A Memoir of Dreams

Bent birch tree 2 dec 2008

Image via Wikipedia

There is an old saying: “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” It means of course that, like the butterfly story embedded in chaos theory, small changes in one’s youth can profoundly affect later behavior. Apropos of this is a Cherokee story I saw on a my friends’, Isaak Mak’s, website:

An old Cherokee told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies & ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, & truth.” The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”

As chance would have it, another of my friends, Indiana Jen, had an interesting discussion of children’s stories, mostly macabre as it turns out. In her post she initiated an interesting discussion of what spices the fledgling intellect. To what extent do disturbing experiences or exposures to emotional stories affect our later psychological development? She summarized a list of what disturbed her in youthful reading or viewing this way:

So, these were the shattering “childrens’ stories” of my youth. Here is what I learned from these lovely stories: life is about pain, tragedy, death, depression, suicide, unrequited love, worthless self-sacrifice, and killing your childhood pets. While the Trolls television show isn’t going to raise any I.Q. points at least the children aren’t sobbing and scarred for life when the show is over.

But I was curious about whether this portended more than whether children’s psyche’s were upset by such works and submitted this comment:

When I was about 7, Disney’s Snow White scared me so badly I had to go to the lobby during part of it. Powerful? That was 67 years ago and I still remember it. Later, the images of The Yearling (Gregory Peck starred) also seared themselves into my brain permanently – a boy raises a pet deer only to have his father have to shoot it dead after it destroys the garden on which the poor family relies for food. Talk about your good times! So you see, Jennifer, your generation is not the first to be subjected to such powerful stuff.
Then there are the aptly-named Grimm’s fairy tales, which I found fascinating. I think they were so outrageous that I didn’t take them seriously, but had I been a child of the Middle Ages I probably would have perceived their verisimilitude. I also recall reading many animal stories including those of a then-famous explorer, Roy Chapman Andrews. Almost every animal story ends sadly and for that reason I eventually shunned all such. However, one I recall with great fondness was “The Black Stallion” by Walter Farley.
This post poses an important dilemma, I think. For literature to be appealing, I submit, the subject matter must be compelling and therefore must arouse strong emotion. The Red Badge of Courage is (or was) ubiquitous on reading lists for that reason I think. Therefore I ask of Jennifer and other teachers this question: Has substituting the more bland entertainment of today for yesteryear’s emotive gruel (as in this post) diminished the current generation’s interest in or capacity for self expression in writing?

What I did not mention in any of these online exchanges, but which bears on the subject, is the profound effect on my own life of certain dramatic episodes that transformed and shaped my dreams. In three of these I had experiences that vividly impressed on my brain the reality of death. In other dreams there is a continuing theme of stress and inadequacy in certain situations. One is easily explainable – I have some paralysis of my legs and feet, and in the dreams I struggle to run but am unable. I am usually lost in such dreams. In another I have forgotten some article of my Navy uniform and am going to be embarrassed, being at sea and having no recourse. In yet another, which I mentioned to my friend Anson once, my ship is going aground. (Something to be feared for sure.)


Image via Wikipedia

We humans are each unique and some kind of product of both genes and environment, and environment includes the culture in which we live and the behavior of people with whom we are connected. What does it portend that such connections are also undergoing a sea-change with the rise of social media? To what extent are our futures and our personalities shaped by such exposures and experiences?  Is it a good idea to shield children from any strong emotion?  Is there a clue here to why children of famous people often turn out to be unexceptional? What would George Orwell or Aldous Huxley make of it all? And to what extent do dreams reflect who we really are?

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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13 Responses to A Memoir of Dreams

  1. sekanblogger says:

    Wow. That’s a deep one. Even throwing in Orwell and Huxley.
    How about tossing in Kierkegaard?

    I’ve been having some strange dreams lately, but then again….I’m sitting with my Dad in a Joplin hospital, and I believe he’s dying. It’s been a long slow thing. Hard to watch him hallucinate and talk about what he’s seeing.
    Working at a state mental hospital, I’ve also seen indescribable things that the brain does…..
    Getting deep here, I’ll lighten up with my favorite Vonnegut quote:
    “We’re only here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”
    BTW, my father has been completely paralyzed from the neck down for 17 years, and on a ventilator. In his hallucinations, he’s whole again.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      My own paralysis is insignificant compared to your father’s, Sekan,but it does enable empathy. You have my deepest sympathy. Your story is made only more poignant by the biographical link you provided above. It makes me think of Steven Hawking, self-awareness, religion, Nietzsche and the abyss. If a Deity is guiding events down here He is doing cruel job of it. Deep indeed.


  2. ansonburlingame says:


    Thought provoking for sure.

    My first memory of “hiding UNDER the seat” in a movie was the GD “wicked witch of the west and her monkeys flying around”. I was maybe 4 or 5 years old. The next time I went OVER the seat (a back flip) was at age 18 seeing “Psycho” the first time!!! But I don’t dream about those things today. I just, like you, cannot find the correct uniform, classroom to take a final exam or am about to have a collision at sea!!! PTSD for sure by modern standards.

    Perhaps the question is not should we “shield” children today, at least from real things. Rather as adults should we not expose them to reality but EXPLAIN why such reality comes to pass, like why a drunk driver kills a family, or why a drug lord kills a “civilian” or why we still fight wars.

    In my view we shield too much but explain very little why “bad things really happen”. And most important when bad things do happen, what the child can do, later on the prevent such in his or her own life. Perfect example is how today we in society and individual homes deal with real or potential HS dropouts. A good dose of reality might do wonders in that regard when a child considers such a terrible, life changing path to follow.

    And for sure today, if we as parents or grandparent THINK we are shielding our kids, we are just shielding ourselves from the reality of communications today. Even 35 years ago when I decided to have a father/son talk with my then 11 year old son, I found out something. As I began to explain the mechanics of sex to him, he said “Dad I already know all about that stuff”.

    So I shifted the topic to a degree and talked about VD, pregnancy, etc. He in fact did NOT know about all that other “stuff” so we had a good conversation after all.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I agree with your comments, Anson. I sense there is a tendency in people to live in a bubble of their own and it’s not until some unusual even occurs, like a tornado, that the bubble expands to include more of reality. And it seems obvious that this applies more to the inexperienced than the mature, so I agree with your conclusion that society’s children are likely too shielded from reality, and that just might be getting more-so with the explosion of social media use. I read the other day that people rely on their cell phones and PDA’s so much not that they might be paralyzed if they fail in an emergency. Another effect is pretending to use a cell phone to avoid social contact. These are evolving memes, but they seem profound to me.

      Is it not ironic that people are forced by circumstance to choose an occupation before they have enough experience to make a choice that suits their talents? Thus, the more early experience, the better. But there is clearly a fuzzy limit to such experience because something causes some people to become sociopaths or Adolph Hitlers.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.



  3. John Erickson says:

    My parents didn’t try to protect me, but neither were they highly educated people. My mother, especially, discovered a trick that worked wonders with me – if she didn’t know the answer, she challenged ME to find the answer AND explain it to her! I never felt she was dumb or stupid, and it gave me two things – an ability to communicate with every level of intellect (which frequently fails me these days 😉 ), and an insatiable curiosity.
    We need to instill that in our children, and we need to show them that, while nasty and unpleasant things happen in life, we can take the negative and make them positive. There will always be scary things – think of today’s anniversary – but we need to handle them for the good, and try to avoid the ill.


  4. PiedType says:

    I was reminded of this post when I heard something on TV. I didn’t catch the overall context, but someone was explaining, “Kids already know there are dragons. They need fairy tales to tell them dragons can be killed.”

    Fairy tales never scared me, probably because good always triumphed. But two movies gave me nightmares for months — “Invaders from Mars” and Vincent Price’s “House of Wax.” Both from 1953, oddly enough. I guess the first one didn’t scare me enough so I went back for more!?


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      “Kids already know there are dragons. They need fairy tales to tell them dragons can be killed.”

      — That is a very good insight in my opinion.

      I do remember “House of Wax” – I was a Sophmore in high school in 1953!

      Both my wife, Mollie, and I have always liked scary movies (and the old science fiction stuff too). On our first date we went to see “Carnival of Horrors”, a movie which featured a sleeper and successful song, “Look for a Star”, one that always evokes that time for us. But we both recall that “Psycho” seemed over the edge. It was the first to really give us nightmares – Hitchcock was a genius.


      • PiedType says:

        I was 10 years old in 1953. That was the last year I went to see horror or scary movies in theaters. I’ve since seen a lot of them on TV, but that’s “safe” since I can sit with my back to the wall, all the lights on, and the “off” button in my hand. It’s probably my least favorite genre and in any case I wouldn’t spend money to be scared. Scared is an emotion I avoid as much as possible.


  5. John Erickson says:

    Now, would you guys quit casting dragons as the villains? Dragons are (or were) an old, noble, and very wise race, whose only desire was to share their knowledge with man. The dragons’ only “vice” was requiring gold for their bedding, as they needed fireproof materials, and gold is the softest. It was man’s greed for gold that led to their deaths, and the whole myth off sacrificing maidens came from kings trading their daughters to form political alliances, and blaming the poor dragons for the girls’ disappearances. Saint George was a braggart – he hacked up a little chameleon, and spun it into a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s all fiction, I tell ya!
    Now excuse me, I have to get back to my Anne McCafferey books…..


  6. PiedType says:

    I was only quoting someone else, and his was a poor choice of words albeit a good point. I wouldn’t dream of dissing the noble dragon. Perhaps “boogeyman” would have been a better word.


    • John Erickson says:

      😀 No problems, Pied. I forget that my … unusual … wit isn’t understood everywhere. Or appreciated. Or in most cases, even desired. 😉
      Besides, I’ve always been a sucker for the underdog. Jim and Anson have probably heard of the 1942 invasion of the French town of Dieppe, and the invasions of Attu and Kiska in that same year, but most people have no idea what I’m talking about – that’s why they’re two of the battles I’ve studied most. The more unheard of, the less known, and the weirder, the better.
      And I just realised I have yet AGAIN hijacked a thread from Jim. Sorry about that, my friend. Back to the topic!! 😀


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