I don’t have nightmares very often, but when I do, I wish I hadn’t.
Waking up in a cold sweat, heart pounding away, feeling totally vulnerable—but to what? Often I can’t even remember what I was dreaming about, or if I do, it seems insignificant, silly or absurd.
Sometimes, though, it’s terrifying.
Some nightmares recur frequently enough that I’ve become almost used to them. Falling dreams, for example, or standing in front of a classroom full of students without the vaguest idea as to what I’m supposed to be lecturing about. Then there are those that evoke sheer dread, like being pursued by a giant spider, or running from a hit squad and finding I can only move in slow motion.
These are the worst, really: horrifying dreams of unnamed pursuers, demons of the night that are determined to get me. Again, thank God, they are rare. But the daytime stress all too easily translates into a nighttime panic, as those demons, in myriad form, chase me down the highways and byways of Morphean unconsciousness.
Bad dreams aren’t just psychological. They’re not just an emotional safety valve that lets out the built up steam of stress, anxiety, guilt or whatever. They represent a profound spiritual malaise, an inability to turn all that stress, anxiety, guilt and such over to God. As unwanted and unwelcome as they are, nightmares are in some way self-inflicted. They symbolize a powerful and demonic rejection of the first gift the Risen Christ bestowed on His disciples: the gift of Peace.
A major struggle in the spiritual life is to allow God Himself to transform our night sweats into peaceful repose, confident that His will governs all things, and that the Cross of Christ is an invincible weapon which has once and for all destroyed the might of Satan and his minions.
Like every struggle in the Christian life, this one derives its energy and direction from the Holy Spirit. Our “synergy” or cooperation with the Spirit, though, is essential. What can we do, then, to take on effectively the struggle against the demonic, against ourselves and our own nighttime vulnerabilities?
Years ago a friend shared with me a tactic in the warfare against nightmares that actually works. At least it works in cases of “pursuit” dreams, when we find ourselves in a panic, running—or trying to run—from some person or beast that’s chasing us down to do us in.
That tactic, simplistic as it may sound, is to stop, turn around, and face the enemy. As impossible as that sounds, it is learned behavior that we can practice and train ourselves to adopt.
The place to start is that in-between state when we know we are dreaming yet can’t coax ourselves into wakefulness. With a little practice, we learn to recognize that we are dreaming, that we can extract or abstract ourselves just enough from the unfolding nightmare scene to take control. It’s scary at first. But gradually we really do acquire the ability to rewrite our bad dreams (the good ones, too, I suppose, but there’s no need to do that).
The other night, for the first time in a long while, I dreamt I was being chased by something that threatened my very life. It was, as usual, about stress: too many phone calls to make; too many loose ends tripping me up at every turn; too much chaos. And it was after me. Finally the threat took concrete shape. It became a raging tiger, fangs bared, vicious claws exposed, ready to tear my flesh to shreds.
As a gift of sheer grace, my friend’s advice came back to me. I stopped the frantic running, turned around and faced this thing. It terrified me. But the object of my terror was suddenly transformed into Calvin’s Hobbes: a stuffed tiger with a silly grin on his face. And I woke up laughing.
It doesn’t always happen like that. Yet I’ve heard enough friends and parishioners talk about their bad dreams to realize that on some level we’re all in this together. We are everyone and everything in our dreams, they tell us. This means that Pogo’s insight is still valid: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Stop, turn and face the enemy. If it’s not a stuffed tiger, at least it won’t be any worse than looking in the mirror.