Over the past year, I’ve been coping with Radiation Fibrosis Syndrome, a progressive disease that causes structural and systemic damage to muscles, nerves, blood vessels, bones and major organs. The course of this disease is unpredictable, so it’s difficult to find a place to stand within myself; the ground of my physical being is continually shifting. Most of the time, I’m very tired and uncomfortable (or painful). As my body becomes increasingly uncoordinated, I also feel more socially awkward and self-conscious. Yet I can still function fairly normally even though I’m probably moving toward further disability and a shortened life expectancy. What am I to make of this? Are my dream experiences offering suggestions?
I sometimes see myself in an oddly objective way these days: as though my body is a dear, rather difficult, old friend. Of course, I’m worried about this friend. She looks and feels fragile, and her mortality unsettles me—yet, at the same time, I’m impressed by her stubborn resilience. I don’t know how she’s doing it, but she seems to be coping. Both her vulnerability and her toughness make me feel fairly helpless and unnecessary. Does the body really need me to manage her business? She’ll do what she needs to do, in her own way, whether it inconveniences and grieves me or not; she’ll live as long as she can live, and then she’ll die. From her perspective this mortal life seems completely straightforward. From my perspective, it’s sometimes frightening, sometimes sad, sometimes fun, sometimes beautiful and moving, often (almost always) confusing.
It makes sense that my dreams usually represent my changing physical condition through dream figures other than “me.” In my dreams, other people—or animals, or plants, or objects—exhibit my symptoms and face my worst fears, while “I” (the dream-ego) am just a bystander. Other dream figures have wasting diseases, weakening bodies; other dream figures suffer heart attacks or strokes, and may suddenly die. Meanwhile, “I” call 911, or bring tea, or sing, or burst into tears… bearing witness with love, trying to be helpful.
As I’m not fully identified with my own body right now (she’s changing so fast, I can’t keep up), I’m very aware in waking life of other people who have disabilities similar to mine, and I keep being drawn to stories of people who are dealing with their own mortality or health challenges. So, my dreams reflect this exploratory process, and show me ways of relating to my bodily changes as if I were relating to other people who are physically frail or in transition. My dreams are filled with sick people and dying people, and the response of deep tenderness I feel for these dream figures is healing for me as it teaches me to care for my own body in a similar way.
Here’s a recent dream that features my late friend, Sr. Kate, a tiny Catholic nun who was filled with vitality, humor and courage in spite of many physical challenges. She was close to ninety when she died about four years ago, and her body had been through an awful lot in her long life. In old age, she lost most of her sight and hearing, to her great exasperation, so she had to rely on others to help her get around. Her career and spiritual calling were all about caring for those who were most vulnerable—people facing homelessness, illness, addiction and social alienation; she wasn’t used to standing by or giving up, so she kept making a difference to many people, even when she could hardly see or hear. She tackled the precarious business of balancing body and soul with fierce determination: demonstrating that as the body gives way the soul just gets stronger. My dream of Kate was not only a projection of my own physical issues, but also a visit from a good friend whose example is especially meaningful to me right now.
Holding Sr. Kate: Kate is being accompanied by another Sister—a tall, strong-looking woman in her 70s—down a long, steep flight of concrete steps. Kate looks very old, frail and skeletally thin, yet she somehow manages to somersault about two-thirds of the way down the stairs on her own before the other Sister catches up and supports her for the last part. At the bottom, she utterly collapses. Her friend is trying to lift her, but she keeps falling back, flat on the pavement, so I go down the steps to help. While the other Sister goes to get a geri-chair [a soft armchair that can be pushed like a wheelchair] I prop Kate up. Then, I boost her onto a high stone pedestal where she stands, unsteadily. When she seems about to fall off, I lift her down and hold her in my arms, feeling the lightness of her small, skinny, boney frame and surprised that I have no difficulty bearing her weight. I cradle her gently, unsure whether she is alive or dead, knowing I can hold her as long as necessary.
The physical sense of Kate’s body in the dream reminded me immediately of how my own body feels to me these days. I’m startled when I look in the mirror and see the hollows where muscles should be, and the skeleton so evident just under the skin. But, I’m also very much alive: still able to surprise myself by walking long distances, tackling everyday tasks as if they were great feats, rolling with my body’s changes (like somersaulting down the unforgiving concrete steps of illness and aging).
The presence of “the other Sister” is significant as well. She’s older than I am, but also stronger, taller—quite capable. There are three of “us” in this dream, three Fates, three sisters, three essential aspects of a whole person: one to plunge into this “all or nothing” physical experience of aging, living, and dying (Kate); one to take care of the responsibilities we have in this world—to get down the stairs safely and find the right furniture for our lives and deaths (the other Sister); and one to bear witness and care (me). The three of us are making this work.
It’s not useful for me to put Kate “on a pedestal”—but it’s easy to hold her in my arms, to empathize and participate. Literally, I shouldn’t idealize Kate herself, or any of my other elder friends. Kate was a complicated person. I’ve learned a lot from her, but there’s so much about her that I don’t know, and our paths are very different. I can emulate certain qualities in her, but not imitate her. She wouldn’t be comfortable on that pedestal. Also, in the sense that she represents my own physical body in this dream, I can’t put my physical frailty on a pedestal either. My body is just one part of me. It’s not meant to be my whole identity—and I certainly don’t want illness to be my whole identity either. Only when I take that body and bear its weight (which isn’t too much), feel its reality, love it and hold it with patience and tenderness, will I find the right balance. At some point, the practical Sister will bring the geri-chair so I can set the body down and let her rest. But, for now, I hold her. That’s good.
How do you hold your body? Do you hold your body in friendship—caring for its frailty and trusting its strength? Do your dreams reflect the way you feel about yourself physically? The relationship between body and soul is never simple. In a sense, the body and soul are the same—and yet… not. I hope that you can find dream images that encourage you to love and respect your body as it ages and changes. Ultimately, we don’t really know what we are—but our dreams give us many different ways of seeing ourselves. And when we can see ourselves clearly, with all of our varied and contradictory aspects, we can see others more clearly as well.