In spite of his horrific nightmares, ten year old Jimmy liked to think he was growing up. After all, he’d not had a bedwetting incident in over a year, he’d taken a greater interest in schoolwork, and when his mom woke him for church on Sundays he'd stopped trying to argue his way out of going. He didn’t fight with his brother Freddy or his sister Janise as much as he used to, either, and when they did have an argument these days, more often than not he’d find a new and peaceful way to resolve the conflict rather than through childish territoriality and mindless pushing, shoving, shouting, and hitting.
Just the other night an argument with Janise over which TV show to watch had escalated into his older sister once again blaming the entire state of the world on him just because he was a boy. Jimmy had blown his top at that. Screaming that she was going to Hell, he’d stormed out of the room, but after cooling down in his bedroom he’d gone back to the living room to apologize. The look of shock on his sister’s face and her inability to find anything to say in response to his apology had indicated how unexpected it was and just how much he was indeed changing.
The boy’s new maturity had perhaps been catalyzed in part by the recent death of Max, the family’s Cocker Spaniel. Jimmy had been unable to accept the loss of his best friend after the dog had been struck by a car, and he’d prayed fervently for Max’s resurrection. When Max remained in the ground in the back yard under the Eucalyptus tree, Jimmy had been forced to look at God, religion, spirituality, and in fact all of existence much more carefully. Things apparently weren’t as simple as he’d been led to believe, and so he'd begun reading the Bible and various related books with deeper intent than he'd ever done before.
As a result of his investigations, Jimmy had begun going on spontaneous vision quests. Last week, after seeing the movie King of Kings, he'd felt compelled to take a long, prayerful hike, along the lines of the wilderness trek Jesus took after he’d been baptized (though Jimmy had to be home by sunset). The boy had become so intent on his prayers as he walked that he’d lost track of time and direction, and when a spring rain started falling he’d found himself far out on a country road just before sunset. So he'd decided to take a short cut across a corn field to head back into town. Being early spring, there'd been no stalks growing yet so he could see the lights from the road on the other side of the field.
The trek across the field had been longer and harder than it had looked, and Jimmy’s tennis shoes kept getting stuck in the mud, but he’d been walking for many hours by that time and he was getting very tired and had decided not to fret about things he couldn’t control, like the rain and the mud. In fact, he'd begun enjoying them. In his young, idealistic mind the rain had seemed a baptismal climax to his quest, like God himself was washing him clean.
When he'd finally reached the freeway and headed back into town he was so soaked and muddied and tired that the highway patrol officer who picked him up assumed he was a runaway. And upon returning home so late, even Jimmy’s worried mother required convincing that he hadn’t in fact been running away.
Yes, Jimmy was changing. His parents and grandparents had always known he was a sensitive boy, and now that he was approaching adolescence their concern for his emotional vulnerability had increased.
Jimmy's difficulty with Max’s death and his recent obsession with religion was accompanied by his new social isolation at school. Not only did he not have many friends, but he wasn’t playing with the friends he had and according to his teachers he didn’t even seem to care.
But Jimmy did care. He’d been aware of being an outsider for some time now; he just didn’t know what to do about it. His new social status had been first and most forcefully brought to his attention during a class experiment initiated by his fifth grade teacher, Mr. Lipke. For fifteen minutes the class was to be free to organize their own government without teacher supervision. It had seemed an intriguing idea, but as soon as the clock started running, as soon as Mr. Lipke said, “Begin,” it had seemed to Jimmy that all the top students had suddenly been overrun by underachievers, problem kids, and bullies, who, once freed from the domination of the teacher, had begun shouting out their own agendas. Everything had been turned upside down, as if the first were now the last while the last had been made the first. Looking around in bewilderment, Jimmy had seen that among the thirty-five students in the class, only four––himself included––were sitting quietly, refusing to get involved in the irrational chaos. This had bothered Jimmy greatly, for he’d always been a top student and assumed he’d someday be some sort of leader of mankind. But if he couldn’t even communicate with his childhood peers in a real-world setting, how could he ever be any kind of leader as an adult?
Jimmy was growing up, and it was largely a painful process of disillusionment. And as yet he’d only barely begun thinking about girls, nor did he know what profession would eventually suit him. As these unknowns were gnawing at him, and just when his uncertainty and isolation seemed to peak, that’s when his nightmares had begun.
Therapists speculated that the nightmares might be the result of his mother’s divorce a year ago and maybe other perceived losses as well. Perhaps what Jimmy was looking for in his fugue state was his missing father and dead dog. Most likely Jmmy was repressing his full feelings about such life occurances and they were coming out in his nightmares.
Jimmy's response to the therapists was that he was fine and didn't need their help. Didn't his recent maturity and interest in the biggest questions in life prove he wasn't avoiding anything? Hadn't his grades risen? Wasn't he staying out of trouble?
But many youngsters go through similar difficulties, and Jimmy was a sensitive person so his experience might be fairly unique, possibly even traumatic.
It would happen maybe one night a month: the sleepwalking and crying, the searching for some unknown lost valuable, the internal, personal, and infinitely subtle night terrors of a ten year old boy. While his family was fast asleep, Jimmy would arise, half-consciously weeping and searching for he knew not what. He’d wander out of his bedroom, not awake nor asleep, in some strange twilight zone of unsettled uncertainty.
He’d ramble through the house groaning or mumbling incoherently and turning doorknobs or rustling through clothes in the hallway hamper and this would awaken his mother. She'd immediately come out to calm him as she’d done many times before. Knowing from experience not to wake him too quickly (which only intensified the boy’s agitation when she’d tried it), she’d instead lead him gently by the hand to the couch in the living room where they’d sit down and she’d cradle him in her arms, quietly singing lullabies which had been his favorites since he’d been a baby.
As usual, Jimmy’s semi-conscious awareness at that point would be composed of the same inexplicably weird phenomenon he’d experienced every other time this had happened ... and the repetition wasn't comforting in the slightest, seeming instead to add an aspect of inevitability to the terror.
And terror it was: paralyzing, unthinking, non-specific fear without an object. To Jimmy at these times it seemed as if the very physics of the universe had been chaotically re-ordered in some malevolent, indecipherable manner. He’d feel his mother’s arms around his shoulders but it seemed, paradoxically, as though she was a million miles away, or that somehow her protective grasp wasn’t really touching him at all, as if he were a microscopic speck lost within the vastness of his own body, a body which seemed a foreign cosmos enveloping, imprisoning, and suffocating him in a way his mother couldn’t even conceive, let alone prevent. His mother’s voice would be right there in his ear, yet its psychological distance would mock Jimmy’s aloneness, like some infinitely duplicitous demon secretly laughing at his distress while merely pretending to care. He’d fight the urge to panic, and the contrast between his irrational fear and the objectively soothing situation would only add to the sense of dread, dismay, and horror.
As with every other time, just when Jimmy was sure he was about to explode and run, shrieking in holy terror throughout a cosmos turned mad, the awful feelings would finally, slowly, begin to subside. His mother’s arms would protect Jimmy’s real body, her voice would take on a genuinely loving concern and comfort, and blessed normality would slowly return. Eventually the unsettling feelings would pass entirely and he’d be able to go back to sleep.
And here, now, late at night, it had returned again, and it was worse than ever before. As Jimmy lay on his back in his bed he felt the familar sense of claustrophobic dread tickling up his scalp, evolving slowly into an acute awareness of a cosmic tottering of reality, the ineluctable loss of some ultimate unknown, some infinitely precious thing. Staring up at the ceiling, Jimmy sensed an invisible presence about enter the room, as if the greater part of his own identity might at any moment reveal its secret, quivering horror, finally uncovered and undeniable to his conscious mind at last. The screaming hysteria of existence became an electric mania in his spine; he had to leap up and run away from this hideous illusion!
This time, however, instead of wandering the house, Jimmy began chanting desperately to himself, “Jesus is in your heart, God loves you, and everything is part of the divine plan ...” but the evil in the room twisted it into a sarcastic sugar-sweetness. “Your mommy, the president, and the armed forces will protect you, you’ll live a long, happy, and rich life, everyone will adore you, you’ll die painlessly in your sleep, then live forevermore in Heaven. There are angels everywhere, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are real, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful day.”
Jimmy almost screamed, but the paralysis of fear stopped him. He wished he could scream! Suddenly he remembered that his mother was just in the next room. She could save him from this again, as she always had before.
But even as he considered that option, something different entered the arena of his bedroom. Something that was simply tired of cowering in fear entered Jimmy’s heart, something that could see through frightful illusions entered his mind, something that was its own master entered his soul, and in that moment the young man somehow knew that he didn’t need his mother and that he never would again, not ever again in the same way. Still trembling in fear, this time the ten year old boy nevertheless chose not to cry for help, not to run away from the irrational, existential panic he was feeling. Instead, he decided to let it wash over him, to face it for what it was ... to die, if necessary, in order to be free of it.
“I don’t care!” he silently shouted to himself. “Tear me apart! Eat me alive! Kill me ... I dare you! I DARE you!” Then, just as he was certain he was to perish, reality shattered. Jimmy’s ego cracked open and his deepest anguish and regrets poured out in a surging flood of emotion. “Max, why did you have to die? Dad, where are you? God, how can you let all this happen? This world is hell! HELL! I’ll never fit in, never!” But even as his raging sadness reached its zenith, in that very instant it also began evaporating ... and a cool, invisible, and soothing rain seemed to fall like a gentle spring shower.
Soon Jimmy found himself fully awake, crying softly over the tragedy of life, death, and lost loves ... but free of his nightmares forever. He could see it all now, all the fear, hope, love, hate, and horror of existence, as if it were a profoundly transcendent, heartbreakingly beautiful mosaic, woven from the threads of his own soul. The therapists had been right: in order to function in the world he'd been repressing the pain of his life and trying to live up to some outward standard of ideal behavior. But it was clear to him now that it was okay to cry, okay to be angry, okay to feel that life was hard, okay to doubt. Existence wouldn't end if he acknowledged such angst as his own. On the contrary, fully accepting those feelings was essential for his own complete integration as a human being.
Jimmy was still a boy, but he was well on his way to manhood.