“‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’” –Lewis Carroll, from Through the Looking Glass
Dreams give us all regular practice “believing impossible things before breakfast.” My own theory is that this particular exercise is essential to our mental health and well-being. In daily life, it’s all too easy to think we know exactly what is possible and what is impossible.
I generally walk around secure in the belief that I am a particular kind of person for whom certain ways of thinking, speaking, feeling and acting are possible, and others are not. I may adapt to circumstances, but it’s all within the range of what I consider realistic for me. Similarly, I assume that certain things are possible in the “real world” around me, and other things are impossible. And I tend to ignore things that make me question my assumptions about myself, other people, and “reality.”
Actually, however, “impossible” things are happening within me and around me all the time, and every once in a while one of those things breaks through my shell and gets my attention—provoking laughter, wonder, indignation, anxiety, delight, or sheer wordless amazement.
One day, I looked out the window and saw my shy, wild cat standing nose to nose with a huge, dark animal. It was covered in fine, black fur or hair, had short legs, an enormous round body and almost no neck. It was bigger than any dog I’d ever seen—but Yema wasn’t afraid of it. This was impossible. I rushed outside and found that the animal was a pig. Yes, a pig. This grand pig went trotting off down the street at my approach, and disappeared around the corner.
So. The experience shook me up, and tickled me so much that I’m still telling the story almost twenty years later. Dream events shake us up, too—though usually, in the context of the dreams themselves, these events don’t seem impossible at all. Personally, I think that having our world turned upside down every night in our dreams, whether we remember it or not, keeps us from becoming obsessive-compulsive, self-righteous fundamentalists in our waking lives. Maybe if I didn’t dream, I wouldn’t have been able to tolerate the pig in my front yard, because it wasn’t supposed to be there. I would have had to explain it away immediately.
In fact, the pig was probably someone’s pet, but her presence gave me the pleasure of seeing what I didn’t expect to see, and finding out something I hadn’t known before: it is possible that a giant pig will come strolling through my neighborhood, and make friends with my cat, today or any day. What else might be possible?
Well, a few days ago, I glanced over at the towering “Tree of Heaven” in my neighbor’s yard, and saw an arborist way, way, way up there, perhaps sixty feet off the ground—walking casually out onto branches that thinned to twigs, crouching and reaching down with a chain saw to cut the branches below, riding the sky as the wind blew…. He had a safety harness, but it was attached to ropes attached to the same slender branches he was standing on. I knew for an absolute fact that what he was doing was impossible. This tree has notoriously rotten branches that break and crash down into our yard all the time (which is why it needed pruning). I was sure that he couldn’t be standing there, couldn’t be doing what he was doing, with such perfect poise. How could it be?
But I’ve had a lot of practice believing impossible things before breakfast. I’ve been dreaming of breathing under water, walking through fire… I’ve solved impossible problems, and been stymied by the ridiculous on a regular basis. So, although I did a double-take, my mind was flexible enough to delight in the fact that what would be impossible for me (or would it?) is magnificently possible for that young man at the top of the tree. The rotten tree is strong enough to hold him. The world isn’t what I thought it was—and what a relief! Maybe many of my own limitations are imaginary. Possibilities are at play in this world, and I can play along.
Instead of jogging around the block or going to the gym, I let my dreams give my imagination a before-breakfast work-out. And then I can let the stunning, wonderful, impossibly possible nature of the waking world reveal itself to me. Look, no hands!