Sunday, March 15, 2015

"That could have been my lucky penny": An agnostic's sermon for the Lenten season

With a friend one pleasant afternoon, I was walking down a charming, residential side street in a big city. The sidewalks were not crowded, but a number of people were out enjoying the nice day.

Looking down, I noticed a coin on the ground, and then another nearby, about the same time that a poorly dressed woman, a stranger to me, also started to spot a dropped coin or two near her. We both began looking for others and picking them up — not talking, not making eye contact, careful not to stray into each other's personal space.

The three of us continued moving slowly down the wide sidewalk, the shabby woman and I seeing shiny nickels, dimes, and quarters here and there — sometimes on the sidewalk, sometimes in the dirt off the sidewalk's edge, toward the houses that were close to the street, as they often are in older cities. We collected them with quiet eagerness.

Why did I decline to pocket this dropped coin?
Suddenly the woman said, "There's a penny." It lay on the ground about equidistant between us. With a gentle wave of her hand, she seemed to be suggesting that it was mine.

I waved her off. "No, not worth it," I said. So she bent down to get the penny, putting it in her pocket.

I thought to myself: That could have been my lucky penny.

What was I feeling?

1) Immediate regret that I didn't accept her invitation to pick up the penny, if only to honor the folk wisdom that finding a lost penny brings good luck.

2) Rationalization of my dismissive response by pretending that I was being magnanimous: Now it's her lucky penny, and she looks like she could use some good luck.

3) Annoyance that while I was comfortable with an unspoken barrier between us, she had suddenly put us on an equal footing as players in the game of finding lost coins. Moreover, she was hinting that a penny might be more acceptable to me than to her, of all people.

4) Upset at her notion of fairness in introducing a "rule" that any coin spotted between us could be offered to the other, whereas I was playing to pick up any coin I found first, though without violating her space. Why wasn't she sticking to that? It was her duty to take that penny!

5) Indignation, derived from  points 3 and 4, that she had violated my implicit understanding that she and I occupied different stations in life, and that her failure to acknowledge this was offensive, justifying my terse reply: "No, not worth it," implying "Pennies are for such as you, not me. Can't you see that?"

6) Embarrassment, as my friend, off to my left and slightly behind me, said nothing the whole time and as far as I could tell was not interested in looking for coins on the ground. This person represented obliviousness to the poor woman, which I was unable to sustain; such aloofness could have also hinted at contempt for my focusing on such an unworthy activity rather than just enjoying a pleasant stroll.

By now you have figured out this was a dream, which I have faithfully recorded here. It ended after the thought: That could have been my lucky penny. The numbered interpretations are the product of my waking life. They tumbled into my mind immediately upon waking up.

Events have consequences in our waking lives. They came from somewhere and they are leading toward something else. Analysis of those events is an indelible part of being awake and aware.

There are plot lines in daily life; dreams are thin on plot. Cause and effect within dreams don't often connect very well. Because of that, I don't think I've ever had to make a moral decision in a dream. "In dreams begin responsibilities," ran Delmore Schwartz's formulation in a famous short story. But responsibilities aren't taken up in dreamland. In waking life, they face us all the time. If we dodge them, we will know. Often, there will be an unwelcome price to pay.

There is plenty of significance in both spheres. In dreams, it lies in images, tableaus, scenarios. Why do dreams that entertain us in the telling often baffle us while we're dreaming them? Because they mock the mind's processing of what our lives mean. The narrative thread is usually fragile, confused. Yet the stamp of reality somehow persists in them.

 In our waking lives, we may not be sure what to do about a moral dilemma, but we are used to shouldering the responsibility to take action or say the right thing. We draw on a fund of knowledge about other people and about ourselves. If there's junk in that fund, life teaches us to sort it out and get rid of the rubbish.

But if we go to that resource in a dream, we often come up with nothing, or something bizarre. Treasure and trash are hopelessly mixed. Though our waking lives may be full of mystery as to what a given situation demands of us, we can at least look forward (occasionally with fear) to some kind of clarity in retrospect.

I may be teased into thought by a dream, but the work of thinking is a necessary part of the burden of consciousness. The lucky penny that could have been mine in the dream is — potentially and really — mine after I waken, if only as a symbolic token.

It takes the form of the opportunity to make the most of my luck by connecting one action to another, one encounter to the next, and perhaps one confrontation between spiritual and material poverty to the ones that will inevitably follow. Failing to learn from those encounters, to weave them into the fabric of my life, is what is "not worth it."

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