Stammering Through Dreams

I dreamt last night I was being deployed to Iraq. In the passenger seat of an old station wagon, driven by someone I didn’t know, I headed to an army base where I’d board a plane for Baghdad.

Trying to remember if I’d packed everything, I shoved my arm into the bottom of my backpack. Suddenly (in that way of dreams), I realized that not only was I missing skin cream, but I was totally unprepared for war. I felt sick to my stomach. I could see the gates of the base approaching.

“This was a mistake,” I stammered to the driver. “I can’t do this.” He twisted his head, stared at me, smiled. It was not a nice smile. Without a word, he conveyed, “everybody says that about now.”

I knew right then there was no escape. I wanted to jump out onto the dusty roadside, be free under the open blue. Adrenaline sent my heart racing.

No! I don’t want to go. I can’t go! Finally, I jerked myself awake. I didn’t have to go.

At the moment of relief, I burst into tears. The weight carried by those who’ve been in a similar situation and for whom it wasn’t a dream was just too much. They had to resolve fear and panic by moving forward, not back; by stepping into a violent unknown.

Attentiveness to our dreams is a forgotten art. Twentieth-century rationalism mixed with a stiff shot of psychoanalysis has reduced dreaming to our cortex trying to assimilate random electrical impulses from the neural net. No more, no less.

But the biblical tradition paid attention to dreams. “The ancients understood that the unbidden communication in the night,” writes theologian Walter Brueggemann, “opens sleepers to a world different from the one they manage during the day. The ancients dared to imagine, moreover, that this unbidden communication is one venue in which the holy purposes of God, perplexing and unreasonable as they might be, come upon us.”

At Bethel, Jacob dreams about a holy ladder connecting earth and heaven, which re-scripts Jacob’s entire life. His son Joseph becomes a professional dream analyzer, assigned by Pharaoh to his advisory council. The prophet Daniel has dreams wild with color, animals, and apocalyptic political subversion. In the New Testament, Joseph dreams. The Magi dream. Pilate’s wife dreams.

Biblical dreams carry a political and cultural punch that radically shifts the order of the day. They represent an eruption of vibrant, feral truth into the waking world where imagination has been suffocated.

What about my dream? In The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud writes, “There is at least one spot in every dream at which it is unplumbable—a navel, as it were, that is its point of contact with the unknown.”

The “navel” of my dream is where I stammered. Stammering here was an interior inarticulateness logjammed against tongue and teeth, only to be exhaled in unbearable syllables of despair. It was the barbed border between an intelligible life of meaning and a ruptured life of chaos.

“The language of the Old Testament,” philosopher Emmanuel Levinas writes, “is so suspicious of any rhetoric which never stammers that it has as its chief prophet a man [Moses] ‘slow of speech and of tongue.’” Stammering is an outward sign of humility before the mystery of God. An inward symbol of all that we, as humans, don’t know.

Dreams can wake us up to our own limited understanding and misguided sense of direction. Sometimes we deploy ourselves on the completely wrong mission.

Rose Marie Berger, a Sojourners associate editor, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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