Thursday, December 29, 2022

Birth and death...framing our psychology not only our 'development'

 Beginnings and endings have a way of ‘framing’ the chapters of our lives. There is a new name, a new school, a new neighbour, a new team-mate, a new book, a new movie or television show…and new computer game, or even a new cup of morning ‘joe’. The consumer market considers the ‘newest’ to be, along with the trend-lines of consumer behaviour, the life-blood of their for-profit endeavour. Birth, both literally and archetypally, is the first experience we all share, and from the first hour of the lung’s breathing and the heart’s beating, anything and everything is possible…there are no limits to how parents, grandparents, family and friends envision this new life unfolding. Projections, dreams, fantasies, all of them wrapped in soft blankets and baby powder jump into and out of the imaginations of  everyone near by.

Hope, that most ephemeral and uplifting of notions, finds its most taut springs for excitement at the beginnings, the birthings, and even the anticipation of birthings. The new dawn finds us most alert to the colours in the sky, the shapes of the clouds, the hues of pink, purple, orange, red and various shades of grey, the flickering of the leaves and the swaying of pine branches; we check thermometers and barometers, to help shape not only our choice of wardrobe, but the ’kind’ of day we might expect. For a brief moment, partly for protection and orientation, and partly for fun and fantasizing, our senses and our imaginations are somehow stimulated by and linked with the mood of the universe.

For just a moment, we are somehow ‘cosmic’ in a way that tends to dissipate through the rest of the day. Whatever might be lurking on our ‘to-do’ list for the day, the morning’s aha! tends to eclipse its requirements and expectations.

Endings, on the other hand, tend to have a different ‘energy’ and imaginal ethos. At the moment of a birth, whether biological or metaphoric, there are almost no thoughts, feelings or images of death, so over-whelming is the miracle and the potential of this new ‘life’. Of course, none of us is completely detached from the possibility of this new life ending; it is just that our conscious energies, images and concentration is on beginning and the seemingly infinite possibilities for this new life. And this model of ‘beginning’ applies throughout our lives. Projects like making a bed, brushing our teeth, combing our hair, selecting what to wear, while they become routine and fade into a mirage of early- morning-patterns, all have their own nuanced aspects and the accompanying sensibilities about our ‘relationship’ to their meaning. Of course, how each of us is introduced to any activity depends on and borrows from the memory and the legacy of our mentors, parents, and coaches and teachers. In this manner, the metaphoric glue of the culture is ‘spread’ to the next generation.

The fine print of the ‘reasons’ and the ‘justifications’ for each of these ‘life skills’ is generally administered in first tiny, and then larger and larger doses as the child grows and develops. And, even in the ‘scaling’ of those ‘why’s’ the notion of attempting to integrate the complexity with the readiness of the child has many ‘new’ steps, bearing different energies for both mentor and mentee.

In a sense, each of our encounters continues to have aspects of this ‘beginning’ social and cultural birth canal in its story. If we have grown weary of those who are brimming with ‘new’ ideas and approaches, experiments and ‘thinking outside the box’ we tend to regard such people and ideas with considerable scepticism. The dark side to each of the ‘new’ notions is that, because they are literally untried and unproven, they immediately find themselves, including those who are proposing them, lagging and even lacking in credibility and trust compared with what already exists.

Somehow, the ‘birth’ model as a moment of excitement, bursting with possibility and potential, is replaced with the much more moderate and dependable and predictable model of ‘this is how we do things here’…not some “fandangled” new way. This micro-drama plays out in the many theatres and stages of our personal and our professional life. It is the rare parent of a new-born who envisages only the ‘gold’ of profit and prosperity along with the birth of a new son or daughter.

However, paradoxically, it is the rare business entrepreneur who does not envisage the ‘gold of profit and prosperity’ in any new idea that might be proposed for his or her enterprise. Similarly, from the perspective of an organization, once operating with some degree of success, a new person or a new idea

 or a new process brings with it (him/her) the inevitable question of ‘cost-benefit’ as a way of filtering out the relevance and receptivity of the decision-makers to the ‘it’. Research departments, in large organizations and universities, while delving into ‘new’ ideas and theories, rely on funding from ‘successful’ persons/agents, in order to pursue their disciplines. So, on the one hand, based on the literature and the previous findings of their current and historic mentors, the researchers seek to climb new trails and discover new facts, truths and move the frontiers of exploration and knowledge out into the next pieces waiting to be discovered.

This ‘frontier’ activity carries many of the intellectual, psychological, social and cultural features of new beginnings. Similarly, while writers are crafting stories whose themes have been shaped by others, they/we are trying to catch a glimpse of how we ‘see’ whatever it is that grabs our attention from a perspective that may have something to say that offers a new insight or resolution, or even a new tension and conflict.

With all of the various new beginnings, we also are participating in the process of last breaths, endings and their multi-layered implications. One of the more pungent aphorisms I learned from a Jewish man, who asked and answered his own question, ‘What is it that makes you laugh and cry, happy and sad, at the same time?’ and the answer, ‘This too will pass!” That perspective, however, is not one that has cultural penetration in the public square in North America. Rather, collectively we seem much more hyped to new beginnings and less conscious of and attentive to endings, death, closures, shut-downs. And from the perspective of the early years of life, in parenting, and in teaching the child, the focus of much of   our energy is on ‘developing’ the child/student for his/her/our future.

Naturally, and predictably, there will be events and stories about danger, accidents and headlines that report numbers of deaths from this or that ‘event’ as tragedies and moments of reflection on what might have caused them. Sadness too envelops these reflections. It is cliché to note that young people, generally, seem detached and somewhat immune, at least in their own minds, to their own mortality. And, unless a life-threatening illness, or accident or fire or storm is imminent or touches us, we tend to ‘walk as if’ we will retain the perspective of a numinous, ill-defined, and out-of-reach final date.

And while there are motivational insights, like those from Martin Luther King:

·        If you have not discovered something you are wiling to die for, then you are not fit to live

·        A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right.

·        A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true

Recall also Shakespeare’s line in Julius Caesar:

“Cowards die many times before their deaths;

the valiant never taste of death but once.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, 

it seems to me most strange that men should fear;

Seeing it will come that death, a necessary end, 

Will come when it will come
(Julius Caesar Act 2. Scene 2)

 (These lines) suggest a metaphorical and moral death every time we do not face our fears, or withdraw from a confrontation or let something pass they (we) should have stood up to. (

Linking a silence in the face of injustice to a kind of death, while not literal, has the impact of elevating the importance of activism for justice into a moral and legitimate contest. How we will be remembered is a lens through which many peer, however silently and imperceptibly, in the process of looking back over the years passed.

The immediate, empirical and sensate celebration of birth, in all of its many forms and faces, is by contrast, so captivating when compared with the more illusive, unpredictable, unknown, and highly evocative and final notion of death. While Frye’s typology, in The Great Code, of the human story moving from a beginning in the garden through many chapters to a final city, is embedded in our minds, and while many individuals might and likely have had such a “progress” archetype imprinted on their/our imaginations, the images of finality, mortality, seem to have taken on a kind of dark and shrouded colour, tone and mood in the culture.

Some have referred to our’s as a death-denying culture. Others, more recently, have begun to consider it a natural and inevitable last act in an otherwise heavily documented and celebrated drama. The mystery of death and the tradition of silence and sorrow in the face of death, along with volumes of dirges, heavy repetitive drum beats, the ritual of horse-drawn corteges carrying the bodies of deceased royalty, for example, black hearses, eloquent eulogies and various forms of tombs, crypts, headstones and urns form a kind of gestalt of respect and honour, marking in memory the end of a life.

In between the excitement of birth, and the melancholy of death, many of us live our lives faintly aware of the early stages of our lives and even less faintly conscious of how our death might be or could be impacting our choices. The pandemic with its millions of deaths and the cloud of death hanging over and behind millions of masks, brought many up short about the fact of death. It may have shifted the cultural meme from one of denial and avoidance to a somewhat sombre and reflective perspective among some groups, especially the elderly. Avoiding and escaping an invisible, imperceptible, airborne virus whose capacity to linger, replicate, transmit and mutate seems to outpace many of its previous ancestors, serves as a catalyst for a significant shift in cultural perspective. Shutting us in, cutting us off, distancing us both spatially and facially, seems like a stealth and stormy robbery of many of the normal social and connecting activities we took for granted. The virus provided the secrecy; the response the theft.

Irrespective of our individual attitudes to the virus, we are all awakened to our own mortality in a way that no other ‘event’ in a century has caused such an awakening. More recently, people trapped in cars under 4 or 5 feet of snow, dying because rescue vehicles and emergency response units could not save them, for example, in Buffalo, have underscored the fragility of life and the unpredictability of death’s knock on our door.

And while there is considerable evidence that the negligence of the former president of the U.S. resulted in thousands of preventable deaths, from the pandemic, there have been numerous scientific discoveries, developments and protocols that have been ‘birthed’ resulting from the pandemic itself. Indeed, many more learned and sophisticated scribes than this one have noted the intimate relationship between birth and death, however and why ever the west has formed a conventional and cultural notion that death negates birth, or at least compromises it.

A man no less esteemed than Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have authored these words:

Birth and death are not two different states, but they are different aspects of the same state.

Mark Twain asked: Why is it that we rejoice at a birth and grieve at a funeral? It is because we are not the person involved.

Carl Jung is reported to have written:

The sad truth is that man’s life consists of a complex of inexorable opposites-day and night, birth and death, happiness and misery, good and evil. We are not even sure that one will prevail against the other, that good will overcome evil, or joy defeat pain. Life is a battleground. It always has been and it always will be; and if it were not so, existence would come to an end.

With respect to the birth-death tension, not only is the tension incapable of being reduced to only one end of the continuum, there is a mine of reciprocal benefits, blessings and insights that can and will only come from a balanced and nuances consideration of both ends of the continuum as mutually inter-dependent.

In fact, whether we realize it or not, there is nothing in our life that is not directly or indirectly (or both) connected to both our birth and our death. And it is precisely this perspective, and the consciousness of its reality, that lies at the core of archetypal psychology as conceived by James Hillman.

He writes: Soul-making is also described as imaging, that is, seeing or hearing by means of an imagining which sees through an event to its image. Imaging means releasing events from their literal understanding into a mythical appreciation. Soul-making, in this sense is equated with de-literalizing—that psychological attitude which suspiciously disallows the naïve and given level of events in order to search out their shadowy, metaphorical significances for soul.

So, the question of soul-making is ‘what does this event, this thing, this moment move in my soul? What does it mean to my death? The question of death enters because it is in regard to death that the perspective of soul is distinguished most starkly from the perspective of natural life. (Hillman, Archetypal Psychology, A Brief Account, p.29)

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Moving past stereotypes...embracing curiosity

 How do we escape from the self-portraits and the stereotypes that reduce our complexity to one or two dimensional carboard cut-outs?. I just read an essay by an acknowledged “three-quarter-lifer” who was reflecting on her experience in Shopper’s Drug Mart, waiting in line, eschewing the four self-check-out machines standing idle.

Her concern was trying to avoid a ‘destined mood’ of the last years of her life. She references James Hillman’s The Force of Character’s warning that one’s final character could be a bully and blowhard as easily as a generous and compassionate person. And while this dichotomy, another binary choice, is valid and worthy of reflection, so is the more obvious missing notion that, not only either-or but also many other ‘traits’ none of which can be ‘reduced’ to ‘good’ or ‘not so good’ are all playing a part in whatever quarter of our life is being considered.

It is our deeply embedded, child-like simplification of ‘labels’ that pigeon-hole us into nice or not-nice, as a way of glibly sorting out whom we like and whom we don’t like that has a way of entrapping not only us, as perceivers-judges, but as replicas and imitators of a perspective that enables a ‘skills-based’ stick-portrait tohat pervade our lives.

We are ‘good students’ or good team-players or good employees, or good doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, singers, dancers, etc…or we are ‘struggling’ or have fallen on hard times. We are successful or not. We have a title or, for some time, we are ‘between jobs’ now a designation that has morphed into several ‘gig’s’ as if we are all entertainers. 

Who we are is too often, if not always, defined by our role(s), as if roles were all we need to know about another.

I am noticing something that I have not given words to among many situations. It is a kind of reverse snobbery among those who identify themselves as “bottom-line” people. A recent visit with a newly elected politician unearthed his comment that whatever is accomplished in his term is “an effect”….pointing to the singular rifle-shot metaphor in his vision of ‘listing the ‘effects’ of his term. Implicit in his description is that he sees himself and other elected officials as “cause” to and for those potential “effects” as if the universe is and can be defined in such simple terms.

His ‘cause-effect’ equation is not wrong, in a literal sense. Literally, all political actors are in office to make or create an ‘effect’… and the ‘effect’ would be measureable, visible, transparent and those people would be ‘accountable’. Programming our language and then our persons into such an equation, however, is most likely, not merely potentially, a recipe for, on the one hand, perceived literal success and also a blindness to many situations which are unplanned, votes that cannot be predicted, actions from other levels of government that impact various jurisdictions, public sentiment. And the last element in the messy, chaotic and uncontrollable reality, public sentiment, is so fickle, so mercurial, so elemental that it can and often does constrict the possibilities, in order to ‘fit’ within what can and will be tolerated.

Simplistic slogans, such as lower taxes, debt reduction, reducing spending, on the surface, seem eminently noble and worthy. And a public that demands such reductionisms is not only ignoring new ideas for bringing people together, for example, or for the pooling of new energies and ideas, as a community goal, not only for the purpose of achieving a specific goal (effect) but for the larger purpose of enhancing the imagination of a community. Of course, change can and will happen with the consent of the people, whose capacity to see their own collective potential is a public ‘demographic’ rarely if ever mentioned or researched.

Is the ’enhancement of community imagination and aspiration’ an ‘effect’? Perhaps. However, given a kind of literal and somewhat patronizing attitude about how a community is ‘blue-collar’ for a century, sends chills down one’s spine about another ‘classification’ for the purpose of command and control. And there is a wide gap between ‘command and control’ for ‘effect’ and leadership.

Those differences start with a difference between seeking to make an ‘effect’ and seeking to embrace and to comprehend and to learn about the subtle nuances of both the history and the potential in any community. Labels, just like the ones used to ‘categorize’ people, based often on gossip, or a glib rendering of an incident or two, contribute much to the stereotypes that inhabit our community and our imaginations.

Public opinion itself is a snap-shot in time of attitudes and perceptions of individuals who may or may not be in touch with more than their own inherited vocabulary, attitude and belief that is the compilation of a community’s ethos or culture. And that vocabulary has been grafted onto the business and community leaders’ perceptions as a first step in even beginning to think about business success in the community. New technologies, new vehicles, and the occasional new business venture seem to be integrated into the community acceptance ‘imagination’ as symbols of those previous new features to which the community has adjusted. So long as the ‘new’ is concrete, empirical and thereby substantial, it is accepted and respected. However, should the ‘new’ be a more abstract concept, such as a community program initiated by the community, that has been tried and proven in other communities, there is an instant, nevertheless polite resistance to that possibility.

Pictures, images of people and ideas that, like those cardboard cut-outs of prominent figures, are another form of ghosting any community. There is an appearance of something being done as an ‘effect’ as if that ‘effect’ is adequate for a successful resume, and next campaign. However, we all know that “how” things are done is as important as ‘what’ is done. And how things are conducted is and must be considered as so abstract and fluid and requiring an imaginative flexibility, adaptability, creativity and even intuition that bears far more notice and respect than the ‘effect’ of some change.

Nuance, complexity, adaptability, intuition, creativity are not merely nouns to describe job performance, or student profiles, or even career objectives. And the issue of whether or not they can be taught, for the moment, is outside the scope of this piece. The question of how they are perceived, valued, respected and even included in the dialogue of a family, a school and a community, is, however, needing to be highlighted. Each of these words, whether applied to individuals or organizations or communities, implies and infers resilience, strength, flexibility and an embrace of constant learning. Linking them is something many call ‘curiosity’….that impelling energy that keeps asking questions and that resists any and all attempts to dismiss hard and provocative questions.

Curiosity has application and relevance not only among scholars and artists, scientists and researchers. Curiosity
especially among the adult population, while more unsettling than comforting, is a quality that cannot be contained by a static noun. Curiosity is more verb/action/searching/exploring/risking than it is adherence to the status quo. It resists stereotyping, it resists familiarity and stability, and embraces the central activity of nature, change.

Curiosity, too, seeks to get to know another person, and that process takes both time and patience. Artists, for example, are more than their canvas. Musicians, too, are more than their performance. Both are certainly more than the price of their art, or the price of their concert ticket. And one of the most virulent, insidious and prevalent stereotypes is the commodification and commercialization of each person and organization. Naturally, for the purpose of ‘attracting’ and earning wealth, income, there are numbers of dollars implicit in the pursuit. However, the reduction of both people and communities to ‘what is affordable’ or what wealth has been ‘attained’ is both a reduction and an insult to everyone.

Curiosity asks:

·        Who is the person behind the rumour or the cut-out?

·        Who is the community behind the ‘go-slow’ mandate, as if it were a sacred idol?

·        Who is the confluence of images/voices/advocates/guardian angels/subverters that comprise the community?

·        Who is the face of the future of the community…not the name of a public figure but the vision of the kind of personage the community aspires to become?

·        Whose voices, writing, pictures, stories businesses are in the ‘historic garden’ of the community and what kind of ‘growth’ did they see and seek on the horizon of their time?

·        Who are the names and the stories give a ‘life’ to the residences, the businesses and the land and the rivers of the community?

·        Who is asking the questions? And who is eager to listen to the questions?

Research points out that humans orient ourselves around inanimate things. We seem to prefer ‘things’ rather than people or images as our path to identity and definition. Perhaps, reducing a person to a cardboard cut-out, now photo-shopped, we do not have to engage in the more messy process of listening to them, asking them questions, and sharing answers to their questions. And, more importantly, we are observing the classic moral and social code “mind your own business”.

As a caution against gossip, that epithet is appropriate. As a community-building guideline, it sucks. Learning and observing the ‘space’ (not merely physical but personal and confidential) that respects the other, is a skill that, while employers are engaged in training for the purpose of preventing conflict and harassment, is requiring some sophisticated and formal workshopping.

Stereotypes, like other walls between and among people, arouse raised fists in protest and the potential of hopeful “colouring in”, getting to know, and to enrich the experience of individuals and by extension communities. Raised fists may be good photo-ops; they accomplish little. Colouring in the stereotypes we all carry in our heads, through conscious and deliberate courageous initiative, while challenging and time consuming, offers new insight not only into who the other is, but also into who we are becoming. 

Friday, December 23, 2022

Grate-man...symbol of shame

 Each morning, while driving my wife to her office in the Kingston General Hospital, on the last leg of the trip, we pass a large grate, adjacent to the hospital, a release vent for the hospital’s boiler system. And, lying on that grate, covered in a couple of bedraggled sleeping bags, is a grey-bearded man huddled under a toque. As if his own guard-rail, a small shopping cart with a few belongings rests against the curb. He has been there for many of the mornings in the last two or three months as the temperatures hovered around 0 degrees Celsius. Yesterday morning, I noticed that someone has brought him a Tim’s coffee in a bright red cup. The steam from the grate billows around him, offering whatever heat and comfort it might. If this scene were on a stage, it would offer an eery, mystical, sombre and definitely sobering scene, portending a tragic, and graphic and empathic response from an audience.

Under-street scenes from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables come to mind, as do rhetorical flourishes in political chambers, and the increasing number of laudable civic initiatives to generate tiny homes for the homeless. And yet, this is not nineteenth century France. And whether or not this man, like Jean Valjean, has any kind of ‘record’ seems beyond the moment. Individual lives, like the lost life of a very young boy on a beach, in the midst of the refugee crisis from Northern Africa, have a way of arresting our attention, when captured in video and played on screens everywhere. Numbers of boats, and numbers of arrests, and numbers of drownings from capsized vessels, while horrific, tend to glaze over millions of eyes. We can however, be rivetted by a single person, in a desperate state, if not while driving, then afterwards.

Every town and city in North America is making attempts, some creative, some a little less so, some even taking shape of tiny sheds, providing basic roof, walls, heat and safety. A friend in a church in Dundas says even a church is engaged in trying to offer shelter and hope to the street people there. And ‘street people’ as the descriptor has morphed into ‘homeless’ perhaps as a kind of ‘homage’ to the research that continues to document not only the ‘problem’ but the various attempts to mediate the “problem”.

This “grate-man” could be, a likely is, part of a statistic report, whether from law enforcement who can not miss noticing him while driving past. And, while social issues tend to gather numbers, costs, and various “remediative” steps, as if we were applying band-aids to multiple cuts to staunch the bleeding, “poverty” as a general social ill is so detached, and ubiquitous as to lose the face, the beard, the tattered bags, and even the safe ‘encounter’ from the cabin of a car. Each and every single initiative, primarily from well-intentioned, honourable, ethical and even exemplary groups of altruistic and compassionate and even empathic men and women and children, to house men and women like this ‘grate-man’ warrants both honour and respect. Nevertheless, the old adage of ‘retrieving them after they have fallen over the water-fall rather than approaching the situation from the top of the water-fall, that haunts the driver on the return home. This man has a biography, a pulse, a link to other human beings, a memory, a mind and a body being not merely weather-beaten but inevitably eroded, long after whatever hope had dissipated. This man, like the hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, is a testament to courage, bravery, resilience of the human will. He is also a testament to the deeply embedded ‘detachment’, objectification, distance, and the ubiquitous shared shame of the rest of us.

The Occupy Movement saw tents popping up in public squares back in 2011, expressing opposition to social and economic inequality and the obvious lack of real democracy. Interviewing some in one of those tents, I learned about the pure and unsullied determination to bring about awareness and significant changes from the young men and women in one of those encampments. Considered health hazards, public safety impediments, and hot-beds for potential criminal behaviour, these encampments were moved, removed and effectively erased from the landscapes of towns and cities across the continent. However, in the last decade, we have witnessed a rise in poverty levels, homelessness and public energy and resources being headlined and then consuming policy professionals and political leaders trying to “deal” with the “problem”.

The mayors of both Los Angeles and New York, a black woman, and black male former police officer respectively, have announced their intent to move people from the streets into hotels and motels vacated in the pandemic. In Toronto, every day at least 8,500 people experience homelessness and at the end of November that number topped 10,000. Descriptors, as if they were diagnoses, such as financial, mental, cognitive, behavioural or physical challenges float through the coverage, and into the public consciousness, as if the elephant in the room, not only the housing shortage, but the very structure, shape, attitudes and beliefs of the culture were immune from address, did not exist.

The adjectives and nouns that attempt to ‘depict’ (and subtly to deride) the state of the individuals in whose number the ‘grate-man’ lies, serve as rationalizations for our shared ‘turning to our affairs’ from Robert Frost’s poem “Out-Out”. The poem captures the saw’s amputation of a young man’s hand, his plea to keep it, the doctor’s ether and the slow ebb of his heart into silence:

They listened at his heart.

Little—less—nothing! And that ended it.

No more to build on there. And they, since they

Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

The ‘grate-man’ is not dead, except in the public consciousness, as just another one of ‘those homeless and they are now everywhere’. To those charged with making decisions on our behalf, local councils, provincial and federal governments, we all know that from serious frowns of ‘it’s too bad’ to eyes slipping back into their sockets in the question, ‘what are we supposed to do about this?” to the more conservative among us who likely perceive the problem as one of individual failure or inadequacy on the part of those who are homeless.

In fact, we also all know that we have created, and participated in and benefitted from a political and economic structure, so deeply and historically embedded, that it has come to be considered “normal” and “fixed” and “democratic” and ‘fair”.

Everything, we all know, is also relative. Compared with autocratic, despotic and tyrannical nations and societies, North America and most of Europe are legitimately proud and somewhat smug about the ‘progress’ in political and scientific and academic and technological terms. International trade, while unbalanced and somewhat dependent on forces not yet fully understood or monitored or moderated by legislation and oversight, has brought a considerable number of people out of poverty, as it is defined by international agencies.

Nevertheless, in North America, and, we are told also in Europe, increasingly numbers of people, native to various countries, and also immigrants and refugees, experienced food shortages, housing scarcity, and income stagnation, if they actually have jobs.

Technology is and will continue to segregate those who have acquired skills for the current and medium-term future from those who have not. Education and training are part of the solution to the rise tide of homeless persons. Governments, too, are experimenting with the concept of a guaranteed annual income, a modest sum for all, as another potential pathway to alleviate the suffering among the homeless persons, and as importantly to assuage the guilt and shame of the body politic, the establishment. It is the establishment, so intimately and intricately enmeshed with those who have benefitted most from the last quarter century of corporate profits, while wages and social programs, in many instances have suffered from depleted resources.

The pandemic, too, inflicted considerable damage not only to the labour market, as well as to the philanthropic sector’s capacity to raise funds. And, yet, as research among those scholars who have studied such social projects as food banks points out, there are but a band-aid on a social tumor, short-term staunches of starvation, but certainly not permanent remediation.

Culturally, too, North America is deeply enmeshed in a model of addressing serious public issues by modest responses. There is little to no public blow-back to minimal political decisions, except, in the U.S. when a modest cut in the military budget is even mentioned and the hew and cry from the ‘right’ squashes such a ridiculous idea.

However, we all know that national security, and defense of all nations, including both Canada and the United States, does not depend on the size, capability or intelligence of the military and the national security apparatus. How each and every person is regarded by the body politic, and that includes the whole culture, not only one political party or one region, or one religious or educational edifice, matters directly and indirectly in the full open, transparent and disseminated accounting of who we are as a country.

The attempt, after the glaring and nefarious evidence of neglect by the political class, to address the flood of homeless persons, like the glacial approach to global warming and climate change, manifests a public insouciance, an apathy, and a distractive pre-occupation with the immediate personal, domestic, family and job requirements each of us have to fulfil. And while we are responsible for those immediate duties, we also are responsible for the manner by which we perceive solitary men lying on boiler grates in 0-degree temperatures, or worse, while the majority of us look forward to a home-cooked turkey, a lighted tree, presents under that tree and cards and gifts to celebrate the holiday season.

The disconnect is so obvious as to be ‘pontificating on the obvious’ and therefore ought not to be needed. However, there is a significant difference between a consciousness of the issue, and even a grasp of the dimension of the problem, and the perception of that man on the grate as a fully grown, fully cognizant and fully potential human being. He is a lot more than the picture he displays; he is a lot more than a number in a data bank at city hall; he is a lot more than another ‘indigent’ whose name must be added to the growing list of those needing to be sheltered. He is also a lot more than a “problem” in search of a solution, for the rest of us. And yet, if that is how he continues to be “seen” we will perpetuate the notion of compassion as another, “from the most privileged the most is expected” kind of equation.

Only if and when that man on the grate is embraced for who he is, including his full story complete with all of its vagaries, eccentricities, darkness and potential, including the potential of his specific, warranted and even needed participation in the next steps for his life, will those of us who are indeed ‘privileged’ and who know literally nothing about his person or his life begin to open our eyes, ears, minds and hearts to the full situation he not only represents, but also moves us to change.

Homes, adequate food, access to health care, clean water, and work with dignity….these are not items for an ideological debate any longer. They are basic human necessities, not only for the privileged with university and college education, with two cars in the garage, sun-bound vacations, and over-stuffed wardrobes. The gap between the have’s and the have-not’s is so wide that it is, or ought to be an embarrassment, especially for those of us who want for nothing. And while we, ordinary folk, remain silent in the face of mounting evidence of corporate greed and manipulation of prices in food stores, at gas pumps and in pharmacies, we are complicit in both glossing over the ravages of how unfettered capitalism is literally injecting steroids into our social malaise, openly, willingly, blatantly and irresponsibly.

It is no longer tolerable to segregate individual human beings from the data banks that comprise the basis of our social and economic policy. If we cannot and will not address the homelessness of persons like him, how can or will we even begin to consider the individual humans who have already lost their homes, lives and livelihoods in draughts, storms, fires and floods….all because we are fettered to an economic model that places profit far above people…and we all know it!

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Can/would the church embrace archetypal psychology's perspective?

 Wrestling mentally and emotionally, intellectually and culturally with some of the principles of Hillman’s archetypal psychology is a path to a quite different ‘perspective’ than the one we have been taught to honour. Symptoms, seen as problems to be ‘fixed’ in our psychological lives, as they are in medicine and the legal system, renders both ‘symptom-bearer’ and ‘fixer’ engaged both implicitly and explicitly in a transactional relationship. One has a ‘need,’ the other a ‘solution.’ And the matter of the price, cost, reward and context of the engagement is the primary issue in the consideration of that dynamic. The name and the implications of the symptom are conditioned by the nature of the ‘transaction’. Is the ‘fixer’ able to detect, diagnose and comprehend the symptom-bearer in a manner comparable to the orthopod who mends a broken femur? Is the symptom-bearer able to ‘see’ and ‘grasp’ and disclose the full nature of the ‘issue’? Indeed, is the “intervention to fix” model itself as relevant, appropriate and benign as we have to come consider it?

Further complicating that ‘arrangement’ is the obvious question of “outcome”….was the encounter ‘successful’ or not. And then, the next question is what does one mean by ‘success’? Was the symptom removed like a wart to which a chemical compound was added to see it evaporate? Was the ‘symptom’ changed and replaced by some other, that enabled the ‘patient/client’ to change the pattern of his/her life? Was there a different interpretation/perspective available to both client and therapist that, essentially, offered a path to growth, change and both autonomy and authenticity previously unavailable? In an empirical, extrinsic and driven culture, the issue of ‘goals’ and measurable outcomes, in so many of our endeavours, has been elevated to a level that contradicts and contravenes our capacity to deliver.

An internal medicine professional of my acquaintance, once prescribed a ‘non-curative’ pill for a medical condition, only to have to discontinue the prescription and refer a patient to a different internal medicine specialist who had a licence to prescribe radioactive iodine, that had a much more impactful result than the ‘non-curative’. And indeed, many of the legitimate interventions of the medical profession, while partial, and often with considerable ‘side-effects’, demonstrates the full capacity of the profession to provide ‘care’ while also illustrating the  partial and often complicating implications of that care.

The field of psychology/psychiatry, in all of its many valiant attempts to meet and address both the expressed needs/symptoms and the ‘back story’ of those needs/symptoms, similar to the multiple galaxies we are learning about, continues to attract and to warrant revision. Pushing back against literalism, and offering a more fluid, imaginative and imaginal perspective, especially of those moments, memories, acts, and dynamics that beset our okayness (for lack of a better term), archetypal psychology attempts to see those ‘problems’ in and through the face and the story and the dynamic of images borrowed from the legacies of the gods, goddesses, and their mythical stories first. Without ascribing as a starting place in that perspective, whether or not the ‘issue’ is moral, right or wrong, or even abnormal, the image of the god/goddess/myth links the human species in a common psychic heritage. Soul-making, rather than ‘fixing’ a problem is considered the appropriate and universal purpose. Beyond genetics, or at least outside of genetics and biology, and based on one’s fulsome biography, this perspective, way of seeing, lens, (soul) embraces both story and the intimate and inescapable connection of each story to its own death. Rejecting the reductions of both morality and the empiricism/literalism/nominalism of both medicine and law, and the heroic model of ‘fixing’ every problem, along with the demands and expectations that approach lays on professionals first, and patients/clients second, archetypal psychology’s approach offers a “mythical appreciation. Soul-making, in this sense, is equated with de-literalizing-that psychological attitude which suspiciously disallows the naïve and given level of events in order to search out their shadowy, metaphorical significances for soul. So the question of soil-making is ’what does this event, this thing, this movement move in my soul? What does it mean to my death. The question of death enters because it is in regard to death that the perspective of soul is distinguished most starkly from the perspective of natural life.” (Hillman, Archetypal Psychology, A Brief Account, p.27)

We are not, as humans, akin to, analogous to, or in any way similar to a machine, especially in our psychological life. Even with all of the worthy and honourable research in neuroscience, and the discovery of the various pathways and  relationships in the circuitry of our brain, we have not ‘mastered,’ and for the foreseeable future will not, completely master the totality of either our identity or our various attempts to approach our psychology. Chemistry, physiology, electricity, even if and when measured and calculated, analysed and interpreted, taken together, are insufficient to capture the fullness of our psychology, in spite of our heroic and partial attempts to address the ramifications of the intersection of multiple factors and forces that converge in our lives.

And while our various scholars and theorists have given some clues for further study, and that process is likely to continue, the division between science and the poetic mind, as a dividing line in our academic pursuits, nevertheless, leaves a vacuum and an opportunity for some different perspectives.

Archetypal psychology, less a clinical, scientific and objective approach, and more of a “lens” through which to perceive some of the behaviours, attitudes, and even beliefs that, in a former universe, were categorized as ‘abnormal’ takes a different starting point. Pop culture throws around the word ‘normal’ in describing an individual while implying that others, different perhaps for each person, are labelled ‘abnormal’. In a culture, too, that obsesses with belonging, fitting in, compliance to the norm, such categories tend to create models of behaviour, and the judgements of ‘difference’ that generate both walls and exclusions of those who do not ‘fit’ the prevailing conventional model. And the exclusions, isolations, scornings and alienations of those who do not ‘fit’ is, itself, a cultural issue which, while seeming to support some kind of ‘order’ and expectations, also limits and potentially even precludes creative ideas from a wide swath of people.

Highways, by definition and in order to offer some degree of safety, need lanes, and lane markings, along with the speed limits and cautions that provide a degree of safety for their use. Similarly, public institutions, depending on their purpose and design, need some defining lanes, protocols, and the requisite supporting methods to achieve those goals and purposes. It is the question of the ‘goals and purposes’ of a human life, that, after centuries of pondering, reflecting, writing and even educating about the best theories, and interventions, remains open for further  imaginative considerations.

Considering the ‘previously unknown galaxies’ of our psyche including what is normal and/or abnormal, however, through the methods and approaches of historic disciplines such as law a medicine, is likely to generate theories and perspective, methods and approaches that replicate, imitate, and even duplicate those that have already attempted to establish a footing in our collective consciousness, as well as our collective unconscious.

The material deemed critical for the kinds of theories and approaches to human psychology, by both medicine and law, will also be constricted by the limitations of the lanes of epistemology, theory, demonstrated and documented evidence of the centuries of their respective ‘lanes’ of both cognition and precedent. And the definitions, diagnoses, treatments and outcomes will continue in patterns that are acceptable, justified and predictable. Indeed, the risk to all of us is that because of the narrowness of the lanes of both theory and methodology, the size of the abnormal lane embracing a relatively high number of human individuals, will expand, as professionals operating in their established field seek to enhance their playing field and the opportunities for further growth. Sickness, so defined, will continue to inflate in numbers, requiring additional interventions, as will abnormal behaviour continue to demand more laws and more restriction.

Adopting as lens, the way of seeing human psychology, as a concerto of the images of the various gods, goddesses, archetypes and narratives that have ‘peopled’ the stories of cultures around the globe, from native and indigenous, tribal and nation, ethnicity and religion, language and myth, warfare and peace, gender and sexuality, is in a word, radical. Embracing easily and openly those multiple images that we all have dancing, arguing, stabbing, hugging, selling, defending, seeking revenge, seeking love, striving (and the list of active verbs continues endlessly) through the biography, seen in the rear-view mirror, makes so much sense, that one wonders why it has not come to our awareness before the last quarter of the twentieth century.

And rather than reduce our psychological life to the enactment of a single diagnosis, or even a single image, (example, Peter Pan, or Lade MacBeth), and also rather than presume that we are fully in charge and control of whatever is going on in our lives including the images playing in our psyche, and that viewed from a primarily moral perspective, as right or wrong, archetypal psychology offers a far more nuanced, complex and perhaps even relevant and applicable “lens”  of images, including fantasies, dreams, nightmares, and the whole range of human experiences, both conscious and not, to consider when taking the whole “picture” through biography, into account. The notion, for example, that the image “has” us, rather than ‘us’ being in control of those images, is first, far more realistic based on the reality that we all know ‘stories’ with images are playing in our ‘heads’ all the time. It is as if, through the perspective of archetypal psychology, we acknowledge that our ‘head-screen’ is alive with images, many of which we simply pass by, considering that they are little more than ‘child’s play’. We permit our children, and ourselves as young children, to explore an imaginative world, through literature, film, fantasy and dream. And then, for adults, we turn the tables on those legitimate “visions” and make them pragmatic, in order to be vetted by a ‘responsible parent or guardian’ and turn them into a vocation, a profession and a way to ‘make a living’.

Essentially, archetypal psychology is confronting the deeply embedded concepts of the human will and ego as being in control of our lives, including especially rationality, logic and empiricism. And without denigrating any of those concepts, indeed offering them each a more legitimate and fruitful and free expression of their insights, archetypal psychology opens the door to a vision of a fully accessible and fully acknowledged and fully tolerated complexity of all. The perspective is not a way out of having to confront the most malicious and injurious and contemptible and nefarious of behaviours, and excuse them, or rationalise them.  Rather it is a different way of ‘seeing’ each human being ‘psychologically’ in a process Hillman dubs ‘soul-making’. And as a process of psychologizing, it does not infer or imply a ‘morality’ as its first consideration. Rather, whether moral or not, each human being carries the stories not so much of conscious imitation, but rather of evocation of those voices that populate the mythologies from around the world.

And, in evoking those voices, on reflection, after the fact, possibly long after the fact, we can glean a montage or collage of the images that were energizing our lives, with or without our awareness at the time. Patterns, envisioned in and through the faces/voices/images of gods and goddesses, rather than ‘incident reports of crisis’ uses a wide-angle lens, looking through the telescope into the galaxies of images that have played out in and through our stories. Similarly, through the lens of the archetypes, of the gods and goddesses, we open our lens wide to include those voices that were not so comfortable, so heroic, so altruistic, and so empathetic as our public mask, persona, was wont to display and to deliver throughout our lives. And in opening to those ‘shadow’ figures, voices, perspectives themselves identified with and identifying those gods and goddesses, we naturally see ourselves very differently, from the ways in which ‘others’ saw and considered us in their direct experience of our presence. The archetypes significant to those ‘others’ (from this perspective) are and were also contributing to their psychological lives, in a manner that reflects those imaginal voices, themes, conflicts, reconciliations, assassinations, recoveries, fantasies and dreams that have populated not only our shared literatures and cultures, but also our families, communities and our churches.

And here is the significant rub: where archetypal psychology greets and separates from religion and faith.

In Archetypal Psychology, A Brief Account, James Hillman, writes a section entitled, Polytheistic Psychology and Religion. He writes;

The polytheistic moves of archetypal psychology occur in four inter-related modes.

1)    The most accurate model of human existence will be able to account for its innate diversity, both among individuals and within each individual. Yet this same model must also provide fundamental structures and values for this diversity. For both Freud and Jung, multiplicity is basic to human nature, and their models of man rely on a polycentric fantasy. Freud’s notion of the child as sexually polymorphous originates the libido in a polymorphic, polyvalent and polycentric field of erogenous zones. Jung’s model of personality is essentially multiple, and Jung correlates the plurality of its archetypal structure with the polytheistic stage of culture. Hence, the soul’s inherent multiplicity demands a theological fantasy of equal differentiation.

2)    The tradition of thought, (Greek, Renaissance, Romantic) to which archetypal psychology claims it is an heir is set in polytheistic attitudes. The imaginative products of these historical periods cannot contribute further to psychology unless the consciousness that would receive from them is able to transpose itself into a similar polytheistic framework. The high achievements of Western culture from which contemporary culture may find sources for its survival remain closed to modern consciousness unless it gains a perspective mimetic to what it is examining. Hence, polytheistic psychology is necessary for the continuity of culture.

3)    The social, political and psychiatric critique implied throughout archetypal psychology mainly concerns the monotheistic hero-myth (now called ego psychology) of secular humanism. i.e., the single-centered, self-identified notion of subjective consciousness of humanism (from Protagoras to Sartre). It is this myth which has dominated the soul and which leads to both unreflected action and self-blindness (Oedipus). It is responsible also for the repression of a psychological diversity that then appears as psychopathology. Hence, a polytheistic psychology is necessary for re-awakening reflective consciousness and bringing a new reflection to psychopathology.

4)    The perspectivalism of archetypal psychology requires a deepening of subjectivity beyond mere Nietzschean perspective or existential stances. Perspectives are forms of vision, rhetoric, values, epistemology, and lived styles that perdure independently of empirical individuality. For archetypal psychology, pluralism and multiplicity and relativism are not enough: these are merely philosophical generalities. Psychology needs to specify and differentiate each event, which it can do against the variegated background of archetypal configurations, of what polytheism called Gods, in order to make multiplicity both authentic and precise. Thus the question it asks of an event is not why or how, but rather what specifically is being presented and ultimately who, which divine figure, is speaking in this style of consciousness, this form of presentation. Hence a polytheistic psychology is necessary for the authorization of a ‘pluralistic universe’ for consistencies within it, and for precision of its differentiation.

The polytheistic analogy is both religious and not religious. The Gods are taken essentially, as foundations, so that psychology points beyond soul and  can never be merely agnostic. The sacred and sacrificial dimension--the religious instinct as Jung calls it—is given a place of main value; and in truth, it is precisely because of the appeal to the Gods that value enters the psychological field, creating claims on each human life and giving personal acts more than personal significance. The Gods and therefore the Gods of religion and not mere nomina,(mere names) categories, devices ex machina*. They are respected as powers and persons and creators of value….The Gods of psychology are not believed in, not taken literally, not imagined theologically. ‘Religion approaches Gods with ritual, prayer, sacrifice, worship, creed…In archetypal psychology, Gods are imagined. They are approached through psychological methods of personifying, pathologizing, and psychologizing. They are formulated ambiguously, as metaphors for modes of existence and as numinous borderline persons. They are cosmic perspectives in which the soul participates.’ Mainly the modes of this participation is reflection: the Gods are discovered in recognizing the stance of one’s perspective, one’s psychological sensitivity to the configurations that dominate one’s styles of thought and life. God’s for psychology do not have to be experienced in direct mystical encounter or in effigies, whether as concrete figures or as theological definitions.(Hillman, op.cit, pps 32, 33, 34, 35)

*Deus ex machina (from Latin: ‘god from machine’ a person or thing that appears or is introduced into a situation suddenly and unexpectedly  and provides an artificial or contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty…A  god appears is Sophocles’ Philoctetes and in most of the plays of Euripides to solve a crisis by divine intervention.

What are the implications, repercussions, supports and enhancements of the religious dimension, if viewed through the ‘lens’ and approach of archetypal psychology?

For many years, this scribe has struggled with the relationship between one’s religious life and one’s secular life, partially as a function of an over-active curiosity, and partly as a function of an also over-active scepticism. Of course, many theologians have posited that there is and can be no authentic separation between what one believes and how one interacts in the secular world. Indeed, for many, the secular world is fraught with impurities, sins and horrific people and situations, while the religious, the spiritual, and the matter of one’s relationship with God demands/needs to be sanctified, or at least trending and portending to a degree of sanctification, righteousness, imitation of and emulation of God. In the New Testament, Hebrews 11:1 posits these words: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Paul Tillich writes in Dynamics of Faith, 1957, “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern.” Vincent Williams, in, writes about Tillich, “Faith, for Tillich, is indeed the only thing capable of unifying human life among its disparate elements and concerns. But more so, that unifying result is also its definition; faith is simply that state of ultimate concern.”

One of the obvious questions, whether applied to human psychology or faith is the issue of how and whether one can indeed capture a polytheistic and complex reality through a monotheistic lens. And, how does one go about such a pursuit.

Hillman, writing in Revisioning Psychology (p. 167), says this:

By speaking of Gods….it seems as if we have lost the distinction between religion and psychology. Because the movement of our archetypal psychologizing is always towards myths and Gods, our psychologizing may seem actually a theologizing, and this book is as much a work of theology as of psychology. In a way this is so, and must be so, since the merging of psychology and religion is less the confluence of two different streams than the result of their single source—the soul. The psyche itself keeps psychology and religion bound to each other. Therefore our talk of Gods is not merely the use of personified hyperbole for heightening the values of archetypes, which as psychic functions and structures could as well be described more conceptually, or with analogies to physiological organs, physical forces, of philosophical categories. No—we speak of Gods because we are working toward a nonagnostic psychology, a psychology which does not have to operate in the hollow left from the separation of Sunday and weekday, church and interior state of mind…..The difference between psychology and religion boils down to the same as between psychology and science: literalism, Theology takes Gods literally and we do not…..Another way of putting it would be that the difference between religion and psychology lies not in our description of the Gods but in our action regarding them. Religion and psychology have care for the same ultimates, but religion approaches Gods with ritual prayer sacrifice, worship, creed. Gods are believed in and approached with religious methods. In archetypal psychology Gods are imagined…..They are formulated ambiguously, as metaphors for modes of experience and as numinous borderline persons. They are cosmic perspectives in which the soul participates…Psychologically, the Gods are never dead; and archetypal psychology’s concern is not with the revival of religion, but with the survival of soul. ( Hillman op. cit. p, 165-169-170)

And here lies one of the primary tensions not only between psychology and religion, but also in the tensions that religion faces, in attempting to link, bridge, connect, relate and implement, apply, incarnate religion and personal life. The argument that they by definition are inseparable makes theoretical sense, and yet, in practice, within the domain of the church, there is both a conscious and an unconscious ‘elevation’ and purification and sanctification and righteousness and even a pretentiousness about the various acts. Ironically and paradoxically, this sanctimoniousness is also devoid of any sensibility of or to metaphor. The rules of liturgy, and the performance of the clergy, not only while ‘on duty’ but in all hours of their life, are deemed to be above reproach.

And all the while, the church is praying that ‘we are all sinners’ seeking and needing the saving grace of forgiveness. Naturally, the charge of hypocrisy seems both obvious and warranted. And yet, that is only ‘literal’ and legalistic, moralistic and exclusionary. More importantly, the question of ‘why’ the church deems such ‘superiority’ and righteousness and purity and perfection as essential, and required by and before God, seems in its core and its entirety to be self-sabotage. The pretense and the arrogance to believe and to impose such a belief and practice of the appearance of holiness and sanctimony on its officials, as if it has been ordained by God, undermines the very dynamic of the religious, spiritual and soul-making and salvation processes.

Such a premise can and does and will only lead to an ecclesial genuflection and almost a military and dogmatic insistence on secrecy and a frozen public face while opening the institution to the truth of its own denial and avoidance of the deeper truth that such a proposition and presumption is both unnatural and unsustainable.

‘Walking on eggs’ and sequestering all wildness, savagery, spontaneity, deception,  the sinister and the dark sides of our person as well as the dark side of the church itself, in order to please God (any God of any faith) seems, at its core, to be an act of the most ungodly, deceitful and nefarious premise. Not only is it hypocritical, but it ‘encases’ God in a man-conceived box and then authorizes and permits and sustains a practice of moral, ethical, social and psychological colonialism and domination. To presume that ‘God’ ordains and sanctifies and has already vetted such a twisting of individual humans, and organizational identities, and then to slide openly and willingly and conspicuously into the corporate business model as the path to respectability and credibility (bigger and richer numbers of people and dollars are the signs of God working), is only adding to the theological Achilles heel. At the core of the Christian faith lies the exhortation to humility; at the core of its identity is hubris. And the two are incompatible.

It is the reduction of the spiritual life to the narrow confines of conventional morality, sustained by the achievement of corporate ‘fiscal stability’ that demonstrates the domination of the ‘spirit’ as compared with the proximity to God of soul.

And it is, so proposed here, from the difference between spirit and soul, from the perspective of archetypal psychology, that the church has much to learn, to  integrate, and to begin to ‘see’. Hillman writes:

At times the spirit position with its rhetoric of order, number, knowledge, permanency and self-defensive logic has been discussed as ‘senex’ and Saturnian; at other times, because of its rhetoric of clarity and detached observation, it has been discussed as Apollonic; on other occasions, because of the rhetoric of unity, ultimacy, identity, it has been termed ‘monotheistic’; and in other contexts, ‘heroic’ also ‘puer’. While recognizing that the spirit perspective must place itself above (as the soul places itself as inferior) and speak in transcendent, ultimate and pure terms, archetypal psychology conceives its task to be one of imagining the spirit language of ‘truth’ faith law and the like as a rhetoric of spirit, even if spirit is obliged by the same rhetoric to take its stance truthfully and faithfully, i.e. literally. (Archetypal Psychology, A Brief Account, p.25)

Archetypal psychology does or ought to replace religion or faith; rather it is here intimated and even envisioned that perhaps through the archetypal psychology approach of the poetic mind, the complexity of human beings, first approached from a mythical relevance to gods and goddesses, that the path to faith and faith community can be enriched, enhanced and enlivened.

The literary imagination has given us models of world views that include the ironic, the tragic, the comic and the historic. It has also given us, through each lens, images of God as king, healer, teacher, prophet (i.e Hopewell’s work, Congregation) and modes of worship that, based far too heavily on ‘marketing’ and  ‘growth’ in a corporate model. The literary imagination has also given us models of the hero within, including the innocent, the orphan, the victim, the warrior and the magician, as exemplified in and through movies and novels of development. Freud and Jung have both excavated the human unconscious as integral to our complexity. Hillman opens us to the perspective of the poetic mind and the imaginal in and through the lens of archetypal psychology. And while none of these kernels of theory or ideas or propositions can or will be ultimate or final or absolute, it is the negation of the absolute and the courage to begin to envision the hypothetical, the ambiguity and the numinous through archetypal psychology that has the potential to open doors and windows for theology that have been sealed shut for eons.

The church’s theological ‘pillars’ of thought, tradition, scholarship, and the belief systems that have emerged from those wells, have, at least from a liberal perspective, have embraced the discoveries of science, without throwing the baby our with the bath water. That is the case in the creation/evolution debate, and in the freedom of choice/right to life debate. However, it is in the dualities, and the literal dimensions of our debates, imposing a strict ‘either-or’ quality of certitude that both the secular and the sacred have fallen of the sword of reductionism.

Restoring a perspective of ambiguity, numinosity, multiplicity, while at the same time unleashing the concept of the psychological ‘normal’ from the confines of politically correct, socially tolerable conventionality, and squeezing the notion of the abnormal without abandoning the psychopathic or the sociopathic or the sexual offender….these are all noble and worthy ideals. Archetypal psychology also ‘grounds’ all of its precepts in the question ‘what does this mean to my death’ another revisionary notion that attempts to take the blinders of denial and avoidance off our shared conventional repression of the truth and reality of our mortality. That in itself is a gift for both psychology and religion.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Trapsing further into the flow of images, archetypes in psychic rivers...the poetic mind

 One of the most complex notions in attempting to describe the complex world of human beings, including our encounters with other equally complex, nuanced, dynamic and turbulent human beings, is that, while these keys are painting letters and words in the early morning of December 11, 2022, and there is a kind of focus on their sequence and their meaning, not only is the message they are attempting to convey coming from an incomplete scribe, with a partial view of himself and the world, the letters and the scribe are in a state of constant movement. Nothing that we say, think, perceive, write and even believe, while we hold tight to its purpose and intent in the moment, is or can be captured in a bottle.

And, while it may seem ‘encased’ in the bottle of the letters and words and derived meaning of each reader, (as well as the intended meaning and purpose of the writer), it is also a mere particle of the universe’s sense of itself, at a moment in time. Time, as a construct of our attempt to ‘order’ our lives and our world, is ephemeral, essentially a metaphor of linearity, structure, deadlines, planning guidelines and something of a measure of ‘how long we have’ in this life. And while we grow up in a ‘time-named’ world, there is a different world of how ‘images’ (of which group we are part), float in and through and out of our conscious and unconscious minds, rooms, courts, classrooms, offices, homes, sanctuaries, emergency rooms, forests, mountains and rivers.

The indigenous relationship to the natural world, including the rivers, has helped many to envision a ‘flow’ of external events, which metaphor has relevance, resonance and application to our inner lives which are also in flux, with or without our acknowledgement of that flow. This ‘flow’ is not the ‘flow’ of the intensity of an athlete who is ‘in the zone’; rather this ‘flow’ is the image of moving water in all of its various conditions, speeds, environments including banks, beds, skies, animal and bird ethos, and something inescapably ethereal and atmospheric. Just as the river itself is a living and changing and awesome example of the dynamic of movement and permanence, so are we. It is cogent and coherent to think of our human entity, identity, complexity, including our attitudes, beliefs, actions, motivations as well as our bodies and our minds, through the lens of the flowing river. And that flow has implications not only for the ageing of our bodies, but also the transitions and transformations of what we conceive of as the operative archetypes in our psyche.

While the puer-senex oscillation is an example of how some (think Jung first) have imagined the dynamic of how the youth-age oscillation is both perceived and enacted, we are not and cannot be encased in such a river of images that posits puer literally and exclusively in youth and senex literally and exclusively in our dotage. Any discussion, observation or even any further cognitive/imaginative speculation, reflection and application of these ‘images’ or archetypes, cannot be seen in the light of a rigid or even an oscillating kind of ‘magnetic force’. Even positive and negative energy, as envisioned by the physicists, does not capture, but merely hints at, the dynamic between and among the archetypes. And those archetypes, themselves, are not alone in our psyche. They inhabit an imagination again itself not a terrain, or a piece of intellectual real estate, but another ‘energy’ or capacity, or image itself resonating with a magnetic, artistic, executive, cognitive, physical, burst of energy that we can sometimes glimpse, both coming from ourselves, and/or being projected onto us or even from us onto others.

We use images from physics, or medicine, based on something we have come to denote as ‘empirical’ and measureable, and limited by our definitions, as a way of attempting to communicate meaning and purpose. And yet, in each case, even in those cases in which we are ‘dealing with the facts’ (truth, empirically verifiable, demonstrably affirmed and confirmed by others) we are exploring and exposing various ‘perceptions’ or ‘takes’ on those truths. And while we have codified, defined, inculcated and proselytized this universe, and conduct our business, medical, legal, educational, social, political, environmental, scientific, and even our religious affairs, including our individual lives, amid the language of these spheres, as if the empirical was the only universe extant, our psyche is another realm of which we continue to explore.

And, of course, we are both indebted to and dependent on the same words used in our daily lives to discuss various perspectives, theories and models of how our psyche is and operates. Capturing some concept that is abstract in a cluster of letters that appear concrete, and tend to paint a picture of something ‘we can experience with our senses,’ is something of a mug’s game. This conundrum confronts all our attempts to ‘dig’ into anything relating to god, goddesses, myth, archetype, fantasy, dream, and image. Even the words, themselves, conjure up images that tend to identify classes of images as empirically valid, and thereby eligible for academic disciplines to investigate, or ‘ethereal, spiritual, ephemeral and abstract’ and thereby excluded from rigorous academic disciplines to explore.

Such a division, however, belies and precludes the full application of many of the brightest and most insightful minds, and leaves those ‘artsy’ types outside the formal, structures of academia. We love our art galleries and the images on their walls, and we do have some ‘schools’ in which the basic principles of how to capture and portray images are taught, practiced, adjudicated, valued, displayed and sold. And we do have our cathedrals, synagogues and mosques, in which prayers, hymns, homilies and physical gestures, adornments, images and liturgies (all of them images of one kind or another) are enacted, displayed, and even sanctified and blessed.

What we continue to struggle with, still, along with the sheer depth and complexity of the multiple galaxies and universes to be discovered, and the complexities of how oceanic “life” continues and changes, and the applications, for example, of I-131 to the treatment of pancreatic cancer, is the dynamic of the human psyche. Defined as the human soul, spirit, or mind, coming from the Greek, psyche which

means, ‘the soul, mind, spirit, or invisible animating entity which occupies the physical body. Not your actual brain, but whatever it is that generates all of your thoughts and emotions, the immaterial part of a person; the actuating cause of an individual life.” (

Again, here, the concept of a ‘box’ definition, frozen in time, or even in a single idea, is a kind of reduction that denies the dynamic of the river of ideas (images, archetypes, that, rather than lying ‘frozen’ on the canvas of our psyche, actually ‘have us’ in their hands (another metaphor) and another way of both seeing and thereby thinking about how the psyche pulses. And these ideas, these images, themselves never isolated from other ideas and images, and never exclusively in charge of how we think or see ourselves,  essentially, as James Hillman writes in Revisioning Psychology:

 (P)sychologizing, as it converts alien ideas into psychological ones, subsumes all other actions. Through psychologizing I change the idea of any literal action at all   --political, scientific, personal—into a metaphorical enactment. I see the act and scene and stance I am in, and not only the action I am into. I recognize that through my ideas I apprehend and am apprehended by my inmost subjectivity, entering all actions in the role of an idea.

Archetypal psychology envisions the fundamental ideas of the psyche to be expressions of persons—Hero, Nymph, Mother, Senex, Child, Trickster, Amazon, Puer, and many other specific prototypes bearing the names and stories of the Gods. These are the root metaphors. They provide the patterns of our thinking as well as of our feeling and doing. They give all our psychic functions-whether thinking, feeling, perceiving or remembering—0their imaginal life, their internal coherence, their force, their necessity and their ultimate intelligibility. These persons keep our persons in order, holding to significant patterns the3 segments and fragments of behavior we call emotions, memories, attitudes, and motives. When we lose sight of these archetypal figures we become, in a sense, psychologically insane: that is, by not ‘keeping in mind’ the metaphorical roots we go ‘out of our minds’—outside where ideas have become literalized into history, society, clinical psychopathology, or metaphysical truths. Then we attempt to understand what goes on inside by observing the outside, turning inside out, losing both the significant interiority in all events and our own interiority as well. The weaker and dimmer our notions of the archetypal premises or our ideas, the more likely our actions area to become stuck fast in roles. We become caught in typical problems, missing the archetypal fantasy we are enacting. Even with the best moral intentions, political goals, and philosophical methods, we will exhibit a psychological naivete. Even that precious instrument, reason, loses its freedom of insight when it forgets the divine persons who govern its perspectives. ( Hillman, op, cit.,p.127-128)

And a little later, Hillman, in the same work, writes this:

A semantic definition of metaphor is ‘deviant discourse’ and its corresponding opposite term is ‘literal.’ The dictionary says that metaphors transfer meaning. If psyhchologizing proceeds by seeing through the plainly literal, then the psychologizing activity will continually enliven, by transferring meaning into and out of direct discourse. Psychology then refers less to a body of knowledge than to a perspective parallel to other bodies of knowledge, a running commentary to the direct and literal discourse. Psychology will not be straight and well0-structured. IT will be scattered, not direct, not a Hero on his course, but a Knight Errant picking up insights by the way. (Hillman op. cit, p. 159)

While engaged in the teaching profession, I and many of my colleagues were or became acquainted with the work of both Freud and Jung, in a limited way at best. We learned names of the Ego, Id and Libido from the Freud lexicon, and animus and anima from the Jungian lexicon. The concept of the Shadow, (from Jung) also started to appear as the dark side, that ‘bag of traumas, tragedies we had experienced, which, at the time of their occurrence, we buried in our unconscious, so the pattern went, in order to be brought out later, in later life, for mining for the respective ‘gold’ of the lessons about what we had by then learned, and how we might approach a similar rough patch now. Consistently, throughout those decades, eccentric and especially extreme actions, thoughts, attitudes, were considered ‘abnormal’. And these social and political and even professional ‘judgements’ were being made by doctors, teachers, clergy, social workers and even by executives engaged in the business of classifying and then hiring or rejecting candidates for employment.

Eruptions of behaviour, then termed, ‘situational maladjustment syndromes’ were considered abnormal, and were often prescribed pharmaceuticals, in order to moderate both feelings and actions. Judgements by those in positions of authority, often veered in the direction of ‘assignment’ to some kind of psychiatric care facility for individuals whom they considered ‘abnormal’. And the perception of the abnormal was, itself, partly informed by, for example, the kind of religiosity, morality and sense of professional obligation to rid such individuals from public interference and potential insecurity.

Several decades hence, through the thoughts, imagination and writing of people like Hillman, we can see validity in a way of seeing (soul) that embraces the metaphor of images, archetypes, that, rather than pigeon-hole our character and our person into something like a tumor, or a broken femur, or a genetic hole in the heart, and then prescribe some ‘medical’ treatment, we all more able and thereby likely to take a more ‘flowing’ and process and idea-energized interpretation of those eccentricities and not automatically deem them either criminal or requiring medical treatment.

It is that timeline, that this scribe is attempting to discern from both experience and reflection, in these pieces.

                                     ---more to come----