In dreams begin responsibilities

January 4, 2018

I spent a magical evening watching A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic recently. The production was directed by Matthew Warchus with Rhys Ifans as a marvellous, spiky Ebenezer Scrooge. In the story, Scrooge’s character famously changes for the better after he is visited by three ghosts who show him his past, present and future.

Are these visitations truly ghosts or part of Scrooge’s imagination? Dickens leaves the question open, as does Scrooge, who asks himself: “Was it a dream?” I don’t think it matters whether the ghosts were real or imagined. In our sleep, reality is always blurred.

The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, who lived 2,000 years ago, tried to explore the difference between dreams and reality when he wrote one of his most famous parables. “I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly,” he said, “or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”

What I think is fascinating is whether we can truly listen to these ghosts and dreams. Can we learn from what they tell us, and can we even influence what happens in our dreams by the actions we take before we go to sleep? It has been a puzzle for many great thinkers for centuries.

Our mind at work

Old Scrooge uses his long night of visions as inspiration to lead a better life. The ghosts have stirred his conscience; he cannot change the past, but he can alter the future he has been shown. It’s a remarkable opportunity.

Sceptics might say – as Scrooge does to begin with – that his night-time fantasies are simply due to too much food: “An undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

But psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud would not agree that dreams are just a response to indigestion.

He considered dreams to be the royal road to the unconscious because, he said, when we dream the ego’s defences are lowered and our rational mind is no longer in charge.

So, what if dreams really are meant to be the moments when our minds can experiment – without day-to-day thoughts clogging up our imaginations?

Fantastic breakthroughs

Many scientists and mathematicians have achieved important breakthroughs through their dreams. Albert Einstein dreamt of sleighing at the speed of light. Niels Bohr’s unconscious mind provided the structure of the atom.

Artists too have been inspired while they slept. Paul McCartney said the melody for Yesterday came to him in a dream. Edgar Allan Poe suffered from nightmares throughout his life, which inspired his poems and short stories.

Given the power of dreaming, it is not surprising that scientists are working on ways to help us have more vivid dreams and to recall them more clearly. But perhaps that misses their point.

Dreams cannot be controlled. Instead, they offer a chance for the unconscious to tell us things we are trying to hide from ourselves or were not aware of.

A dream within a dream

In Delmore Schwartz’s short story of 1935, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, a young man dreams he is watching his parents’ courtship on a movie screen. He shouts at the screen, trying to influence the outcome, but is reprimanded by an usher and thrown out. When the man wakes up, it is the morning of his 21st birthday.

The dream has been an awakening in tune with his own coming-of-age. He is now too old to accept what his parents present to him as the truth, but must make his own way in the world.

Perhaps this is what the humanitarian Harriet Tubman meant when she said: “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”

All we need is faith in our unconscious selves to guide us towards the best life. But like Scrooge, we must learn to listen to the ghosts in our sleep.