21 September 2007

An Epistemological Quandary

Last night while it was supposed to be sleeping my mind decided to debate, via a bizarre series of connected dreams, a number of issues that have been floating around the periphery of my thoughts for a good while. I slept very poorly. I was conscious of at least two of the dreams and in fact was able to have a conversation with one of the characters in one dream in which I felt I was supplying only my half of the responses, and the character's responses were be generated outside my consciousness.

Like the dreams this post will be long, rambling, and somewhat incoherent. I also plan to publish it in stages. The whole thing will be after the jump, but you'll note here whether I've written anything new since you last read it.
Published so far: Part I, Part II, Part III


I - The Dream

The dream began back in Africa. It was not Djibouti, but I was certain--despite a general lack of outside references indicating as much--that the base I was at was in Africa somewhere. I arrived out there via a chartered airplane. Construction was ongoing. I do not know, or at any rate can't recall, what my mission or purpose was there, if anything. But, like the deployment to Djibouti, it's possible it was a standard proto-AFRICOM staff deployment and there was no purpose.

This part of the dream is unclear. I recall eating at the chow hall with George, a friend from Djibouti. But when I confronted George about having been in Djibouti, he disappeared in a wisp of... well, it wasn't smoke, but it was something. While walking around the camp later--and this is why I can say it wasn't Djibouti, because the camp was different in layout and design and the climate matched the Serengeti more than Djibouti--I began to grow concerned about the fact that here I was deployed and yet I hadn't yet heard back from my commander or legal counsel regarding whether the Secretary of the Air Force had accepted my resignation. Further I believed they didn't know I was deployed out there and would be unable to contact me. Would I continue getting paid? Would I be left out there forever?

Then I noticed that I wasn't in uniform. I considered that I'd come in on a chartered airplane and suspected I was not, in fact, in the military at all but was at this base--if indeed it was a base--as a civilian. Then I went back to my residence, which was not a tent or a dorm. I can't remember at all what it looked like outside. The only room I recall from the inside was a large paneled room, the size of my living room or so.

The front wall of this room was unfinished, or semi-finished. It was tough to tell. It seemed meant to have a large television or movie screen and other equipment installed in it, and so I got to work on that, which involved rewiring everything. As I was working on that, Rick, an old Air Force friend of mine, came in, along with someone else who I knew in the dream but whose face I can't recall now. We worked on the project together.

While we worked I noticed that it was very very quiet outside. I also recall that the work progressed as "work," and after a certain period I no longer recall what the actual work was, only that we worked. At some point we began drywalling. Rick was calling all the shots, in fact being very dictatorial, which was dissatisfying to me. He said at one point that he knew how it was supposed to be and I did not and so I had to listen to him. I chafed. I believe I woke up at this point but I can't be sure; in any event I was back in the dream very shortly.

Then I said it would be easier if we paneled rather than drywalling. To prove my point, I waved my hands at the wall and, voila, it was paneled and several large screens were installed. This caused Rick to disappear in the same manner that George had done earlier. The other person walked out of the room without speaking. It was now very quiet. I have the impression that light was coming in from outside but can't recall whether there were windows; in any event I didn't look out them.

Then the screen came to life. The person looking at me from the screen felt familiar but I can't recall who it was if indeed it was anyone I know at all. The person explained to me that I needed to come over to my dad's house. I said that I was quite happy where I was, thank you. The face then noted that it was the apocalypse and I should join everyone at Dad's, but whatever. In the background were several familiar people.

So I decided to go over there. I left the building I'd been in, but I still don't know what it looked like. It was dark outside. I walked, presumably, and in any event appeared at a house in a very short period of time, and went inside. This was obviously what was meant by "my father's house," but it was also not my father's actual house nor was actual father there; the house was more like an old farmhouse. Instead there were about eight or ten other people, three of whom I can recall their faces. There were two women but I can't recall what they looked like. One was motherly and welcomed me in from the cold and gave me a hot drink, which I don't think I touched.

I noticed that there was a big man there, not especially tall or anything but just a big-bellied, barrel-chested, round-faced, jovial fellow. He was dressed very simply in a white shirt and grey pants and jacket. Sometimes he was wearing a hat like the picture on the Quaker Oats box, sometimes not. At some point after arriving it became clear to me that he was in fact a Quaker, as were all the rest of the people here, or at any rate they were seeking refuge here because the Quakers in this house were protecting them.

I don't recall much of this part of the dream. I went to the basement, which was set up like a gym. At least five guys were down there working out. They seemed to know me and urged me to stay. They had been there for a few days. One of them said to me that he'd gained six pounds of muscle in five days. Then they started comparing their biceps. I went back upstairs. I saw the big Quaker again. I don't believe I ever spoke with him but he was very familiar.

About this point I woke up. I am fairly confident that I remained awake for much of the next phase of the dream, or was at any rate lucid if not awake. However I spent a moment or two in a confused state, not in the dream, recollecting the earlier parts of the dream, but I was back in the dream soon enough. During this period I became convinced that the big Quaker was in fact my Uncle Carroll, Carroll Solenberger, who is the only person I can recall who was a Quaker. He was my great uncle, my mother's uncle, who married one of my grandfather's sisters. When I knew him he was fairly old, more or less confined to an early version of one of those chairs that lifts to put you in a standing position. It was brown vinyl if I remember. I can only clearly recall his face in a single scene in my memory.

That was the face of the big Quaker when I realized I was dreaming. Whether that was the face before I decided it was Uncle Carroll or after I don't know. I don't recall speaking to him. I went back outside the house, where it was still dark and quite cool. There were streetlights and along the opposite side of the street from the house--which was the only house on the street--was an apple orchard. I suppose it could have been peaches or something.

I walked by a skeleton, which began to follow me. The skeleton then began to speak to me. I can't recall the words but it was extremely threatening. It matched my pace, whether I walked or ran, staying a few feet behind me but never losing ground. It suggested I go back in the house because I would be safe there. It said that if it caught me, it would take me to hell for an eternity in damnation.

I began to question what I was doing wrong, what I had done to deserve eternal damnation. The skeleton was quite clear that by going back to the house I would be safe, but of course it was hopeful I wouldn't. Then it began to describe the tortures that awaited me in hell as soon as it caught me. But the description wasn't focussed on the torture itself, but rather the length of it--eternity. That it would go on unceasingly, without end.

I was running by this point, while the skeleton kept pace behind me. I began to shout at it about "the impermanence of all things," how nothing could go on forever. It laughed at that and said it was things like that that would send me to hell. I again said it couldn't last forever as my consciousness would disappear when I died. The skeleton said if I stopped and it caught me, I would find out exactly what forever was like. Then I stopped.

The skeleton stopped. I said, you're a skeleton. You can't be keeping up with me as I run, because you don't have any muscles or tendons to run with. Your cartilage has turned to dust. You are impermanent. You shouldn't even be standing there. The skeleton countered that it wasn't a skeleton, but simply a "ghoul." I said, now you're telling me I have to believe in a realm of the supernatural I do not in fact believe in. The skeleton said all it had to do was touch me to take me away to hell. I said it could neither touch me nor take me to hell. It stood there and laughed at me but made no move to touch me. Then it said, are you ready to suffer for eternity?

At this point I considered my life. Had I done anything so rotten as to justify that? My greatest sin probably is questioning the existence of God, but plenty of others have done so. Augustine of Hippo and C.S. Lewis are pretty good company for a Christian. Why should I spend eternity in torment for seeking to understand that which cannot be understood? What else had I done? I'd been reasonably charitable, nice to children and animals, guilty of minor sins but nothing for which an eternity in torment seemed justified. The very notion was absurd. What just God would consign me to hell for eternity?

So I said to the skeleton, no. And I reached out and touched him. I grabbed the breastbone, wrapping my fingers around it between the ribs. And as I did so, it screamed. The bones collapsed and I was left holding a broken breastbone. As I watched the bones on the ground turned to dust and blew away.

I spent the rest of the dream walking along the road. Along one side of the road was the aforementioned orchard; on the other side were farms: plowed fields, silos, windmills, occasional farmhouses and red barns. As I walked, the sun slowly came up, and I spoke aloud my questions. How can human life have a dual nature? How is it that there is a soul separate from the body that exists after death? What is paradise, and what is hell, and how can we know either exists or what their natures are? Again I asked what just God would consign a person to an eternity of torment for any reason. What is the purpose of creating eternal souls if only to banish them for eternity? What is the nature of that eternity? If a soul has no physical presence, why is it that our depictions of torment all involve pains that would affect only the physical body, which is destroyed after death? Why were the Quakers able to protect other people from the torments of "ghouls," when in fact the ghouls did not exist? Why, indeed, were they Quakers and not Baptists or Evangelicals or Catholics or something? Would God send a Halloween-esque nonsense creature to do His bidding instead of something corporeal or at least capable of existing? Why does so much of religion require suspension of disbelief? Why are so many things in religion contradictory or counter to the only available evidence? Why would God create only one path to salvation--call it Christianity if you want--and then allow the creation of untold millions of souls to lead lives of grinding poverty and oppression and never even have the opportunity see or hear about that path? Can I believe that the vast majority of souls on Earth are doomed to an eternity of torment? To what end? Why would God make Himself available only to a small tribe in the Negev and leave all others to rot? And yet if there is no God why does the Buddha insist on following the Eightfold Path and living a good life? If all things are impermanent what is the rationale behind living a good life? And ultimately, what the fuck just happened here?

It seemed as though I walked for some time. I woke up very very slowly this morning and was not really awake when I walked the dog. So that's the dream I had last night. Now I need to rouse myself from this chair and go to the gym. I'll come back and write the next part before lunch.

II - Where did this come from?

I think in dream interpretation it's important to clear out all the noise before you can get to the meat of the dream. By "noise" I mean, stuff that appeared because it's in your subconscious or even your conscious memories and your mind is using those to fill in gaps to create a narrative. I'll start from the beginning.

1. I liked Africa (if not my job or the base). I want to go back to Africa. I'd go there to work as a contractor for a while again if the job was right and it was worth the separation. Haven't found a job like that and don't expect to, but if I did I'd consider going back. Africa is a fascinating place, and in many ways it's still an unknown frontier. That a dream would be set there isn't that unusual.
2. The chartered airplane. I haven't flown in over a year. Yeah, that's what that's about.
3. George is the one person from Djibouti I'd like to chat with again but haven't. Thanks to BDUB for leaving a note here; good to hear from you. I suspect George appeared and then disappeared because I'm wondering about what he's doing.
4. I'm still waiting on word as to my resignation. That it has taken almost two weeks isn't unusual, but I haven't had any updates. Not having any information is worse sometimes than having bad information. Of note here is that I could call in to my counsel and find out if there's been any word, and have been meaning to do so but haven't. I'll do that today to answer my subconscious fears.
5. The fact that I wasn't in uniform, but at first assumed I was still in uniform, doesn't mean anything. It's just my mental state at the moment, since I'm in between two worlds and don't feel a part of either.
6. The large paneled room, if I had to guess, was some echo of the basement in the house I lived in in Maryland mixed with elements of a and Dan's basement theatre. That's where the imagery came from anyway; why my mind picked that I don't know.
7. Working on the room... hmm, I don't know, I've installed or rebuilt or painted or refurbished a lot of crap in this house recently. I'm sure that had something to do with the need to work on a home improvement project in the dream.
8. I don't know why Rick comes in. I don't know who the other person was or what he/she may have symbolized. I'll speculate in Part III.
9. The magic paneling installation I believe is from an inherent desire to be done with all the home improvement work around here. Note that it was after the first wake-up so I was semi-lucid at that point, and I was sick of working on that wall. Who wouldn't want to wave their hands and have all the projects completed?
10. I don't know who the face in the screen was or why the screen came to life on its own. Perhaps it didn't; I may have turned it on in the dream and just don't recall that.
11. Why the apocalypse? This is a bit of speculation but I have been pondering these issues lately, about the nature of eternity versus impermanence, and though I haven't touched on the end times in my meditation I suppose it's bubbling in the subconscious. Or it may have just been a tool to get to the next phase of the dream. I don't think we understand how the brain puts dreams together yet.
12. The place to go was my father's house. I'll speculate more on this in Part III as well, because any symbolism I try to add to it is post-hoc and thus speculation only.
13. The house looked like an old farmhouse. It was not in any way familiar; it was not any farmhouse I've seen or visited. But I am ready to move out of the city and won't be doing so for a few years yet (Smittygirl is, too; city living is fun but after a while you just want a change, period; I'm not a go-out-all-night guy). No doubt if there was a "place to be" it would look like the place I want to be.
14. Quakers. Okay, my dog tags say "Quaker" on them for my religion. Partly this is because I haven't been to a Methodist church regularly in a long time and don't feel any more than a congenital attachment to the denomination, and at the same time some aspects of Quakerism (the Society of Friends to be more accurate)--the Testimonies of Simplicity and Integrity in particular along with the de-emphasis of doctrine--appeal to me; partly this is because the Friends are the best-known Peace Church and I don't have very many ways to say I hate this damned war while I'm still in the uniform.
15. Uncle Carroll. It was clear he was a Quaker before it was clear he was Uncle Carroll. While I did not, when I knew Uncle Carroll (he passed when I was very young), know he was a Quaker, I do know that now. So, either my mind put Uncle Carroll's face on the Quaker (who's dress was drawn from the oatmeal box) because he was a Quaker I knew, or, after I woke up for the second time, I lucidly applied Uncle Carroll to the Quaker to give me something familiar. Given the way this part of the dream "felt," I have to go with the first description there.
16. The gym in the basement. I've been going to the gym again lately and plan to continue doing so. I even joined a civilian gym that's much closer to my house because I didn't want to drive all the way to the base every time I wanted to work out. As to why this is in the dream at all I can't speculate.
17. The guy who gained 6 pounds of muscle in 5 days. Hey, who wouldn't want to be able to do that? But I'm too smart to believe that sort of claptrap. Either the "study" was done under unique conditions and bankrolled by a supplement company, or the guy was on roids. I can't gain 6 pounds of muscle in 5 days, it's absurd. Rather than try to find out what he was doing I left. A sign of maturity perhaps? Or a warm-up for the conversation to come? I have no idea.
18. The people who were in the basement working out were probably familiar faces from the gym--they did seem familiar--but I can't be sure. They started comparing biceps, which I would have liked to stick around for. Comparison is good. But I also have a very neurotic sort of modesty in this area such that I would not in real life participate in any sort of "showdown," but I will wear shirts that are too small. I don't even want to try to explain where that comes from.
19. I can only speculate as to why I left the house, but I assume it was because I had to leave the house to have the conversation with the skeleton. I believe that to some degree dreams have plots and must somehow fit a plot structure, even if said structure doesn't make sense. Sometimes you ride a flying carpet to the next scene because you need to get to the next scene, not because you need to ride a flying carpet.
20. The orchard and farm scenery in the background was also not familiar. The farms on the one side of the road seemed a bit cartoonish. Again though I'll go back to the idea that I want to move to the country for a while and so here I was in the country.
21. I'm going to guess my tormentor was a skeleton because it's getting on toward Halloween and all the discount stores we've been shopping in have skeletons hanging in the windows and stuff (some are very cute; one mobile-type skeleton in the Dollar Tree was holding a martini glass. I'd hang that on the window, it was very funny). It's possible that it was a skeleton because it set up the later part of the dream though I'm going to discount that possibility. I don't know that the brain thinks that far ahead in dreams, and although I was lucid later on the notion that I was that solidly in control seems far-fetched.
22. I was in control of at least some of the remaining course of the dream, though not, I don't think, of the fact that the skeleton seemed unable to get any closer to me than he was to begin with regardless of my speed. He didn't approach even when I stopped running. I'm not real clear on how lucid dreaming works, but this felt like something I noticed and not something I caused. I also believe the conversation was at least partially from the subconscious and not my lucid mind, but how much I can only guess.

Okay, so that's the bits of this dream I can explain, sort of.

III - Speculation and torment

Mainly I wanted to add some speculation about parts 8 and 12 above. In part 8 I mentioned that I didn't know why Rick came in. In truth, I don't know why anyone came in. I don't know who the third person was or why there was a third person. Rick and I worked together in the Mobility shop for a good long time, during which neither of us deployed. I was superior to Rick by right of rank. We worked well together but are very different personalities.

The appearance of Rick, someone I care about, is not unusual, though the direction taken by the dream after his appearance is interesting. Rick is more assertive and directed than I am--I work by feel. I get things done, but I do things in the order I want, work on multiple projects at once, often finish up right at the deadline, and focus more on completing work correctly than on appearance. Rick works in a more structured manner much more befitting the industry we worked in and places greater emphasis than I do on good appearance (obviously when the job is to look good, as in painting the kitchen, that's what I focus on, but if you want me to produce data I don't really concern myself with how it's presented if the data is good). Rick's work style is suited to the military; mine is not.

I mentioned earlier that I am caught between two worlds at the moment, military and civilian, and don't feel a part of either. Being so caught forces me to reflect on the good and bad aspects of both. It is thus possible that Rick's appearance was simply as an Air-Force related person who would intrude on a non-Air Force task I was doing as a way of emphasizing this notion of being between things. If so, the choice was particularly apropos as he was a person who it was believable would take over the project and direct it be done in a certain way. I don't believe this was to be taken as an issue of personality conflict; I believe he appeared, and we fought, because I am fighting over what lessons I should draw from my time in the Air Force, what I learned about myself both positive and negative, and how I want to engage now that I am outside the Air Force. That's my supposition.

But I still don't understand the third person. When Rick and I worked in the Mob shop together, there was usually a third person around, sometimes a fourth. This third person changed; since we didn't deploy or travel much, we were always there, but occasionally other people were also there. It's possible that this third person was simply reflecting that reality. However, if that's the case, it works in favor of the idea that Rick was not simply an Air Force body but was Rick, and that we fought because he was Rick and I was me and not because our work styles differed.

But then why did he simply decompose to dust when the paneling was installed? I don't get that, either. Perhaps it was simply that that portion of the dream was over--in other words, he decomposed to dust rather than fly away on a carpet or walk or drive simply because the dream necessitated his leaving and that was one way among many to do it. George had disappeared in the same way earlier and it's possible my subconscious was just enjoying the idiom.

Or, perhaps he was a menacing authority I thought I wouldn't have to deal with anymore, and once I showed the menacing authority that I could work well on my own, he disappeared. In this case Rick would be a generic person and not Rick. In any case it's all a bit confusing and I'm not sure exactly how to read it.

As for part 12, why was the place I was going my father's house, when it clearly was not my father's house and the big Quaker there was clearly not my father--not my actual father, nor in the dream did we act as if we were father and son, nor did I feel that I was looking at my father when I looked at him.

An obvious answer is that I was going to my Father's house--a church, or Paradise, or something, and the farmhouse we've already described as a place I'd like to go filled the role of my Father's house. Was this my subconscious arguing that I needed to go to church? Wondering whether I needed to go to church? Or simply saying that I needed to re-engage with Christianity? Tough to say.

Perhaps because I am a Christian and was raised a Christian my waking conscious mind is just associating the "father's house" in the dream with The Father. But, if my subconscious was not also making that association, what was it getting at? The face on the television was very clear that the place to be was my father's house, there's no question about that. But given that neither the house nor the father reflected waking reality I have to question what the meaning was. If, in the dream, I had felt or acted toward the big Quaker as if he was my father I could understand this. But he was simply a Quaker. We never spoke to one another.

I find myself being forced to assume this was blatant Christian imagery, that my father's house simply meant the House of God and nothing else. Now, it was a house, literally, not a church. Friends meetings may take place in homes or businesses if there is no Meetinghouse nearby, so there's nothing especially remarkable about the fact the farmhouse was a farmhouse. No actual meeting was occurring, though, people were simply gathered there. What is implied by that, I have no idea.

I come down on the side that dreams are not prophetic and do not contain messages from God or the dead. Dreams are simply the subconscious mind's way of addressing issues or concerns it wants addressed more directly than the conscious mind is doing. So if I accept the father's house as Christian symbology and the farmhouse and gathering as significant and not accidental, I find myself saying that most likely my subconscious is seeking answers as to what it means to be Christian--is it more than belief? Does it require regular churchgoing? Does it have to be a church? Can informal gatherings where religion isn't even discussed qualify as Christian gatherings?

And if it does require more than belief, what exactly is required? The pat answer would be "faith," but belief without faith is insanity and I don't consider that a valid answer. I don't have the answers here, I'm just pondering these things. Can I call myself a Christian and not do the outwardly obvious things--go to church, quote chapter and verse, put a fish on my car? If not, what is Christianity but a collection of symbology? If I have faith in God the Creator and Christ his Son as my Redeemer, is that sufficient? A life led by Christian faith is necessarily moral and charitable, or else it is empty of meaning in this world (I can claim to be a Christian but be an irredentist sinner and a bad person, but my claim is hollow and pointless and does more damage to the faith and my soul than disclaiming Christianity), but is that enough?

And furthermore, if that faith is tempered--interrupted even--by questioning about the faith, is it faith? I don't look for proof, as proof denies faith. But philosophically I have more questions than answers regarding Christianity. Given my questioning, can I claim to be an adherent? Again, I don't know. I believe this part of my dream was meant to bring these questions up. How I can answer them I don't really know.

1 comment:

Melinda said...

Heavy stuff. Much to ponder.

There was an article in Newsweek about a month ago about Mother Teresa. The article was about diaries/journals that Mother Teresa kept, and apparently her journals indicate that she had long periods in her life when she felt far from God. She described feeling as if she was alone, in a tunnel, far from God, and she questioned how He could allow such poverty to exist in the world.

I think it is ok to question.