Frederick Buechner once said, “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”
Dreaming can be a school for this kind of compassion, because in certain dreams we seem to find ourselves living inside somebody else’s skin. A woman I’ll call Norma shared a remarkable experience of this kind with me, in which she dreamed herself inside the body and situation of someone of a different race and a different gender.
As she entered the dream, she found herself flying around inside what she thought was a cell, inspecting its molecular structure.
“When I expand to fill a whole body, I find my legs are different. They seem longer. I reach down and examine the long, muscular calves of this body I am in. My skin is black.
“The shock of realizing I am in a black man’s body makes me conscious I am dreaming. Now lucid, I stay with the dream, eager to explore what is going on. I am fascinated by discovering what it feels like to have your genitals outside your body.
“Now I’m walking down the street, in this black man’s body. The city could be New Orleans. I smell delicious food aromas wafting from a restaurant. I want to go inside and eat. Two white men at the door tell me with jeering contempt, “Sure you can come in, boy. You can eat watermelon.’
“I walk away. I feel boiling anger rising inside me. An inner presence tells me, Leave before you succumb to his rage. I pull out of the dream.”
I asked Norma how she felt about this dream adventure inside a black man’s body. “I felt exhilarated,” she told me without hesitation. “I felt sad about the racism that black man had to contend with, yet grateful that I could share a part of his life.”
We find ourselves in the situations, the perspectives and even the skins of other people in dreams for many reasons. One of them is that dreaming in this way can expand our humanity. As Norma told me, “If only all of us could have this experience of being inside other people’s skins, we could get rid of a lot of our prejudices and social problems.”