system before the system itself becomes healthier. I’d personally like to see the arts help to foster such a culture, but that’s a story that will have to wait for another occasion.

And as far as practical measures go, I’d like to see basic logic made a standard part of school curricula—at least as early as high school, maybe even earlier. Faulty logic isn’t the cause of hypocrisy, but it’s invariably the way that hypocrisy expresses itself, and once recognized as such, it loses all its persuasiveness. For everyone, and not only those who are specialists, to be able to spot when people are using bad arguments and put a name to them that the people around them will understand would be no small improvement.

So what is the cause of hypocrisy, then? There are many ways one could answer that, and I don’t think it ultimately boils down to just one thing anyway, but a major aspect of it is failing to recognize that your own life and your own destiny are inextricably bound with those of others, mostly in ways that you will never know. Faulty logic is one expression of it, but most kinds of partisanship are expressions as well. The world is complicated enough without trying to arrange the order of things so that certain people are hurt and certain others receive a little extra benefit. This is exactly the kind of political wrangling that will turn out results due to chance—or whatever you’d like to call it. We have to keep the good of the whole in mind—that’s the only way that makes sense.

So yes, I think that, in general, we should try to involve ourselves. But as a final note: I also think that there are also times in our lives when it’s better to step back from involvement with politics. These are the times where we take a step back from active involvement in many areas of life to figure out what kinds of lives we want to lead, to distinguish what matters to us from what we’re doing out of habit or a misplaced sense of duty. This is also necessary to leading an authentic life, and it’s hard to manage it when you’re constantly in the thick of it. There may also be people whose other commitments are so compelling that they genuinely can’t afford to spare the time and attention to politics, and even those who take such a wide view of things that they can accept whatever happens without falling into hypocrisy. But I don’t think there are many people like this, and they already know who they are. If you don’t, it’s not you.

There may be whole eras when most people can afford to avoid politics, but I feel confident in predicting that the one we’re entering will not be one of them. We will be challenged; we will have to make difficult choices. Hope is a nice game to play sometimes, but in the end, it doesn’t matter so much whether what we’re looking forward to actually becomes reality:  the important thing is to keep looking forward so that we can face the challenge that’s already facing us head-on.

VI.

“I had an interesting dream last night,” my mother says. We’re in the car together, on the way back from a visit to some relatives—for me, a visit-within-a-visit. “I was at a party, and Draco Malfoy was there. I was talking to him and thinking that he didn’t seem like such a bad person after all.”

My mother seems to spend a great many of her dreams attending parties, often in the company of the fictional and famous—or maybe those are just the most enjoyable ones to talk about. Once, she even met the grim reaper at one and had a nice round on the dance floor with him.

“Mine was interesting, too,” I say. “I was planning out a story.” We’re all the actors, script writers and directors of our dreams as well as the audience, but it probably says a lot about me that not even my dreams always make it to the production stage. “It was about a man who had once been the president of a country. Most people there felt that he had been a good leader, but years later, a radical group came to power, and they were stirring up bad feeling towards this man—so much that his life was in danger. I was thinking that I had to protect him—that you can’t judge the actions of people in the past by standards that didn’t even exist at the time.”

My mother, always the historian, agrees wholeheartedly. My father, who’s driving, doesn’t say anything. I wonder if he understands. Probably not—it’s a tricky one. I didn’t understand it myself until just now. But just maybe, something important will still make it across.

This is the last time I’ll be seeing either of them for a while.  I’ll be out of the country for the next few months—something I had planned long before the election, though not without an eye towards the future. So many times, I’ve come back to the States and found everything just the same as when I left it, but that’s something I no longer feel safe counting on. I’m not counting on anything at this point.

I’m glad I could come here first, but it did mean missing the lutherie’s first political meeting, and my trip will mean not being able to attend any of them for a while. The lutherie is an interesting place— part workshop, part concert venue, and now set to become a sort of community center as well. It’s technically not my community—where I’ve been living, there’s no community in the proper sense of the word unless you can speak Korean—but I’ve been spending more and more time around that town lately. It’s a place that lost its purpose when industry moved out and is currently trying its hardest to become like the neighborhood where I’m usually found on Friday nights—but not really like it, you understand.

“You may be aware that we lean towards the left,” the owner had said at intermission when he announced the upcoming meeting last week, “but we welcome all opinions.” The week after the election, he had come out at intermission to give a speech about smashing capitalism, so yes, I’d say they lean a little towards the left here. But I’m also sure he meant it when he said that all opinions were welcome. I wouldn’t expect anything less from a former philosophy student, and he and his son are among the most open, welcoming people I’ve known. If the typical philosophical debate is like a duel, and the typical political debate is like a street brawl, then there—well, maybe it will be a little like a dance. It would have been the perfect place to start, but maybe I’ll have something to contribute myself by the time I get back.

But maybe I’m selling myself short– a person who sees the world differently always has something to contribute. There’s a saying I once heard from a judge at a conference—a saying that she learned from her grandmother:  “No matter how thinly you slice a loaf of bread, each piece always has two sides.” Normally, I just write things down and forget them, but some things have a way of staying around.

Every question has two sides—but there are many ways of cutting them, and for me, even the political ones don’t have a right and a left, but an outside and an inside.

 

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