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The War Veteran Who Had A Dream—In Which He Was Visited By A Midget

By courting the images that come to us during sleep and drawing upon their messages, our dreams within can help us achieve a more meaningful, peaceful outer life

Image courtesy US Army
Image courtesy US Army
Shame is an Old Testament wound that that continues to cause pain in the modern world and which has evaded healing. 

Conversely, striving to be better, actualized, and fulfilling one’s potential is a trick of the New Testament’s righteous personality.  

Both are there lurking in ongoing human narratives growing out of stories told through The Good Book.

I write this as the son of a minster and as therapist who has tried to help a great many clients navigate the psychological baggage they may acquire by trying to make sense of rules imparted by organized religions and the prescriptions they offer.

Shame, on on the one hand, and pursuing the dream of being people we are meant to be in the 21st century, on the other, are forces at play in the collective unconscious shaping most inhabitants of Western Civilization. They affect our psyches whether or we have ever passed through the door of a holy place of worship.

Regarding the quest for meaning and virtue underlying the human condition and our short time on Earth, yes, each of us can always be better but like the koan Alan Watts gave to me penned on a chopstick paper sheath at a sushi restaurant in Frankfurt, Germany in 1972: “You can attain It. You cannot achieve It.”  By that, I interpret it to mean life is always a work in progress, with the operative word being "work," as in, enlightenment comes through the courage of  humility and introspection; taking stock and owning up to our own stuff, not passing it off as the work of a benevolent or retribution-seeking Creator.

I logged at least 720 Sundays receiving the full blunt force of exposure to religion and shame as it was imparted to me by my parents. But I must say it gave me an indelible advanced course in Scripture, too. How many of you have wrestled with the multi-volume and thoroughly arcane Interpreter's Bible?

My upbringing also instilled in me a compassion for those of us who follow its teachings, all the while endeavoring to wipe out that damned spot of perceived inadequacy we carry around like a yoke.

In my last column, I wrote about dreams and this one is an extension of that, focusing on the weighty stuff freighted in our being, its forms sometimes revealed to us in the visions that come to us during sleep. 

I bring up the background, above, to set the stage for one of the forces that often drives acrimonious divisions between individuals. This condition is twofold: one is taking offense at what is being said or represented, the other involves becoming defensive about feelings or positions we hold. 

Doesn’t this, at its core, get at the polarizing way that  expressions of mass modern tribalism are tearing our country apart?

Offensiveness and defensiveness have various tributaries, like mountain springs, which converge to form a creek that tumbles down the mountain, forming rivers that flow toward the sea. Taking offense or acting offensively, or taking things personally and reacting defensively, are now a raging storms in many homes, communities, regions, states and the nation.

Although the current political tempest roaring in our society distracts us from the kind of individual interpersonal conflict I am referring to in this column, it is part of the conversation. The overarching ethos of a society influences individuals much like a diversion dam re-directs the flow of a river. 

And this brings me to where we left off in my recent Mountain Journal column, Dreams: What are they trying to tell us?, where I sketched out the basics of the varieties of dream experiences that visit us nightly, remembered or not. 

Specifically, I want to expand on the “shame-plagued” recurring dream.  Roman poet Horace who said it is the false shame of fools to try to conceal wounds that have not healed.”  Unreconciled shame can leave many people not only wounded but debilitated.

Brene Brown’s book, The Power of Vulnerabilityaddresses shame in a compelling way that resonates with women, as does Robert Bly’s book, Iron John that strikes a chord for many men.

What I endeavor to bring to the conversation is the way in which the dreamer patiently summons messages from the darkness and it only requires us to pay more attention. It does not depend on learning more but remembering what is brought to us. It does not require getting something exactly right; rather trusting stories expressed in images to inform our way home.

Allow me to share the dream of a war veteran who was one of my clients. Read it like you would a short story or parable.

A medieval "schandmaske," or "mask of shame," in the Fortress Museum, Salzburg, Austria. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
A medieval "schandmaske," or "mask of shame," in the Fortress Museum, Salzburg, Austria. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
“I was on the second level of a building, unknown but with the feeling of a shopping mall, but the lighting was dark with a bluish feeling,” he began and the elaborated.  I was standing with my best friend, getting my cash out to pay a man, and a ‘midget’ grabbed a 100-dollar-bill from my hand.  I was in disbelief, angry, but also completely paralyzed from trying to right this wrong—unable to speak out against this wrong, or even question why he took my money, much less take it back by force.  My best friend didn't do anything, and it was because I didn't do anything.  Time passes and we are all on the first floor of the same unknown building. The first floor this time offers a little bit better light, and the same thing happens. I am readying to pay a man, when the ‘midget’ appears again and snatches another 100 dollar bill from my hand, and again, I am unable to speak out against this wrong, or take any physical action to address the robbery, in plain sight and with my best friend standing right next to me.  I felt complete impotence in my inaction  and inability to stand up for myself—twice.  There was no ill will, or menacing feelings towards ‘the midget.’  It was not about what he did, but what I didn't do, or was unable to do—which is, stand up for myself.”  

[Note: by mentioning the word 'midget' and sharing the allusion of the veteran's story, I am in no way attempting to disparage those who are short in stature.]

The man who dreamed this teaching dream wrote in response to his vision: "For shame!" 

He remembered a family of origin saying that flew around his home when a behavior, attitude, or statement ricocheted off of the dominant household sensitivities. There is no more effective psychological weapon than inhibiting our children through using shaming words to make them feel not good enough. I will  not harp on this now for a hundred columns could be written about it. My point here is that shame is a reinterpretation of what is introduced in The Bible as 
“original sin.” 

Rodin's portrayal of Eve, hobbled by shame, after she and Adam ate from the forbidden fruit, commencing humankind's "fall" from innocence to becoming overwhelmed by guilt and shame.
Rodin's portrayal of Eve, hobbled by shame, after she and Adam ate from the forbidden fruit, commencing humankind's "fall" from innocence to becoming overwhelmed by guilt and shame.
If we comprehend the “Garden of Eden” as a metaphor, it is the natural state of childlike innocence.  We trust that Eve’s inquisitiveness expressed by chomping on the fruit of the “Tree of Knowledge” warned the common man not to become self-aware, to revel in his natural state, as it were. The trouble starts when the seeds of doubt are planted in the child’s psyche in an effort to insure that she is “acceptable”, “normal” and correctly “socialized.”

How many parents, after all, go to great lengths to make sure their child fits in and is not made an outcast, that she or he has friends, partakes in the right sports or other activities, or hovers like a helicopter to insure they never get hurt or suffer pain? How many parents, or even religious people, squeeze the authentic uniqueness out of children in order to make them conform?

Our dreamer, the war veteran, lost his confidence in expressing his true nature. Before the encounter with his shame shadow, a.k.a. the “midget”, he felt “complete impotence, inaction, and an inability to stand up for myself—twice. 

Since he received the gift of this dream he has refreshed his perceptual matrix and most importantly, now has an image for his shame. And thus a visual way to think about it.  Until we see our hidden, unconscious trouble, we are at its mercy and will continue to think our way into deeper trouble.  That’s why dreams can be helpful in bringing to our conscious awareness the stuff that torments or handicaps us within.

Dreams are in service to revealing our true character.  Dreams are not team sports or group activities; they do not appear all of us the same, as if a few hundred people are in a theater watching the same movie.

Or, if you like, look at it this way. Only you will have the dreams you will dream tonight. No one else can dream like you can. 

What makes dreams so “weird” is that our conditioned, normalized personality cannot comprehend the grace and beauty of such images having any relevance or meaning. But like a painting by Marc Chagall, our mind perks up, pays attention, muses, when in the presence of an arresting image. The image is one of the first Chagall painted after years of grief around his wife’s untimely death. The process of creating it (of dreaming it for us less artistically talented) assuaged his sorrow.

What is the point I most want to convey? Our character may be fine without our attention but it will not express itself as our fundamental posture of being unless we dedicate time to the creative task of honoring our native images be that through writing, painting, singing, or wondering and having an internal dialogue as we hike, climb, or sleep in nature. 
The refuge I feel by our surrounding mountains is not some romantic pablum;  for me, it is the source of my vitality and I have come to see that it is a wellspring for most of my clients who have passed through The Blue Door.  The outdoors can be a place for shedding shame, guilt and insecurity. The wild landscapes surrounding the valleys where we live can provide comfort, refreshing our abilities to engage in our waking world of trouble, tasks and tests.

Although recurring dreams are typically the way that our shame motifs are revealed, such dreams as in the case of our veteran’s, explicitly address the same sleight of hand on two different levels under two different circumstances and twice loosing $100!  However, the dream itself is worth indescribably more than whatever the perceived price of admission was.

Another way to reconcile our shame or inner conflict is through writing a story  about the characters that visit us, the landscapes they inhabit and who else they—and we—encounter. If you need prompts for this idea crack open the collective volume of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. They tell us stories that detail how axiomatic and sometimes cruel our versions of life can be.  They can also be mirthful.

Pondering our inner dreams can be useful for helping us sort out our inner conflict and by doing that it can help reduce our outer conflict with others.  Our ongoing challenge is to reconcile our personal fears, hatreds, defensivenesses, betrayals, grudges, ingrained positions, judgments, beliefs and need to control others within our own psyche. 

Dreams provide a panoply of images for us to draw upon and our surging wind whipped mountainous world helps us remember our place.

I leave you with a quote I saw on social media this morning posted by a friend, Charles Wolf Drimal:  “I just finished The Way of Zen by Alan Watts. I highly recommend this read. 
He invokes Watts quoting the insight of Hung Tzu-ch'eng: “If the mind is not overlaid with wind and waves, you will always be living among blue mountains and green trees. If your true nature has the creative force of Nature itself, wherever you may go, you will see fishes leaping and geese flying.”

Tonight, may you look forward to tredding down the exciting pathway of dreams. May your inner dreams help you realize outer dreams fulfilled.
Timothy Tate
About Timothy Tate

Community Psyche columnist Timothy J. Tate, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, has been a practicing professional psychotherapist for more than 30 years. For decades, he had an office on Main Street behind The Blue Door. He still works with clients downtown.
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