You know that feeling you get when someone starts to tell you about “this weird dream” they had last night? It’s always a weird dream, as if there’s any other kind, as if the rest of us are dreaming about watching TV and eating potato chips. It’s roughly the same feeling you get when someone pulls out their phone to share an endless series of photos about their vacation: nobody else could possibly care as much about it as the dreamer/vacationer does, and much of the time the listener cares only enough to be just barely polite without being in any way encouraging. If you don’t know that feeling, well, hold my beer.
So in the weird dream I had last night, I was attending a business meeting in a government building and the building began to tremble. It wasn’t an earthquake; it was a bomb, and the building was about to go down. As we ran outside, I realized I’d left my purse behind and had grabbed a handful of papers from the conference table instead. Everyone else, I noticed, was carrying something of actual value—money, a computer, keys to car and home. I turned, stupidly hoping I had time to go back. I didn’t. The building went down, all of it, a smoking pile of rubble within seconds. Terrorists, people were saying, and worse: someone I knew was accused of being one of them. I knew he wasn’t a terrorist; he was a pianist, a good one, and his friends were desperate to prove his innocence but we didn’t know how. Luckily Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot version) showed up and arranged a concert amidst the ruins of the demolished building so the musician could prove he was who he claimed to be. There was a grand piano there, half buried in mud and crawling with caimans, but Wonder Woman fearlessly stood guard as the pianist smiled up at her through the opening chords of Rachmaninoff. The music was beautiful, they were beautiful, and I—I was off to the side feeling useless and petty, because I had done nothing to help my friend (whom, truth be told, I had a major crush on), because I always seemed to bring the wrong thing with me in times of trouble, because I was no super hero, so what was I supposed to do?
It’s funny that English uses the same word, dream, to describe both the things we long for in our waking life and the anxiety-provoking REM-sleep narratives we bore people with. But both types of dreams do have a few things in common. Longing may simply be anxiety on a different scale, for things that seem grand rather than petty, and both kinds of dreaming may end up being about control. This is what I would do if I had the power, the first kind of dreamer says, while the second kind, helplessly writhing in the coil of sleep, says this is what happens when I don’t have it.
Given today’s date and various current events, certain aspects of my dream seem relevant. (Others of course are pure dream wackiness. I don’t know any concert pianists, and I have no idea why the piano was stuck in a caiman-infested bog except that I probably watch too many nature shows.) What concerns me enough to write about it, though, isn’t what happened but how I reacted. As my dream-self reminded me, I’m no super hero, and though I enjoyed the Wonder Woman movie as much as the next person, I can’t say I felt personally empowered by it. My bracelets do not repel bullets, and even if they did I doubt I’d be able to move fast enough to make these accessories life-savingly useful. Moreover, I have no idea what specific actions I would be capable of if a friend needed serious help—if they were falsely accused of a crime, say, or forced to leave their home. Like most people, I like to believe I’d be brave and heroically save the day, but how?
Of course I know heroism is not just dodging bullets and fighting off swamp reptiles. Bravery is often quiet, not grandiose, and frequently many people each taking many small but crucial steps are necessary to save the day. Furthermore I know that the day you save may not be today or tomorrow but a long time from now, because saving anything often takes a lot of time and continuous effort, not just a single daring act. I know all this, but—that dream. I can’t do what’s really needed, and what I can do is pointless, and isn’t that just a little too much like reality?
This morning I took the eggshells and banana peels and torn-up pasta boxes out to the compost pile. I’ve been eating much less meat lately, and I drive my car only when absolutely necessary. Global climate change has not drastically abated as a result of these actions, nor do I go to sleep at night satisfied that I’ve at least done the righteous thing. The polar ice caps are still melting, and when I do manage to conquer my insomnia, I dream about being useless, not virtuous. We do what we can, I know, I know, but it’s never enough—and perhaps it never should be enough. Both kinds of dreams are necessary, the kind that pushes you to strive and the kind that keeps you humble, because that’s pretty much the human condition in general, isn’t it.