Dreamwork

I don’t pay much attention to most of my dreams.

For one thing, I very rarely remember much about them.  For another, the vast majority of my dreams are like a combination of a train wreck and an attic and when they do make sense they probably have a lot to do with first-child syndrome: that burdened business not of feeling like God, but of having been deputized.

But tonight I awoke from a dream that left an impression.

I was sitting with my younger brother in a hospital waiting room.  To understand what happened you need to know a few things about my real-world brother, Dave.  One, he is an accomplished hand surgeon.  Two, he is the father of two great young men, one of whom is applying now to medical schools.   Three, over four years ago Dave’s active career as a surgeon came to an abrupt end when he discovered that he has a life-threatening brain tumor.  (There is a lot more that I would like to tell you, but that will need to do.)

Back to the dream:

While we sat there waiting for Dave to have some kind of treatment (my dream wasn’t real clear about what kind of treatment), I found myself talking to a nurse about the possibility of entering medical school.  Not long after that (and, again, in a way that my dream failed to account for) I found myself wearing a white coat and stethoscope; and, for some reason, I had been presented with a file detailing a patient’s needs and a surgery that needed to be done ( I never did learn who the patient was, but it was not my brother).

I felt a profound sense of satisfaction about being asked to do this and it felt great to be a physician all of a sudden, but I was also panicked at the prospect, because I also knew that I had not been to medical school.  So, for what seemed to be hours on end I began to prepare, frantically trying to learn what I would need to know in order to operate.

Finally I asked my brother for advice.  He flatly told me that I needed to advise the surgical nurse that I wasn’t ready and that I didn’t know what I was doing.  But, then he took me aside, extended his arm and told me that he was going to take me through the process, step by step, so that I would be prepared to do the operation.

That woke me up.

I am not entirely sure what that dream was all about.  But a few thoughts were front and center when I woke up:

One, I am deeply proud of my brother.  He is a determined, brilliant, disciplined, gifted man, and a bit OCD  — though he isn’t the only one in the family.  With integrity and dedication he has spent his adult life using those considerable gifts to meet the needs of others.  (As a child and teenager he spent a bit of his time doing other stuff, but didn’t we all?)

Two, I grieve the losses that he has suffered and the threat to his own life that his cancer presents.  The dream was, no doubt, about my own desire to fix something I can’t fix.

Three, I also sensed a measure of simple, profound peace there was in helping people — unalloyed by the politics and nonsense that, sadly, are as much a part of medicine as they are a part of the ordained and academic life that I live — but it is easier for me to dream about his life, than it is to dream about my own.

There is a school of thought in dream interpretation that argues that everyone in your dreams is a surrogate for things you are trying to work out in your own life.  If that’s the case, I suppose my brother represented a number of my own needs:

  • The desire to do something of clear, unalloyed benefit to others.
  • The desire to heal the wounds he and others have suffered — many of which I know full well, I cannot heal.
  • The desire of an older brother to protect and safeguard a younger brother.
  • And the desire to find a life’s work that is not spoiled by the blatant cruelty and selfishness that I have seen so often in the church.

But I don’t believe that dreams are that simple and I hope that mine aren’t that narcissistic.  I think this dream is also about pride in a brother whose work and strength I deeply admire — who has suffered losses that even after all of this time discussing them with him, I have yet to comprehend — and whose life’s work I wish he could continue.

It occurred to me, as a I write this, that just as he offered his arm, it was likely that it was the arm of Jesus as well that was extended to me.  I have no doubt that his is the only arm that can offer either one of us that kind of healing.

Why share this with you?  These observations:

  • Pay attention to the dreams that you have and can remember.
  • They may not always make sense, but from time to time they are the extension of the waking prayers and conscious struggles that mark your life.
  • If God can talk to you when you are awake, God can no doubt continue the conversation with you even when you are asleep.
  • You are the best, first interpreter of your own dreams.  Others may help you understand them, but it is important to listen to your own emerging impressions.
  • Take the impressions that arise from your sleeping prayers into your daytime, conscious prayers.  Some of what you learn in your sleep may help you live your life during the day.
  • Night or day, we are in God’s hands.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), live in Highland Park, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and four grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, and Sophie.


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