What is it with dreams?
We all have them. Dreams that wake us, stir us, even move us to tears. But what is the real power of dreams? I probably won’t be able to answer that question fully in my blog post today, but I do want to share some thoughts about this most curious part of the human experience.
Earlier this week, I awoke around 3 a.m., unable to shake off what I had just encountered. My heart was racing, like I was speeding up a flight of stairs, as my mind replayed the horrific scene- over and over.
My 17 year-old son and I were at the airport, about to board a plane for our flight to Boston, apparently. It wasn’t O’Hare International airport, though – the airport with which I am well-acquainted. And it wasn’t United Airlines, my regular carrier. No, it was an ambiguous airport, and we sat at an ambiguous gate, about to board an ambiguous airline’s airplane.
My son sits next to me, eyes glued to his iPhone. Thumbs and fingers racing across the screen, swiping and “liking” videos on TikTok or some other silly, mindless app. He’s wearing his earbuds, and I’m wearing mine. I’ve got a Ravel string quartet playing in my ears, and I’m browsing email on my iphone: Files due today, proofs need to be returned overnight to the printer, etc.
I look over to my kid and smile. He looks up and smiles back. I would never see that smile, or my son again.
For in the mere seconds that followed, there would be a problem with our tickets to Boston, rerouting us to Gandi International Airport in India, and a missed connector rail separating my (still-earbudded) son from myself. I would watch him speed away in the train car, to a place unknown, completely unaware I wasn’t with him. And just like, that- he was gone. Forever.
Lately, my life has been consumed with crisis management. Not just for myself (which probably could be useful), but for clients. Things have been stressful. Not catastrophic, but general, mid-level “tough.” Everyone is talking about how challenging it is to leave stress at the office. (How is that possible, when we carry our offices with us on tiny computers in our pockets?– that’s a blog for another time.) But stress surrounds us. Stress of work, stress of life, stress of family.
And stress drives our dreams. Apparently, one of the more prominent theories as to why we dream is thus: We dream to cope.
Results of a 2017 UC Berkeley study suggests that dreams help “take the sting out of our painful emotional experiences during the hours we are asleep, so that we can learn from them and carry on with our lives.” (READ ARTICLE HERE)
In his book, Why We Sleep, author Matthew Walker says dreaming is like “overnight therapy.” His study reveals that time spent in the most important dream sleep actually helps heal us, and the intense REM-sleep often produces productive dreaming, allowing us to take the sting out of difficult, traumatic, emotional episodes, offering a sense of emotional resolution once awake.
Great. So sleeping is therapy? Ugh. Can’t sleep just be sleep? I’m sure I need it! Oh well, back to my dream.
The facts are all true.
My son does scroll TikTok, and we had just lived this very moment earlier in the day, laughing about the uselessness of it. And we have flown together many times. And my details were all real- I was on deadline. The proofs did need to get to the printer. Just earlier that day, I was delighting in my new recording of Ravel string quartets by the Soundiva String Quartet.
All those those emotional triggers are grounded in truth, too. The palpable emotion of the events included in my dream are still heavy for me. I feel those emotions even now, as I type this.
Here’s why I think it’s so intense. Seeing my son smile always makes me smile, and it makes me feel. That’s not a “dream”- there’s nothing “pretend” about that- that’s all real. And watching him slip away onto that rail, to an unknown destination- that was real fear I was feeling, grounded in truth. The emotions of that moment were all genuine, all actual.
The dream perhaps triggered my fear that my young son was entering manhood, and we were losing him. And maybe his departure into the unknown was a signal that he needs to choose a college and make the real plans for his future. Or, maybe it was just to remind me of how very much I care about this kid. And just how important he is in my life.
See what I mean? These emotions are real!
Here’s my takeaway: The situations are false, but the emotions are true. Maybe we are to learn from the emotions we feel in our dreams, and work our best to feel those emotions as deeply during the waking hours.
That next morning, as I made coffee and watched him stuff a granola bar in his backpack and fill his water bottle, I soaked it all in– feeling grateful to be here, in our kitchen- not boarding a plane, or stepping out into some unknown destination.
Then, he grabbed his coat, turned the door knob to go and said, “Later. Love ya.”
“Love you too, kid. See ya after school,” I said.
And I felt the irony of the moment.