Lost in a dream

Plane ticket bought. Living arrangements for the first two weeks settled. Bosses given notice. All over but the movin’.

Right on cue, the stress dreams have begun.

Every move involves dozens of details, large and small, from finding a place to live to packing the suitcases. Some things can be done months in advance, some in the final few days. And then there are those details, like finding a job, that can only be tackled after the physical relocation.

After a decade of this lifestyle, I’m pretty damn good at moving. If I could turn my knowledge into an app, I’d make hundreds, hundreds! Alas, such talents aren’t easily monetized, and mostly they boil down to common sense: Take care of your business.

There is another aspect of moving, though, that no matter how many times I do it, will, by definition, remain a challenge: the unknown. For all the planning, for all the hard-earned knowledge, the whole point of moving to a new city, a new state, a new country, is to explore the unexplored, to take on a fresh challenge. No matter how many books read, how many websites visited, how many personal accounts accumulated, when it comes down to make the actual move, my arms remain outstretched in a darkened room.

I don’t dream much. I mean, obviously, I dream every night, but I rarely remember them or even wake up with the sensation that my mind had been at play. When I do remember my dreams, they’re usually so prosaic and boring that the details meld into my day-to-day memories, which can lead to some momentary confusion.

On the verge of another move, though, my dreams start to take on a more consistent tenor, a pensive hum of uncertainty and doubt. My first such dream happened about a week ago.

In it, I’m back in college, still on the verge of moving, but now waiting for graduation to set me free. To my chagrin, I’m being told by a faceless bureaucrat that I’m not going to graduate. I’m six credits shy of my degree and this shadow figure is explaining that I had skipped too many classes and am going to fail my course. And now it’s too late to do anything about it. I feel my future slipping out of my grasp.

We’ve all woken from that kind of dream, filled with a piercing dread that slowly dissipates as reality comes into focus. The anxiety tends to stick with you, though, and even as you rationalize away the source of your mental anguish – I’ve been through with college for over a decade – the underlying emotion remains.

The dream didn’t create the anxiety, the dream was a byproduct of it.

My namesake is the Biblical Joseph. Not Jesus’ stepdad, but the Old Testament punk with the fancy coat and pissed off brothers. If you’re unfamiliar with the story – and since Bible literacy is pretty low in the Christian west, I’ll assume you are – Joseph was the second youngest of Jacob’s 12 sons and his father’s favorite. Jacob’s favoritism did not go unnoticed by his other sons, especially after Joseph was gifted with a brightly colored coat. Such overt favoritism might have been a non-issue if not for the fact that Joseph was also kind of a little shit.

Joseph had dreams. I don’t mean, he wanted to someday be a stand-up comedian. He literally had dreams in which he saw visions of celestial bodies bowing down to him. Now, a smart person might have just written these down in his dream journal and moved on. But this kid decided that he should tell his brothers and parents about his repeated visions of the entire family supplicating themselves to him. They really enjoyed that.

As a younger brother who was, himself, a bit of a shit, I enjoyed the story of Joseph, especially because in the end, the visions come true. Through a series of ludicrous events I won’t recount here, Joseph becomes second-in-command to Pharaoh and his entire family does, indeed, end up bowing down to him. Score one for bratty kid brothers.

Even more than the happy ending (well, for Joseph), what I enjoyed most about the story was the dreams. I obsessed over the idea of interpreting deeper meaning from dreams, of unlocking some cosmic secret. Joseph isn’t the only Bible character who has and interprets dreams. In the old testament, prophets and kings are always foreseeing the future in their sleep, usually laced through with dire warnings about an impending famine or a lousy season of the Simpsons (show’s older than you realize).

I thought that would have been a pretty cool skill to have. The only problem was, I never recalled my dreams. Kind of hard to divine the meaning of a prophetic vision if you can’t remember it.

 A dream is what you want to do, but still haven’t pursued

People love to tell you what dreams mean. Bookstores will sell you dream dictionaries and there’s a whole industry built around the dubious idea that our minds are mystic entities communicating to us through universal symbols that stretch back to our earliest ancestors. Bullocks, the lot of it.

When I was a child, maybe 9 or 10, I dreamt that I was at a summer camp with my brother and a group of other kids from school. In the dream, some of my fellow campers come across a little, talking creature in the grass. We determine, by some unspecified means, that this creature is, in fact, the Devil. Immediately, the group splits into two factions: the boys want to squash the creature, but the girls think that’s cruel. Presaging pretty much my entire life, I side with the girls.

The chronology gets screwy here, as tends to happen in dreams. Suddenly my brother and I are walking back to our cabin alone when we are abruptly attacked. For some reason, I’m holding a ruler in my right hand – as you do – and just as we reach the cabin, the ruler morphs into a snake (a la Moses and the staff) and wraps itself around my neck, choking me to tears. Panicking, I try to call out to my brother but I can’t make a noise. It makes no difference. When I turn to face him, he’s also being choked by a snake.

And then I bolted awake.

That is one of the only dreams I have ever remembered, and it’s stuck with me for more than two decades. I know there are those who’d have a field day parsing the details for some spiritual meaning, but I’ll save you the time: I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home that insisted on a literalist interpretation of the Bible and all its related myths. Also, I’d just watched that episode of Quantum Leap in which Sam fights the devil.

Oh Boy

I know it’s fun to imagine otherwise, but there’s no great mystery to dreams. When we’re asleep, our minds are still active, still processing, but without the rigid rules of reason that generally guide our thoughts (some of us more than others). Many will protest, even some professional psychiatrists, but searching our dreams for Freudian imagery like it were some subconscious Dan Brown novel is pure puffery.

It’s not my intention to suggest no meaning can be found in dreams. My stress dreams are actually very informative, not in that they possess information I don’t already know, but because they forefront anxieties I’m feeling but which, because of my hectic schedule, I’m ignoring. There’s benefits in not dwelling on one’s anxiety, especially when there’s nothing to be done about it, but it’s also important to be conscious of what’s going on underneath the surface. Our emotional state alters our physical state, often in ways we can’t fully appreciate.

Before a major life change, anxiety is normal, it’s healthy. It’s fuel.

Having had a brief, two-year respite from regular relocation, I’m slipping back into my old rhythms. There’s the excitement for future possibilities, the sadness of leaving behind another home, the motivation of working my ass off to achieve a financial goal. But there’s also this boiling anxiety for the unknown, and while it’s necessary to put a lid on it in order for me to function, it’s also very good that I’m reminded every once in a while that it’s there. It keeps me alert; it focuses me.

So, when I’m asleep tonight and dream about being in a subway car that’s going the wrong way while the faceless crowd blocks my egress, I can wake up in the morning knowing that I’m just one more day closer to another leap into the unknown. That growl in my gut, that’s just letting me know I’m headed in the right direction.

Oh boy, indeed.

2012: The Year The World (Doesn’t) End

Alternate titles:

Nothing’s Gonna Change My World


So This Is The New Year, And I Don’t Feel Any Different

We’re through the looking glass here, people.  2012.  Forget those rapture nutjobs and hypochondriacs, this is really the year that the world finally, horrifically comes to a screeching halt (or a halting screech; I forget).

The Mayans predicted it.  They didn’t predict their own imminent demise, but they nailed the end of the world.  And to be fair, nobody expects the Spanish conquistadors.

If there is one industry the recession could never dampen, it’s the Predicting the End of the World industry.  Quite the opposite, actually, as bad economic turns are the ideal time for wackadoos and doomsayers to find an audience.  “Father Coughlin” came to prominence during the 1930s Great Depression, and while he wasn’t the first firebrand preacher to gain notoriety, I think he can be seen as the precursor of both the bigoted televangelists like Pat Robertson and the fearmongering political extremists such as Glenn Beck.

What all of these people have in common, other than a serious lack of medications, is the commanded attention of millions of listeners and an unhealthy obsession with a looming apocalypse (with or without God).

The One Thing Conservatives and Progressives Can Agree On

From a purely subjective viewpoint, it seems to be that ‘End of the World Hysteria’ is more commonly found in those of the conservative persuasion, whether politically, religiously, socially or financially.

There is an abundance of reasons why this would be the case.  Conservatives tend to be religious, and pretty much all religions (certainly the Western ones) are steeped in apocalyptic imagery and prophecies.  Also, conservatism by its very name indicates a desire to maintain the status quo, to ‘conserve’ what we have (in contrast to ‘progressivism’).  In this way, as change is inevitable and the world is on a constant forward march away from the past, conservatives are right in predicting the end of the world.  Their world is always ending, dying daily a thousand deaths.

But End of the World Hysteria is not limited to conservatives.  Progressives have their own End Times Scenarios.*  Their version of the end usually involves the ills thrust upon us by modern science, like the fear of nuclear proliferation or a catastrophic climate change brought about by man-made technology.  It’s not so much that progressives fear science (that’s more a conservative persuasion), it’s just that they think it teeters towards going too far.

Each of these End Times Scenarios share a lofty distinction:  They’ve never been right.  We’ve seen a thousand Great Rapture dates come and go and the only thing of note that has occurred is great disappointment and the creation of the Seventh-Day Adventists.

On the opposite spectrum, we’ve been hearing about the evils of science for hundreds of years, though it’s only been since the mid-20th century that we actually began fearing that it could legitimately wipe us all out, h-bomb style.  The Cold War lasted roughly 45 years, and in that time, the world didn’t end, not even once.  Children were hiding under their desks for nothing.

But of course, if nuclear winter doesn’t get us, global summer surely will (that’s an allusion to Global Warming for you in the cheap seats).

It Could Happen

I can hear indignant parties retorting, “Just because it hasn’t happened, doesn’t mean it won’t.”

And they’re right.  The Past isn’t a sufficient predictor of the Future (why do I feel like I’ve said this recently?).  But, it’s a pretty strong one.  It’s one thing for the boy to cry ‘wolf’ three or four times.  It’s another for him to do it once a day, every day since the beginning of time.  Rational minds start to get skeptical.

The world isn’t going to end.  It just isn’t.  The world could end.  We could get blown up by a nuclear bomb.  And Jesus could come back (because, you know, God could exist).  But it won’t, we won’t, and he won’t (and he doesn’t). 

If you want some predictions for 2012 that are going to come true, I’ve got a few sure bets:

Jesus will not return.
The Four Horsemen will not come riding.
The end of the Mayan calendar will not mark the end of our world.
The global financial system will not collapse, returning us to a gold-based economy and leading to riots in the streets.
Our technology will not have a massive meltdown, returning us to the dark ages.
The inevitable legalization of gay marriage will not lead to the legalization of bestiality and child molestation, thus leading us down the path towards complete moral anarchy and cultural destruction.
The oceans will not rise up and cover all land masses.
Overpopulation will not lead to worldwide starvation and cannibalism.
The United States will not turn into a theocracy.  Nor will it become a fascist state.
The Large Hardon Collider will not cause a black hole that will destroy our solar system or universe.
The world will not end.

These are all statements I can make about the year 2012 without equivocation.  When 2013 comes rolling around, I will be right on all of the above statements.  I bet everything I own – and ever possibly will own – on it.

(Granted, if I’m wrong, in  most scenarios there won’t be anyone to collect on it, but still.  I won’t be wrong.)

You probably roll your eyes at most of these hypothetical End of the World Scenarios, but I’m guessing there are one or two on this list that you genuinely think might happen.  I’m frequently labeled a pessimist, yet I’m one of very few people who doesn’t fear any End of the World Scenarios.  Maybe it’s all that Star Trek I watched growing up, but I look to the future and see possibilities, never doomsday.

Apathy In Action

And, hey, I get it.  All this apocalyptic fear might be just what we need to get people to deal with very real problems.  After all, severe climate change could lead to the extinction of the human species if left unchecked.  If the Green Movement succeeds, bystanders will unfairly dismiss them as reactionaries when in fact it will have been their efforts that averted disaster.  (I’m more worried by the religious fanatics who want the world to end because it will validate their faith.)

But I don’t think engaging in End of the World Hysteria is the way to make a change, and I don’t think it’s converting people.  In truth, most of the changes would benefit us as a society regardless of climate change, and that should be the focus of the message.  Maybe I’m out of touch, but I believe it’s more convincing to explain the positive reasons for an action rather than focusing on the negative outcomes of inaction.

It seems it’s not enough that the world would be better off it we take action, we have to say that the world will end if we don’t.  But instead of making us less apathetic, these dire warnings make us more so because we’ve heard the cry of ‘wolf’ so many times, we can’t be bothered to care.  It’s time to make the world better because ‘better’ is its own reward.

We need leaders to remember how to speak to our optimism instead of preying on our pessimism.

New Years Resolution

If you need a resolution for the new year, how about you resolve to live not like the world is going to end tomorrow, but rather, like the world is going to be here for at least another two millennia.  Spend the year ignoring the doomsayers and prophets of apocalypse and seeking out the wisdom of optimists and visionaries. It might just become a habit.

I’m not suggesting we should ignore the very real problems that exist in this world.  Realizing that the world will still be here tomorrow means striving to make it a world worth living in, for everyone.  But, this year, when the man comes on the television to tell you that the world will end, turn it off.  Don’t debate the doomsday prophets, don’t allow them any credence by taking them seriously.  When they are proven wrong, you’ll know they’re a false prophet.  Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

The world isn’t ending.  That’s the reason to celebrate the new year.

*There are certainly liberal religious people who fear the Biblical apocalypse, just as there are conservative religious people who don’t believe in the Rapture (but might fear nuclear war instead).  For brevity’s sake, I’m ignoring these outliers.