I awoke from a pleasant dream the other day.
In the dream, I was traveling on a ferry along with other passengers. The ferry was full. It seemed to have dangerously little freeboard. The water was almost up to the gunwales. I wasn’t concerned. The passengers were congenial and chatted with each other. We were somewhere on the Chesapeake Bay headed for an island, a place perhaps like Smith Island, a destination well known by everyone but one hard to see from a distance. The day was hot and humid. The breeze generated from the ferry’s headway kept us comfortable. I thought I could see the island but the haze occluded a clear view.
I woke up before arriving at the island. I felt let down, my curiosity left hanging. I felt as I do when, in mid-chapter, I must put my book down to attend some irksome task.
Mortality has certainly been on my mind of late and I do try to make sense of it. I suppose in some way my anxiety about mortality informed the dream images. How to understand them, though. What was their message?
Dreams are ways we process several of our difficult questions all at the same time. People popularly think of dreams as sating forbidden desires or lofty aspirations; more often they can reveal a more inclusive understanding of our ultimate concerns which may live in and out of conscious awareness. Sometimes, when I take time to sift through a dream’s scattered images, I can gain small insights into what’s bothering me and how my troubles often have a thematic similarity; they’re connected by a common thread.
I remained in bed about a half hour mulling over the dream that morning, trying to fit pieces together. Few pieces ever fit together tidily and if I’d get too literal with the images, I’ll miss the point they’re making, the way I’ve forced jigsaw puzzle pieces to fit because just because I wanted them to.
Freud said of our dreams that they all contain a “day residue,” something either consciously or subliminally that’s been on our minds during the day preceding the dream.
That made sense to me. Likely the dream was something about my mortality. Thinking about it evokes strong feelings, and recently, intense curiosity. I suppose in some way my present situation in life informs the theme of the dream. In real life, as I’m ferried closer to my ultimate destination, I still don’t know for sure what that destination looks like. I’m familiar with the various ways we get there, but I know nothing of how its landscape looks. Even as the ferry draws closer to the island, there’s a haze on the horizon that prevents me from getting a definitive picture of it.
I’m satisfied I understood one of the dreams messages. In my dream, passengers were all bound for the same place (all in the same boat) and while we may have been headed for the same destination no one aboard had any clear idea about just how its landscape looked. We knew it was up ahead on the horizon but always just far enough away to be hidden.
These days I’d say that mortality is my default psychological and spiritual position; whenever my attention is not focused on anything else, it goes right back to considering my mortality. Of course, then, it would make sense I would dream of heading for a place I’d never been before. Where the dream seemed odd, however, was how in real life, whenever I realize I am drawing closer to my final destination, it scares me. In the dream, it didn’t disturb me in any way. In fact, I felt secure and happy there with the people traveling with me on the ferry. What to make if it?
It is true for me that when I am feeling close to others, sensing how deeply connected I am to them, the sting of fear and dread of danger is significantly diminished.
I couldn’t make much of the ferry’s low freeboard –– water up to the gunwales –– dangerous –– but none of us aboard seemed concerned. In fact, we were all chatty and convivial, blithely unconcerned about what was so potentially precarious. I wondered about this part of the dream. Was it the consolation in feeling part of a community, maybe?
Dreams have always fascinated me.
Through the centuries, in most cultures, God is reputed to have spoken to people through their dreams. God can speak to anyone anywhere he chooses but I suspect the dream is especially useful since human beings never listen to reason.
In my experience, dreams are like whispers in a crowd; barely audible but commanding more of my attention than shouts. I know dreams capture my imagination like nothing else and there are some that have helped me stay afloat while negotiating deep water.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.