Have you ever had an epic dream? I mean a dream that seems so real, so long, and immerses you so deeply in its world that when you awaken you feel as if years and years have passed by. As if you have just lived a large part of an entirely different life, and have finally returned to your real life after a sustained absence.
I have them once in a while. I can remember having them maybe three or four times a year, but I suspect I have them more often than that and just can’t remember them after I wake up.
In my dream worlds, there is often an overwhelming sense of purpose. Life is simpler, because circumstances make it clear what must be done at any given time. Sometimes my companions and I are being pursued by some powerful governing force, and we must endure an epic pursuit, and often personal and hard-hitting casualties, in order to reach a goal and fulfill our roles in the story. Sometimes our roles are heroic, sometimes mundane. Often there is a theme that we have some sort of mission, and we must do everything in our power to complete it. There are battles sometimes, and chases. There are acts of selflessness, bravery, and love. There are multiple adventures, and twists of the plot. Sometimes the dream is not an exciting adventure, but simply an alternate life. A life in which I have made different choices, or where chance has taken me down a different path, or where the dream world is so different from the real world that it is almost incomprehensible by comparison.
The ending is not always happy, nor is it always a real ending, and sometimes I awaken feeling that my dream-world adventure has been rudely interrupted; and I wish I could go back to sleep and re-enter my dream where I left off. There are other times, though, when I wake up and, after the few minutes it takes me to sort out which events happened in my memory from the real world, and which took place only in the dream, I feel relieved that the dream was not real, and I am happy to return to my real life.
In these epic dreams, the main characters are sometimes formed from people I know in real life, and sometimes not. They are the people I know from different realms of my real life; some from work or school, others from my family and friends, others from my past, others, perhaps, from my future. Then there are those who don’t really exist at all in real life. . . as far as I know, anyway. There are times when one of those imaginary characters, who exists only in my dream world, is so important to the story that he or she actually solicits a real emotional investment from me. When I awaken in bed, as I slowly realize which characters are real and which were complete fabrications of my id, I actually feel a pang of grief that the imaginary ones are not in my real life. In that moment, I know that as the sun rises higher I will forget more and more details of the “people” who, moments before, had been so important to me, and I will likely never get those memories back. I sigh and say a quiet goodbye to those characters, and later all I can remember about them is that they did exist, though briefly, in a sense that was very real to me at the time.
There was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when the Enterprise comes upon a derelict space probe, which immediately paralyzes Captain Picard, and transfers memories to his brain. Inside his mind, Picard is transported to a distant planet and a different society. He knows, at first, that it is not his real world, and claims to the people around him that he is not who they think he is. But each of them tell him that he is their old friend whom they have known for many years, and they don’t know why he is acting as if they are strangers. He even has a house and a wife. Years pass in his mind, and he comes to accept his predicament and take this new reality at face value. He learns a trade, has children, endures the death of his wife and best friend, sees his children grow up and give him grandchildren, and eventually dies an old man. He finally awakens on the bridge of the Enterprise, and it takes him a minute or so to realize who he is, and to remember the people around him, his crew, who were so familiar to him many decades before. He is told that he has been unconscious for only a few minutes, and he realizes that the space probe transferred the experience of living in the alien society in order to preserve the memory of their existence. The people went extinct when their sun went nova, and Picard’s memories and the now broken space probe are all that remain to speak for their ever having existed. Picard experiences grief and sadness that the people who became so dear to him never actually knew him in the real world. That his children and grandchildren did not really exist, or at least, were not really his. But they were real to him. He also feels peace; a quiet happiness that he had the opportunity to live an entire lifetime (a happy one, at that), and is now able to return to his real life to live out that experience as well.
I love that episode.
The mind is an amazing thing. It allows us to reason and solve problems, to feel emotions and interact with other life forms and the natural world around us. Even when we rest, it works to provide us some way to interpret our situation, even by providing us an alternate reality for a time.
In the end, I am glad to have these epic dreams. Some are wonderful adventures; others are nightmares. In the end, I am grateful to have the chance to live out many little pieces of different lives, which may have nothing else in common besides the fact that they are all tied to my own. I don’t know what happens at the end of this life, but I know that my time is limited, and these dreams allow me to cheat death, and convince myself that I have had more minutes of life than I actually have. That’s an illusion I am happy to live with.