My Nightmare: Indecision and Incertitude

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“The dream of reason produces monsters”
Francisco Goya

I have always resisted interpreting my dreams, or seeking to tie large meanings to one’s life from the subterranean miasma from which dreams arise, half remembered  upon waking. I know Jungians and the like place huge importance on dreams, and in endlessly analyzing them.  I am not one of them.

I would admit that our dreams do speak to the state of our interior lives, as we work out issues important to us through our subconscious. But I always suspected trying to analyze our dreams too much is to enter down into a rabbit hole for which there is no exit. It is akin to a mariner trying to descry land through a mist so heavy only the barest outlines can be affixed. Practically speaking, we end up chasing our tails like cats when we fixate on the meaning of dreams, in my opinion.

Hence, I have never expended much effort to make sense of my dreams.

I will make an exception with this one dream. In different variations, I have had this dream on and off for over 25 years.

It revolves around the idea of uncertainty. I find myself at the end of college but unable to find out if I have taken all the classes necessary for graduation, or if I need one more class or if I have failed something somewhere. Like in Kafka’s The Trial, I try and try but cannot find out where I stand with the powers that be. The feelings I experience are profound frustration, coupled with fear of failure and public humiliation. I search and search for someone university bureaucrat to help me in some large building, and I cannot find any help while I fear the worst. When my family shows up to watch me graduate from college, will I have to admit that I have in fact not graduated? Will I be a drop out? Will I be a failure? Do I really want to know the truth?

This dream has some basis in fact, as at the end of my undergraduate UCLA education I was working full time and classes received less and less attention. And UCLA is a very large public institution where one receives very little personal attention.

With only one course left, I was limping across the finish line – I actually “walked” during graduation in front of my family and the world with one course still to complete.  A Political Science/International Relations major, I was forced to take one math class in order to graduate, and I took “Symbolic Logic” – not at UCLA but at nearby Santa Monica College (it was cheaper there). It was not pretty. I worked from 11:00 pm until 5:00 a.m doing security in the UCLA Emergency Room, and then I went to class at 8:00 am at Santa Monica College.  I would work all night and then go to class, before going to sleep. That was the theory. The reality was that by the time I worked all night and then went to class I was gelatinous with fatigue, if I attended class at all. It was not pretty. But I passed. Barely.

By that point I had left to travel abroad some, and I hardly looked back at UCLA. But I did graduate? Yes. How do I know? Well, they sent me my diploma. (I think I plugged a whole in my ceiling with that diploma years later.)

By the end I was done with being a college student. I wanted to engage the adult working world more directly. And then there was this one math class still to take. By the end I limped out of college, never wanting to return. And I have the (bad) grades to prove it. A full time worker by that time, I had limited time/energy to even think about school, homework, or grades. Classes, needed grades, and specific graduation requirements were all getting very blurry. The whole episode was stressful.

Deep down there was a fear of not graduating. Perhaps an unreasonable fear, in retrospect. But maybe the fear came from the not knowing exactly where I stood for so long. The indecision, the possibility of being in trouble while “whistling my way to the graveyard.” I similarly suspect people who don’t pay their taxes and get away with it worry deep down about the IRS showing up at their door sooner or later. Or cancer survivors going on with the rest of their lives, never losing sight of the fact that the cancer could come back and kill them. It is that kind of fear that stays with me in my nightmares about not knowing whether I would finish college or not.

It must be said that I am a bit prone to this kind of inattentiveness to detail. I might wake up and eat breakfast, all the while thinking about my workday and my upcoming history lecture on whether capitalism in America began in the 1830s or more in the 1870s — outlining the arguments I would recount on both sides of the question. But while thinking this through I am wearing two different color socks – or worse on one particular day, two different shoes. I often live more in my head than in the real world, and my keeping my head up and staring into the clouds while walking can result in my stepping into holes in the ground right in front of me.

Maybe my college dreams are about deeper issues of being unsatisfactory. Or about failing, generally. Or “stepping into holes” — the upcoming disasters that lie unseen in your path.

My father attended a high school in the 1950s that was more like boot camp. He studied endlessly, and still earned barely passing grades. Still, he learned so much that he got into Harvard University. But my dad still has nightmares about studying endlessly for tests that he might fail, all his studying notwithstanding. He has these dreams sixty years after the end of high school.

It is strange that my father has nightmares about high-stakes school exams, and not about being a soldier in Vietnam. One would think Vietnam and what he saw there would cause nightmares. Or I should have nightmares about all the trauma I saw in that UCLA Emergency Room where I worked for years and the people I saw die there. Nightmares about the guy I helped to lift off the medevac helicopter who worked on elevators when there was an explosion, burning him horribly. It looked like he had BBQ sauce all over his skin, and I thought it was his work clothes that had burned off him and was hanging like threads off his legs — that was his skin. And as I was carrying him across the helipad on a stretch he shocked me by starting to talk angrily about the accident. Or the (dead) child they pulled out of the bottom of a pool with his hysterical mother as the paramedics brought them into the ER (She screamed, “I only left him unattended for a few minutes!!!”). Or the 13 year old gang member with the bullet hole just above his lip and the bullet deep in his brain doing the “decorticate posturing” — or doing the “crazy chicken,” as the cops joked, as the medical staff worked on him. I have dozens and dozens of such stories – how the burnt flesh smell stays in your hair and clothes after you wash your skin, how bullet holes weep and weep blood. (These engrossing experiences absorbed all my time and energy back at the end of the college, not that pesky final math course.)

But I don’t dream of those memories at all. They were powerful moments at the time, but they have faded. Yet I still have nightmares about not knowing whether I am going to graduate from college or not.


Sometimes I wake up from my nightmare deeply disturbed about whether I am ok or not. I emerge from the depths of my dreams and I scrutinize my life. Then, as my rational mind returns, I remember the facts: I did graduate from college. Went to graduate school. Taught in high school for two decades. Worked as an adjunct college professor for a decade. These are incontrovertible facts about my life. In the light of day I am never troubled about my education.

So why would I still be having nightmares about failing to graduate from college?

Do we just get “stuck” in experiences or dilemmas in our past? Held by some difficulty that we failed to move beyond?

Why do I still have this nightmare?

Why does my father still have nightmares about failing high school exams?

Will they ever stop?