The Dream of Brain Surgery

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It was just a dream. Or was it?

1-The-Trial

‘Josef K.’ in the film rendition of Franz Kafka’s The Trial

It woke me three nights ago, but it won’t go away. Against every conscious attempt to push it away, it is still demanding my full attention.

I had a headache that wouldn’t go away. A surgeon opened my brain and was pulling an animal from the side of my head: a big, brown rat, resisting the surprised surgeon’s efforts, and then another, while the other part of me in the dream watched and cringed. That was it. That was the dream.

From the time I was very young, nothing frightens me as much as a rat. I was five years old when I saw my first rat after the family moved into the 120 year-old house on Church Lane — the one with the open cistern and the huge hole in the basement wall. A rat would scurry across the kitchen floor after leaping from the kitchen cabinet my mother had just opened. At night I could hear the rats moving in the wall next to my bed in the upstairs bedroom. Occasionally a family cat would kill one and offer it to my mother as a present; the sight of the gift sent chills up my mother’s spine as much as if it had been alive. Mom was scared to death of rats. So was I.

The rats I learned to hate were not pet rats or the white rats of laboratory experiments. They were sewer rats who lived in the open cistern with the tunnel to our basement, like the beady-eyed creature that leaped at my father when he blew him out of the opening in the basement wall with a shotgun. I’ll be 76 in a few days, but in my mind, it happened yesterday. 

Which brings me back to the brain surgery dream three nights ago. The pain in my head came from the rat that lived there. The rat wasn’t leaping from a cupboard or scurrying through the walls; it lived inside my head. I was helpless to remove it. It took surgical intervention, and its presence in my head surprised the surgeon as much as the part of me that was observing the procedure.

The rat represents everything I don’t want to be. It’s ugly. It’s dirty. It’s sneaky. It’s vile. It doesn’t operate in the daylight. It does it’s business in the dark of night. And, if you don’t kill it, it may kill you. Even if you shoot it, it will leap for your jugular.

It doesn’t take a Jungian dream interpreter to “get” the symbolism of the rat inside my head. I have been, and still am, my own worst enemy. You can run from the evil inside you, but the guilt remains. Betrayal, deceit, denial, divorce, hiding in kitchen cupboards, scurrying in bedroom walls, living in the cistern beside the house where the human beings live.

I’ve long known the truth of Carl Sandburg’s poem “The Wilderness”: “O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head…”. Like the rest of the human race, I, too, have a wolf in me, and a fox, a hog, a baboon, a fish, an eagle, and a mockingbird in me. But I have an animal not listed in Sandburg’s menagerie. I got a rat inside my bony head.

Childhood fears never die. And, like a former pope who hated his predecessor so much that he became him, if one isn’t careful, one becomes what one fears and hates.

Where is the surgeon who can remove it? What practices can pull the rat from my head and the free me of the horror inside my ribs? Or, is the challenge to live with it the same way I’ve come to terms with the other members of the menagerie of me — to go face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball, and, after all these years of running from it, muster the courage to make friends with my own worst enemy?

Rat on a green background

The rats of my childhood disappeared when the opening in the basement wall was closed with brick and mortar and the cistern was filled with concrete. It will take more than bricks and concrete to remove the one in my head, but the process has started, and for that, I’m thankful.

“The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self,” wrote Soren Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death. I was both the subject and the object in the dream, the self relating to its own self. There is light in the darkness. Hope abounds.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 2, 2018.

Wilderness – Carl Sandburg, Jesus, and Us

Boundary Waters Canoe Areas Wilderness, Minnesota

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota

Once upon a time a pompous nobleman paid a call to the English Embassy in St. Petersburg, Russia. He walked into the office and demanded to see the ambassador immediately. “Pray, take a chair,” said the young attaché, “the ambassador will be here soon.”

The visitor took exception to the off-hand way he had been treated. “Young man, do you know who I am?” he demanded, and recited a list of his many titles and appointments.

The lowly attaché listened, paused and said, “Well then take two chairs.”

Pride, vanity, greed, self-deception, and illusions of grandiosity are part of the human condition.

We are creatures of the wilderness, wanderers and sojourners in time who have here no lasting city to dwell in. And so, as in the legend of the Tower of Babel in The Book of Genesis (chapter 11), we (humankind) come upon the Plain of Shinar . . . or some other version of it. . . and settle down to rid ourselves of anxiety . . . and we settle there as though we could build something permanent that would be a fortress against the uncertainties of the wilderness and the knowledge of ultimate vulnerability and ultimate dependence. We build our own societies and towers of Babel.

Yet there is something about us that still loves a wilderness. Something in us that knows that refusing the nomadic wilderness – “and as they journeyed, they came upon the Plain of Shinar, and settled there” – is fraught with greater danger and social peril. Something in us knows better than to settle down on the Plain of Shinar to build something impervious to the dangers of the wilderness and time. Something in us knows that the brick and mortar will crumble, that the projects of pride, vanity, and greed will fall of their own weight, and that the high towers we build with the little boxes at the top that presume to house and control Ultimate Reality (G-d) are little more than signs of a vast illusion, the vain act of species grandiosity. For in the Hebrew tale of the tower of Babel with its “top in the heavens,” the joke’s on us. The narrator speaks truth with humor: God has to come down to see this high tower.

Every society and culture has its own version of the city and the tower of Babel. Equally so, in every society there is at least the memory of the wilderness, a sense of call to recover our deeper selves as mortals whose destiny is only found by traveling beyond the politics and religiosity of pride, vanity, greed, self-deception, and grandiose illusions.

Perhaps that is why John the Baptist heads out to the wilderness – “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” – away from delusions and distractions of the city of Babel. Perhaps that is also why, as scripture tells it, the masses also went out to the wilderness and the Jordan River to go under the muddy Jordan waters to rise to the hope of a fresh beginning on the other side of the formative influences of Babel-ing nonsense.

After the authorities imprison John, Jesus asks the crowds what had drawn them to John in the wilderness. “What did you go out to see? A reed shaken by the wind? A man clothed in soft raiment? No. Those who wear soft clothing live in kings’ houses. What then, did you go out to see?”

Jesus begins his ministry in the wilderness. He partakes of John’s baptism, and when he did, the Spirit grasped him and called him further into the wilderness, “drove him into the wilderness” – away and apart from all distractions and illusion – back to the place where humankind lives before it “settles” to build the political-economic-religious tower, the impervious fortress and monuments to itself in the Plain of Shinar.

Those who would learn from the Genesis legend and those who wish to follow Jesus are called into the wilderness to restart the long spiritual journey that stopped too early.
For the fact we deny is that underneath all our steel, glass, and technology, we are still animals – mortals subject to the most primitive yearnings, vulnerable creatures who possess nothing.

In his poem “The Wilderness” American poet laureate Carl Sandberg realized a great truth long before it came into vogue.

There is a wolf in me . . . fangs pointed for tearing gashes . . . a red tongue for raw meat . . . and the hot lapping of blood—I keep this wolf because the wilderness gave it to me and the wilderness will not let it go.

There is a fox in me . . . a silver-gray fox . . . I sniff and guess . . . I pick things out of the wind and air . . . I nose in the dark night and take sleepers and eat them and hide the feathers . . . I circle and loop and double-cross.

There is a hog in me . . . a snout and a belly . . . a machinery for eating and grunting . . . a machinery for sleeping satisfied in the sun—I got this too from the wilderness and the wilderness will not let it go.

There is a fish in me . . . I know I came from salt-blue water-gates . . . I scurried with shoals of herring . . . I blew waterspouts with porpoises . . . before land was . . . before the water went down . . . before Noah . . . before the first chapter of Genesis.

There is a baboon in me . . . clambering-clawed . . . dog-faced . . . yawping a galoot’s hunger . . . hairy under the armpits . . . here are the hawk-eyed hankering men . . . here are the blonde and blue-eyed women . . . here they hide curled asleep waiting . . . ready to snarl and kill . . . ready to sing and give milk . . . waiting—I keep the baboon because the wilderness says so.

There is an eagle in me and a mockingbird . . . and the eagle flies among the Rocky Mountains of my dreams and fights among the Sierra crags of what I want . . . and the mockingbird warbles in the early forenoon before the dew is gone, warbles in the underbrush of my Chattanoogas of hope, gushes over the blue Ozark foothills of my wishes—And I got the eagle and the mockingbird from the wilderness.

O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head, under my red-valve heart—and I got something else: it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart: it is a father and mother and lover: it came from God-Knows-Where: it is going to God-Knows-Where—For I am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and no: I sing and kill and work: I am a pal of the world: I came from the wilderness.

Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians call The Christ, walked in our wilderness to live authentically and faithfully as a human being among all the beasts of the menagerie that were part of his nature and are part of our nature. Immediately after he had gone down into the waters to die to the worlds that would fool and twist him, and just as quickly as the voice from heaven declared him “my beloved Son in whom I take pleasure,” the spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. As the Gospel of Mark narrates the story, he was there for forty days among the wild beasts, and angels ministered to him.

By God’s grace and power, may it be so also with us.

Sermon preached by Gordon C. Stewart, Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN.