The Stress Dream

I had a nightmare last night. Don’t worry, this ends well.

Work and my extracurricular activities have been picking up a lot lately, and I have begun to worry that I was going back to the hectic life that I was relieved to get a break from in this involuntary Long Sabbath. Then a water main broke in front of my house. It broke at a point before anyone’s home supply line on the county-owned part of the front yard, so the county promptly came and fixed it, but it flooded the street, my front yard, and my neighbor’s yard, crawlspace, and pool. It was quite unpleasant and stressful.

My brain processed the stress the way it usually does, with a stress dream. The dream I had was particularly realistic, in that I was strongly in touch with my feelings and senses and there were lots of unrelated flourishes. I could smell the breath of one person I was talking to. A friend was going through a rough time and began to cry, and I gave them a hug. But I had my own rough time to go through.

My typical stress dream is that I am back at Princeton, where I did my undergraduate education. It’s usually late in the semester, and I realize there’s one class I’ve just been blowing off. A feeling of terror builds in my solar plexus as I try to figure out how I’m not going to fail. The outcome beyond having to retake the class is never clear, but I’m always certain this means that something Very Bad is also going to happen.

So I had this dream again, with the attendant additional details. My professor who I had blown off was Mr. Lieu and was from China. He was teaching some complex math class which I saw in my mind as discrete math. He was difficult to understand in the way I found professors difficult to understand in my real-life freshman year. (My Dutch physics professor who I mistook for German, a language I actually spoke, was my real-life linguistic nemesis then because I hadn’t had any exposure to different accents.)

Mr. Lieu’s class was at 10:30 am, and I hadn’t been going, as I was dealing with the lives and loves of my friends from the dream, and also moving this guitar case-sized, shrink-wrapped container around my childhood home while my neighbor could be overheard tearfully talking about leaving her husband through the window. (It was a dream, after all.)

So the moment of realization hits, and I realize that I’ve been blowing off this class. But this time, rather than wringing my hands, I decide on a different plan. I go to the lecture hall where the exam is happening and climb down the steep stairs, maneuvering around some of the tiny fixed desks. As I approach, the professor is providing instruction in what sounds like Thai or Cambodian, a language he also apparently speaks, to a student who is asking a question. I ask for a word in private, and I can see mild exasperation in his eyes, but a willingness to talk.

We go behind a curtain, and I tell him that I wish to abjectly apologize for missing his class. I tell him it wasn’t because I didn’t think it was important or I was being lazy, but it was because I had a block and just became too afraid to go. He was surprised and his demeanor changed. He said, “I thought you were just sleeping.” I said, “no, I don’t have trouble making any of my other classes. I just have a block with this one.” He told me that I have to have an appreciation for art and beauty to be able to enjoy math, and then we made a plan for how to bring my love for my other subjects into his class when I took it again the following semester.

I awoke from a stress dream feeling relieved, which was a disorienting feeling. I got out of bed and looked out of the window. The yard was completely patched up and the water was flowing again. The yard will need some TLC in the section near the main, but the real-life nightmare was also over.

Grabbing a stress dream by the horns and going through felt like a message. We are in something that feels very much like a stress dream right now, and Very Bad always feels like it’s around the corner. But what I think my dream was telling me was that stress might rise, the Very Bad Thing might even happen, but it will be okay. Until we are called on to the next phase of this cosmic journey, the sun will rise. This thing keeps moving at 186,282 miles per second through time, regardless of what we do.

There are problems we have no control over, like the water main break, and there are problems we can control, like my slowly repacking schedule. For the former, we can find equanimity and acknowledge the difficulty without being consumed. For the latter, we can decide to accept our consequences from the mistakes we have made and move forward, or we can allow the current to carry us away and feel powerless in our own story.

Sweet dreams, y’all. But if they’re not, I hope they’re at least enlightening.

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