One of the most interesting dreams I ever had came when I was twenty years old. I’m going to tell you about it, and then I’m going to explain why I’m telling you about it.
I was in the kitchen. In the floor of the kitchen was a hatch that had once been covered with a trapdoor but that was now open and exposed. It led to the cellar, which was approximately twenty-five feet straight down. There was no ladder or wooden staircase, or even a rope. The only way to get down to the cellar was to jump through the hatch.
Peering over the edge of the hatch I saw the dirty floor of the cellar. Although it was shrouded in darkness, a weak patch of light from the kitchen illuminated the space just below where I was standing. In that space, looking up at me, was a gigantic spider, its body the size of a St. Bernard. It was brown, and slimy, with long thin legs that looked frighteningly powerful.
As soon as I saw it it dashed away into the darkness of the cellar. At that moment I realized a horrifying truth: It dashed away because it saw me too. It was sitting there beneath the hatch looking up at the kitchen. Watching.
Although I should have been terrified, I was actually angry instead. How dare that spider sit down there in the cellar all smug and arrogant? Does he really think he’s going to eat me? He’s got another thing coming.
I dug a grappling hook into the kitchen wall and tied it securely to the end of a one hundred foot nylon rope. Then I strapped myself into a harness and fed the rope through a belay hook that would allow me to control my descent. I attached a strap to both ends of the flamethrower and slung it over my shoulder. I was almost ready; only one thing remained. I pulled a lighter from my pocket and held the flickering flame just in front of the nozzle of the flamethrower; it touched the thin vapor of flammable gas and burst into flame. (Aren’t dreams great?)
Just before I descended, I looked over the hatch again. There was the spider, just as before. Just as before, as soon as it saw me it dashed off into the darkness, impossibly quick for something so big. I could hear its legs scratching heavily against the cellar floor.
I was not afraid, merely determined. I’m coming for you, I thought, as I lowered myself into the cellar.
Then I woke up.
Great dream. (With a flamethrower and a giant spider, how could it not be great?) But does it mean anything?
In the ancient world people believed that dreams were messages from the gods. In the nineteenth century, Sigmund Freud suggested they were messages from our subconscious mind. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, when confronted with the ghost of Jacob Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge famously says, “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.” This is a common contemporary view of dreams: that they are merely psychological manifestations of physiological states. So if it is cold in your bedroom, you dream of a snowstorm. If you are hungry, you dream of food. The brain never sleeps, you see. So one common view of dreams today is that they are the mind’s attempt to make sense out of the brain’s continued electrochemical activity in the absence of sensory input. Marley might have been on to something. (By the way, if you are interested in contemporary dream research I highly recommend the excellent NOVA documentary What Are Dreams?) But between the two extremes of dreams being messages and dreams being meaningless, let me suggest a third possibility, one that has profound implications: dreams can take on whatever meaning we choose to give them.
I had this dream in the summer of 1991, which was, without question, the worst summer of my life. I had been dealing with horrific depression which even culminated in a suicide plan (although, thankfully, I didn’t get to the point of making an attempt). By the end of the summer I had begun the slow process of recovery, when I had this dream. I decided that the spider represented my depression, and the cellar represented the depths of my unconscious. And although the disease was still there, lurking in the unreached depths of my mind, I was going to fight it, and win, symbolized by the flamethrower and my descent into the cellar. The fact that the dream ended before I confronted (and killed) the spider was due to the obvious fact that the future lay before me and was mine to create. It was as if the dream was saying to me, “This is what you are going to do, but now you are the one who must do it. You’ve descended into the cellar, but now you have kill the spider on your own.”
Whoa! The dream meant all that? Sure it did, because I wanted it to. So that’s how I chose to interpret it. I have no idea if the dream was a message from the gods or the depths of my unconscious, but I do know how I chose to see it. There are two ways we can use the word “meaning”–it can refer to an inherent property in a thing that we are meant to unlock, or it can refer to a quality we choose to give a thing, regardless of whether it was there before. I suspect that the dream was probably meaningless in the first sense (I tend to subscribe to the “dreams are physiology” school of thought) but had profound meaning in the second sense.
We can extrapolate this principle from dreams to our waking life. What happens to me (and to you, to all of us) is the event, the stimulus, the “thing”. How I choose to interpret it is the meaning I give it. Some things have a clear, unambiguous meaning. If you walk up to me and wave, it seems obvious that your action has an inherent meaning; you are greeting me. But so many things in life have no obvious inherent meaning and are either ambiguous or random. We can choose to interpret these events any way we want to, but the way we choose to interpret them will have an impact on us, possibly a significant one.
A powerful illustration of this idea comes from Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s monumental book Man’s Search for Meaning, his memoir of his experiences in the Auschwitz concentration camp. At one point in the book he tells of how his wife’s image brought him great comfort even in the midst of the hopelessness of his situation (including the frightful ambiguity of not even knowing if she still lived–and in fact, she did not). The story he relates is a remarkable illustration of the power human beings have to give meaning to events:
“[W]e were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. ‘Et lux in tenebris lucet’–and the light shineth in the darkness.”
Was this just a coincidence? At the precise moment that Frankl sensed the assurance within him that life has a meaning, he saw a light come on in a distant farmhouse. Whether it was a coincidence or not is largely irrelevant (and the only way to explain it other than random chance is the supernatural) because Frankl chose to assign meaning to it.
If you look for blessings, you will find them. If you look for meaningless chance, you will find that too. And if you look for the spiders in the cellar, you will find them, and slay them.