Dear Dream Detective:
I have a recurring nightmare that I’m back in college. I’m running desperately through buildings to get to an exam which is about to begin. Sometimes I can’t remember the exam room number. Sometimes I’m going to drive my car to the exam, but my car won’t
start. In any case, I wake up in a terrible panic!
Owego, New York
Helena is a 45 year old woman. She graduated college when when was 22 and received her masters degree when she was 24. She states that she is in the midst of a midlife crisis. She asks — and it sounds like an old song — "Marriage, children, career, is that all there is?"
The Solution to the Mystery
Yours is a rather common dream these days. This is because our modern age lacks significant rites of passage. A rite of passage is an experience of symbolic death and rebirth. A person who undergoes such a trial dies to his old self and experiences life as if he were born anew.
The problem is that many of the traditional rites of passage have lost their renewing power. Marriage, for example, has become more of a contractual agreement than a transformative experience. Graduation was meant to be a powerful rite of passage. Graduation lost this power when college became merely a "practical" affair, something required to get a job.
The problem is that without significant rites of passage a person feels ill-equipped to be in the world in a meaningful way. New responsibilities appear to be mere burdens rather than doors to a new and meaningful station in life. Why then do you have your recurring nightmare? Your unconscious is telling you that you are still required to undergo the necessary rites of passage (pictured in the dream as exams) before you can graduate to more significant levels of adult life.
Since our society lacks these rites of passage, what to do? Move to a traditional society? Seek out unusual challenges as did Billy Crystal and his friends in the film City Slickers? More to the point, deep insight into how you’ve lived and who you are is the real catalyst for significant change, (and the cure for midlife crisis). Then life will examine you and promote you to new levels of living. Your graduation diploma will be untroubled sleep.