One of my favorite movies is Christopher Nolan’s Inception. It’s nearly impossible to synopsize, but the premise is that main character Dom Cobb has the ability to enter people’s dreams, and this ability enables him to engage in a high-stakes, intellectual heist. Without giving too much away, “Inception” is the ability to plant an idea in someone else’s mind. The trick is to embed it in such a way that the host accepts the idea as the natural fruit of nameless inspiration instead of flagging it as a foreign virus. Empires can rise or fall on the power of a single idea, and Cobb is no stranger to the costs of living beyond the confines of reality. Detached from the truth, lines are easily blurred, and the mind is quickly confused as to what is real and what isn’t. That’s where the totem comes in.
A totem is an object unique to each dream traveler. Its purpose is to allow travelers to easily distinguish between the waking world and the dream states they enter. Only the individual knows the exact feel of the totem. When in someone else’s dream, the totem will display unusual characteristics, signaling to the traveler that what is currently happening is not real.
We all have a totem, consciously or unconsciously. It didn’t strike me until recently that mine has been, historically, the same as Cobbs. It’s almost the same shape, and it is weighted such that gravity exerts its pull on it just so. Sometimes I find a new facet that I hadn’t noticed before, and I spend hours exploring every jagged edge. Sometimes I set it aside for a moment or a day at a time, but I keep coming back to it, rolling it between my fingers like a worry stone or a genie’s bottle in hopes that it will reassure me one more time.
I depend on it to tell me that reality is. My totem doesn’t tell me what reality is—just that it exists. And the truth is, even this information about the simple existence of reality is overwhelming.
Cobb says his totem is a spinning top. It gets plenty of screen-time, and its presence has spawned a plethora of conspiracy theories on the movie’s ending and meaning. But at the climax of the film, we see that Cobb’s real totem isn’t a child’s toy.
“Guilt. I feel guilt,” states Cobb. “No matter what I do, no matter how hopeless I am, no matter how confused, that guilt is always there reminding me of the truth.”
When guilt becomes our totem, it dictates our idea of right and wrong and enslaves us to the fear of what happens when we open our eyes tomorrow morning.
Guilt is his totem. Not a top that spins eternally, but the horrendous, unbearable weight of his inescapable secret. Conscious or subconscious, it haunts him. No matter what he does, the guilt reminds him that reality exists outside of his carefully constructed fantasies. It is the one thing he cannot rebuild, remit, or restage. He needs no other totem.
And quite often, neither do we—or so we convince ourselves.
How often has guilt been our litmus test for reality? That sin we hope no one finds out about, the misspoken words, and the actions we so desperately wish we could forget, haunt us waking and sleeping. We meditate on the depth of our guilt and roll it over and over in our minds until we base our concept of reality against the weight and quirks of our particular sins. When guilt becomes our totem, it dictates our idea of right and wrong and enslaves us to the fear of what happens when we open our eyes tomorrow morning. Will we make the same mistakes? Will we make worse mistakes? How much more guilt can we possibly bear?
As Christians, we can buy into the “Jesus makes your life better gospel.” You know: I used to be a fill-in-the-blank—adulterer, liar, addict, gossiper—until Jesus came and turned my life around. Now I’m a straight-A Harvard graduate with zero debt and perfectly white teeth to boot. Our focus may begin on Christ alone as Savior, but then we very quickly jump into the co-pilot seat for the next phase of Christian living. We’ve been forgiven! We can take it from here.
If you’re anything like me, that attitude usually lasts until the first minor irritation. Then it’s back to the cycle of sin, guilt, and then guilt that I feel guilty. We hear that we’re forgiven and that we should be happy, but in the back of our minds, we’re already reaching for our totem. If we feel guilty, that’s safe. We know we messed up. We know we’re not enough. And that’s a good thing, right? I mean, we’re supposed to recognize that we need saving. Isn’t that the story of reality?
While our life as Christians is one of daily repentance and struggle against our sinful nature (the sort of Godly grief Paul refers to in 2 Corinthians 7), the reality check of guilt is incomplete.
Three days later, He rose. Our guilt didn’t.
Our dreams, whether they are daydreams or nightmares, will lead us either to false security or a prison of guilt. If we want to see our guilt for what it is, we have to go back in time about 2,000 years. On a cross on a hill outside of Calvary, Christ Jesus didn’t just take our sin for a joyride to give us a respite from babysitting our guilt. He became our guilt, our sin, everything we are desperate to lose but can’t bear to give away. “It is finished,” the Savior cried, and our totem lost its hold on us. Our sins—past, present, and future—are fully atoned. We live in the certainty of this grace, not by rationalizing our faults but by focusing on the One who exposed our guilt in His body on the tree and gave up His life so that our sin would die with Him. Three days later, He rose. Our guilt didn’t.
What is reality? The life, death, and resurrection of the historical, incarnate Savior. By this, the church stands or falls. May our totem be the same as Saint Paul’s as he describes in 1 Corinthians 15:17-22:
“If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
Thanks be to Jesus Christ, He is our light, our salvation, and our totem. This is our reality—whether we wake or sleep, we will live with Him forever (1 Thess. 5:10).