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Dreams and Evil

By Montague Ullman, M.D.

Do our dreams have a role to play in stemming the rising tide of evil? Does the struggle have to go beyond political and diplomatic maneuvering? Is our dream life relevant to thwarting the threat of a conflagration far greater than all others that preceded it?

The answer depends on the answer to another question. Is the current level of diplomacy too self-serving to get at the root causes of the prevailing level of evil? At the moment, it's hard to say which will win out. Forces bent on destruction don't fight fairly. Can we move beyond palliative measures that only seem to result in newer and bigger problems? The ultimate question then becomes: Can the struggle for global unity be augmented from below?

There is something qualitatively different about the current conflict we are engaged in. In the past it was sufficient for diplomacy and the military to handle matters. They are still necessary, but a whole new dimension has come into being. Like it or not, we are all enlisted as fighters in the struggle. We are up against an enemy that is both effective and hidden from us. To avoid further victimization than we have already experienced, we are going to have to discover what is hidden from us. That is precisely what our task is as individuals. To fight this war effectively, we have to understand the enemy within as well as without. Evil is like dormant cancer cells. When the conditions are ripe, it comes to life. Evil may not be quite the word for it. What I am referring to is the common, ordinary, everyday capacity to, on occasion, be abusive to others and to ourselves.

We are creatures that have significant unconscious determinants of our behavior. We can better understand our antagonists if we better understand ourselves. Here is where dreams come into the picture. There is nothing like dreams to temper our grandiosity and expose the way we project our shortcomings onto others. What may be minor flaws in individuals, when writ large can lead into false and vulnerable ideologies.

There have been and still are societies that have integrated dream work into their culture. Industrial societies have marginalized dreams. Our dreams, when consciously pursued, are a kind of emotional connective tissue bonding us together as social animals. Although in a very small way dreams are making a comeback, we remain a dream deprived society. As a society we have no idea of the price we pay for this one-sidedness.

Let me review some of the features of the dreaming consciousness that warrant a more serious investment in our dream life and how that might fit into the struggle we have been drawn into against evil.

  1. Our capacity to dream constitutes a natural healing system and serves us as any other bodily system does to maintain optimal functioning and to eliminate any interfering toxic input. It differs qualitatively from other systems in that its concern is with the management of our emotional potential and the vicissitudes that potential is subject to. Authenticity in the expression of feelings is not always easy. Love and anger are the ones most at risk in our society. Dependency can masquerade as love. Hate and hostility can masquerade as anger. Hate, for example, results in the wish — conscious or unconscious — for an actual destruction of the instigator. The goal of anger is primarily self-protection and only under extreme circumstances warrants the destruction of the other.
  2. In their monitoring of problematic emotional areas, dreams serve a survival function for the individual and for the species. We are more in touch with what is real if we face the truth rather than deny or suppress it. Dreams register deeper truths about ourselves than we allow to be manifest in our waking lives.
  3. That truth-finding capacity arises out of an incorruptible core of being that registers deviations from the truth. Regardless of what games we play with the truth, that core comes to life in our dreams throughout our life.
  4. The bonding capacity of the dream is a function of the language it uses. Awake discursive speech is suited to living in and communicating about a world of discrete objects experienced as external to ourselves. We also, however, have available to us the language of metaphor to convey a felt sense of connectedness to others and to the world around us. The poetic metaphor does it for us in our waking state. Metaphorical imagery does it for us asleep and dreaming. A remarkable and on-target ability to create original and meaningful images comes to life in the dream. I refer to this as the metaphorical transform. It links poetry and dreaming together. It occurs effortlessly and spontaneously with the onset of a dream. The poet has to work at it.

There are many points of view about the nature and appearance of evil in dreams. They range from the theological point of view where Satan is as likely to take over the dreams as God is, to the psychoanalytic depiction of the Id, as the container of the repressed, trying to break through the censorship of the ego. Although Freud's notion of the death instinct is no longer in fashion, there is still the tendency to consider aggressive drives at play in shaping the dream. I have outlined my point of view about the nature of dreaming and would like to now briefly explore where, in the vast realm of evil, our dream life may have a place.

There are categories of evil. There is macro-evil defined by the wholesale destruction of human beings, It comes in two main subcategories. The first is evil perpetrated for the glorification of the leader and/or the state. We have witnessed many examples in recent years. The Holocaust tops them all. In the second sub-category the evil is perpetrated in what is presumed to be in the interest of a higher good. I consider Hiroshima and Nagasaki as examples of this.

There are also two categories of micro-evil, one large scale but impersonal, the other personal. The general criteria that applies to both is the reduction of human beings to the role of objects available for exploitation. Destruction is not the goal since the object as object has value. The difference between the two sub-categories is the scale on which it is carried out.

The first is the social fall-out from corporate evil. The unbridled pursuit of corporate power can, as in the case of Enron, result in a level of greed that can, without warning, transform thousands of human beings into discarded objects. Political corruption can have the same effect. In Eisen-hower's final speech before leaving office, he warned the nation about the growth and power of the military-industrial complex. We are witnessing an exponential increase in that power at the present time in the war against terrorism.

The word "evil" is not generally applied to the second category of micro-evil. Abuse is a better term. It refers to the common garden variety of things we do to each other and to our children1 that are hurtful to others as well as to ourselves. Very few if any people grow up perfect in this far from perfect world. Most of us carry about unfinished emotional baggage from our past that operates insidiously to hurt the other as well as ourself. We are not always at our best in dealing with others. It is as if a magical scenario suddenly takes over. The other, as the cause of our pain, discomfort or annoyance, is instantaneously reduced to an object on which we can vent our spleen. (It then becomes a fight with the outcome hinging on who is the more powerful. The fight is at an object-to-object level. The price we pay is the loss of our common humanity. Fortunately, in most instances these situations are resolved when our better nature takes over. Unfortunately, our demons don't give up easily. Technically known as mechanisms of defense, such as denial, rationalization, projection, they hang in and undermine our own humanity and the humanity of others. When they take over a situation, an object-to-object exchange comes into being. Elsewhere I have written2:

Narcissism has reference to the self-aggrandizement that accompanies the status-reduction of others. Passivity and dependency are descriptive of the techniques of fitting into the scheme of things by transformation of the self into an object capable of parasitic attachment to a powerful being. Withdrawal involves the unreal effort at removal of the self from corrupting influences. Compulsivity derives from the limiting stereotyped fashion in which object-to-object transactional behavior is forced to occur. The obsessional character highlights the ritualistic aspects of a fetishistic mode of life. The hysterical character highlights the denial involved. The phobic character calls attention to the vulnerability to exposure (to circumstances that threaten) a fetishistic existence.

The essence of dream work is to recognize and ultimately resolve this slippage from an I-Thou relationship to an I-It relationship. It is in this category of abuse that dream work could come into the picture. Only through a deeper and truer awareness of our emotional limitations can we come to terms with them and work to change them. That's what dreams are all about, so why not make better use of them? It is this micro-level of abuse that ultimately adds up to recognizable evil.

At the end of a symposium on evil, the words of Harry A. Wilmer, one of the organizers of the symposium, offered the following thoughtful comment:

We can hope to find ways as individuals and groups to cope with evil as we see it in our lives and in the world. We can hope to bring the light into dark places, to bring hope where there is despair, to bring humor and songs where there is drab emptiness, to bring enlightenment into the shadows and to bring simple understanding into perplexities. We can hope to hear what we do not want to hear and to see what other see with an open heart, to ponder together on awesome powers, and to think more clearly and more simply about this present, this now, this here, this moment. The challenge of obstacles, knowing good by evil and doing something about it — these are the stepping stones in life. Now we have begun our work here, which we will continue in the words of the medieval alchemist, Deo concedente.3


1 In the latest catalogue of a well-known academic publisher (Sage), 21 new titles appeared on child abuse and 14 on domestic violence.

2 Ullman, M. (1959), American Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 429-435.

3 Wilmer, H.A. (1988), Afterword, in (Eds.) Paul Wood-ruff and Harry A. Wilmer, Opern Court Publishing Co., LaSalle, Illinois, (p. 248).