OPINION: The (mis)interpretation of dreams

A look into one's dreams features a Paula Abdul Sandwich shop, giant donut, Nemo, balloons, and a waterfall of oat milk. Clouds are ground level and a text bubble asks, "it's just a dream, but what does it mean?".
(Meghan Joyce • The Student Life)

Earlier this month, I was in a supermarket in Turkey. My (now estranged) mother, stepfather, sister and I were there on vacation, and within a few moments of perambulating the aisles I developed an insatiable craving for a bagel.

I quickly located the bagels and a toaster, which I spared no time pulling out of its box and plugging into the nearest outlet. After locating some cream cheese (they only had cherry, those whores), I returned to the makeshift toasting station and checked my phone.

I found three new texts from my stepfather, in this order: “Where are you,” “Why are you like this?” and “We’re leaving, find your own way back to the hotel.” It hadn’t even been 10 minutes.

I emerged from the smoke of burning bagels. No longer dreaming, my mind grasped desperately for answers.

While seemingly nonsensical, this dream was meaningful to me, as it touched on many familiar themes: unknown environments, compromise (the cherry cream cheese) and familial insecurities. This whole scene was a thinly-veiled metaphor for my abandonment trauma.

But, then again, there is the time I went to an obscure sandwich shop in Los Angeles, only to find that Paula Abdul was the cashier. Or the time Lana Del Rey tried to kill my friends with a poisoned marijuana vape. Or (this one is from fourth grade) the time I was Nemo and got arrested by the fish police for not knowing the “Flippy the Whale Dance,” only to learn the dance, break out of jail and go on to win the nationally-televised Flippy the Whale Dance Competition.

The fact of the matter is, we interpret dreams when they’re convenient. When we can point to a sequence of events and say, “Yes, that makes sense,” even when it decidedly does not make sense and we’re basing that judgment on a gut feeling, we are far more likely to put stock into it.

There is also the matter of ego. So long as the events that unfold do not reflect unfavorably on us, we spare no time delving into deeper meanings. But god forbid we do a shitty thing in a dream. “That was so random,” we tell ourselves, “there was no meaning to it.” We seldom accept the role of villain.

If I dream that all my teeth fall out, regenerate and fall out four times in a row, I read myself as the victim. Easy. The world is cruel and I am the victim of its cruelty.

But if I dream of myself breaking into someone’s home, or robbing a $20,000 watch from a jeweler, or even killing somebody and going to great lengths to cover up the murder, I am far less likely to think myself a criminal, a thief, a murderer.

Of course, this is not to say that one should throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater. Sometimes there is value in interpreting dreams. They can bolster our creativity, as we struggle to make a cohesive and logical narrative from seemingly incongruous scenes. At best, directly engaging themes that occupy our minds in our waking hours through a “dream lens” can make us more cognizant of our problems or concerns.

Sometimes we even make a game out of it. I vividly recall my friend Archibald telling me all about a dream he had involving (coincidentally enough) going to the supermarket with his mother. I remember semi-facetiously offering him the following dream interpretation: The different kinds of oat milk he encountered represented different kinds of people, and his ultimate dissatisfaction with each brand reflected a deeper-seated frustration with forging meaningful romantic or sexual relationships.

Sure, reaching for borderline-absurd interpretations of dreams can be fun, maybe even productive, but these interpretations might have the inadvertent effect of creating a problem where none exists.

Assume Archibald did not actually have relationship frustrations; assume he just really liked oat milk. (Knowing Archibald, this was more likely the case.) 

My interpretation, if taken too seriously, might then have prompted a negative feedback loop. Perhaps he would become hyperconscious of his relationships, which might then induce anxiety, which might then actually influence his relationships. 

These insecurities might also linger in his thoughts, making them far more likely to emerge in his dreams. And so the cycle continues.

I remember a talk I attended in high school. The speaker, a nutritionist with dubious psychological credentials, presented us with his understanding of dreams. According to him, we accumulate thoughts throughout the day in much the same way we eat food. 

We go to bed with stray thoughts still floating around, or “digesting.” Dreams, he suggested, are the body’s way of stringing together these stray thoughts, which are ultimately meant to be discarded and forgotten. 

In a sense, dreams are the mind’s equivalent of pooping. I may not be a doctor, but this much I know: When you consume poop, bad things happen. Very bad things.

It’s surely not a coincidence that dreams at times contain themes from everyday life. After all, the mind your wicked relative knows as [insert your name] is the same mind that fabricated last night’s elaborate kill-the-wicked-relative-and-devise-an-alibi plotline. We have but one mind, and overlap is inevitable. 

Perhaps the true takeaway here is that dreams are meaningless. Even with this in mind, I’ll admit I’m unlikely to stop interpreting them. But the ways in which we interpret dreams are oftentimes opportunistic, discriminant and potentially harmful.

So the next time you find yourself contacting a wizard on Craigslist to remove your stepfather’s spirit from an enchanted automaton, take a moment to ask yourself: Are you on the verge of an emotional breakthrough, or is your brain just taking a massive shit?

Cameron Tipton PO ’20 is an avid dream (mis)interpreter. They are still working out the significance of a dream last semester, in which they were tossing a balloon with Kylie Jenner while Jonathan Lethem rhythmically spanked a dead fish. It was a tuna.

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