For most of his life, my father was a plumbing instructor in a trade school and was one of those people who can build a house from scratch. I envy that ability and regret that I didn’t learn some of his skills: plumbing, electrical, carpentry. He was a master at hanging wallpaper and could plaster a ceiling silky smooth. I tried plastering a wall once, and it turned out looking like something you would see in a distorted mirror.
I sometimes refer to my father as the “philosophical plumber” because he was a deep thinker and could see almost-theological issues in matters of pipe sizing and elbow joints and expert soldering. For my part, I get involved in another kind of house construction altogether.
I practice a depth psychotherapy largely centered on dreams, and once in a while a person will bring me a dream in which a house is under construction. Sometimes it’s a new house, not so big but still impressive. At other times, one wing of a massive, sprawling house will be going through remodeling. You don’t have to be a genius to catch the metaphor. Something new is being built in this person’s psyche, and it may be to his advantage to know that he is under construction. It may help explain some of his emotions and concerns.
I remember a dream I had in my late thirties. I was walking through a house in the early stages of construction. I had to be careful because it was so unfinished and fragile. I remember walking on a bouncy two-by-four and knew I could easily fall and get hurt. This was an intense period in my life. I had just been denied tenure at the university where I had hoped to spend my life teaching. I wasn’t sure where to go from there and was trying to become a good psychotherapist. I had had considerable education and training for this work, but it’s the kind of profession where the necessary skills are personal. You may have to go through several emotional trials and deep changes to be good at it. It was at this point that I had my house-under-construction dream.
I have heard similar dreams from clients over the years, and I have come to realize that it helps to know when something in you is being built. You can then better understand the unusual feelings of being incomplete and going through unintended changes. You may feel your world shifting and not yet ready for projects and developments in your life. You may need to prepare for the arrival of a relatively new self.
In similar situations you may have dreams that have general feeling of change: waiting for a train to depart or a plane to take off. But these images are quite different. Construction is the specific condition of something being built. You’re not on a journey; you’re being remodeled or fabricated. In the third century, Plotinus, the great philosopher of the soul, described the making of the soul as the work of a sculptor: “He cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work.” Still, this isn’t house construction, a close but different metaphor.
Writers on the soul often quote John Keats: “Call the world, if you please, ‘the vale of soul-making.’” He goes on to say that the pains and troubles we encounter make our souls. The word is “make,” rather than “journey” or “discover.” It’s in the spirit of Keats to say that our souls are constructed, like a house being built. Piece by piece, nail by nail, the structure of our being goes up and makes a space in which our lives can play out and find meaning.
For this process we need patience. It helps to know that the work is going on, maybe just beginning. I knew in my dream of the two-by-four that construction was just underway. I had to wait to see what was being built. I certainly didn’t know the kind of life in store for me, though in retrospect I can see the materials coming together at that crucial period in my life. It was a time of endings that coincided with the framing of a new structure. Naturally, I was more aware of the endings than the beginnings.
You can allow yourself to be built, to take care during those tender times, to be idle for awhile so the crew can do its work. When I hear a dream of construction, I’m envious and pleased. It may feel to the dreamer like a precarious period in life, but it is also full of promise and the occasion for hope.
Thomas Moore has been a monk, a musician, a professor, and, for the past 30 years, a psychotherapist practicing archetypal therapy with a spiritual perspective. His latest book is A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World.