I have a recurring a dream. I am on a little raft with my children, and we paddle from a sandy beach out to a tree-covered isle towards the end of the day. The sea is like glass, mirroring a swirl of warm colours in the sky. We know the isle is a safe haven, an enchanted place. As we paddle, time seems to stand still. After awhile, we get there, and I pull the raft up onto some rocks, so it won’t drift away again. The laughter of my children echoes through the woods, as they set out to explore it. I feel so happy to share this moment with them.
Dreams are stories we tell ourselves. They seem more like dream-pictures or films than strings of words. I am not sure how to interpret dreams. Do they have fixed meanings, based on the rigorous classification of symbols by somebody else? I am not so sure.
For one thing, the meaning we find in dreams and other experiences sometimes changes over time, as our perspective changes. Suppose I identify with a character in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. As a young man, I would likely have identified with Ferdinand, who was so much in love with Miranda; now in middle age, I am more likely to identify with Prospero, although such identifications are, of course, fantasies. Or again, suppose I identify with someone in Lord of the Rings. As a young man, I felt like Frodo Baggins, on a perpetual quest; in middle age, even my children have called me Gandalf, riding to the rescue when they get into difficulties. If my children may call me by other names, I am unaware of the details!
It is striking how arbitrary Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung get, in their interpretation of the symbolism of dreams. Their ambition is to make psychoanalysis scientific, which means using tight reasoning and cause-to-effect associations in order to establish a whole framework of doctrines and laws and rules for the interpretation of dreams. Freud and Jung both occasionally draw on Greek mythology to identify complexes and disorders, so their intention may be scientific, but the source of their interpretations is not always based on scientific observations. They are, after all, studying the unconscious!
Some of what Freud and Jung say about dreams strikes me as subjective, forced and circumstantial. Freud even goes so far as to say: something means what it means, unless it means the exact opposite! This sounds like a passage from Alice in Wonderland.
Another time, Freud claims when you dream you are worried you will fail an exam, it is never in a subject you are bad at: it is only in a subject you are good at. In one recurring dream, I am afraid of an upcoming trigonometry exam. I have never been good at trigonometry. On the other hand, I have never dreamt I am going to fail at history, and I am good at remembering historical theories and facts.
Nonetheless, I enjoy reading Freud, especially when he is clearly being subjective!
So, what does my recurring dream mean, about paddling on a raft with my children on a glass-like sea as far as a tropical isle? I always wake up happy from this dream: I feel I have just enjoyed the most enchanting experience, while time stood still; my children were young; we discovered something together that was really beautiful; and we were safe. I take this recurring dream literally. It is what it is.