I dreamed Mom was cutting a decadent, multi-layered chocolate cake. Three moist layers of rich cake. Between the layers, the ganache was formed with multiple thin layers of coconut and fudge. The dark frosting glistened with caramel drizzle.
I was filled with pleasure watching her knife slice wedges from the elegant dessert. And then, with the continuity of a dream sequence, I was cleaning up peanuts. When I tried to put them in the trash, they fell to the floor and I had a bigger mess of chopped peanuts. Pleasure turned to anger.
I stuck my head through the doorway and said to Mom, “You’re cruel. The only thing good about you is your imagination.”
Although in the dream my intent was to wound my mother, I did not say, “You are only good in your imagination.” That was an important point to me when I was mulling over the dream, as is my penchant when I recall a dream. Rather, I said, “The only good thing about you is your imagination.”
Of course, the “working for peanuts” image didn’t take long to decipher. That is pretty much my life. I have always earned below the median income for South Dakota residents, which is lower than the median income for the nation. Over the past five years, I’ve also experienced downward mobility in that each job has paid less than the previous one. With my last job, I was earning what I was paid in 1998. Needless to say, the cost of living is higher now than it was in 1998, so my standard of living has actually declined.
That, being said, I must also say I own my vehicle, have a roof over my head, and there’s usually food in the house. In other words, it could be worse. I probably have more than millions, if not billions, of people in the world. I truly cannot complain.
However, a lack of complaints is not the same thing as a lack of imagination. I buy a couple lottery tickets every week, and at times have constructed elaborate fantasies for spending it. (Yes, I know the likelihood that I will win is slim to none. Yes, I know lottery tickets are called “the poor man’s tax,” which is the reason I buy them. I believe in paying taxes; that is my symbolic gesture.)
The problem is that since childhood I have coped with life’s challenges by indulging in fantasies. When I didn’t have friends in elementary school, I walked home from school lost in the fantasy of being a famous singer. I would sing at the top of my lungs songs I composed on the spot. As a wallflower at high school dances, I imagined one of the popular guys suddenly finding me attractive and becoming more popular myself as a result of his attention.
Sadly, I did not outgrow that coping mechanism. Problems with a boss? I imagined writing a best selling murder mystery in which the victim looked suspiciously like that boss. Financial difficulties? I imagined, as I said, winning the lottery. Of course, I never expected fantasies to pay the bills. More than once, I have worked two jobs to make ends meet, and I am quite good at paring life down to the essentials.
It didn’t take long to realize the cake in my dream was that habit of thought. Fantasies are pleasurable, but they can also be cruel. They can lead to anger and to dissatisfaction with reality, especially when the fantasies — such as the fantasy of winning the lottery — cannot be translated into attainable goals.
Fortunately, I’ve long recognized my fantasies are simply a coping mechanism. They change my emotional response to a situation, which in turn opens my mind to creative solutions — when my actions can affect a situation. Sometimes, a situation is out of my control. Then, I can only consider what alternatives exist for removing myself from the situation. Either way, calm consideration is superior to an emotional reaction.
Still, I have begun to realize another approach might be even better, following the example of Christ’s mother, Mary. The disparity between chocolate cake and peanuts had to have been enormous in her life. The angel spoke to her about having a son to whom God would give “the throne of David,” but she raised him in the workshop of Joseph — in Nazareth, of all places.
Still, Mary didn’t say “yes” to the angel and then (1) try to force things (like Sarah who had Hagar bear Abraham’s son), (2) whine about things (like the Israelites in the desert), or (3) allow her desires to lead her astray (like David). Instead, she allowed God’s promise to unfold in her life with all its messiness — giving birth in a barn, traveling to Egypt, returning to settle in a backwater town like Nazareth. Hardly what she might have expected after being told “the Lord God will give [your son] the throne of David his father” (Luke 1:32).
And yet, that is what she lived. I have long suspected she grew into her “yes.” It must have been a daily renewal of her pledge, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). In Luke’s gospel, it says, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). I can imagine her pounding grain, reflecting on her days and her weeks in addition to the stories we know, looking at it all in light of the story of her people.
Like Mary, I need to learn how to live “thy will be done” one day at a time. I need to stop worrying about chocolate cake and peanuts. I need to learn to see my life in terms of my faith, not in terms of worldly success or failure.
And, like Mary, I need to humble myself before God and daily declare myself to be a handmaid of the Lord, embracing his will as it unfolds in my life. It is there I will receive God’s blessings.