OPINION: The second most boring activity I know is discussing the human condition, writes Joe Bennett.
The most boring is listening to other people's dreams. So let me tell you about a dream I had. I think it had something to do with the human condition.
Dreams come in two types. One is the American version. "You've gotta have a dream," warbles a character in South Pacific. "If you don't have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?" In this sense a dream means hope. The usage was born of America's rampant 20th-century optimism (which seems to have stopped ramping up of late).
Martin Luther King used the word in the American sense. "I have a dream," he said and the crowd erupted. But if he'd gone down the pub and said "I had a dream last night", the crowd would have sidled away. Because other people's dreams are of no interest.
Robert Graves called dreams the "greatest show on earth" and he was bang right. They hold us rapt. But they're box office hits for an audience of one.
They go down badly in the pub because as soon as we try to turn them into words they dissolve. Dreams are visual, wordless, irrational and emotional. The act of dreaming suggests that language and reason, the two things that have got us as far as we've got, are late evolutionary bolt-ons. When left to its own devices the mind goes back to basics.
Years ago I described the human mind as a dark and mysterious ocean, and psychiatry as a blind fisherman in a very small boat. Several psychiatrists wrote to upbraid me. Their arguments were so compelling that I would now change the blind fisherman to a visually-impaired one. But further than that I won't go.
The father of psychiatry, Freud, spent years trying to work out what dreams meant. He saw sex and symbolism everywhere. He was wrong. And he was wrong because he was applying the bolt- on tools of reason and language to an engine that evolved without them.
We know exactly what our dreams mean when we are dreaming them. They mean what they make us feel, and that feeling can linger after we wake. But it is not "meaning" in our usual sense of the word. Dreams are merely true.
Dogs dream in the same way as we do. Sometimes their eyelids flutter. Sometimes they growl. Most often they run and bark. I love to watch my sleeping dog hunting on the sofa. I feel I am beside him on the open savannah.
But I promised to bore you with a dream. I was teaching in a school, though I don't know where. A knock on the classroom door and a kid came in with a folded note from the headmaster. The class watched as I unfolded and read it. It said that a colleague and I were to be executed after school. No reason was given.
In most of the schools I taught at, such notes from the headmaster were rare. But in the dream I didn't question it. I had an hour to live.
"Depend upon it, sir," said Dr Johnson in a quip that has swum down the gutter of time. "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Yes, indeed, Dr J, but concentrates it on what?
We are all that condemned man. It's the human condition (I did warn you). For each of us there's a date in the future calendar, ringed in black and with our name on it. Whether it be a fortnight away or 40 years, the difference is quantitative, not qualitative. The only qualitative difference is that we don't know when that date is.
Rationally, we should all be concentrating like billy-oh. But we aren't rational. We behave as if it isn't so. We have no choice.
Suddenly it was the end of school. A gallows appeared by the blackboard and everyone I have ever loved had gathered at the other end of the room. A single packet of cheap biscuits had been laid out as refreshments. But the only thing I could concentrate on in the hour of my death was how much it would hurt.
My condemned colleague was led in and lifted onto a chair. A noose went round his neck and brown rubber curtain round the gallows. He dropped. We could see his feet thrashing against the rubber curtain.
I did not like the look of that one bit. So I just opened the classroom door, stepped out and kept going. The world had never seemed so green and lovely. I woke up smiling and took the dog for a walk.
» Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.
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