Morality in Dreams

It’s been a while since I posted. I’ve been really depressed or something lately (apparently I have recurrent major depressive episodes, but even though I’ve been diagnosed multiple times with depression, I still wonder if that’s actually what it is), so I’ve mostly just been concentrating on trying not to fail (all of) my classes and maybe, if I’m feeling particularly motivated, returning overdue books to the library or paying the bills 5 minutes before they’re due. So, yea, blogging hasn’t really been that high on my todo list, but I just felt like writing today. Oh, and if you don’t know the difference between “being a bit down” and having major depressive episode (a lot of well meaning people seem to conflate the two without realizing it), please go read this blog post. In fact, go read it even if you do know the difference between those two things. It is humorous and illustrated while at the same time being a really good description of one person’s experience of being depressed.

I’ve been thinking about morality and ethics a fair amount, lately, and the dream I had this morning really gave me something to think about. Now, I’m always disappointed when I’m reading someone’s blog and they talk about a dream they had and all they have to write is, like, two whole sentences. That might just be me, but hey, this is a blog that’s partly about lucid dreaming, so I’m going to put the whole dream here. I usually write dreams in present tense in my dream journal because I read somewhere once that that helps with dream recall. No idea if it actually does, but it seems at least plausible, and it’s become a habit by this point. So, right, dream.

I’m in a group, and we’re walking along sidewalks and along/across train tracks (and taking the trains part of the way). My friend Lauren (name changed to protect anonymity- she’s not acting like she does in real life, anyway) gets really mad at a young black girl. I’m really uncomfortable with this situation. Lauren is really pissed off. I’m afraid she’ll hurt her. The kid’s down in a wide shallow pit with railing at the top, at the edge of which the crowd is watching. Lauren is up there, too, frustrated that her prey is not easily reachable. I jump down into the pit. The girl is on the ground. I ask her if she is ok, and she says yes. Then I focus on making sure Lauren won’t get to her, staying between them.

The ‘fight’ is over now. Both Lauren and I had ditched our backpacks during the whole mess. Lauren yells “Hey! They’re stealing our backpacks!” at two guys as they run away. They did steal two backpacks, but I’m not sure they’re ours. There’s no time to think, though. I join Lauren in the chase. I hate races like this. I’m not that good at running. I worry about losing my laptop and graphing calculator, which I normally keep in my backpack. They won’t be cheap to replace, and if I lose data that will impossible to replace.

We’re chasing the two guys through a mall. They split up. I chase one, Lauren the other. Lauren is harsh when she catches up to her target, forcibly pushing him down and taking the backpack. When I catch up to my target… he’s a guy in a motorized wheelchair and he hasn’t got my backpack. He has a backpack, probably his own. I apologize for chasing him, explaining that we thought they took our backpacks (we had good reason to be suspicious). Then he winks at me and pulls a smaller backpack out of his own and gives it to me. So he did steal one. I take it and put it on, being uncomfortably aware of wearing the wrong one, afraid I’ll get called on it.

I rejoin Lauren and we walk back to where we left our backpacks. I’m busy worrying about losing my laptop and about whether the pack I’m wearing (and haven’t had time to look in) might contain something dangerous and/or illegal. We arrive at a spot that is different than the one we left. A blond woman (possibly a teacher) had been watching our bags for us. I’m relieved, taking mine back and checking the contents. It’s all there- lots of books, my notebook, my computer. The woman takes us to a place to turn the other bags in (a customer service section of the store they were bought from). I’m glad Lauren has to return hers. She probably knew they weren’t ours to begin with. I look inside mine while we’re in the line. Nothing but a Rolling Stones magazine and a few pieces of candy (the backpack itself is one of those small ones that you pull shut at the top with the ties, like a dice bag). I turn it in to these people. I’m thinking it’s probably not even going to get back to its owner. I’m thinking I should have kept it. I tell this to my dad as we’re walking. We go down in an odd elevator with no walls. He disagrees.

Immediately upon waking, I continued thinking about whether I should have kept the bag or not. I felt slightly guilty, and I probably rationalized a bit. Is it wrong to keep something you’ve come across if you don’t know how to return it to its owner? It wasn’t like I just picked it up off the ground. I was chasing that guy to get back something that belonged to me, and I ended up with someone else’s stuff instead. Turning it in to a place where it would probably not find its way back to its owner felt like it made the whole effort a waste. It felt like a special reward when I got it from the guy in the wheelchair by not being an asshole (in contrast to Lauren).

And why should I feel even slightly guilty about this? Firstly, I didn’t even keep the bag, I just decided that I should have, after the fact. Did I just feel guilty because I told my dad I wished I’d kept it, and he said that would be wrong? Statements about morality do seem to carry extra weight (at least emotionally) when they come from a parent or other respected authority figure. Secondly, it was a dream. Why should I feel guilty about something I did in a dream, even if I did something really bad, like murdering people?

People seem to have different ideas about the morality of acts done in a dream (this is my vague impression from hanging around lucid dreaming forums). Some would say that, since a dream is no more real than a video game, you can do anything you want in a dream (especially if you know it’s a dream), and it won’t be wrong. Others, especially those who believe that dreams are more than just random hallucinations you have while sleeping, would argue that there are certain things that it is wrong to do, even in a dream. Another view is that if you do something wrong, even if you find out later that it didn’t hurt anyone (e.g. it was a dream, or you were a participant in the Milgram Obedience Experiment), that will still affect you in much the same way as if you actually did do something wrong and someone was hurt.

My particular view on this actually tends to the side which tends to believe that dreams are more than just random hallucinations, and here is why. A while ago, while pondering various questions, such as “Does god exist?” and “How do I tell what is really real?”, I basically decided that I had no way of knowing for certain if what I am currently experiencing through my subjective senses reflects on some objective reality. It’s like that film, The Matrix. How do you really know if what you are experiencing isn’t some high tech virtual reality machine? On a more personal level, how do I tell that I am experiencing an objective reality as opposed to, say, dreaming? I have had so many dreams that seemed completely real while I was having then. I mean, I do have some great reality checks that I use to check if I am dreaming, in the hope of randomly finding out that I am and then having a lucid dream (the best of these, for me, is the nose plug check- if I plug my nose and I can still breathe, it’s a dream), but reality checks can fail. Honestly, the most compelling reason to decide that waking life is real and dreaming is not, is that waking life is more consistent, more coherent, more stable, and easier to remember. After a while of this line of thinking, wondering how to tell what, if anything, is ‘real’, I basically decided that, if something seems real, I should treat as if it is real because hey, maybe it is, and if it isn’t, well, I don’t really have anything else to go on. So, I think, if you hurt someone you think is real at the time, even if it turns out to be a dream later, that that is still wrong (because you didn’t know they weren’t real at the time, and because even if they aren’t real, your actions still affect you, and because you can’t KNOW absolutely for certain that they’re not real, even if it seems that way later). Dreams might be more than random hallucinations (it’s also possible that waking life is more than slightly-less-random-than-when-dreaming hallucinations, after all). I don’t really think there’s any way to tell for certain (but I could be wrong). On a slightly related note, I am an agnostic atheist (using the definitions where agnosticism (without knowledge) refers only to lack of knowledge about the existence or non-existence of a deity, and atheism refers only to lack of belief in a deity), but I usually leave off the agnostic bit when describing myself, because it is redundant. I am agnostic about literally everything.

Another thing to consider is whether the actions you take in a dream reflect on the way you would actually act in a similar situation in real life. Not all of the things I do in dreams seem to reflect on me in this way, in my experience. Sometimes, for example, I have done things in dreams that I was afraid that I might do in real life (the sort of things I would never do in real life, but occasionally had random, disturbing thoughts about anyway). In other cases, the dream setting  is sufficiently different from reality that I don’t see how my actions really reflect on any way I might act in real life (e.g. exploring a dungeon and killing evil dragons with a sword). Other things are also incongruent between my actions in dreams and real life. Sometimes I dream I am someone else and act more like that person than myself. Or, for instance, I have an easier time talking to people in dreams than in real life. In real life, I often find it annoying or awkward when I have to talk to other people that I don’t know, but when I am dreaming it seems natural and easy and I lack the reluctance I often have in real life. But some things I do in dreams do seem particularly characteristic of me. But how to tell the difference? This particular dream was more realistic than most I have, and I was definitely myself in the dream, and I definitely thought it was real while it was happening (even to the point of worrying that I would lose my laptop, which I really do often carry in backpack, and worrying about whether or not I was doing the right thing). My actions in the dream probably do reflect either on me, or on how I would like to be. I can deal with that. After all, I did protect that girl, even though it meant standing up to my friend, and I did return the bag, even though I was tempted not to.

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