The couple sitting in front of me in my counseling office looks nervous and concerned, almost frightened. It’s as if their marriage has been threatened by a kind of cancer and they already know that the outcome is going to be disaster or a very painful process of recovery unlike anything they ever imagined. I know and they know this won’t be easy. We have a lot of work to do, and we need to get going. The sooner the better.
I have been doing this kind of work for over 30 years. The couples who have experienced infidelity surprise me. The ones I think will be able to heal and rebuild trust often fail. The ones who succeed defy my expectations. Those ones are often the “worst case” scenarios — multiple affairs over many years with secrets on top of secrets, and betrayal on top of betrayal. Yet, these couples are the ones that have taught me the most about what it takes to heal from the damage caused by infidelity.
The question I hold, privately at first, is this: “What was the soul of the one who had the affair looking for?” And “What was it in the soul of the marriage itself that was missing?”
So often in our culture, marriages begin with lots of soulfulness, magic, mystery, inspiration, and of course romance. But the demands of jobs and careers, raising children, maintaining homes and loyalties to extended family and friends take precedence over the deeper needs of one’s soul. What began with spontaneity and lots of heartfelt desire devolves into a relationship that is functional and conventional — mystery, novelty, and romance have left the scene.
Looking for and finding answers takes time. In therapy, hurt and anger are center stage initially. Truth-telling, too. The whole truth. Though, there’s only so much truth a wounded partner can take, and it has to be administered in doses, like chemotherapy, so as to not kill whatever slim rays of hope there may be of rebuilding trust and desire. The one who betrayed may promise that it won’t happen again. But of course, it will, unless the soul somehow gets a voice.
What couples have taught me is that an affair is, almost always, an unconscious agreement on the part of two people to bring a third party into the marriage in order to address a problem or problems they have been unable to resolve on their own. The marriage has become centered around the children, with no time to nurture the relationship that brought those children into the world. Or work at the office and at home has consumed all hours in a day except what’s left for sleep. There’s no time for nurturing the self. The couple has forgotten that playfulness and freedom fed the soul of the relationship in the beginning, and the marriage has gotten lost in a life of obedience to multiple commitments, paying the bills, and keeping a constantly busy schedule. You get the idea. It’s a familiar story. Often, it’s the price of success — success narrowly defined, that is.
And yet, most textbooks treat infidelity as if it was a cancer to be removed or destroyed; and then, all will be restored to the way things were before the betrayal ever happened. The story of how the couple unconsciously created the affair can get lost and forgotten. The symptom has been cured, but the seedbed for the next potential betrayal simply lies dormant, undiscovered, and unhealed. I tell a couple in the first session the most important sign of healing is someday, if they’ve done their work well, a total stranger could ask each of them separately, “what happened,” and the story each of them told would sound basically the same: stories of what their souls had lost and what their souls had found.
I receive postcards and notes occasionally from the couples who have been willing to go deeper together. They are smiling and happy, usually in some scene on a lake or in the mountains, or at the beach. I know the courage it took to reinvent themselves and recreate a marriage with legs for the long run. They didn’t just get rid of the problem. They used the problem to discover paths of soulfulness and hope. Marriage 1.0 was exchanged for a completely revamped Marriage 2.0: marriages with plenty of responsibilities, but also marriages filled with heartfelt honesty, emotional vulnerability, playfulness, and dreaming together about lives of meaning, honesty, and renewed desire. Every marriage has it’s set of problems, even the happiest ones. What makes the problems worthwhile is a couple’s willingness to stay conscious of their authentic needs and working towards their dreams together.
This is a scene from my memoir, Three Marriages and a Minister. It’s a story about how a man who is both an ordained minister and an experienced psychotherapist has gone through three marriages and three divorces, and wonders “What is wrong with this picture, and what is wrong with me?” His story is one of confusion, humiliation, discovery, healing, and transformation, as he attempts to put what he has learned to use as he prepares for yet a fourth marriage.
* * * * * * *
“I had an image that frightened me the other day, Louis. It was shocking. I was sitting on my couch with my laptop computer, waiting for my next client to log on for a Zoom session. My camera was on, so I could see myself on the screen. The left side of my throat looked swollen. When I reached up and touched it, it felt larger, too, and it was tender.”
My friend, Louis, and I were sitting on the front porch of his brick cottage at Aldersgate Retirement Community where he had lived alone since his wife Jodie’s death just a few months before. Jodie had lived with Alzheimer’s for several years, until she finally succumbed to a malnourished body and the damage inflicted by several falls. This was the first meal that Louis and I had shared since the COVID-19 virus had shut down the entire facility to visitors a year ago. We were celebrating our reunion by feasting on hamburgers and pimento Mac-and-Cheese from Jack Beagles, a local eatery in NoDa near my home. Sitting socially distanced in the warm, late afternoon ambiance, we had caught up with each other on most of the particulars of what was going on in each other’s lives, and now we were moving on to weightier matters, as was our standard cadence.
I continued. “The next thing I knew, out of nowhere, came the thought: ‘What if I have cancer? That would give me an excuse to slow down and put off selling my house and delay my marriage to Elaine?’”
“That’s horrible,” Louis said with a grimace.
“I know, but isn’t that how some people get cancer? An unspoken or unconscious wish that can’t otherwise be expressed? The cancer becomes an answer to that wish?”
“I suppose so,” Louis just nodded thoughtfully.
“It reminds me of my father. He was diagnosed with lung cancer within a month after retiring. He was a lifetime smoker up until a week before he died. After all of those years of being a surgeon, it must have killed him to have nothing to look forward to every day – just golf and martinis. His marriage to my mother was mediocre. The timing of it all was too coincidental.”
Louis listened as he finished off his cheeseburger, the wheels in his head turning. At 83, he had had his own health scares, like the time he had gone in for a stress test, and ten hours later found himself on the operating room table getting prepped to receive three stints in his heart.
“I can’t keep doing this Louis. It’s killing me. Back in May, I felt like my life was in balance. But now, my caseload’s picked up. I’m writing a memoir, and Elaine and I are getting our houses ready to place on the market so that we can sell them before the end of the year. I had no idea how stressful it would be. The pre-listing inspection for my house came back with about a hundred repairs that need to be fixed and paid for. I haven’t slept well all week.”
There was a long pause as the last few minutes of sunlight faded into dusk. All was quiet, except for my Cocker Spaniel, Theo, padding back and forth hoping for something to fall from our plates.
“Well, this is very interesting to hear you say these things now,” Louis said. “I know you haven’t believed me, John, when I’ve told you that I can tell that my cognitive abilities have slowed way down. You’ve said that you haven’t noticed, but I have, and for some time. I’ll be reaching for a thought, and it’s just not there.” Louis moved his head up and down for emphasis. The pain was written on his face. But he was right – I hadn’t noticed. To me, Louis’s ability to think deeply and broadly about political, social, psychological, and theological issues was as keen as ever. And I relied on his superb intellect to help me make sense of difficult clinical conundrums. The thought of life without Louis’s friendship and particularly life without Louis’s mind was dreadful. Our visits over the years had been like a compass to me, more often than I can count, helping me to adjust direction or fine-tune treatment plans – or steering me clear of vocational or personal boulders, the size of two-story houses, into which I was headed for a crash. Louis had become an essential part of my life; and, in my way of thinking, irreplaceable.
“I’m starting to understand, Louis. But it’s only this very moment as we’re talking that I can hear what you’re saying. I haven’t wanted to admit how much I’m slowing down. I’ve started taking two naps a day since the COVID hit. I cherish those twenty minutes of peace and quiet and rest.”
“I’ve been amazed at how much you’re able to take on: your travels with Elaine, dance lessons, your Airbnb’s, your counseling and your teaching and your bicycling – and now your writing. I don’t know how you’ve been doing it.”
“I’ve just always thought I was like Clark Kent. When necessary, I could throw on my Superman cape and overcome whatever: a problem at work, a conflict in my marriage, a hip or knee replacement – neck surgery. I’ve always been a fixer, a problem solver. I’ve tackled challenges a lot of people never would have tried. I always feel like there’s a way to do it. But not anymore. I don’t want to. It’s like I reach for my cape, and it’s not even there. That image of cancer frightens me. But I know I have to listen to it. I have to slow down. I have to say goodbye to the Hero.”
In Jungian psychology, The Hero is an archetype – a form of masculine energy that is universally experienced in every culture known to humanity, and throughout history. Women can live heroically as well; but the archetype of the Hero is an innate form of psychic intelligence that informs how we live. It’s the stuff of the Knights of the Round Table, Lord of the Rings, John Wayne films, Indiana Jones, and 007. The Hero’s Journey is a mythic tale from ancient times that describes clearly how men are to relate to themselves and to others and to the world. In my own life’s journey, The Hero has enabled me to accomplish much – a career in which I served five different churches and built three counseling centers from scratch, completed three graduate degrees, fathered two children, survived three marriages, and juggled innumerable unforeseen disappointments and challenges. In a man’s sixties, however, the Hero must step aside to make way for a different, emerging form of psychic intelligence – the Elder – to stay whole and healthy. At sixty-seven, holding on to the Hero way-too-tightly, it was high time for me to put down the battle gear. My body, my soul, and my bicycle were all slowing down as if a wounded soldier, against his commander’s orders, was waving an invisible white flag – not a sign of failure or defeat, but certainly it was time for a truce and a new plan.
“I’m enjoying my solitude more and more, Louis.” I reflected.
Louis burst into laughter. “Oh, I’d trade places with you any day! My life is nothing but solitude. I’ve been quarantined for a year now – it’s like a prison.” Absent his beloved Jodie, I had heard Louis often on this topic. He would fall into a monologue vividly painting for me the perils of loneliness – his only company an aging cat named Sallie, Netflix, and MSNBC. I felt guilty for wanting the solitude that, for Louis, was a torment; but that didn’t slow me down.
“I understand. I just never knew how good it can feel to live alone and to enjoy my freedom. With Elaine’s energy and enthusiasm and my introversion, how will we ever blend our lives? I can’t keep up? Do I even want to?”
“You sound like you’re at a crossroads, John. Are you?”
I paused to let Louis’s question sink in.
“I think so.”
Those short, three words felt like air bubbles coming up from below the surface of a deep pool in an ancient cavern; or like a mountain spring that had been plugged up for decades, finally finding the tiniest of openings and bursting out from the pressure. The words came to the surface and out of my mouth and into the silence. I didn’t want to say them, nor did I want to hear them. But it was as if it wasn’t me speaking at all – someone else, a thousand years old, was saying them for me. If it had been up to me, my mouth would have stayed shut. But to Louis and to whoever created the Truth, the words came out…. “I think so.”
In those moments of quietness, except for a few cicadas screaming loudly against the darkness, I noticed that the Hero had left without saying goodbye. He had simply vanished. After governing my every waking moment for sixty-seven years, he was gone – and I didn’t miss him. A curious sense of peace had taken the place of my fear. Would the Hero come back? I hoped he wouldn’t.
“I want to marry Elaine, but I don’t want to keep up this pace. I want to slow down, and that’s new. I never saw it coming. I’ve been fighting it: working out every chance I get, trying to eat right, keeping a full caseload. But I know that selling a house and buying a new one and getting married are three of the top five stressors on the Stress Inventory. My score is probably already in the red-zone. You’re vulnerable to getting sick when that happens. I don’t want that.”
“What will Elaine say if you tell her you want to slow down?” I had been wondering the same thing ever since my text message earlier that afternoon.
Just then, a notification flashed on my Apple Watch from one of my Airbnb guests. I had left my iPhone in the car, so I went to check it. I opened the car door, grabbed my iPhone, and instantly saw that I had missed a text from Elaine. The message that I had sent to her before picking up supper had simply said, “I can’t sustain this pace. I can’t be good for you or for anyone else with this much stress. I’ll need more time to get my house ready for sale.” I had worried that Elaine would overreact and think that I was calling off our plans to marry – it wouldn’t have been the first time I had inflicted my doubts on her. Or would she freak out herself and call the whole thing off? How much of my flip-flopping could she stand?
But Elaine wasn’t mad at me. Her message was calm and reassuring. She acknowledged how much pressure I had been under, and that was all I needed. It was more than enough. Hope rose within me as I digested the written words on the screen. Maybe we could, indeed, create the kind of lasting, soul-filled alliance that would last us through this last chapter of our lives. I had fought off the death of the Hero with the force of willfulness and with the energy of heart-felt goals, mixed-in with heavy doses of shame and fears of failure. But what Louis had helped me to see was that I had also been fighting off nature – the Elder had arrived. The Elder, the masculine archetype of wisdom, was taking over the reigns from the Hero. The Elder’s role is to stand at the perimeter of the community, to remind people of their values and their history and their traditions, but not immerse himself in the center of community life any longer. In the place of Hero energy is the energy of patience, peace, spirituality, friendship, love, dialogue, vulnerability, harmony, and wisdom. I imagined a new alchemy of self and relatedness for me; and a marriage of, not just two people, but two distinct souls.
Unexpectedly, I felt that I was coming to an end – and a beginning. I did not have to get cancer, afterall, to give myself permission to slow down. I could do so consciously and willingly – even joyfully. I heard myself say to the Elder in me, “Welcome. I’m ready to go. It’s about time.” And silently to Elaine, “Let’s do this.”
Now, you may be thinking that I’m just trying to hook you in with a provocative title — and you would be partially right. But I hope you’ll read on.
My mother would have been 93 today if she was still alive. And I would have visited her gravesite in Statesville, but I can never find her stone in that massive sea. So I thought I would honor her this way. She gave me much and there was much that I needed that she never gave me. But she always wanted me to pursue my dreams. What better gift can a child receive than that?
Most of us owe a lot to our mothers for their caring and for their suffering, for bringing us into the world, and so much more. When I think of Jesus’ mother, Mary, I suspect that Jesus owed her more than most. It could not have been easy raising the Son of God. Freud didn’t do mothers any favors by shining a light on how crucial the first few months and years of life are for the fragile psyches of children. But Mary knew it 1900 years earlier. Wouldn’t you try to be the most perfect mother in the world, knowing how much was riding on it, as Mary must have known? She deserves all of the veneration, and then some, as seen in the hundreds, if not thousands, of beautiful paintings and sculptures of Madonna and Child.
Even with all that we owe our mothers, however, they are not to be worshipped. We owe them a return on their investment of love, for sure. But we don’t owe them our lives.
Obviously, Jesus did not say the words, “Mom, go to hell.” But that was the gist of what he said to her one day, if we take the scripture literally, as well as symbolically. Jesus was out healing and teaching, and it had been a long day, maybe without time to eat or drink or rest. The crowds were immense. People of every walk in life, rich and poor, were drawn to Jesus by his message and by his personality — he was someone that could be trusted. He walked the talk, and they loved him. But Mary led Jesus’s siblings on a different mission that day — they wanted to save him. Save him from what, you may ask? Well, save Jesus from himself, evidently. They were afraid that Jesus was losing his mind — that he was “beside of himself,” in the Greek translation of the text (Mark 3:32-35). These days, we would be more blunt: he’s insane, or he’s lost his mind, or he’s gone crazy.
Because of the crowds, though, Mary could not reach her son. So word was passed from one pilgrim to another, and finally, word got to Jesus: “Your mother and brothers are outside.”
Jesus, at this point, might have said something deferential, like, “Tell my mother I’ll be home for supper,” or “Let’s catch up with each other on the Sabbath — I’m just fine. Don’t worry.” But no, Jesus was a bit of smart ass. What he said exactly was this — a riddle. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Ouch! Not what a worried mother would want to hear just then. And then, this — driving a stake deeper into Mary’s heart: “Here (pointing to the crowd) are my mother and brothers.” Double ouch!
I know some mothers and you do too, I’m sure, that if their sons or daughters talked to them that way, there would be words — and not nice ones — exchanged. I’ve seen some mothers sulk for days for much less, and I’ve seen some mothers threaten their sons or daughters with all sorts of retaliation for such disrespectful speeches. And Jesus said this in public. Was that any way to talk to the Mother of God?
Of course, Jesus wasn’t meaning Mary any disrespect, but he clearly was keeping his biological family responsibilities squarely in proportion to his spiritual family responsibilities. It’s a good lesson to us, because we sometimes confuse the two. Sometimes, even, our biological families and our spiritual families cannot co-exist. It can be a problem that way.
My own son, when he was 21, told me to go to hell. I didn’t like it, but I knew we had come to a point in our relationship, where it was time to put me in my place. I had become overbearing, implying that I didn’t trust him and his decision-making. And it was true — in that moment, I didn’t. The father part of me was terribly hurt and upset at being told where to go; but the therapist in me was silently cheering him on. He was well on his way to finding himself, and he needed, for awhile, to go his own way.
Eventually, we repaired the breach, and I’m so proud of who he became and is still becoming. It’s the privilege of a lifetime to watch our sons and daughters grow and develop into sensitive, caring, passionate human beings who are making the planet a better place to live.
As Jesus hung on the Cross, breathing his last, his mind was clear enough to ask one of the disciples to look after Mary when he was gone. He loved her and she loved Jesus. And we who follow him are so much better for it — for the way they clarified their relationship with each other and with us. We are Jesus’s “mothers and brothers” and sisters and fathers and sons and daughters and uncles and aunts. We who follow the way of Jesus are one universal family.
We are the Priests of secular culture. Mister Rogers and me and my clinical colleagues.
Acceptance, unconditional positive regard, warmth, empathy, compassion. We are Church for both the unchurched and many Churched-folk who find sanctuary and solace within the space and time of the clinical hour.
Let’s face it. The Church has not been doing its job for some time. It’s nothing new. People flock to psychologists and therapists of various ilks to cure their ills. We all know it. Masters Degree programs in psychology and counseling know it and they are proliferating while church attendance is dropping precipitously.
We are the new houses of prayer. We are the new confessionals where people come to pour out their souls, where people seek absolution from their failures and neuroses (sins, in Church-parlance). The clinical setting is the new sacred space and therapists are the new priests.
Our partners in crime in this takeover of the sacred are the multitude of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and other 12-step groups throughout the land where men and women who have gone sober relinquish the demands of their selfish egos to a Higher Power. Church is alive and well — it’s just forwarded its new address to a different set of locations. There are no rolls or stewardship campaigns, no mission committees or Boards of Trustees. But attendance Monday through Saturday is incredible.
Insurance companies don’t like to think about such things. They are leery of anything that smacks of religion — what Freud referred to as “the opium of the masses.” But the word religion comes from the Latin root word which means “to connect” — to reconnect to what is essential in being human and alive. Which, by the way, is what therapy is about: reconnecting with ones soul, reconnecting with one’s significant other, reconnecting with the wellsprings of life and of justice.
What is missing from the new Church of therapy is a moral compass in many cases. We still need a moral compass, a system of values to guide us in an age of postmodernism where absolutes supposedly don’t exist. But some therapists get it.
The morality of compassion is universal, for example. Carl Rogers, one of the founders of modern psychotherapy modeled this. More recently, as depicted in the movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Tom Hanks does a splendid job of portraying a Christ-likeness that is more symbolic than literal — and yet, every bit as powerful as the Gospel character from Galilee. Mister Rogers embodies compassion. Feelings matter, and he’s not afraid to “go there” with children or adults: anger, sadness, pain, divorce, death. The existential moments of human life are all on the table in the sacred neighborhood of Rogers-land. Take your shoes off with him — you’re instantly on Holy Ground.
On one occasion, Mister Rogers is talking with a little boy whose story is one of unspeakable pain and suffering. The journalist interviewing Mister Rogers for an article in the magazine Esquire notices that Mr. Rogers whispers something in the little boy’s ear. Mister Rogers shares that he asked the little boy to pray for him — Mister Rogers! The journalist comments that it makes sense that Mister Rogers wanted to help the little boy feel that he mattered. But Mister Rogers quickly responded. He asked the boy to pray for him, not because the boy needed to feel special; but because Mister Rogers himself needed the boy’s prayers. Anyone who had suffered as much as this boy had suffered must be very close to God!
We therapists are close to God everyday because we are close to the suffering of individuals, couples, and families who are hurting. They have come to us because they believe we will listen without judging, honor their pain without giving cheap advice, and steer them towards hope without the kind of preaching that is often frightening and judgmental. We are humans together and we are doing sacred work. We get to see grace-in-action every day.
In this sacred clinical space, we pray for each other, indeed. Church.
He had dug himself a big hole, and no one but Lee alone could dig his way out. At nineteen years old and back home living with his parents, Lee felt pretty shabby about himself. You see, Lee had bombed out of college. He couldn’t keep up with his studies. And when the news got to his coach, the baseball scholarship that was paying his way through school was taken away from him – no grades, no scholarship, no school. And on top of it all, on the night that he got pulled over for a DUI, Lee had also been charged with possession of an illegal substance, marijuana. His life was toast, at least for the time being.
Lee’s parents thought maybe I could help. They called to make an appointment for the family to come for an initial interview; and a few days later I met with the three of them at my counseling office.
“We just want him to see the danger in what he’s doing,” pleaded his mother, a high school guidance counselor herself. As a fellow counselor and parent, I felt a certain pressure to agree with her. But I knew better.
“Do you feel like Lee just doesn’t get it?” I asked. I had learned a long time ago that asking a clarifying question was a great way to stall and deflect.
“We just don’t know where his head is at,” chimed in his father. Lee looked up to his Dad a great deal, and I could sense the pain, not just in his father’s voice but in the relationship itself.
I nodded – a tactic that bought me a few more moments to take in what was happening and to figure out what to say.
“What about you Lee? What do you think? Your parents seem pretty scared.”
Lee sat on one end of the large leather couch, as far as he could sit comfortably from his parents who were huddled together at the other end.
“I don’t know. I just want to go back to college,” Lee said somewhat sheepishly. At that, I noticed his parents rolling their eyes in unison. I didn’t need to be a mind reader to translate their synchronized gesture. But I now had something I thought I could work with.
“Good! Let’s look at the calendar and see when you and I can meet and start working on your goals for your life. I’d like to meet with your Mom and your Dad every other week, too, just to make sure we’re all on the same page. How’s that sound?”
Wide eyed, dubious nods all around, and why not? Marijuana use is synonymous with being a teenager these days. Lee’s parents had provided a nearly idyllic life for him. They had traveled to endless baseball games for many years, and it had paid off. But they had also exhausted themselves trying to motivate Lee academically. Diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactive disorder), Lee just couldn’t get any traction or focus. Why wouldn’t they feel doubtful about yet another attempt to light a fire under Lee? If all of their considerable efforts had failed, how was I going to get through to their wayward son?
Fear naturally grips the hearts and souls of parents whose teenagers abuse marijuana, and they have a right to be afraid. Surgeon General Jerome Adams states categorically that marijuana is “a dangerous drug.” It doesn’t help matters that marijuana is legalized in eleven states, while “Federal law still treats it as a controlled substance akin to opioids.” Why wouldn’t a sane teenager use these inconsistencies to his or her advantage? “What’s the big deal? If we lived in Colorado, none of this would matter.” And in a way, they’re right.
In another way, however, they’re wrong. As Jerome Adams further states, “It’s not your mother’s marijuana.” The concentration of THC in today’s version of marijuana is three times stronger. And research on the effects of regular marijuana use has demonstrated that marijuana is “harmful to the developing brains of teenagers and to the human fetus.”
Trying to get parents and therapists to convince teenagers, though, of what they already know is like a one legged-man trying to climb Mt. Everest. It’s not happening. Driving cars fast is dangerous; binge-drinking is dangerous; and staying out all night and having unprotected sex is dangerous, too. But all of these are typical parts of the lives of many teenagers. They are not so much ignorant about the risks they are taking, as much as they are often just being normal teenagers – teens like to take risks.
My approach, then, with Lee was not to work the fear angle, which would have been to collude with his parents’ paranoia. Instead, I decided, to work with Lee on taking full responsibility for himself: paying for his own therapy, washing his own clothes, getting himself up in the morning for work, and setting goals and strategies to make the grades that he wanted to make. Did he truly love and care about himself for his own sake, and not just to appease his parents or even the law for that matter? What were his desires? What did he want from life?
Essentially, I encouraged Lee to tell the truth about himself to himself and to me, and to his parents – not about his use of marijuana so much as the truth about his identity and his sense of purpose. I believe that every person on the planet is here for some reason, to make a difference, and to matter. Did Lee want to look at himself in a mirror and ask himself, “Who and what do you want to be?” A nineteen year old doesn’t need a map for the rest of his life, but he does need to know that he cares about.
It is no surprise to me that Lee kept right on smoking weed. He liked the way it made him feel, and most of his friends smoked. But after a failed attempt to make passing grades in his first semester at a local community college, Lee tried on his own initiative doing without marijuana for a couple of months. His grades improved, enough in fact that he was accepted into the college of his choice.
Lee had worked his ass off at Target, too, thus earning the respect of his peers – a real boon to his self-esteem. He also made enough money so that he could fund the first six months in an apartment near the college he would be attending – his parents, on my advice, did not give him a dime. They would help Lee financially from time to time, but it was up to Lee to make it pretty much on his own.
Lee’s Mom and Dad were still worried about the marijuana, and they still rode his case about it from time to time. But they had stopped bugging him about other things — things like getting to work on time or making sure he deposited his pay check into his savings account. They treated him like an adult rather than like a child. They had exchanged fear as their primary motivator in favor of tough love. Lee’s failures and mistakes were his, but he was also beginning to rack up quite a few significant successes too.
We all watched and cheered for Lee from the sidelines. And with a sense of awe and a deep sense of appreciation, we became witnesses to this apparent marvel of metamorphosis – a boy becoming a man. It was, at least in my way of thinking, a lot more fun than even baseball.
In a recent dream, I was in the act of taking black and white snapshots of my father (long deceased) who was behind bars. He looked forlorn there, standing in a tiny jail cell where apparently he had been sentenced for an unknown crime.
I don’t like these kind of dreams. They’re disturbing and depressing. Though my father and I were never close, I still would never want him to be jailed. But I also know that in my dream my father’s image is actually a stand-in for a part of me. So what’s up with that? What part of me is feeling sentenced?
I have a new appreciation of late for people who suffer with chronic pain. When my orthopedist, who has already replaced my right hip with an artificial joint, looked with me at an X-ray of my arthritic left hip, it made perfect sense why I had been having lots of pain and lots of difficulty walking. Bone on bone! A cortisone shot would help to tide me over for a few months, but a second hip operation is definitely in my future.
Pain does things to the mind. It makes me feel old at 65. Even though I work out, try to eat right, stay active, work five days a week, and basically have a very positive outlook on life, I have been feeling much more “mortal” recently. I’m quite unhappy about what I refer to as “design flaws” in the human anatomy — those much too human vulnerabilities that seem to rear their heads more and more among almost every friend I know.
When friends and colleagues are stricken by illness, I automatically assume that I am immune from such things because I take such good care of myself. Wrong though this thinking is, I hold onto it like a cherished possession, creating a neat image of immortality and invulnerability….And, apparently, setting myself up for this other dream-image of being sentenced behind bars.
But as I worked with this dream and after sharing it with my therapist, I realized that actually I am not sentenced. I have choices: a great surgeon whom I trust, a wonderful job that I find fulfilling and doesn’t require a lot of physical strength, and retirement savings that I can use to get me through a time of rehabilitation after surgery. I am blessed with caring friends, a loving and supportive relationship, and a wonderful family. So with a new hip, if all goes as well as the first hip replacement, I should be pain free again. But obviously, I am entering a phase in my life when I will need to alter my delusional expectations of invincibility as I make some adjustments to my level of activity.
Growing old gracefully is not necessarily for the weak of heart. But it seems now to be a better challenge than kicking and screaming against reality. I won’t, obviously, live forever; but neither am I sentenced to the jail of my own making.
I had no idea when I was a child that the monster or boogey-man chasing me in my dreams was really just me. I had not come across the ideas of Carl Jung on “the shadow” at that point in my life. So it would never have occurred to me that the scary person I was running from was myself.
I can’t clearly remember the dreams now – I’m 65 years old for Pete’s sake. But, based on what I do remember, at that time in my life, I can make a few guesses as to what was going on. There was a part of me that was, frankly, full of rage — raw, barely contained, unadulterated rage.
Every family has certain rules of behavior. Sometimes, they are clearly spelled out, but often family rules are unspoken. Just based on my perception of things as a child, the rules about rage in my family were these: Dad and my older brother could express rage, but no one else was allowed. Dad’s rage was like a volcanic eruption — never physically violent, but very loud and the cause for me running and hiding for cover. My older brother’s rage was expressed whenever he was on the losing end of a neighborhood football or baseball game. He would stomp, yell and then pout and walk off the field in a huff.
But me — not so much. Oh, I would cry sometimes when I was angry, or I would withdraw, or on the other side of my rage, I would make nice as I tried to get on the good side of whoever had offended me. But never, never, never was I to raise my voice. On one occasion, when I fairly calmly told my mother I was angry with her, she went screaming down the hall, stating that I was driving her crazy!
So, I learned my lessons well. Don’t be angry, or if you are, keep it to yourself.
The Shadow feeds on such stuff, growing larger and larger each time we stuff into some invisible place within us the things we either can’t or won’t acknowledge. Like most things that are left in the basement of the psyche, such stuff tends to mold and fester, eventually taking on a life of its own. Anger repressed usually turns into depression or acting out — and I’ve had my share of both, thank you.
Becoming healthy and whole is certainly a lifelong challenge, and when we do our shadow-work, we move the ball of our spiritual growth a little further down the field, so to speak. When the Apostle Paul said for us to “Be angry, but do not sin,” I think what he was getting at is the idea of bringing up from the basement part of our soul the stuff that needs the healing light of day. What we can’t see or feel or touch usually controls us. What we can acknowledge and express in a conscious, caring way becomes a resource for our health and growth.
Do dreams ever tell us literally what to do with our lives? Do they tell us what decision to make? When to change jobs, or when to move to a new locale, or what relationship to pursue?
Here is what Carl Jung had to say about this question:
“A dream never says what one ought to do….You must know the details of the conscious condition in order to interpret a dream, for the dream is made up of all we don’t live or become conscious of. In my conscious I might go too far to the right. When you lean too far over on one side, there will be a compensation in the unconscious. The unconscious is like a compass, it doesn’t tell you what to do. Unless you can read the compass it cannot help you.” (Lecture, 1929)
Jung’s words are consistent with his concept of the Self, which is sort of like a psychic compass. He believed that there is an unconscious organizing principle within each of us that is constantly working behind the scenes to bring us into line with who we truly are. It’s as if there is a mysterious person or entity or energy within us that is always praying for our healing and wholeness, whether we are conscious of it or not. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, called this “prevenient grace” – an unfortunate term, actually, since no one ever uses the word “prevenient.” But the meaning, I think, is the same.
In a recent dream, I was deep underwater, and I swam up to a window on a deep water vessel, like a spaceship. As I peered inside, I saw a group of people and a woman in the act of giving birth. As the doctor delivered the child, he looked over his shoulder and shouted, “Well, isn’t anyone going to say ‘thank you’?
I am struck by this poignant question and how it is addressed to my conscious self – my ego (self with a little “s”). It’s as if this larger sense of Self that is underwater, but very active in bringing things to birth for my conscious enjoyment and usage, is challenging the way I am apparently an outsider to my own experience of mystery.
How many times have I been given a solution to a problem by sleeping on it? Or how many times has something new and unexpected come into my life — a new relationship, or a new opportunity, a wonderful new book, or a new and fulfilling direction — and yet, I have treated these instances of amazing grace with relative indifference. It’s as if my sense of gratitude is represented by me “looking in” on the mysteries of my own life, rather than really joining the celebration.
So, my dream doesn’t tell me, “John, be more thankful!” But it sure shows me where I am in relation to the sacredness of my life — on the outside looking in. That’s not where I want to be, for sure. My dream, though, gets my attention, which for me is an invitation to be more aware, less intellectual about the holy, more attentive, and certainly more in awe at the ineffable workings of grace that easily go unnoticed every day.
Before beginning group dreamwork, I had a dream. I had heard Joyce Hudson speak at the Summer Dream Conference at Kanuga, and when I came home, I began to wonder how I could develop a dreamwork community in my hometown. So, here’s my dream:
I am in a bookstore in an old two-story house, and I’m upstairs on the second floor. There are tables of books throughout the room, and an elderly gentleman, dressed in a grey suit and white shirt is standing behind me. I turn and ask him: “Do you know where I might find a book called ‘The Symbolic Life’?” He points to the table beside of me and says, “Sure, it’s right there.” I look, and there on the table is a large volume with the title, ‘The Symbolic Life.” I wake up from my dream.
When I awoke, I felt as if I had received an important message, but I had never heard of a book called “The Symbolic Life.” I had a few minutes before seeing my first client for the day, so I decided, “What the heck! I’ll glance through the titles on my bookshelf to see what I might find.” So, there on the shelf where I keep a number of Carl Jung’s volumes from his collected works, I found a book with the title, The Symbolic Life (Jung, 1939/1950, [CW 18, pra.638]). I attached no real significance to this discovery. But I was certainly curious, so I opened the book. There, in the table of contents, was a chapter entitled, “The Symbolic Life.” Now I was excited. What had my dream done?
Later that day, I took time to read this chapter. It was a presentation that Jung gave in 1939 to a group of Catholic and Protestant clergy in London. In it, Jung outlines his basic approach to the psychology of the unconscious, but it’s the ending of his talk that hooked me. Jung tells these clergy that Christianity must stop looking to Jesus to save us from our sins. Instead, Jung went on, the faithful must be as courageous as Jesus was so that they might “take up their own crosses.” This idea is Jung’s basic view of individuation. But Jung goes on to say that the path of individuation leads straight through “the least of these” Jung says, “What if ‘the least’ of these is actually in me?” What if what is most valuable and most essential to my own path of individuation is what I consciously or unconsciously reject or dismiss?
To say that a lightbulb went on for me is an understatement. In reading Jung’s words, I knew what it meant for me to do group dreamwork. I would equip others with the tools they need in order to connect with their own shadows – the “least of these” in me and in them, so that we, too, might live courageously and live with a sense of meaning and purpose, just as Jesus teaches us to do.
So soon after my discovery, I invited people in my church and community to a public presentation on “Dreams as a Spiritual Path.” I put together a PowerPoint presentation, and about 50 people attended. Afterwards, 10 people signed up to study Joyce Hudson’s book, Natural Spirituality (2000), and we agreed to meet every other week for two hours to learn about Jungian psychology and to practice dreamwork by using the projective method taught by Joyce Hudson.
Over the ensuing years, enough people took the course that I offered, that I started two dreamwork groups. I later moved to Charlotte, losing touch with the dreamwork community for a while. But since then, I was invited back to Davidson to join a dreamwork group made up of some of my original group members plus some new folks. This has been an amazing journey and a wonderful coming full circle for me. I continue to be in awe at the ways in which our dreams guide us and serve us in the life and work of the soul.
Hudson, J. (2000). Natural spirituality: recovering the wisdom tradition in Christianity.Danielsville, GA: JRH Publications.
Jung, C. G. (1950). The symbolic life. In R.F.C. Hull (Trans.), The collected works of C.G. Jung (Vol. 18, pp. 267-290).
John Rowe is a psychotherapist and spiritual director in private practice in Charlotte, NC. John is also an ordained United Methodist clergy (since 1978) and received his Ph.D. in Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute in 2007. He has participated in several Summer Dream and Spirituality Conferences and he completed the Spiritual Direction training through the Haden Institute in 2016. John now serves on the board of the newly formed Haden Foundation which raises funds to provide scholarships for those who wish to receive dream leader or spiritual direction training through the Haden Institute.
By what rules do you rule your life. Whether we know it or not, we all live by certain
Masculine and Feminine Archetypes
rules. Brush your teeth, pick up your clothes, eat your vegetables, don’t hit your brother or sister. Our lives begin with rules, and gradually we pick up others along the way.
The famous couple in the picture to the right lived by certain rules. And yet, they also broke some rules that caused them a lot of suffering and loss of status, job, and who knows what else. Respected rule keepers they were, but those rules did not protect them from near-tragic results due to moral failure.
It would be nice if rules always protected us. But it’s not so simple. Most of us who have made it past the mid-life mark have broken some cherished rules either purposefully or accidentally. It’s a common experience, is it not? What we do with these experiences, what we learn, how those difficult times deepen us, has a lot to do with what rules we live by in the second half of life.
The Dalai Lama has “18 Rules of Living.” I recommend them to you wholeheartedly. There are two that I particularly love: 1) Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck. And 2) Learn the rules so you know how to break them.
Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck. All of us, let’s face it, want what we want. It’s human nature. But how many times in my life would things have turned out so different, and possibly much worse, if I had gotten exactly what I wanted. Many times I do receive what I want, and actually much, much more. But there are times when not getting what I wanted led to opening doors through which I would never have passed if I hadn’t first been greatly disappointed. Those detours eventually led to unimagined opportunities to which I now owe so much gratitude.
Learn the rules so you know how to break them. Rules help us in many ways, and they hurt us in other ways. For instance, if you are the kind of person who believes in a conventional or traditional style of life, and that lifestyle is consistent with who you are on the inside, then all is well and good. But many try to live a conventional way of life, yet on the inside they are anything but that person. They have been TOO good at learning the rules to the point that often at midlife, they become exhausted, feeling like the rules have become a one ton backpack that weighs them down or crushes them completely at times. Their creativity and imagination are part of what is getting crushed. So their only choices are a) to become stressed out and possibly sick, b) break out of their rut in some creative way, or c) break the rules in ways that cause them an equal amount of trouble and sorrow on the other side.
Creativity — a change of course and values — of course, is the option anyone would choose, right. It might mean surprising some people in your social circles, resigning from certain roles or activities that have lost their meaning, maybe moving to a new location, leaving a relationship, or seeking a new career path. There are a multitude of possibilities. But the Dalai Lama is right: Knowing how to break the rules is everything! So when you’re ready to do it, make sure you do it with gusto, and make sure you do it with as much conscious awareness as possible. Finding a good therapist or spiritual director could also help greatly.
Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychoanalyst who spoke to the human pursuit of a healthy soul and a healthy life, had a rule. It goes something like this: In every man is a feminine counterpart, and in every woman is a masculine counterpart. In order to be healthy and whole, each of us must do the work of balancing and integrating these forms of energy — what Jung referred to as archetypes. When we fail to do so, the result often takes the shape of sickness or trouble or malaise. When we take this challenge seriously, however, and do so with a spirit of discovery and joy, our lives become full of meaning, discovery, and juiciness. If you have never read Jung’s only book intentionally written by him for the general public, you would do well to delve into his thinking. MAN AND HIS SYMBOLS is a wonderful introduction to the rules of the soul. I commend it to you highly.