The dreams that scare me and how they nurture my curiosity

By Sara Aranda

The dreams that scare me are of course the ones that depict a dreadful version of the life I’ve come to know. The rotten teeth, the contraction of a disease, the sudden demand of letting go during a car accident. They become terrifying because of what I’m holding onto: youth, life, love, health — the Sara I tell myself I know so well. I hear the voice of a daughter I don’t have. I plummet into a wide river after a bridge collapses. I make love to strangers. I pull worms from my neck and from my wrists. I tumble through the hallways of my childhood home where the memories of my mother reside. I sometimes find her bald and breast-less, but sometimes I find her with long, wavy hair and dressed in one of her long, crocheted sweaters. These are the alternate realities where she has come back from the dead, and that becomes something tortuous because of what it implies: that my chronic mourning is no longer warranted.

“If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

There is obviously a difference between the dreams created by my subconscious brain and the dreams I consciously, and actively, coin as life goals. Nonetheless, the purpose of a life lived for self-betterment and experience requires creating and chasing dreams that bear grand marks of intimidation.

If I dream of one day completing something to the likes of the “The Grand Picnic” in Grand Teton National Park, a grueling triathlon of biking from Jackson Hole, swimming across Jenny lake, then scrambling up the Grand Teton only to do everything in reverse — or traversing a nearly 36-mile ridge line in the Wasatch Mountains known as the WURL in 30 hours — or of rock climbing at 14,000-feet in elevation when the perception of not being able to breathe is too similar to my panic attacks — or of publishing an incredibly vulnerable memoir…

Sara in the Wind River Range at sunrise. Photo: Eliza Earle

These feats seem narrow and superficial when I compare them to the work my brain does when dreaming at night. The nightmares are such because they contradict me, risk everything, go beyond the threat of death by hypothetically starting the process.

But I am an apostle of balance. If I throw myself towards all that terrified me, then I would reside in the extreme. This is why I find dreaming so valuable. My brain can sift through the radical, the defiant, and hint at the possible in waking life or otherwise. I then face the choice of what to do with it all, and I cherish the ability to decide what benefits the long-term version of myself.

This is also where curiosity comes in — that childish and yet endless thing that never fails to show up in your life. This is likely what my brain is acting out: What if I simulated your greatest fears? And so it guides me. It helps me build my craft. It lets me peek around the next corner without expecting me to like what I see. It allows me to self-reflect, practice awareness, understand alternatives.

Curiosity fuels my adventures and daily life more than the notion of passion does. Curiosity is more tangible, more malleable, more sustainable. Passion is a volatile and truly unrealistic construct, like happiness or safety. Never are you either of these things one-hundred percent of the time (maybe not even fifty-percent), and yet the outdoor recreation industry, for example, is selling nothing but such things.

Sara climbing in Joshua Tree National Park. Photo: Clayton Boyd.

In being honest with myself, to live my life entirely based on passion would be holistically exhausting and rash. While I tend to choose passion over the monotonously practical, balance would require the exertion of both. The best thing about curiosity is that it can be whatever you want it to be. It is passive, neutral fodder for a spectrum of action. I dream and wake up from the dream simultaneously; I’m able to experience my fears without losing myself in them. I can sketch the wildest mountains and act on the what if? without expecting the no-holds-barred bliss that passion relies on. I can try; I can fail; I can find myself lost in bliss all the same. Trying is all my curiosity ever demands.

Dream big. Get there through honest curiosity.

As for the untamed nightmares of my sleeping mind, I interpret them as my brain doing what it needs. It contrives and self-cleanses and ruminates and experiments and practices notions of the unknown. It nurtures my curiosity in a way that, when awake, provides a meaningful baseline from which to begin. I become more well-versed in the pressures of the unknown and the unpredictable, to the things I don’t like, to the things I don’t want, to what fear and pain might manifest as in the first place. And when I acknowledge these things, I can engage with them, decide to use them or not. The resulting versatility becomes an empowering mantra, and all I have to do is let curiosity do its thing.


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