I dreamed a familiar old dream last night. Returning to school after the holidays I ran into my maths teacher.
“Sorry I’m late for your class, Sister,” I said.
She gazed out of her wimple scornfully and asked, “My class? You think you’re in my class?” She waved me into the classroom where the blackboard announced the division of the class into two groups: whizzes and ignoramuses. On my desk lay last term’s exam paper, a large “28%” circled in red. Sister ushered the whizzes out towards their new classroom as it sank in that I was not among the chosen.
What made this dream especially poignant was that maths was one of the two subjects I actually never failed, despite my generally poor performance (the other was English). Just two and a half years from my sixtieth birthday, I’m still haunted—not just by my old failures but also, infernally, by the compulsion to disallow my successes.
I told Caroline, and she nodded understandingly. Dreams like this seem to hound everyone. “But you don’t feel like a failure now, do you?” she asked rhetorically, and listed my accomplishments in the brightest possible light.
“At this moment,” I said, still weighed down by the dream’s traumatic remnants, “I still do.”
“But you know you’re not,” she said.
“Oh yes, I know that…or rather I decide that. I’m not sure which,” I said. “…. I can rationalize that feeling away. Lord knows, I’ve done it before hundreds of times; but the feeling’s always there—latent.”
“Well,” she replied, “it keeps you humble, doesn’t it?”
“Perhaps—in theory,” I said.
This is the third time I’ve used the phrase “In theory.” in this very blog in recent days. In theory, I’m not a hopeless failure, but in my neural pathways, evidently, that conviction remains intact, even though there’s also a whole set of rational counter-proposals.
The art of positive thinking would have us believe that we can focus on just the good stuff, and become our very best. Sounds great—in theory—but I keep falling back on what the Buddha had to say about suffering: that we impose it on ourselves by stubbornly clinging to our cherished sense of self, as if we arise independently of the causes and conditions of our lives, irrespective of our circumstances. It seems to me that positive thinking demands that we deny all that’s unwelcome about who we are. Surely the Buddha’s approach is infinitely more real—a quality that, in the ripeness of middle-age, I value much more than transitory beauty, harmony and security.