A few months ago, I woke up from a dream that left me feeling upset for days, though the more I recount it, the less upsetting it seems. In the dream, my partner and I were visiting a man in his home. This was someone she knew, but whom I was meeting for the first time. As far as I could tell, he was in his mid-fifties. I understood that he was wealthy and a person of some kind of stature, though nothing about him was extravagant. His home was decorated simply, but with things of obviously fine quality. He dressed in a similar fashion. Not in the sort of wealth-shine suit of Wall Street, but in the manner you’d expect of a successful but stylish Valley entrepreneur. Jeans, but the $200 variety. He was healthy, fit, and had a full head of silvering hair. I can’t remember a thing about his face. During our visit, he and my partner spoke for a long time. He gave her his complete attention — not in a way that made me feel jealous, really, but small and unimportant. In fact, he completely ignored me. I could tell this bothered my partner, and several times, she even tried to steer the conversation toward me. He remained uninterested. Meanwhile, I was intimidated by this man. I felt that, somehow, he had complete power over me, and that he took no notice of me at all was humiliating. I wanted to leave. Eventually, he mentioned his work. For most of his professional life, he’d worked in larger organizations — doing what, I can’t recall — but had transitioned in recent years to consulting executives — COOs, specifically — on how they can continue to improve their organizations and even reinvent themselves in the process. My partner exclaimed, “Why, that’s what Chris does. He’s the COO of his firm!” At that, he changed the subject. It was a painful blow. What was so wrong with me that this man would treat me, his guest, with such contempt? So I asked him. With a shaking voice, I said, “You’ve gone out of your way to ignore me to the point of being insulting. Why?” He replied, “I don’t waste my time on people like you. You’ve got no guts.”

I woke up.

I thought about the dream all morning. I emailed myself some thoughts about the dream, in the same way I typically do when I’m working on a piece of writing, though I had no immediate intention to write about it. I continued to think about it for weeks afterward. There was something there, in that dream, that was working on me. The details remain as clear as ever; it’s as if I dreamt it last night. I’ve heard the man’s voice over and over again: “You’ve got no guts.” I mean, who says something like that? Looking back on it, it seems so clearly absurd. Something that if a person said it to me in waking life, I’d laugh it off completely and perhaps even diagnose that person with some sort of mental illness. But in the dream, it cut right into a vulnerable place of insecurity and fear and left a deep wound.

Who was the man?

Carl Jung referred to a faceless stranger in dreams as The Shadow. He believed that the shadow’s presence is the personification of some part of the dreamer’s personality obscured by his conscious ego. It’s the stuff we want to deny about ourselves — our fear or greed or anger, perhaps — anything of which we are ashamed. In my dream, this man, who had things that, at some level, I must admit I want — wealth, comfort, status — also had disdain for something that I must confess is true about me. I am afraid more than I ever admit. I rarely take significant risks. Many people think I do, but they don’t see the depth to which I analyze my decision making and act only once I’ve calculated the least possible risk. On the outside, my behavior may look confident — and in some ways, it certainly is — but beneath that thin veneer is a deep and steady fear. Fear of failure, of loss, of regret. Over the years, I’ve worked to change that and have made progress. But the dream reminded me that I still have work to do. It reminded me that I want to be neither man. Not the shadow man — the man of status and scorn — nor the man for whom he had contempt — the man of fear. The person I want to be is still in progress and the shadow man was speaking to the heart of my greatest obstacle.

I’m in the midst of what feels like a change of season professionally. I’ve been through it before. Just the other day, Mark and I were walking back from having lunch together and it became clear that this was the central theme of our conversation — the discomfort and fear that comes with a necessary change, and the feeling of being pushed toward it. We’ve all been there, many times. It’s that feeling of being the new kid. Everyone else seems to know one another, and to know what they’re doing. And you have to figure everything out, from scratch. But you wouldn’t have to do that if there wasn’t some opportunity ahead.

It wasn’t until just the other day that I realized that my dream had begun preparing me for this transition. The shadow man’s job was guiding people through exactly what I feel I need right now, and yet I wasn’t even aware of that at the time. It wasn’t on my mind at all. But it must have been there, beneath it all. It’s amazing how our subconscious minds can work like that — processing things, coming to conclusions, and then gently nudging us in one direction or another — before we have any awareness of it. I’m grateful for that, even if it means a troubling gut-punch of a dream every now and then.

When you go to the gym regularly, you start to take notice of the people around you and their routines. There are people I see almost every day, and though we never speak, we probably could predict one another’s next move. It’s a strange intimacy. There is one man in particular whom I’ve watched for years. He’s probably in his mid to late forties, and is slightly overweight. Every day, he spends an hour on the treadmill, speed-walking at its greatest incline and sweating profusely. If you saw him, you’d think it’s just a matter of time before he works off those extra pounds. But I have watched him do this for years with no change to his body whatsoever. Why? It’s because his body has become so accustomed to this activity that it can regulate his metabolism to balance whatever he’s eating with this hour of calorie burn. That means his metabolism has slowed down, even though that kind of activity is supposed to kick it into gear. What this guy should be doing is pretty much anything else but his power walking routine. Riding a bike. Running. Weights. Whatever. If he stopped to think about it, I’d bet he’d come to that conclusion himself. But the problem is that this workout probably makes him feel great. At the end of the hour, he’s drenched with sweat. His heart rate is up. Endorphins are coursing through his body. This is the dragon that every regular exerciser is chasing. But if this guy wants to make progress, he needs to run in the other direction. He needs to start doing something that will probably be uncomfortable and awkward and leave him feeling less “pumped” than his current routine. I’m on a regular rotation, and generally change my workout every quarter. It reinvigorates me, but only after I go through that brief but discouraging phase of feeling like I’m not getting the workout I should. But that’s just the chemicals talking. I’ve learned to love the discomfort and trust that it’s a part of progress.

Now if I can only do the same thing outside the gym.

Written by Christopher Butler on March 9, 2014,   In Essays

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