Wonder and despair are two sides of a spinning coin.
When you open yourself to one, you open yourself to the other.
You discover a capacity for joy that wasn't in you before.
Wonder is the promise of restoration:
as deeply as you dive, so may you rise.
-- Christina Baldwin
"But when you think about what people are actually undergoing in our civilization, you realize it's a very grim thing to be a modern human being," the great mythologist Joseph Campbell said in an interview with public television commentator Bill Moyers.
We live in frightening times because we've outgrown ourselves. Our outer knowledge has outstripped our inner knowledge; and our philosophies, educational and religious institutions, and societal customs are rarely able to guide us to fulfilling lives. If we want to live authentic, heartfelt lives we are going to have to rely on our own resources.
The other side of this equation is that we live in challenging and exciting times. Because the old gods are crumbling, and our old models are failing us, we can explore new ways of living, understanding ourselves, and growing that may result in opportunities that are more unique, personal, fulfilling, and loving than ever before. The choice is up to us and depends on whether we're willing to take our journeys into inner knowledge seriously enough to balance the power of society's influences on our lives.
We haven't arrived at this point overnight. It's been building since the industrial revolution. Our advances in technology, science, and marketing have put us in the position of either living in a sickly selfish, impersonal manner as part of the herd or taking up the quest of becoming sacredly selfish individuals of substance. This quest helps us learn how to live in our modern world without being victims of it.
Joseph Campbell thought that myths and legends could help us in our quests by teaching us how we can understand our experiences of life and the meanings behind them. One of his favorite lesson plans for modern life came from the legendary quests for the Holy Grail. These quests parallel the individuation process in many ways because the Grail represents the highest fulfillment of human life.
The quest for the Grail became a necessity in a kingdom where life had become a wasteland, withering and dying, and where its people were starving. When writing or speaking of the Grail, Campbell was usually careful to point out that its seekers began their quests alone by entering the forest where it was the thickest and where there were no paths.
When we apply this legend to modern life it becomes clear that wherever there's a path it represents someone else's way; be it the collective path of our families or culture, it cannot lead us to fulfilled lives at their most satisfying levels. In the Grail story, every knight (symbolizing each of us -- whether man or woman because symbols aren't restricted by our current notion of gender) had to enter the forest where it was dense and mysterious and follow the lead of his own experience and intuition.
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This personal journey did not remove knights from collective life: They were still knights, members of the kingdom, serving the king, but through their personal quests they were trying to redeem a lost world. In Campbell's rendition of the legend, whenever a knight saw the trail of another knight, thought that knight might be getting close to the Grail and so began to follow his trail, he would go astray entirely.
The wisdom in the legend reveals that each of our quests must be an individual one seeking to bring forth our unique potentials, which are different from anyone else's. This means that for each of us there is a life force that can be refined and translated by us into actions and love. Because we're unique, this expression can't be duplicated and if we fail to develop it, meaning to refine it beyond the limits of society's roles, it will never exist and will be lost for all time. While each knight had to journey alone he was still a member of the Round Table, a community of seekers.
Today, our Round Table of support may be those very people like ourselves who are seeking more fulfilling lives. Still, individuation will always be a personal journey based on our increasing self-knowledge as individual men and women. And in most cases we will have to develop the ability to function in the world, our secular substance, as a foundation for the quest, just as each knight had to become a knight in order to begin the search for the Grail.
Several schools of psychology, mythology, and the mystic branches of religion (the branches most interested in developing spiritual consciousness) recognize that every person is charged with an individual destiny, a destination of completeness in his or her life; and it's this realization alone that makes sense of our existence.
In our daily lives we're pushed and pulled by many outside forces that stir up a profusion of conflicting emotions, needs, desires, and obligations. But in those special moments of joy, peace, reflection, and even sadness, we may experience a brief glimpse that everything fits together within us, or between us and life, like the pieces in a mosaic. When we experience the interrelatedness and the interdependence of the different aspects of our selves we'll soon go on to have the same experiences between ourselves and other people, and life in general. The journey into self-knowledge, the quest for the Grail, leads us into the recognition of things coming together and being interrelated, which is an experience of the Self and love at its highest level. The more we seek to fulfill our potentials for wholeness, the further it will lead us in our psychological and spiritual development -- into relationships with other people that are creative and loving.
People who have experienced life and its potential wholeness have an impact on the others around them like a stone thrown in a pond. Vitality and growth emanate from them like circles that ripple across the water.
Growing as a Human Being
The imperative of life is to grow and if we're going to grow as human beings, we must ally ourselves with life, love, and courage and face the struggles that growth entails. Easier to say than to do, you might think. But if we keep life's basic purpose in mind, alive in our reflections, these allegiances may take root within us sooner than we expect. And if instead we fail to grow, we will stagnate and begin to deteriorate, no matter how good we are at presenting the public faces we might be hiding behind.
Loren Eisely, a great anthropologist with the heart of a poet, explains how life has always been a fight, how it began by absorbing the energy of the sun until plants burst into existence. He says that life "began like a war with strange chemicals seething under a sky lacking in oxygen; it was waged through long ages until the first green plants learned to harness the light of the nearest star, our sun. The human brain, so frail, so perishable, so full of inexhaustible dreams and hungers, burns by the power of the leaf."
Our self-knowledge grows in a similar manner, often out of sight until it comes into our awareness through a building up of tensions, which ultimately are seeking to break through our former limits. If we cannot stand the strain of our growthful passages, we end up falling back, which usually means falling back into rigidity and eventually into a wasteland of the heart.
The archetypal images from ancient Greece that picture the illicit affair between Ares, the god of war, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love, show that behind our best public appearances love and war are structured into our natures. In other words if we're going to embrace life and live passionately, we must be able to hold the tension between the limiting effects of old values, obligations, and others' expectations and our need to progress, and be able to endure the inner and outer conflicts this causes.
Ares and Aphrodite represent the passionate forces of life, our need to be able to struggle and love as a normal part of existence. They had three children that represented the outcomes of these forces and their effects on us. Wisely, the Greeks named the children Fear, Discord, and Harmony, showing us that living passionately means facing our fears and the troubles we encounter in order to eventually achieve a state of inner harmony.
If we're unable to live passionately, we'll have the tendency to repress our strong emotions and project our conflicts outside of ourselves, where they may eventually erupt into violence. These conflicts represent a desire for life that has been blocked by some other force. When an adolescent gets into a major confrontation with an overly rigid parent they are fighting for the freedom they feel the parent is blocking. The rigid stance and the vicious retorts of the parent may reflect how fear has impeded their own desires for independence and opportunity. Such conflicts also take place between lovers, neighbors, business colleagues, classes of people, or between nations, and the principle is frequently the same.
Many centuries ago Aristotle made it very clear that courage is the most important of all the virtues because without it we can't practice any of the others. Courage is the nearest star, the sunlight that can fuel our growth. Maya Angelou said we must be courageous about facing and exploring our personal histories. We must find the courage to care and to create internally as well as externally, and, as she said, we need the courage "to create ourselves daily as Christians, as Jews, as Muslims, as thinking, caring, laughing, loving human beings."
During the journey of growth we may have to confront the structure of values we've been living by, the relationships and jobs we're in. Growth is not risk-free or guaranteed to be joyful. We may have to make some major changes; we may hurt or disappoint people near to us. Taking such risks is painful and scary.
But if we're in jobs or relationships into which we cannot successfully bring love, then they will depress our spirits, erode our self-esteem, and eventually cause us to dislike ourselves. It's better to take the risk and suffer the needed losses if there are influences or aspects of our lives of which we must break free.
In the long run, breaking free of the forces that imprison our souls is empowering. Living years of useless virtue, inertia, and cowardice -- unhappy martyrdom -- helps no one. It's much better to say that all of our conscious lives and energies -- all that time lost and reclaimed now -- have been dedicated to the growth and liberation of the human spirit, and that the work began with ourselves.
When I drive to work every day I see a tree that is growing in what appears to be an impossible place. Year after year I've watched it climb out of a stone wall by an old building. I love to see it and imagine it as a triumph of life over death, of eros over thanatos, the terms Freud used to define the pull of life against the force of death.
Our natures are like that tree: They push us toward growth; and our societal values, conventional wisdom, and fear pull us toward the seeming security of refusing to grow, or denying its possibility. Erich Fromm personalized these forces and summed them up as either a love of life or a love of death. He felt that society inevitably pushes us into a love of death because it urges us to live dutifully and by the values of the culture, rather than to live authentically and creatively.
Two paths, then, with two ends. Which will you choose? The path that leads into the wasteland, however rich and seductive it appears? Or the path through the forest, the path of loving life that begins with self-knowledge? The latter is the only way you can learn to create the conditions for love to take place.
If you choose this path, like a faithful knight, you must then take up your sword and shield and seek to enter the forest of your unknown interior. And while this quest is a noble one it's also an attainable one. It isn't about seeking lofty ideals, gaining extraordinary powers, or attaining a special condition. It is, like the legends, tales, and myths you've read about, finally a story, your story, simple, inexorable, and as natural as the beating of a heart. It is about finding a way to live fully, by living wholeheartedly.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Inner Ocean Publishing, Inc. ©2002, 2015.
Sacred Selfishness: A Guide to Living a Life of Substance
by Bud Harris.
Jungian analyst Bud Harris argues persuasively that one must live authentically in order to be whole, happy, healthy, and a truly contributing member of society. This essential guide offers many strategies readers can use in order to live a "sacredly selfish" life, from analyzing dreams to keeping a detailed journal that teaches seekers to understand themselves, their worth, and their needs.
Info/Order this book. Also available in a Kindle edition.
About the Author
Dr. Bud Harris has a Ph.D. in counseling psychology, and a degree in analytical psychology, finishing his postdoctoral training at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland. He has over thirty years experience as a practicing psychotherapist, psychologist, and Jungian analyst. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina. Visit his website at www.budharris.com.