“Life is a Dream”

Many writers have proposed the idea of life as a dream, an illusion, the most famous perhaps being Calderón de la Barca’s play La vida es sueño or Life is a Dream. The topic is not so much the meaning of our dreams — there is a wealth of interest and writing about it, especially among psychoanalysts and New Age authors. Of more relevance here is the idea of the illusory nature of life, the dream-like quality of the sequence of events, the characteristic unfolding of time and circumstances that seems familiar but is uncontrolled, that contains its own logic but not a logic that makes events predictable or any more meaningful. Real life sometimes unfolds like a dream.

Our quest for certitude in life concerning that gross sequence of accidents and twists and turns is not unlike our quest for understanding in philosophy or religion. Of daily life, we can speak of the familiar that is unfolding in a predictable, even inevitable, way but which always remains uncontrollable, inscrutable, mysterious, unreasonable, illogical, unsatisfactory. Of spirituality, we can speak of our inklings, our striving for knowledge or truth, our “intimations of immortality.” But is our spiritual quest likely to be inspired by our life experiences or is it inspired by dreams, from some realm of subconsciousness? Are our life experiences really teaching us anything or is our life trickling out the way a dream goes on, waiting for ending after ending, another reluctant beginning with its own built-in ending, abrupt or slow but inevitable nevertheless? These feelings all resolve themselves not in knowledge or truth but in faith, or perhaps what Santayana called “animal faith” to highlight the very mindless nature of what we need in order to reconcile ourselves to life and death.

We see other people convinced that they can control their lives and intent on controlling the lives of others. They think they can control their dreams, basically, and those of others! We may wonder at or envy their certitude, if we don’t dismiss them altogether as superstitious or illusory or pernicious if their desire spills over into society and culture.

If what we think we can control is but a dream, and yet each of us dreams differently no matter how alike we are as human beings, then each of us has to wrestle with our own dreams. What someone else dreams may be parallel or suggestive or inspiring to us, but it is ultimately irrelevant, not applicable. This is the heart of solitude: to realize that we alone have a certain set of circumstances, contingencies, situations — unlike those of anyone else. We have great repositories of wisdom to consult in books, thankfully, but what good are they when events remind us of what is illogical and irreconcilable?

Ultimately we are our own physician. We have to decide as individuals, as inevitable solitaries, what the Buddha’s parable of the arrow says. We have to decide if we really have the time and the heart to diagnose and describe and study whether the poison arrow that has struck us is made of this wood or that, this poison or that, is lodged in us at what depth, where it was made, who shot it, etc., etc. Or whether we had not better just pull the arrow out and get on with living — or dreaming that we are.