In Search of Meaning


“I don’t want to hear about your dreams…It’s like flipping through a stack of photographs. If I’m not in any of them and nobody’s having sex. I just…I don’t care.”

– Dennis Reynolds
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia


Steeped in a single-malt narcissism so pure, so unadulterated, it’s positively Wilde-ian, the fictional Reynolds verbalizes what many perceive to be the reaction to the unsolicited, “I have to tell you about this dream I had last night…” According to a study in the International Journal of Dream Research, however, almost half of all respondents were at least somewhat interested in hearing about the dreams of a stranger, and another third were, at worst, ambivalent. It seems like society is at the very least mildly curious about the nocturnal goings-on in each other’s brains and whatever reticence does exist to the idea, probably boils down to the fact that we’re essentially being asked to watch a play without having ever seen the first act.

Dreaming might be the most individual thing we do. Take an image or an idea, wash it over a lifetime of memories, neurosis, and ambitions and lose it into your mind without the lane-bumpers of waking logic, and the result is uniquely yours. That’s not to say that the dreamer is the only one who can learn or benefit from their dreams. Luckily there is a long history of cultures whose interests in and responses to the dreams of its constituents stretched beyond simply inquiring, “was I in it?” to a much more profitable, “what does it mean?”

Among the myriad things that I am not qualified to do, a psychologist friend of mine was insistent I make clear at the outset, interpreting dreams sits prominently on the list – just above flying fixed-wing aircraft and below the type of pool hustling Paul Newman shows a young Tom Cruise in The Color of Money. Luckily, for the reader as well as my friend, I would never venture to divine meaning from the dreams of another. What I can do is to offer up a recurring dream of my own and submit it to the prominent dream interpretations of eras past to see what they might have said about what happens in my mind as I sleep. This is that dream:

The Dream

Wherein the author is walking alone through an unfamiliar wood. He is barefoot. Upon looking down, he discovers that he is also carrying within his shirt his pet cat, which, for the most part, appears unbothered by its journey. They continue on in the way for some time.

Eventually, the author reaches a clearing where he finds a large communal table around which is seated a collection of his friends. He is the last to arrive, and he takes his seat. It is at this point that the stowaway feline rousts itself and demands to be freed from inside the author’s shirt. Placed upon the table the cat dances, briefly, and sits. The author returns the animal to his shirt, dines, and wakes.


The Egyptian Dream Book

Dating from the 13th century BC, the Egyptian Dream Book is essentially a spreadsheet of common dreams, color-coded (red ink for bad dreams, black ink for good), and recorded on papyrus. With over 100 different dreams categorized, the document organizes the various entries by beginning with the declaration that “if a man sees himself in a dream…” followed by any number of common actions or occurrences. For instance, a well-known red-inked dream read that if a man sees himself in a dream uncovering his own backside, he will become an orphan. Obviously.

The Egyptians believed that dreams were direct messages from the gods, and occasionally such divine communication required the dreamer to leave their home and sleep in the temple of the god from whom they were hoping to receive guidance.

As it turns out, coupled with the spread on the table in the clearing, if a man sees himself in a dream with a cat, he can expect a bountiful harvest in the coming season. For the time being, we can file this interpretation under, “inconclusive.” While I did think that I could pass quarantine by growing all of my own fruits and vegetables, that endeavor has thus far only resulted in six months of incessant heat on my plate thanks to one overzealous habanero plant.

Iroquois Midwinter Festival

Still celebrated today, the Iroquois Midwinter Festival is, among other things, a nine-day opportunity to both thank the Creator for the past year’s harvest and hunt while asking for good fortune in those of the coming year. It is also a chance to clear the air and heal the ailments of the tribe. Paramount in these efforts are sessions of communal dream-sharing wherein members of the tribe try to guess one another’s dreams.

The Iroquois believed that dreams are the language of the soul, and what we see in them reflects the subject’s hidden desires. Therefore, it is imperative that upon waking, the dream is fulfilled either literally or symbolically so as to prevent the soul from revolting against the body and potentially causing disease or death. Once a tribe member’s dream is accurately guessed in a Midwinter dream-sharing session, it is the duty of the tribe to help fulfill that dream.

With no one to guess my dream, and wary of what feels like a never ending bombardment of potential external maladies these days, I certainly didn’t feel it wise to provoke my own soul to wage any kind of internal assault on my well-being, so I gathered my cat, deposited it in my shirt and started out for small wooded area behind my apartment complex where some of the neighbors’ kids sneak cigarettes and tallboys. Suffice to say that I made it no further than the threshold of the kitchen before realizing that what my soul, and my chest, truly needed was Neosporin - and my cat, space. Dream fulfilled.


Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams

Despite what you may have heard, Freud’s analysis of dreams wasn’t based entirely on sex, but there was certainly enough of it in there to keep the Dennis Reynolds of the world engaged. Similar to the Iroquois, Freud’s landmark text, The Interpretation of Dreams, is rooted in the idea that dreams are the manifestations of repressed desires within the dreamer. This “royal road” to the unconscious as he called it could only be navigated by first unraveling the symbolism in the various components of the dream. Taken piece by piece, Freud believed it possible to identify the stimuli, both external and internal, that shape our unconscious wants. And while, more often than not, he believed those wants skewed heavily carnal, there is no denying that his early work with dreams laid important groundwork for our understanding of the unconscious to this day.

After several sessions of psychoanalyzing my dream, Freud might have posited that the wandering in the woods might be indicative of a feeling of being lost, maybe not literally, but in the sense that aren’t we all a little lost?... I mean, with all of the expectations heaped on us these days, how could you not be?... And being the last to arrive at the table...and I am late a lot. I try to work on it, but it’s just that, things come up, you know?… and the cat, well I don’t know. Why the hell is there a cat? And it danced?! What does that mean???...but also…it might all be about sex…it’s probably about sex.