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WHY PROGRESS IS SLOW

Dreamed 1991/1/26 and 2/16 by Chris Wayan


1: FREEDOM'S GLACIER

I dream I go back in time. First stop, 900 AD, in what will be Germany or France. I'm here to study a single scholar who advocated ideals of individualism, free thought, romantic love, democracy... centuries ahead of everyone else! He interested Charlemagne, who took him somewhat seriously, even trying to implement some of his proposals. Freedom can't be imposed from the top down, of course. Though his ideas were talked about in court, most people didn't really grasp what the fellow was saying, and the few who did thought him heretical. Charlemagne died and he became a footnote--for 500 years.

I'm so moved by his isolation I go back, just before his death, and speak with him, even reveal that I'm from the future. "Centuries from now, your ideas on freedom of speech, thought, and conscience will be seen as valid and important--and folk will be ready to try to apply them."

He tells me his work was based on a desert scholar and mystic who I've never heard of in the 20th century... a man who lived centuries earlier, around 400 A.D.

I dream I go back deeper in time, on the trail of this hermit, who died in obscurity. His ideas seemed like madness to his contemptuous contemporaries, caught in early Christian factionalism. Standing outside his cave at last, I pause: what comfort can I give him? That five hundred years will pass before another lonely man will rediscover, respect and develop his ideas, advocate them to a sympathetic temporal ruler? That 1,000 years from now people will really try to change society, to value individual experience, aspirations, needs, rights? That it will be fifteen hundred years before the changes truly begin to replace the old paradigm of Bully in the Sky? I never quite understood till now just how slow it is, DEEP social change. How can I comfort these idealists who envisioned freedom, let alone the millions who died trying to build it?

I can't. They are of their own time; we are of ours. I can only comfort those of our time. And the comfort isn't much: progress may seem slow or even blocked, but there's a reason. Progress is slow. It's measured in generations, not years. We're trying to melt a glacier with our hands.

2: THE CRUCIBLES

I dreamed again... this time of the last 500 years, since the European Invasion. I saw the centuries as a timeline on brown paper, with a little silhouetted logo by each century-mark, to symbolize that era's worst outrage. And the history of the New World, with each century given equal time, is a horror. Invasion, slavery, genocide flare across the continents like wildfires. The ideals of the American Revolution are rather recent, and the idea that they are meant for all, this morning's news. I feel lost, alone on foot on this endless prairie of time--of bad times. No wonder progress is slow.

Lincoln... I see Lincoln's silhouette in his tall sad hat, way over to the right, practically the present, and think, "He ended slavery and was killed for it--yesterday." And I expect justice? Equality? The day after slavery?

The hung-over morning after?

The dream shifts, and I see a raw New England village in the early 1600s... These European invaders know nothing of the locals except "they're devil worshipers". On a sudden, insane urge, I climb on a stump in the village square and harangue the colonists. "You'd better pay attention to what the natives know about nature and food and medicine and how to live here. Those people know much more about it than you do. They are not savages, not devil-worshipers, and you'd do well to learn their language and philosophy."

The Puritans just gape at the madman. Why'd I bother? Before they help me out of their town, or my life, I meekly step down off my stump, and out of their time.

Now a hundred years have passed, it's 1700, and I walk though the witch-hunt streets, invisible. Around me simmers Arthur Miller's "Crucible." Seeing it, all sordid and real, I realize that his drama cleaned it up. He focused on the moral test for those accused--will they follow their own consciences and hang, or falsely confess and live? A heroic test. But what I feel in the streets is much uglier. What do you do with witch-hunters, with those who dare to judge others, who set up such moral tests without a twinge of doubt? And those who just drift along? Focusing on the test, admiring those who give all for the truth, sorrowing for those who cracked... setting the victims as foreground for the drama subtly ACCEPTS the witch-hunts and hunters. The witch-hunters and their hunting dogs become background, a given, the imperfect and wicked world that will always try men's souls. The Crucible. And as long as the Crucible is a given, not the subject, not the central question, witch hunts will recur. They're seen as inevitable, even (subtly) spiritually necessary--as circumstances needed to give an opportunity for heroism! As handy as war. A stage where you can show moral not physical courage. Individuals against an unfair system (the primal American drama) requires an unfair system. As long as you think heroes need to be forged, forges will be needed. Crucibles.

What of the morality, what of the souls, of the willing crucibles--those who lie and persecute, the self-righteous, the censors and generals and judges? And their followers. And their followers!

Looking around at these mean, scared, narrow faces, I woke from the dream.

I woke feeling uneasy.

For I'm like Miller. I write stories reinforcing the crucibles without knowing it. By taking them for granted.

With an audience of dramaholics and hero-lovers, The Individual Judged In A Crucible is an easy story to write because people understand the familiar. The story of A Crucible Judged By Its Persecution Of The Individual is not so familiar. But it is writable. I'm writing it here, now.

The problem of course is that those people, the Crucibles, being twisted and stunted, living through those they hurt, are not just boring, but unsympathetic. It's hard to cheer over the drama as they inch out of the Paleolithic, and slip back. And after all, they're society's brakes, needed as much as an engine. We revolutionaries fear, perhaps, to live without enemies, without persecutors to keep us virtuous victims. We might be bored. Worse--we might be boring.

So we let these vast fossils stomp on, squashing our lovely revolutions. We resist them but we don't really try to change them. When did you last sincerely try to CHANGE a reactionary, a fundamentalist, a bigot? We just want them to give us room. In fact maybe we want a few around for contrast. They make us look smart. They're a wonderful distraction. Great dramatic material, as Miller shows.

Gratuitous car chases in the movie of life.

This sure wasn't what I set out to write. The vision of that terrible glacier of history and the slow undoing of ancient-rooted injustice... it was consoling to see the true scale of what we're trying to do. And then... at the end the shame as I realize my own life will look barbaric and twisted to the centuries to come... that I have complicity in evils we don't even recognize yet, nor will for generations--like Miller's cult of the hero who needs a crucible.

And I don't know how to write a story without crucibles.

NOTES IN THE MORNING

These two dreams and their ideas owe a clear debt to Starhawk's analysis of our culture's preferred storylines; see her "Dreaming the Dark" and subsequent books.

There's a much older second source: the amazing parables in "Dreams", a book from around 1920 by radical writer Olive Schreiner.



LISTS AND LINKS: sociological dreams - political dreams - time-travel dreams - freedom and slavery - patience and haste - life-scripts - censorship and free speech - morality - fairness - skills and mastery - witches - Christians - pagans - invisibility - a dream of Starhawk - an epic dream on Arthur Miller - a second dream on what slows progress: Blind Ancestors

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