Unwanted Dreams and the Freedom of the Soul

In a recent dream, I was in the act of taking black and white snapshots of my father (long deceased) who was behind bars. He looked forlorn there, standing in a tiny jail cell where apparently he had been sentenced for an unknown crime.

I don’t like these kind of dreams. They’re disturbing and depressing. Though my father and I were never close, I still would never want him to be jailed. But I also know that in my dream my father’s image is actually a stand-in for a part of me. So what’s up with that? What part of me is feeling sentenced?

I have a new appreciation of late for people who suffer with chronic pain. When my orthopedist, who has already replaced my right hip with an artificial joint, looked with me at an X-ray of my arthritic left hip, it made perfect sense why I had been having lots of pain and lots of difficulty walking. Bone on bone! A cortisone shot would help to tide me over for a few months, but a second hip operation is definitely in my future.

Pain does things to the mind. It makes me feel old at 65. Even though I work out, try to eat right, stay active, work five days a week, and basically have a very positive outlook on life, I have been feeling much more “mortal” recently. I’m quite unhappy about what I refer to as “design flaws” in the human anatomy — those much too human vulnerabilities that seem to rear their heads more and more among almost every friend I know.

When friends and colleagues are stricken by illness, I automatically assume that I am immune from such things because I take such good care of myself. Wrong though this thinking is, I hold onto it like a cherished possession, creating a neat image of immortality and invulnerability….And, apparently, setting myself up for this other dream-image of being sentenced behind bars.

But as I worked with this dream and after sharing it with my therapist, I realized that actually I am not sentenced. I have choices: a great surgeon whom I trust, a wonderful job that I find fulfilling and doesn’t require a lot of physical strength, and retirement savings that I can use to get me through a time of rehabilitation after surgery. I am blessed with caring friends, a loving and supportive relationship, and a wonderful family. So with a new hip, if all goes as well as the first hip replacement, I should be pain free again. But obviously, I am entering a phase in my life when I will need to alter my delusional expectations of invincibility as I make some adjustments to my level of activity.

Growing old gracefully is not necessarily for the weak of heart. But it seems now to be a better challenge than kicking and screaming against reality. I won’t, obviously, live forever; but neither am I sentenced to the jail of my own making.

THERE IS NO SANTA

santa A kindly looking old guy, he seems. Who wouldn’t want someone like him in their corner? A jolly old fellow who promises that we can have whatever we want — just for being good!

But there is no Santa, right. No danger in this blog of a child reading such heresy, I know. But even children have their ways of dealing with literal truth. One year, when my 10 year old daughter and 5 year old son approached me a few days before Christmas, they looked me right in the eye and insisted that I immediately tell them the truth: “Dad, is there really a Santa?” I’m not sure what came over me, but I simply said as gently as possible, “No. There is NO Santa Claus.” To which they quickly corrected me: “NUH UHHH!!!” Their belief stayed intact in the face of “the truth.”

It would, indeed, be nice if there really was a Santa Claus. I confess it – I want what I want when I want it. And in general, I’m pretty good, though far from perfect. I’d need a Santa who was willing to look the other way on occasion.

But I wouldn’t grow if I got want I wanted. I wouldn’t learn the myriad of life lessons that come from the opposite human experience — not getting what I want! I won’t stop wanting nice gifts, and I’ll always enjoy the heartfelt experience of giving gifts that others want. It’s just that Santa can only help us feel good, feel blessed, while “being Santa” for others can do the same for them.

It’s a crucial step in the direction of emotional and spiritual maturity when we can embrace our experiences of not getting what we want: not getting the “good news” for which we had hoped at a dreaded visit to see the doctor; not getting the relationship or marriage we had wanted; not getting the Christmas bonus that maybe our friends are getting; or not getting our way in a contentious national election. While these experiences cause us heaps of insecurity, disturbing fears, and real life suffering and pain, they are also the stuff out of which resilience is made.

A very technical definition of resilience is “the ability of a substance or an object to spring back into shape; elasticity.” If you have had this experience — of springing back into shape¬†after receiving a blow — you know how miraculous it can feel. But it’s no miracle really. It’s a set of skills: calling friends when something awful happens and hearing their words of comfort and support; resisting the urge to withdraw into a tight little cocoon when life has dealt you a cruel knock; reaching out to others who need a hand when you feel you have little left to give; asking your God or Higher Power to show you the light in your darkest hour; talking with a counselor or pastor; or just taking the only next step you can see when you are weary and feel like the journey to whatever is next is beyond your imagination.

These are the things that help us grow through loss and not getting what we want. I will still give Santa my list of things I want next year. But I will continue to give thanks for the things I don’t want — the things that have forced me to look deep inside and to look outward to my friends and others so that I can find the character that shapes my soul and that gives me hope, vision, and purpose. And to the things from above that I often forget about. And while honoring the spirit of Santa, I am more than happy to celebrate the truth that really…, there is no Santa.

Peace and grace to you and yours in 2017!