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Dreams as personal narrative

Two thoughts struck me upside the head one morning as I talked to my son, Jack. Usually I’m struck upside the head by a flying Lego or a poorly aimed Transformer when he’s around. But this time I’d asked him if he’d dreamed the previous night. As he told me about one doozy of a nightmare I realized:

1) that reading a story is the closest thing to complete empathy we’re going to get

2) that dreams are storytelling

It may sound like weird conclusions to draw. How can a dream and a story be compared to each other when looking through the prism of empathy?

I’m always struck by that feeling of closing a great book, and missing something. That “something” could be defined as missing a friend, or wishing the world you’d read about was your world, or even yearning for the crafted words you’d enjoyed so much. But I’ve also closed a book and missed something else — my profound sense of empathy for another person.

The feeling of knowing what someone else is going through — truly knowing because it’s conveyed in the words on the page and then felt in your heart — is something to be missed in real life. It’s a form of empathy. A powerful form, that can leave you in a haze as you walk through this real life, sometimes barren of any empathy at all.

But why would talking about my son’s dreams make me think about stories and empathy? While he recalled an incredible yarn about killer bees and acid goo and bullies and Harry Potter, how could I not think about stories? How could I not conclude that dreams are stories we tell to ourselves to say something to ourselves? To convey a message. To even convey empathy. Yes, I know that empathy means the vicarious experience of feeling what someone else is feeling, but when we’re dreaming we have little to no control over what’s being said. We’re inside our own personal story, looking in.

When my son and I talked about what the dream meant, we uncovered a wealth of feelings that he had to grapple with, including the idea that he had to give himself a break. He had to try and understand what he was going through. It was like his dream was a story showing Jack what it was like to be Jack.

So the next time I dream, I’m going to take a look at it from a different perspective. I’ll try to string the fleeting images together, wring some meaning out of it, and, if I deserve it, have some empathy for the hero.

[Illustration by Nathan Fox]

Ben Zackheim