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Michael Murphy What does it really mean when we dream about the Leaving Cert?

By paying attention to our dreams, we can ground ourselves in the deepest truth of our being, and make wiser choices that work towards our greater good, writes Michael Murphy.

I dreamt I was back doing the Leaving Cert in my old school. I was sitting at my old desk, which was too small for me, and I was my present age – 40, whereas everyone else was around 18. I hadn’t prepared for it, and I couldn’t remember how to answer the maths questions. I woke up in a panic. Hugh.

THE LEAVING CERT is arguably the most stressful examination that any of us will ever have to face, because the results have the power to dictate our future path in an unprecedented way. And while we would have been able to attempt the maths questions at 18 years of age, if we were presented with the same questions 20 years later, it’s conceivable that we will have forgotten how to do them.

If, in addition, we hadn’t prepared for the examination, then we’re facing potential failure. And failure causes us to panic.

The bottom line in this dream is that Hugh, at 40 years of age, is undergoing a test that’s more appropriate for an 18-year-old. He’s sitting at his old desk in his old school, and the desk is now too small for him. Manifestly Hugh is too old to be in this situation, and he has grown beyond it. He hasn’t prepared for it, he can’t remember how to do it, and the feelings of panic in the dream cause him to wake up, mercifully bringing this nightmare scenario to an end.

The ages that Hugh quotes in his dream are revealing. The age of 18 is the time we leave school and go out into the world to take up a job or to go to college, while the age of 40 marks the midlife transition when we will have accomplished the extraverted tasks of finding a suitable career, meeting a soulmate, setting up house, starting a family.

Midlife is the time we face the more introverted ‘what’s next’ question, or consider ‘what is it all about, really’. These times of transition are important to negotiate successfully, because they lay the foundation for what’s to come.

The dream draws to Hugh’s attention in a forceful manner that he’s relying on skills that are more appropriate to an 18-year-old in order to manage this situation, and such tools no longer work for a 40-year-old. Hugh will have learned a great deal about life in the 20 years since he left school, and that’s the present day wisdom he’s now meant to draw on, not, for example, being able to answer abstruse maths questions from the Leaving Cert, which belongs firmly to the past. (I wonder how often in those intervening 20 years has Hugh been asked about how he did in maths in the Leaving, which tells another truth!).

The dream also says that Hugh isn’t prepared for this transition, and a degree of panic is perhaps appropriate to get him to wake up to this situation, and to put in some proper preparatory work immediately. There’s a principle in life that says it’s never too late: you can always do something on the pitch until the final whistle blows.

To conclude, what has triggered this dream? Is there a job interview in the offing, does Hugh have to make a presentation at work, or is the dream pointing to difficulties in his emotional life that have caused him to regress to being a teenager?

Whatever it is, Hugh should face up to the difficulty, because his unconscious is already onto the case and will continue to support him with its resources as he prepares appropriately for what’s to come, so he can move forward courageously with the midlife transition stage of his personal journey.

Michael Murphy is an author, psychoanalyst and broadcaster. He is a registered practitioner member of the Association for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in Ireland and has a practice in Dublin. He has a maîtrise in psychoanalysis from the University of Nancy, a postgraduate advanced diploma in clinical psychotherapy and an MPhil in psychoanalytic studies.

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