I referred to the dream as a marker of that world's end, a world of Japanese empiricism, massive military battles that entangled East and West in violent conquest, and the pre-atomic world of nation states -- a time before the entire world could be destroyed by human weaponry.
But I also acknowledged that my use of the word "world" encompasses not just our planet's land mass and oceans. We live in many worlds and journey through several of them between birth and death. In this sense, "world" means the "story" in which we experience ourselves living at any given moment. For example, you and I are now living in a bizarre time of a pandemic, Covid-19, a minute aggressive virus that of this writing has killed 836,000 people, including 183,000 in the U.S. Currently, there are 24,794,113 confirmed cases in 213 countries and territories, and 6,083 people are dying daily at this present time.
These figures give us a sense of our present story from the perspective of our health and medical status. However, our psychological story -- the story of our emotional, spiritual, mental, and social life -- that story is even more distressing. This story, our feelings about ourselves, how we treat others, how we treat our institutions of education, health, government, culture, and societies -- this story is distorted by an insanity of political aggrandizement, lies, misinformation, ignorance, and a willful refusal to recognize the validity and helpfulness of our scientists on the ground who are working to provide at least some basic guidelines for controlling the virus: wash your hands, cover your nose and mouth when in public, maintain a distance of six feet between yourself and the nearest person when at all possible.
When we follow those very simple guidelines, the rate of infection drops; when we do not, the rates go up. This seems simple enough, does it not? But it is not simple, at least here in our beloved country that has done so much to eradicate infectious diseases around the world. Now we struggle not to lose our way.
This is a basic lesson in our evolutionary history. Down within our psyche dwells the basic instincts of aggression, a mistrust of the stranger from another "tribe," the settling of conflicts by battle, the fierce competition for resources of food, shelter, and love partners, competition for leadership within work and social groups, etc. All of these instincts developed to ensure survival in a threatening world, but now compete with the evolved qualities of mercy, kindness, cooperation, sacrifice, and love. So all it takes for the baser instincts to erupt and dominate us is for a sick or evil person to slip into a position of influence and power. It is a story as old as humankind.
Sometimes this happens through overt grabs for power leading to insurrections, coups, assassinations. But there are also times when the grab for power occurs by slight-of-hand within the democratic processes of the people who in good faith assume that the usurper also operates with honorable intentions for the common good. When this happens, the democratic processes can be manipulated with self-serving lies, control of information, promises to make life better, and attacks directed against would-be opposition. With mob-like chicanery, the usurper rallies followers who bask in the adrenaline-fed exhilaration and tinsel-thin glory of political power. However, make no mistake, the situation and the characters are dangerous because they operate with no moral center.
Here in this rough and brief sketch of the bizarre forces at work within our present situation, we see an intersection of the archetypal potentialities for good and evil, health and illness, care for the common good and the abuse of public trust. And when the dark forces prevail, we may find ourselves lost in a bewildering fog of anger, fear, hopelessness, resolve to find a way out, searches for like-minded people, and the ten-thousand hyper-active distractions that momentarily ease the pain and fear.
Throughout all of this insanity of our cluttered minds, however, one constant remains. That is our dreams. Of this we can be sure. And we can also be assured that our dreams bring some refreshing glimpse of a deeper reality than the mess of our waking life. In a practical sense, how does this work out when the dreams we remember appear to be so insignificant, so trite, like scrap images in the waste bin of our minds? But when we pull out the scraps of images and put them together as if we are organizing a jigsaw puzzle, we begin to see a coherent picture. When we study the pieced-together images long enough, the background emerges into the foreground, presenting something like a meaningful gestalt. It may take days, weeks, or sometimes months when we remember enough of our dream's images, when we consider their role as symbolic responses to the fearful, anxious stories we have been telling ourselves -- only then do we begin to formulate our soul's point of view.
And that point of view is compensation. A primary function of our dreams is to compensate our present situation by presenting a symbolic point of view from the depths of our soul where consciousness and the moral center dwell. Ancient cultures, including the Semitic, Greek, and Roman families of people, had some practice of oneiromancy (the practice of tending dreams) in order to receive messages from the deities or spirits who represented a superior wisdom.
One such example in the Judeo-Christian tradition is Jacob's dream at Bethel some four-thousand years ago. Jacob was the son of Isaac who was the son of Abraham, patriarch and founding figure in the ancient Hebrew literature. But Jacob was a cunning, dishonest man who deceived his father and stole the birthright of Esau, Jacob's older brother. Having created great, deep enmity between himself and his brother, as well as within his family, Jacob was forced to leave home and became something of a wanderer, seeking eventually to make his way to a foreign land where his mother's father lived and where Jacob hoped he might marry, have children, and begin his life again.
Along the way of his long journey, the wandering Jacob stopped one night at a Canaanite sacred place. Choosing a stone for his pillow he lay down to sleep. It may be that Jacob was in fact practicing some form of dream incubation, seeking counsel from some deity. This is his dream as recorded in the 28th chapter of Genesis.
And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of
it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending
on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, I am the Lord God of
Abraham, thy father, and the God of Isaac. The land whereon thou liest,
to thee will I give it, and to thy seed.
And Jacob was afraid, and said, how awesome is this place! This is none
other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
Four images stand out in Jacob's dream: the ladder, earth, heaven, angels moving up and down the ladder, and the Lord who stands above it. I will briefly consider each image and then reflect on how this dream compensates Jacob's situation, but also how this dream throws light on the role of dreams in an individual's life as well as that of the larger society.
Regarding the symbol of "earth" in Jacob's dream, it may be understood not simply as the physical locality of the planet, but as the "world" in which Jacob lives. "Heaven," then, is the location above Jacob, not just a spatial idea, but an inner reality of a higher consciousness. In turn, the "ladder" connects "earth" and "heaven," providing communication and relationship between the two spheres, guided by "angels" who serve as messengers that make communication and relationship possible. And above all of this is "the Lord," the God-image that the Hebrew people had not yet come to know fully. Jacob is at the beginning stage in the historical line of revelation and relationship that became known as the Judeo-Christian religion. Finally, these images so stun Jacob that he experiences the dream as an encounter with what he believes to be God. His truancy, deceptive behavior, and homelessness are compensated by this human-divine encounter that validates his existence with a summons to take responsibility for his life and his world.
This dream stands as one of many in the long Judeo-Christian account of its early beginnings, but it is significant because it occurs at the transitional point of one individual's life when his old world was ending and a new one beginning. Out of Jacob's experience came a long line of charismatic leaders, some honorable and some not, along the twists and turns of a history much like our present time in which archetypal forces of good and evil battle within the souls of a people for direction.
We cannot, and I will not, propose simplistic answers to our complex issues. But I continue to hold a conviction that at the heart of the mess we are in lives a moral center that appears in our dreams as images for understanding who we are, our place in the world, and what we are to do at this time.