In my dream, a white German shepherd was leading me through tall pines to a clearing. Shafts of sunlight breaking through the arborous canopy and revealing a shadowy world of ferns and brushwood kept my canine guide in sight. In one brief moment the noble beast would glisten like a beacon and in another fade into the landscape like a pale phantom almost enveloped by the darkness. I must have been running at top speed to keep pace, yet my movement seemed effortless, like I was floating above the dark verdant floor. Somehow I was able to take in the surroundings, paradoxically savoring the hidden beauty in my haste. Fixated on the strange glow coming from the break in the forest, I tripped over a felled log, but a clump of moss cushioned my fall. Slamming against the earth never felt so good; it was like landing on a soft bed and I scarce got up. The scent of clovers, pine needles and damp wood were as fragrant to me as any aroma I’ve ever inhaled. Upon hearing the commotion—the sound of my body falling in the forest—the shepherd dog came to a halt and, with tongue wagging and eyes sparkling like zephyrs, turned his handsome head my way, until I managed to get back on my feet. He trotted a few yards farther before sitting back on his haunches at the tree line, that magical threshold where darkness gives way to light. I stood next to the dog, following his intelligent eyes to a meadow bestrewn with red, gold, and brown leaves.
I could never figure out the meaning of this strange romp through a misty forest. Deep down I always suspected it was a metaphor for something buried within my psyche, a longing for acceptance or a search for meaning. Yet at the same time the dream was so vivid and it brought me to such an emotional state whenever I “relived” it in my mind that I questioned whether it really was a dream. It wasn’t a Kafkaesque dreamscape in which perception is continually shifting, when you’re you and not you at the same time, when you’re both the viewer and the object being viewed, the omniscient narrator and the protagonist. No. Perspective in this particular dream was what I’d call more empirical. All the senses had registered the forest mise en scène in ways they should, including my olfactory receptors, which is bizarre because most people don’t recall a dream for its smells.
I realize I’m not the first person to mistake a dream for reality. I even toyed with the idea that it was a hallucination, but I don’t take drugs of any kind, unless a glass or two of red wine in the evening counts, nor do I suffer any mental ailments like, say, schizophrenia or psychosis. After a good deal of soul-searching I determined that the event did not occur extra mentem; and so I came back to my original impression. The fact that it took a bit of convincing on my part to conclude the sylvan setting, the dog, the meadow—all of it—were nothing more than images generated in my fecund brain—what might appear obvious to anyone else—will convey, I trust, how close this dream approximated the real world. Wanting answers as to its meaning, I sought the counsel of others.
As a Christian man who regularly attends church, I thought it fitting that I first pay a visit to my pastor. After I explained to him the dream, finding it surprisingly difficult not to embellish the story for dramatic effect, he gazed upon my countenance as if I were Moses returning from the burning bush. Pastor Bob was convinced—and he certainly convinced me—that God had spoken to me directly. The Lord was using symbols to convey the truth in same the manner He had used parables in the Bible.
Pastor Bob and the ministry coordinator, a young part-time seminarian who joined us for lunch at a soup and sandwich shop, interpreted the German shepherd as the Shepherd, who, should I open my recalcitrant heart to His love, would lead me from the dark night of the soul into the light of salvation. The meadow represented heaven. This soteriological interpretation, cohesive as it was, made a lot of sense; but Pastor Bob and his sidekick appeared to expend more energy ascribing spiritual meaning to the details of the dream, as if it were a theological jigsaw puzzle, than driving relentlessly for the truth. I have no doubt that I’m a sinner in need of redemption, but I didn’t appreciate my subconscious experience becoming the subject of their exegetical musings. It smacked too much of Sunday preachers pointing to current events as the fulfillment of prophecies from the Book of Revelations. That’s fascinating, but is it really how they say it is?
Never one to control the outward manifestations of my state of mind, I probably wore an expression of incredulity. Otherwise, I’m hard-pressed to account for Pastor Bob’s abrupt change in demeanor and shift in interpretation. I also wondered if his chicken Caesar sandwich might be responsible for his modified behavior; he complained about the Mayonnaise and didn’t touch it again after two bites. (This irked me a little because lunch was on me.)
Pastor Bob switched gears and depicted my dream with a more sinister brushstroke. The dog is Satan trying to mislead me, the glow emanating from the “meadow” nothing less than the fires of hell itself. According to 2 Corinthians 11, the ministry coordinator chimed in, Lucifer can appear as an Angel of Light, hence the white form of a dog. The Cimmerian forest is still the dark night of the soul, Pastor Bob asserted, but instead of sin and temptation, it denoted the bottomless pit where reprobates wail and gnash their teeth. I noted a contradiction with his earlier statement that the meadow symbolized hell, but I let that go.
Seeing I was distraught, Pastor Bob offered me words of encouragement in a barely disguised effort at damage control. Little did he know that Todd—that’s the ministry coordinator’s name, and he looks like a Todd too—was as much to blame for jangling my nerves as the fire and brimstone scenario. He excused himself from our discussion to prepare for the Wednesday night Bible study. I was glad he left, frankly. I figured out the source of my irritation with him—a threefold source to be exact: his infantile habit of chewing on the straw after he finished his Coke; his compulsion to throw out New Testament Greek words like ornaments to adorn his erudition; and his contrived laughter after every one of Pastor Bob’s quips. What I’m generously calling a laugh, incidentally, was really Todd smirking and making weird breathing noises through his nose, as if he were too sophisticated for normal laughter.
One thing’s for sure: Were it not for Todd’s supercilious grin, I would have gotten more out of the conversation. When Pastor Bob, in his initial thesis, described my tumble over the log as signifying man’s postlapsarian state, Todd was an eager beaver to elucidate. “It means after the fall.” I didn’t know the meaning of the word, true, but I’d take ignorance any day over his gloating face. How gracious of him to stoop to my level, the benighted nincompoop that I am! I purposefully rolled my eyes for him to see. Eventually Pastor Bob shucked his second “Devil” interpretation, now worried it had disturbed me, but Todd’s haughty attitude was the real culprit.
There’s a little more to the story regarding Pastor Bob’s advice, but I’m hesitant to bring it up. It’s probably just a misunderstanding, and I have no desire to tarnish his good name. He called me a few days later, telling me that Jesus had revealed to him a few more details regarding the dream. His epiphany came after holding a prayer breakfast with church staff at McDonald’s yesterday morning. Really, as a skilled preacher well schooled in homiletics, Pastor Bob had already given me the message and wanted to follow up with the application. He asked if I could meet him at his office, but I couldn’t get off work on such short notice. When I offered to arrange another time, he suddenly decided we could handle this “business” over the phone after all. I didn’t like the sound of that word business.
The stumble over the tree in the forest, he informed me, suggested that bitterness or any number of anger management issues was holding me back from enjoying God’s full bounty of blessings. He went on about faith without works being dead, new plans for a radio ministry, reflections on Matthew 25, and a number of other seemingly random issues. I got the impression he was sort of beating around the bush. Finally, his voice took on a more authoritative air when he instructed me to write out a check for $10,000. Karen and I had recently sold our summer home in Door County, in large part to pay for our son’s college expenses. Pastor Bob was well aware of our financial situation. He asked that I write the check out to him personally, Robert S. Tyndale.
I couldn’t fathom why God would want me to fork over this crazy amount of money. Had the Lord sanctioned such reckless charity? I have no problem with faith, but blind faith? That was a leap I was not prepared to make, unless Pastor Bob was promising a plenary indulgence for that kind of cash! As far as my wife and I were concerned, he discredited himself as a shepherd of souls looking out for the best interests of his flock. Although we left the church shortly thereafter, Pastor Bob’s dubious behavior didn’t sour me completely on the dream interpretation he had offered me. I found the message of redemption plausible, but I wanted a second opinion.
Unsatisfied with the spiritual counsel, I sought an expert of the mind. Recalling that my health insurance covers five visits to a psychiatrist, provided I have a legitimate reason, I feigned mental illness to get the free appointment. The therapist, Dr. Sheila Constadter, initially came up with the idea that the white dog and “black” forest represented a racist view that I’ve harbored in my heart since late adolescence. According to her, I resent having to bottle up my animosity toward minority groups because the “oppressive rules of society” dictate love and acceptance of the Other. I’m one of civilization’s discontents, doomed to wander through the darkness of bigotry and intolerance chasing after the chimera of Aryan purity.
At first I thought she was being facetious. When I challenged her a bit on this interpretation, she took a different tack: sexual repression. In other words, she switched to the default position of psychoanalysis which says everything’s about incest and the libido. Why do they always go this route?
I must admit that this theory had never occurred to me, and were it not for the appointments with Dr. Constadter, it never would have. The felled log represented for her a limp penis and the moss, well, I don’t want to say. She had a weird analysis of the meadow which, due to graphic content, I likewise don’t wish to elaborate. Everything was either a penis or the recipient of a penis. The damp wood goes without saying. Even the pine needles, in Dr. Constadter’s hands, became little, thin phallic symbols. The erect trees? You got it: penis. I was a bit put off by her frank discussion of genitalia and the sex act. She upset me most when she claimed the dog, that magnificent blue-eyed German shepherd selflessly leading me to the clearing, was yet another penis image; that was the knockout punch after a cockamamie, impromptu dissertation on canines and the phallus in ancient Celtic culture. With this comment, it seemed to me, she violated something sacrosanct. Pastor Bob was much closer to the mark with his Savior idea, even if I ultimately rejected his theory too.
By the third meeting, I had had enough. I earnestly came into these therapy sessions with an open mind. I put up with the inconvenience of having to adjust my work schedule to Dr. Constadter’s busy calendar, not to mention a last-minute cancellation because of her niece’s bat mitzvah. I also had to deal with a snooty appointment receptionist who gave me even more grief in subsequent visits after I made a joke about snooty appointment receptionists—an ill-advised attempt to break the ice. When I became irritated with all the penis talk, especially experiencing discomfort discussing my sexual history with a woman, Dr. Constadter suggested that my uneasiness with the subject stemmed from lingering guilt and sexual repression after having seen my sister Lisa naked in a bathtub when she was four and I was six. I could care less about her degrees from Occidental College and Stanford prominently displayed on her office wall. My Mormon friend Howie had warned me about undergoing mental treatment. He said most psychologists and psychiatrists are freaks who majored in psychology and went into the profession because they wanted the tools to wrestle with their own demons, be they sexual hang-ups or abused childhoods. I discontinued the therapy and had to seek answers elsewhere.