Sunday, August 22, 2010

On Life and Dreaming

Hopefully, committing this to words will stop it from swirling around my mind.  It all began sometime yesterday.  I was reading an article about chimpanzees in the latest Smithsonian.  The TV was playing in the background, and a cell phone ad squeezed in around my concentration.  The tag ran something like this  “ .  .  . texting, the Internet, and video.  All without lifting your face from your phone!”  I wish I could be more exact – but I can’t find the ad online.

Equally frustrating was my subsequent inability to nail down a bit of dialogue about the nature life and dreams that had been flitting through the cobwebs of my brain since hearing the phone ad.  I thought the source must have been film or video since I seem to “hear” the words. Lord of the Rings? Watership DownHamlet?  I didn’t know.  Then it came to me this afternoon, nothing that lofty, Heaven Can Wait, 1978, with Warren Beatty.  When Beatty’s character finds himself in heaven after a car wreck, he asserts it has to be a dream; the supervising angel says:

“Now, Joe, you know this is not a dream, you know this is real.  There is a certain quality to dreaming and a certain quality to life.  This is life.”

The issue, of course, is the interplay between those two perspectives.  There is a certain quality to life that separates it from dreaming.  That is what makes a dream that approaches the borderline so powerful.  In its aftermath, you lie there, staring at the space around you, letting reality reaffirm its dominance.  You take comfort from the feel of cloth upon your skin, the breeze upon your face; welcoming even the poke of a bedspring or an unreachable itch – you find comfort in the insistence of the landscape.  You sense that “quality of life that separates it from dreaming.”

The inverse can be equally powerful.  A dream in which you are free from pain, again in the presence of one once loved and now departed, when you are whole and lithe and laughing can give way to a far more desolate life.  But, however distressing, again there is that affirmation of difference, of qualities that separate life from dreaming.

How do we know the difference?  It seems true that we do, but how did we come to understand, identify, perceive those defining, differentiating qualities of life versus dream?

I am caught by the notion that we learn the qualities of life by living in the landscape.  We learn “real life” through the physicality of touching, smelling, tasting, by seeing and by hearing.  Goosebumps on our arms, tears on our cheeks.  Pleasure and pain, experience and learning are writ upon our bodies.

I find it intriguing and somehow disturbing that life lived with “our face to our phone” engages only two elements – sight and hearing.  I am concerned that with so much of our lives being delivered to us by screens and speakers that we may begin to perceive with less clarity those qualities that separate life from dreaming.  Very Matrix.

I realize that there is a kernel of positive potential in this fuzzier, two-dimensional, landscape.  For those in pain, disabled and despairing, there may well be therapeutic aspects to an immersive dreamlike alternative.  But those are not, for the most part, the folks living life with their faces to their phones.  I am concerned that the kids “t’wixt twelve and twenty” are losing time in the landscape and touching only a truncated version of life.  And I wonder if one casualty of such a youth will be the clear, intuitive understanding of the qualities that separate life from dreaming.

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