The other night I dreamed I was as disabled as some of my clients over the years, the adults with disabilities who I have tried to help fit into a society that doesn’t understand them.
I’ve written before about “having” Asperger’s disorder, mostly about the epistemological problems of a statement like that, and not so much about the limitations I was born with or have overcome. Of course when I was younger there was no such thing as this disorder, only some kids who did not thrive in school, who were not popular.
But I am sure there is some actual phenomenon that underlies this disorder, and that it includes difficulties learning implicit rules, and responding to novel situations. I cover well—decades of practice—but I still have these difficulties. In my real life, I have been blessed with a high IQ. This has allowed me to cover, but also to learn explicitly many of the things others learn implicitly, and I do more than get by. I have a good life.
In my dream, I lacked this saving grace. I was of average intelligence. Working a menial job in an office. My boss came to me with some complex instructions, and I could not comprehend them. This was the dreaded novel situation to which I could not adapt. I was scared and helpless. And when I messed up the job, she berated me quite harshly. My only defense was to cry, a defense I have not employed socially since childhood.
I was saved in the dream by her father, the owner of this imaginary company. He gave her the hard time she was giving me, making sure she understood this was no way to treat someone—but still unable to help her understand my limitations.
For a while now, I have been contemplating a reflection on entering midlife, as I seem to be comfortably doing. But this dream has stuck with me this week, dogging my steps. My emotions tell me this is important. There is something here, and I need to share it with you, even if I can’t guarantee you will understand.
I don’t like to get into a lot of counterfactual thinking. It isn’t logical; we can’t talk about them in a reasonable way. Language doesn’t allow it, and we can’t prove or disprove our hypotheses. But never mind. Something tells me they are important here.
I was lucky. I was born with this thing, whatever it is, that makes me get lost on my own street. Or completely forget to be somewhere, or say outrageous things in public because I have no idea they might be offensive. But I was also born with the intelligence to realize I was different before it was too late, and to investigate the rules. I know explicitly what many others know implicitly, and this generally keeps me out of trouble. It has taken a long, long time to get to a point in my life where I am comfortable with you.
Along the way, a number of things helped me get it all together. First and foremost, I stumbled into this marriage with my wife, who loves me unconditionally. It is shocking to imagine the isolation I lived in before her, and to imagine surviving it healthily for very much longer had she not happened into this life. If I am a good man now, I owe that to her.
Another significant event is graduate school. There I learned my own value. Being smarter than most people was previously a deficit, and there I found people who liked and respected me for it. I also encountered some mentors who really helped me learn I could be who I wanted, and how to shape me to be that person.
Finally, the chance to travel in China, to stretch my limitations and cope with ambiguity in a purposeful, meaningful manner, these helped tremendously.
Break any part of that chain, and could I be the helpless, disabled man I was in my dream? Possibly. Possibly.
This dream still unsettles me, and so I know it has more to say. People might be tempted to tell me not to listen to it, to not be disturbed by it. But the existential way, the zhi mian way, is to try to face it bravely. It is me talking, after all, so if I disturb myself, I am already disturbed. May as well take a listen.
Yalom and Frankl agreed in principle that the best way to help someone make meanings was to help them make them, rather than to offer interpretations. Frankl’s case examples too often consisted of him handing the client a meaning. Yalom, while he pointed this out, in his novels wrote of the brave therapist giving meanings to the client.
Existential dreamwork might consist more of encountering the dream as it is, including the feelings that go with it. We might offer our client the chance to encounter the dread, for example: to just sit quietly with it and see what happens, or to engage with it in an imagined conversation, or to feel it somewhere in the body and let the rest happen on its own. Or we might inquire as to the elements of the dream: when you think of the woman who was your boss, what do you think? Or the rescuer? Or whatever seems most important to you?
My own method has often been to ask how these dream elements might represent the person, and how they might be a communication form the self to the self. My own therapist used this method to excellent effect, making me my own ally.
It is clear this dream has something important to say to me. I was too repelled by it to encounter it bravely at the start, and now I am left with just the feeling, the dread and the dread of shame. Because I was afraid, I could not encounter myself bravely, which means with kindness. And if there is any meaning, any message extant here, this is probably it: It is hard to encounter yourself bravely (kindly). I want that for me, even though it is hard to always muster it for you.
Today, as we go about our lives awake to the extent possible, perhaps we can all take home this message. Kindness requires courage. Courage is kindness. To encounter someone with zhi mian, to encounter them bravely, means to encounter them with kindness. And when you stop before a bathroom mirror, do not hurry along, so eager to be away from your reflection. Be brave and make eye contact.
— Jason Dias