When I was a kid, I lived off of dreams. Fantasies of a hero’s life in Narnia or a fairy’s life in Neverland nourished me far more than even the sugariest cereals.
There’s something about the age before you can truly go into the world that makes your dreams feel realer than your life. In a way, they are — you haven’t lived much of your life yet. When grown-ups ask about your dream job, you can blurt out anything and wholeheartedly believe you’ll achieve it. There’s an intrinsic drive to one day grip that dream between your palms, smiling and sweaty from the run toward it.
As the years go on, the running starts to get exhausting. You’d rather walk, maybe meander toward safer alternatives that won’t make your older relatives laugh at Thanksgiving. Eventually, the ties between reality and fantasy sever irrevocably. You can reside in one or the other, but no longer both at once. Life stops being a dream — a wondrous, technicolor thing to look out at and chase — and contorts into an endless beige trap of expectations and pragmatism. Without proper intervention, the conventional machine stamps out the magic of a dream and leaves you to languish in boredom.
Luckily, intervention might come in the form of a Dream — or maybe the King of Dreams. This mythical king, Morpheus (Tom Sturridge, “Sweetbitter”), is the protagonist of “The Sandman” on Netflix, which chronicles his eccentric adventures through the waking world and his domain. He acts as the caretaker of a realm called The Dreaming in which humans explore their imaginations while they sleep.
The series, based on Neil Gaiman’s graphic novels of the same name, begins with Morpheus trapped in the real world with no way back to his harmonious Dreams. Only after wasting a century anguishing in the mortal plane does he finally escape and set out to reclaim his place in a more forgiving land. All too relatably, his journey back to himself changed how I view the world and my place in it.
Just after escaping the human world, Morpheus seeks the tools of his power that had been taken from him. If he were to wait around for this power, he might never be who he once was. He can only recover the lost pieces of himself through risk and agency. No Dream is attainable without those two pillars.
To win back his helm, the king casually makes a pit stop in Hell to battle Lucifer Morningstar (Gwendoline Christie, “Game of Thrones”). The fight is daunting, grueling and vicious — much like the world without his Dreams — but Morpheus must face it regardless. At the end of the battle, he asks, “What power would Hell have if its prisoners could not dream of heaven?” Such a simple question, yet so powerful and life-changing. The moment I heard it, a shining lightbulb switched on in my dark, anguished mind. Of course dreams are all we’ve got. Of course they will always be the miracle that makes even the most calamitous places bearable. Not even death could make us relinquish the sweet comfort of hopeful dreaming. That hope survives long after us, even if it never changes our reality.
The tough thing about dreams is that they live in the mind, not the world. It’s easy to cling to the hope they bring, but it is wholly another thing to drag them out into our real lives. The Dreaming is completely separate from reality. Nothing steps in or out of the realm except for people and ideas. When humans walk into a dream, they can encounter their fears and desires, their joys and fantasies. These ideas are revealed to the dreamer to take them back to the waking world as blueprints.
We confront fears and desires in dreams so that they can be settled in the real world — with enough courage. The fantasy of a dream can begin and end at that, but the courage to shape your reality to match your fantasies knocks down the barriers between the two.
Though it may be certifiably impossible to fly like Tinkerbell or save a prince like Lucy, these dreams are joys to indulge in. The dreams that seem statistically impossible, on the other hand, are always worth a try, contrary to what rationally-minded people will tell you. A character from Morpheus’ adventures makes that abundantly clear. Gifted with eternal life, Hob Gadling (Ferdinand Kingsley, “Silo”) is the king’s only friend who, once a century, updates him on his ever-changing desires and dreams. Morpheus is convinced that one day, Hob will grow weary and declare that he no longer wants to experience life. To the king’s surprise, no amount of trials and tribulations dim his friend’s hunger to live. Hob has the same fervor to chase his dreams when he is on top of the world as when he barely scrapes the bottom of the barrel. The hope that comes from dreaming makes life precious and the thrill of chasing a dream gives it meaning.
Hob’s journey, ever-fluctuating yet always grounded in a dream, parallels Morpheus’s. The King of Dreams experiences hardship unknown to any man, but his hope to return to his home in a world of fantasy keeps him going. He knows that anything is possible; that life, in its funny way, will set the right hurdles in place for him to jump over if he so chooses, but that he still must move his legs toward the finish line.
For Morpheus, there is endless time to pick up the pace. For humans, who only have so many days before the last grain of sand falls through the hourglass, it’s much more dire. Yes, these long days provide hundreds of chances to start a race, but there is only one finish line. Will we cross it panting with triumph at having run, or sluggishly clinging to the dream that we were talked out of chasing? When we look back at the winding road, will we smile at fond memories of the technicolor scenic route with all its monsters or regret all those days spent marching a safe, beige path?
“The Sandman” in its entirety is about the restless beauty and darkness of the human spirit. It tells us that the waking world is a gift, a chance to pursue a dream. To waste that chance would be foolish, even if we think it’s for good reason.
As I grow older, more and more people tell me to just pick something I can tolerate for the rest of my life and do it. To suck it up and get through because “that’s just what people do.” But “The Sandman” showed me that’s not why we’re here. It is enough to see the awe in every day, smile at the sunlight and run toward the dream that makes the ache in your legs worth it.
Daily Arts Writer Mina Tobya can be reached at email@example.com.