My Latest Teaching Anxiety Dream
Last night I had a variant of the dream that visits many teachers in the pre-dawn hours. Short of taking a survey, I have yet to meet a teacher who’s never had this dream in some form. We don’t talk about them when we get together. But it doesn’t matter how many years you’ve been out of the classroom.
The dream doesn’t go away.
My latest version had me scheduled to teach a class based on a three-page article in The New Yorker magazine. Preparation would consist in rereading the article, underlining key passages and thereby refreshing my memory as to what I was going to talk about.
Grasping the three glossy pages, which I’d already cut out of the magazine, I was trying to overcome a peculiar reluctance to reread them when the face of my watch showed the time: 5:30 p.m. Oh dear. I had to be at the classroom by 6:00 p.m., which left no more time to prepare! Then I realized that the case was actually much worse than that. The class was to have begun at 5:00 p.m. Which meant that students would be moving out the door by the time I got there!
Good grief! I’m in the soup now!
About then, I woke up. These dreams don’t come with happy endings.
Years ago, I shared lunch with two Oxford professors who looked fairly unflappable. They were discussing Teaching Anxiety. They said that psychological research into stress-producing situations had found that public lectures are, for the speaker, the most stressful of situations. Worse than divorce or getting a bad-news medical diagnosis.
It’s nice to know that experts consider one’s stress to be “normal,” but that doesn’t make the dreams go away. You wake up feeling exhausted and guilty.
In meditation this morning, I wondered if I could get to the bottom of this dream anxiety and guilt by doing what the after-life researchers call a “life review.”
Life reviews are among the features typically included when people who’ve been revived after suffering clinical death have experiences to report. All the morally consequential scenes that occurred in the life of the recently-deceased person pass before him or her. Especially the scenes he or she is least proud of!
As a possible cure for my anxiety dreams, I decided: Maybe I don’t have to wait till I’m dead to have a life review. I can line up every horrible memory right now, in my own room at home, while I’m sitting for morning meditation.
Reader, I actually did that, and thought, as I surveyed the entire lineup:
Where ‘s the Brooklyn Bridge, so I can jump off it?
In the therapeutic jargon of our day, people speak of “forgiving themselves,” but I never could make much sense of that. Who am I to forgive myself? I mean my question in the logical (or perhaps ontological) sense. Are there two different people here? Abigail#1 who forgives and Abigail #2 who is forgiven? Maybe the real problem stems from that very dissociation or self-doubling.
I decided to approach the problem of me and my sins another way. Suppose I moved Abigail #1 so that she became congruent with Abigail #2 and they finally coincided? The reproacher and the reproached would then become one and the same. There’d be only me here to take the fall for us both.
So I tried that. Now I can’t explain why — and can’t describe what was happening as a step-by-step process — but, as I watched me coming to coincide with my sins, what I saw and felt was …
And at the same time, I don’t know how, but the comedy felt situated within a much vaster landscape where I was being somehow …
This surprising turn led me to assume a different vantage point. Suppose I approached the life-review from another direction. Instead of gathering the evidence for a quasi-judicial determination of how horrible I’d been, why not review the chronological record of my life from the standpoint of seeing where God (or my relation to God) had been, throughout all those times and incidents?
Well, it was a long, long story. I saw me as a little girl, surrounded with such fascinating, truth-seeking people, my parents. They were fearless of each other, unafraid of relating to people in an open and intimate way, bringing the whole world into their apartment as background fit for discussion and acknowledgment, invoking the layers of culture they and their friends had natively – French, Russian, Spanish, German, Yankee and, on my father’s side, McGuffy’s Reader, Louisville Male High, Columbia in the twenties, New York at its heyday, the JTS seminary, a philosophical dissertation and unfathomable conversation … and there also I could see my grandfather, Rav Tsair, and from him the Jewish lineage going back to Origins – and adults not treating children as needing to be lied to.
If bad things happened, as sometimes they did, they would seem unwarranted and inexplicable, set against that background.
I hadn’t yet come up against experiences that would prove too much for me. I hadn’t come up against my own contradictions. The fortress of childhood still gave shelter. The walls hadn’t narrowed yet. My personal armageddons lay ahead.
Some of those self-undoings will be recounted when Unhidden Depths: Confessions of a Young Philosopher appears. I’ve really been shredded — torn from end to end. As our family friend Leo Bronstein said to me, after he read an early draft of Confessions, I would always be older than I look.
Visiting these episodes in sequence, from a point of view that asked where God had been vis a vis each incident, was astonishing and deeply reassuring. I know it sounds a bit odd, but I sensed that
Someone had been reaching into the story,
to help at key intervals,
all the long way.