Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 12, 2009

My Pet Lion, & Other Nightmares of Insecurity

“Homesickness” – Rene Magritte (Belgian), 1940 – one of my top five favorite works of art of any type, ever. What does it mean? You tell me… that’s the great thing about great art and bad dreams: you catch a glimpse of the Great Mystery, but you never get down to the bottom of it.

I had a dream in the wee hours this morning that our family of three had a pet lion chained up out in the garage, but we kept forgetting to feed it for weeks at a time.

Never mind that we don’t even have a garage. The dream still felt utterly real, suffused with genuine dread, imminent danger and a powerful shame over my neglect of the weakened but noble animal. The lion was agitated, pacing, pulling at its chain leash, hiding partly behind the bumper of the car.

Never mind that our 16-pound dog (a Shiba Inu named Gato, ironically enough), who shared that dream garage as a domicile, has some similarities to a lion (the Sphinx’s regal bearing, a lion’s golden fur, his cat-like pointed ears and aloofness).

Never mind all that, because it wasn’t really a lion, was it? No. It was a symbol of my inner struggle: to integrate the Shadow and grow into my True Self, and allow my son to do the same.

That chained lion in the dream symbolized power and vulnerability, authority and captivity, danger and grace, all these tensions at war within my life. I am both the lion and the crazy suburban lion-tamer. I am my wife in the dream, feeling equally frozen in indecision about how to address this strange problem, and angry at Dream Mark for at having put us all in this precarious postion. I am even our innocent, scaredy-cat little dog, forced to stay in the same room with the terrifying lion, petrified to say or do the wrong thing or get too close to anyone.

But most of all, I’m the weakened, scared, angry lion. I have been neglecting the lion within, but also the lions within my wife and son.

I know intimately that dream lion’s hunger, the sense of disconnection with my surroundings, the rage and the hurt that he feels. I have felt his longing for a more authentic context that makes sense, given his true nature. Too often, I have felt that “What am I doing here, and who are these strange, confusing people?” feeling that I just knew the lion was experiencing in my dream. The values of the community that surrounds me –some warped, some perfectly valid– are often not my own. For mine are somewhat wilder and less conventional priorities. So I usually feel trapped, ignored, out of my element and misunderstood — like that lion.

At 43 years old, I still have not quite found my place in the world. I am as hungry as ever for validation and connection, for intimacy and purpose. It does not often come, at least not in a way that fulfills and gives me peace. Even when I get my Daily Bread, I am still hungry.

That lion’s feeling of neglect and insecurity is also familiar from way back, from my own childhood. Because my father (a good man, but imperfect, like all of us) had his own inner lion– a wounded, depressed, enraged lion in many ways. He was a lion constantly “pacing the cage“, to steal a line from a 1996 song by the great, spiritually mature singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. I sensed that my father never felt completely secure, fulfilled, or valued. He never felt that he was right where he belonged or that he generally loved his life. (Maybe only a rare few humans do get to feel that kind of validation and gratitude. I don’t know. I sure haven’t, for the most part.) Instead, life and work and other people were inconveniences that my father tolerated, as best he could. He was a grump. A lovable, sometimes growing one. But still a grump, to the end (which was in 1998).

In a way, Dad’s own old wounds kept him chained. He was an adult child of a pair of alcoholics.  He was a “survivor”, which in itself was admirable, yet he lacked the inner reserves to be much more than that. So he was too tired, too beaten down, too lacking in hope to go out on a hunt. In other words, he had few opportunities to express his gifts and use his prodigious intellect, or to expose and expand his heart without fear of it being neglected, unrecognized, or even stepped on. Instead he hid himself away in the “garage” of a fairly tame domestic life, going through the motions of the upwardly-mobile working class (he was a union electrician), licking his wounds, occasionally allowing himself to be dragged along on the hunts that my mother, sisters and I wanted to embark upon. He had few ambitions or goals of his own — and yet lots of unused gifts, plus lots of pent-up agression, hunger and pain.

Meanwhile, I have too many ambitions, and yet still I feel chained: the next generation of men in a cage of our own making. Therefore I also know the shame and guilt of the Dream Mark, the absent-minded dad, who endangers his own family through the neglect of his own caged lion. That lion is my own coiled-up rage in real life, my inability to accept certain realities, my struggle to overcome “weakness”, whether real or just deeply felt due to a terrible self-image. I know that lack of basic safety that the Dream Mark and his family had, that fear of the chains being broken, and what might be unleashed by the enraged, hungry lion within. I also know the fear that the lion will instead give up, and die, its nobility of spirit and its beauty crushed due to abuse and neglect.

And so, back here in real life, I must confess that I fearfully retreat to the garage of my own depression or obsessions (like this blog… uh oh…). Like my father, I grumblingly put on my leash, and lick my own wounds. I eat food which does NOT fulfill. I snarl and often seem unapproachable and defensive to my wife.

I also sometimes forget what needs to be done — that is, the feeding: the mentoring role that any parent takes on, when entrusted with both taming and freeing a young child’s spirit. We must both feed the cub and teach it to hunt for itself. We must both expand and limit the boundaries of our pride’s territory. We encourage the cubs to wander and explore, but not too far if they are not ready. Yet instead, even though I believe in creating a climate of love where a child can claim his or her God-given power and sense of security, still I compulsively do things to disrupt or neglect that security which should be Graham’s foundation. Despite all my good intentions, in my woundedness, in hiding from certain responsibilities, I neglect the hungry lion within my son. I am addicted to my own pain, to my own struggles, to my own hunt, …to my anxious pacing and wasting of valuable time.

To counteract that, I’m concerned that we don’t spoil Graham, nor ignore him, but just walk beside him and teach him to hunt. What will be his spiritual food, his source of power? How can my wife and I help create opportunities for him to explore his own territory and its boundaries, and get to know his place within it? We’re not utter failures in this regard, but it’s still a question that needs to be asked of ourselves now and then.

Sure, I’m making Graham’s lunch to take to school everyday. I’m keeping him physically safe. But it’s just so easy to forget that his mind and spirit also need feeding, that he can and should respond to challenges rather than retreating.

Like his natural inclination to retreat into a cartoon on tv, where Pokemons (Pocket Monsters… get it?), superheroes and other false Alpha males fight our battles and do our hunting for us. To a large extent, they are cheap, silly substitutes. Yet in a way they are filling the vaccuum that my wife and I have created through our inattention to the task of challenging him, of building up his muscles, his creativity, his skills, and his inner strength. We do not “hunt” together nearly as often as we should.

Of course, our culture encourages us, both kid and adult, to instead fill that spiritual vaccuum with empty calories and plastic Happy Meal amusements, with sitcom sappiness and narcissistic consumption. These are non-protein. Not the meat that a lion-like spirit needs. They are another kind of wasting away, as we try to grow strong on “food” that does not satisfy. But that cultural drumbeat is no excuse, at least for me. I still have to set boundaries, and defend our perimeter from all pretenders and usurpers of our power and purpose.

So, like that Dream Lion, Graham and I (and my wife, though in a vaguely different way) each need opportunities to feel safe and taken care of, to be fed, and yet conversely to be unchained, to express ourselves, to hunt for something meaningful, something that fulfills.

May the Lion of Love, the gentle but all-powerful Lion of Judah, be unleashed in each of our lives. May we find our place in Creation. May we find peace in the space between strength and weakness, between hunger and complete fulfillment.

Meanwhile, as I was having my lion dream, my son had a nightmare this morning that the bathtub and shower were overflowing. It was flooding, and he couldn’t get out except by climbing over the top of the shower door in a panic. So does he subconsciously feel neglected and trapped? Am I right? It would seem so. Or am I just making mountains out of molehills?



  1. The lion is such a powerful symbol! And how awesome that you have the self-awareness to see so much meaning in your dream. I think the passion and commitment you seem to have for self growth will ultimately teach your son valuable lessons. But I also relate to feeling that you don’t do enough to feed your son’s mind and spirit. I find that committing myself to doing that with my kids requires constant vigilance or I forget and fall into the mundane tasks while they are waiting for me to feed them.

  2. I forgot…that Bruce Cockburn song is one of my favorites. Funny I didn’t think of it when I was writing my post. Guess I was swept away by Morrison’s piece.

  3. A few guys were standing at the bus stop wrapping up a night on the town. As the bus pulled up, one guy noticed a look of panic on his buddy’s face. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
    “I gotta pee, but if I go, I’ll miss the bus. I can’t decide if I should pee or get on the bus.” His buddy’s wise advice: “Why don’t you just get on the bus and then pee?”

    I like that story because it reminds me that genius is everywhere.

    “Entre Nous”

    We are secrets to each other
    Each one’s life a novel
    No one else has read
    Even joined in bonds of love
    We’re linked to one another
    By such slender threads

    We are planets to each other
    Drifting in our orbits
    To a brief eclipse
    Each of us a world apart
    Alone and yet together
    Like two passing ships

    Just between us
    I think it’s time for us to recognize
    The differences we sometimes fear to show
    Just between us
    I think it’s time for us to realize
    The spaces in between
    Leave room for you and I to grow

    We are strangers to each other
    Full of sliding panels
    An illusion show
    Acting well rehearsed routines
    Or playing from the heart?
    It’s hard for one to know

    We are islands to each other
    Building hopeful bridges
    On a troubled sea
    Some are burned or swept away
    Some we would not choose
    But we’re not always free

    Neil Peart

  4. Ohhhh, yeah. I love Van Morrison’s mystical/healing sort of energy a whole lot. Snippets of his lyrics (I own about half his stuff…) come drifting to me in times of both intense joy and scary crisis. Part of it probably comes from him being a recovering addict, but wherever he’s getting it, he manages to tap into something really deep and honest. He’s a modern shaman. As for Neil Peart and Rush, I certainly enjoy their literary/philosophical bent, and the community-loving intention behind their music. I’m only a casual fan, but got loads of respect, and the song above is an example of why. Cockburn and Rush… further confirmation, for me, that there must be something powerful in the clean air or simplified lifestyle of Canada, makes people turn out really smart and really genuine at the same time.
    Thanks y’all for stopping in, and for the encouragement.
    (Growls like a lion.)

  5. […] and the Ego. But there are still other ways to characterize them, as well. A recent, very Jungian dream that I wrote about  on this blog brought another model to my conscious mind that involves my “inner lion”, […]

  6. […] my true motivations, purposes and hopes in this life. I embraced my Shadow Self, which I had been neglecting too long (click there for a sample, an extended dream analysis blog post about me keeping a pet […]

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