I have a recurrent nightmare from which I awaken screaming while swatting at a spider scurrying across my pillow. Only after I’ve sat up, switched on a light and examined the bedclothes do I realize that the invading arachnid is a figment of my imagination.
These spider dreams plague me when there’s something happening in my life that I need to attend to, something that’s going in the wrong direction and urgently needs a mid-course correction. So I don’t take them lightly. In the mythologies of several cultures, spiders symbolize wisdom and creativity, and my imaginary spiders are usually more astute than I am when it comes to major issues with health, relationships and work.
They are, in effect, reminders to clean out the cobwebs in the basement of my mind.
I didn’t always view my dream spiders so positively. When they first appeared, during the demise of a brutal marriage, they confused and terrified me; I saw them as symbols of my husband’s anger. When the nightmares culminated in the manifestation of a real live spider— a fat hairy tarantula, crawling across the tile floor of our desert home in broad daylight— I reacted accordingly. I screamed, grabbed a can of insecticide and drenched the poor creature in toxins. Then I watched, horrified and sobbing, as it convulsed and died a slow and miserable death.
Attacking the messenger
At the time, I didn’t know that tarantulas are gentle, harmless creatures that migrate each autumn in search of mates. In my fear and ignorance, I saw a threat where none existed, and I annihilated an innocent sentient being that had taken a wrong turn off my patio.
The real danger lay not with the spider or even with my husband. It lay within me, in my persistent denial of the emotional abuse I’d been enduring, a denial founded in my fear of the social and financial consequences of divorce. It was this unacknowledged fear that animated the dream spiders, and demonized the real spider. In my shortsighted frenzy, I attacked the messenger instead of heeding the message to wake up and deal with my situation.
It’s not hard to see that the terrifying creatures inhabiting our nightmares are the spawn of our unconscious fears. It’s harder to see that much of what scares us in our waking lives derives from a similar origin. We project our fears onto others— both individuals and groups— an act that then distorts our perceptions so that we see threats, either physical or psychological, where they don’t exist.
Incident in Taos
A recent and widely publicized incident here in The Land of Enchantment is a case in point. When a policeman stopped a van for speeding on a highway outside town, a routine traffic violation escalated out of control because of a mutual projection of fears.
The long version of the viral police video reveals that the officer initially treated the driver, a young black woman, with courtesy and extreme patience, despite her persistent refusal to choose between accepting the speeding charge or contesting it in magistrate’s court. When the woman, clearly frightened, refused to exit her vehicle, the officer called for backup. Two additional policemen arrived, and all hell broke loose.
The woman was manhandled by the increasingly agitated policemen; her teenage son, fearing for her safety, attempted to intercede. A toy gun belonging to the five kids in the van was mistaken for a weapon. The officers pulled guns and bashed in one of the van’s windows. The woman, now terrified, sped off as one of the officers shot at her. A wild chase down Taos’s main thoroughfare ensued, putting both the occupants of the van and everyone else on the road at risk as the panicked woman attempted to outrun the police.
The danger inherent in this encounter existed only in the minds of the participants. The driver— female, black and stopped in a relatively isolated area— saw a cop who was just doing his job as a threatening authority figure. The cops saw a tall black woman and her lanky black son as potential troublemakers. A situation that should have been merely uncomfortable turned violent because the individuals involved projected their unconscious fears onto each other. They were swatting at dream spiders rather than questioning their reality.