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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Empathy, Projection, Interpersonal Fragmentation And Dream Entities

I had a dream early this morning. Without getting into the details (which, for the most part, are quite difficult to recall, or to relate in the linear modality required for communication and, in any case, would bore the listener/reader to tears), I shall relate its denouement.

I was standing at an archetypical concrete mall, facing a great building - an historic courthouse or some-such, and an historically great man* was a few paces away from me, gazing up at facade. It was a sentimental and triumphant look, as this man was returning after many years of exile and was about to re-enter this familiar place, where his greatness had long ago been established.

I was a mere tourist in this tableau, an onlooker who recognized this man. I was aware that this was a powerful moment, and I felt compelled to approach him with congratulations, and to no small measure to share in his joy. He turned as I approached, and the look on his face revealed that he was aware of both of these intentions. He took my handshake, and my congratulations.

I was not satisfied with this, and when he turned back to the great building, I did not leave him to his private triumph, but instead stood at his side, eager to bask in the halo of his triumph, and greedy to share in the greatness of this moment.

He remained frozen, and turned to me again, with a kindly smile, and mumbled an apology and turned to go. I realized then what I was doing, and quickly said that no, it was I who had to leave, and as I left I saw that he indeed remained. His countenance revealed his gratitude to me for leaving him to his well-earned moment, undiluted by the sycophantic admiration of this interloper.

A quick sketch of my emotional state at that point: I knew that he was impressed with my ability to pick up on his need to have this moment to himself, and that I was gracious enough to subtract myself from the scene in time to restore it. This made me feel somewhat proud of myself, and I walked away a bit puffed up.


We must keep in mind that all the characters in this scenario (his legacy and the historic "courthouse" being ones as well) were cooked up by me, in my own head, in my own dream. It is also true that I "chose" to be the interloper, and not the great man, while experiencing it - a lessor, personal point which I will leave to my (non-existent) analyst for private review - except insofar as it the delineation brings up an interesting question regarding our ability to discern the feelings and motivations of other people in the "real" world - empathy and projection.

In deconstructing this dynamic, I see that an issue of authority and worthiness was being explored in this dream. Clearly he was worthy, and I was not. In hindsight, then, I was left with a sense of dejection, a sense of the division between us as beings and that, worthy or not, I was being cast out of the "club" which consisted of him, his accomplishments, and the courthouse.

All well and good, and with this hindsight I did what I always do to salve my hurt feelings - I attempt to inhabit the mind of the other in order to discern that (hopefully) his motivations were in truth quite benign and personal, and in no way were meant to inflict any insult upon my person.

For the curious, the result of this thought experiment was that the "great man" was deficient in his empathy in not allowing the interloper to share in his triumph... had he been as aware of the other's mental state (as mixed, and possibly pathetic, as it may have been), as had been the case the other way 'round.

But that is beside the point of what I wish to discuss here.


It is a common thing in dreams to have a subjective "self" surrounded by other characters in dreams, but it is worth keeping in mind that all of these characters, of necessity, are fragments of the self projected outwards as others - it is the only way our mind knows how to work out its internal dramas. It is a testament to the tenacity of thought to anchor itself into an ego that it insists on creating a "self," even under such obviously contrived circumstances.

When we read fiction, or watch movies, we do the same thing. It is possibly true that there are some people who identify simply with the nominal protagonist in these dramas, but I think that most of us leap from character to character, momentarily inhabiting each in order to understand as fully as possible his motivations and feelings - it is this facility that informs the critic within us when we decide how well-written these characters are.

This "talent" is also exercised in the real world, in various degrees of intent and success, depending on how holistic or how fragmented/damaged our own mind is. In attempting to empathize, in the real world, we are frequently torn with the dilemma - how much of what I discern of the others' motivations are tainted by projection, rather than a true recognition of our common human nature? This question is unanswerable in a vacuum, but can only be brought to light empirically as we navigate and test ourselves against the world.

In the real world, we are clearly separate entities, but just as clearly cut from a common cloth, so this is a fascinating and understandable problem. But what does it say about the mind, about my mind, when I must take an extra step, in hindsight, to deconstruct the motivation of a character that has sprung from my own mind? It would seem to me that in a healthy mind this would be an instantaneous recognition - bereft of the threat of taint-by-projection, since I would (should?) be informing these characters with the full and holistic force of my entire psyche**.

Or are my dream entities indeed separate psychological centers, centers with which I have only a relationship, centers that require exploration in order to be fully understood? Am I in danger of projecting my interpretations upon them as well, did my "great man" have more secrets that I was unable to discern in my exercise in empathy? It seems to me that the answer to this must be yes, because time, and the movement of thought, seems to be necessary to complete the evaluation of what had occurred between us.

This brings me back to the observation regarding the tenacity of "self." It is no wonder that we are so often deeply in conflict with each other - if even in a dream we should be so removed from "others."

It seems to be a problem that is common to all of us. Or am I just projecting?


*For the amateur (or professional) dream analysts out there, this figure appeared to be, in the silliness that is dreaming, MLK - but he looked all the world like Morgan Freeman - which is quite remarkable really, since I recently (and regrettably) screened Evan Almighty, and the horribly-written character of God in that throwaway film tarnished, in my mind, Freeman's legacy of dignity, previously established in most of his work.

**Or would this banishment of drama be the termination of the dream activity itself? Krishnamurti had some interesting things to say about this.

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