By Brady Nevins
I read once when I was a kid that there were three ways to determine if something was a dream or reality:
To your sleeping mind, a clock – digital or analogue – will never show a real time. Digital clocks might show all zeros, or the time will change drastically from one glance to another a few seconds later. Analogue clocks might be missing hands or have too many.
Another method of determining if something is a dream is to look in a mirror. You may see nothing or suddenly feel like you’re at a fun house, but you’ll never see a proper reflection.
The last method is to look at your hand and count your fingers. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. In a dream you’ll never have five fingers. In my experience, looking at my hand in a dream is like seeing double, often with at least 10 fingers on one hand.
As anyone who has ever had a nightmare will tell you, it’s not easy to realize that you’re in a dream. It’s hard to find the moment of clarity to examine whether or not a dream is real, no matter how absurd it might become. The ridiculous becomes unquestionable. It might be difficult to utilize the clock/mirror/finger trick if it never even crosses your sleeping mind do so.
The key is simply to use the trick all the time, even when you’re awake, until it becomes an easily accessible habit. For me, in a given moment, I often find myself short on mirrors or even clocks, so finger counting was the obvious choice.
Now that I had the ability – not to mention the inclination – to differentiate absolutely between dreams and reality, I found that many moments in life now required such certitude.
I take a glance at my hand when something good happens in my daily waking life. I run into a friend I haven’t seen in a while. I get accepted to my first choice grad school (yay IHEID). I’m finally on the plane to a (pre-COVID) vacation I’ve been looking forward to.
But more often, I find myself counting fingers when something bad happens. A bad dream analogy in its physical form. Is it actually real? 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. My puppy dies. The neighbors’ house catches fire. The world becomes entrenched in a global pandemic.
For me, these things often have a dream-like quality: they happen so suddenly and unexpectedly that they couldn’t possibly be real. I seem to be questioning reality more and more these days. I always find myself counting.
I had been living in Mongolia for almost 2 years when the coronavirus first broke out in Wuhan in January. I was living in a beautiful yurt in the countryside and working as an assistant English teacher.
There were still no recorded cases of the virus in Mongolia in March when the US government agency I was working for – the Peace Corps – evacuated all of its personnel. Border closures and restriction of movement within the country were becoming stricter. The Mongolian government had been very proactive about virus prevention. The concern was that we Americans might not be able to leave the country later if we didn’t leave now.
I was caught totally off-guard by the news of the evacuation. It came in an email one evening as I sat by the fire in my yurt. With just a few days’ notice, I would be forced to leave my friends, my coworkers, my students, and the home I’d known for the past two years. Suddenly I had no job and no home of my own. I counted my fingers. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
Arriving back in America after two years gone was almost equally overwhelming. Overhearing everyone’s conversations all the time and fully understanding them created a sensory overload.
And after months of coronavirus lockdown in Mongolia, it seemed so strange that things were “normal” in America. No one wore a mask. People went to bars and restaurants. Kids still attended school.
Thinking back to my circumnavigation of the globe from the previous few days – flying from Ulaanbaatar to Moscow to Berlin and finally to Washington – I felt like I had been just a few steps in front of the sweeping spread of the pandemic. It wasn’t more than two weeks later that America began its own lockdown.
Now months later, things still feel like a dream. Unpredictable, unprecedented, uncertain. Time moves in a funny way, but it’s not a dream. The finger count ends at five.
I learned years after reading about the first three tricks that there is one more way to determine if something is a dream or reality. You can ask yourself, “How did I get here?”. In a dream, you don’t experience the journey; you just suddenly find yourself at a destination. While I wish we could all suddenly find ourselves at our destination now, I know that we are thoroughly advancing on our journey. Until then, I’ll keep counting.