By Betty Mills
Many long years ago, when I could still remember the psychology courses I took in college, I explained to a clinical psychologist friend that I’d like to know more about Freud’s theories. He suggested I start with Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams.” It turned out to be available in paperback in a nice skinny edition which seemed readable, given a reasonable tolerance for visible clutter and occasional dust bunnies.
Early on, Freud described a woman who revealed a dream she’d had the night before.
“I dreamed I had a tooth pulled,” she said. Freud replied, “Why didn’t you tell me you had an abortion?”
In a most improbable follow-up, the day after discovering this rather startling example of a Freudian interpretation, I went to a neighborhood coffee party in time to hear one of the other guests describe her dream of the night before: “I dreamed I had a tooth pulled,” she said. I probably still have scars across my tongue, self deposited to keep me from what seemed a response too deliciously timely to resist.
But I kept reading Freud for a few more pages until I came upon some of his examples of symbols in dreams which refer to sex, only to have my mother-in-law describe a nightly dreams using one of Freud’s symbols. Now, I liked my husband’s mother and had many interesting conversations with her, but I wanted not even a fleeting glance at her sex life.
At that point, I quit reading Freud’s dream theories, and evolved a series of instant excuses to vacate any conversation that began with, “I had the funniest dream.” Listening to what might be an unwitting revelation of someone’s inner thoughts struck me as an unauthorized invasion of privacy, particularly as practiced by an amateur. Not that I gave up the practice of interpreting dreams altogether. I just quit listening to those belonging to someone else.
There’s plenty of information about dreams on the internet, including this timely disclaimer: “Modern day academics treat Freud’s theories with ridicule.” To thus dump all that Freud taught seems a little hasty and a topic worth pursuing sometime in more learned company than mine.
But it does not suggest we give up the study of dreams, particularly our own. In fact, one of Freud’s contemporaries, Carl Jung, described dreams as “messages to the dreamer.” He argued that, “dreams present the dreamer with revelations that can uncover and help resolve emotional or religious problems and fears.” And I will fervently agree to that.
My father’s sudden death when I was 21 years old brought two years of frequent dreams in which he was alive. On waking the aching grief recurred ruining many a night of continued sleep. Then one night in my dreams we were at a family party, he and I laughing at the antics of our kin.
“You know you’re dead,” I informed him, and he replied, “Yes, I know, but isn’t this fun?”
That ended the recurrent grief-producing dreams.
Actually figuring out the message in your own dreams can be pretty intriguing and need not dwell on some scary plot unraveling in your sleep. Someone recently compiled a list of the ten most dreamed-of topics in 2017 on the basis of inquiries to a program on dreams. Cheating was number one, followed, in order of frequency: snakes, death, spiders, fire, fish, teeth, blood, pregnancy, and money.
In ancient times dreams were sometimes seen as omens or prophecies of a future event. A more modern view of the function of dreams is that they assist in memory formation, solving problems, or may be just random brain activity. Who hasn’t awakened with knowledge of where that missing key is, or whose birthday is suddenly on the to-do list, or with a better plan for a forthcoming event?
The idea that my brain has a life of its own regardless of what I had in mind when I shut my eyes for the night adds a silent emphasis to that frequent nighttime sign off, “Goodnight and sweet dreams.”
Betty Mills is an avid reader and belongs to several book clubs. She is a longtime writer and co-author of “Mind if I Differ?” She also enjoys crosstitch.