Anything you’re used to is reality

There once was a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, and woke up wondering how he could know he wasn’t a butterfly dreaming he was man.

The 4th century B.C. Chinese philosopher credited with that, Zhuangzi, isn’t asking a real question, just something about the nature of knowledge. But, it’s something we’re all familiar with, waking to an intense feeling that evaporates under the rays of the sun.

Last week I spent more hours unconscious than conscious, I think literally.

I thought I was sick with something, but when I went to the doctor, they said, “Nope, everything is OK.” Which is refreshing, hearing your symptoms are the result of a hallucination. Apparently.

But sleeping more than you’re awake changes things. I mean, living five days in fever dreams changes things.

During the time I slept about 20 out of 24 hours, I remember doing some things I’m pretty sure I didn’t do, like going into the office and yelling at my coworkers. No one else remembers this, and I’m still employed, so it seems not to have happened.

I vaguely remember answering several phone calls. I’m told I gave good, lucid advice, but until I checked my recent calls, it seemed more like I’d made it all up.

And overhearing news while asleep, I thought certainly I was dreaming or listening to a disaster movie set in Japan. But, no; it was real. On the other hand, I woke up with the impression we had invaded Libya, and that apparently is not the case. (I also continued to imagine, for some reason, that Tripoli is a city-state and den of 19th century pirates.)

In any case, even after I got well enough to stay conscious for six to eight hours at a time, reality— the material, five-senses world—continued to feel weird, foreign and untrustworthy.

The amazing thing about dreams is how powerful they are. The external world makes you experience things by correlation: something happens and you feel scared, or you eat something and you feel happy. In dreams, you get it directly. You are afraid, you are joyful. That part of the brain is working on its own with no intermediary.

It’s not surprising that dreams and memories of them often seem more real than memories of actual events. Gone things are vapor, whether they started out smoke or solid rock. The only hold reality has on us is consistency. It keeps pounding us with The Truth of Things, and won’t let up. You may dream you can fly, but you spend 16 hours where flapping your arms will do you no good. That’s why it’s real, and the dream is a fake, more than anything else.

But in the same way, civil war and earthquakes/tsunamis/nuclear meltdowns seem completely unreal, to us over here especially, but to the people experiencing it, too—at first. It becomes real when you swallow the iodine pill or your home doesn’t rebuild itself or a government jet strafes the road you’re standing on. It becomes real when it continues to advocate for itself and won’t quit, day after day. We dream about different things, but we keep living the same life.

It’s reassuring that whatever happens, people will eventually shrug and go on. The old Japanese watched earthquakes and water take what 65 years ago firebombs from the air destroyed. Now things feel normal again, like things were in childhood.

I wonder what they’ve been dreaming about, lately, though.

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