Recently, I re-read the spiritual classic, Journey to Ixtlan by Carlos Castenada, a book that was wildly popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I didn’t understand it at all in 1984 the first time someone recommended it to me. But having to recover from COVID the last few days, I had plenty of time, and I devoured every word.
Castenada was later suspected of being a fraud, having borrowed from others and fabricating much of what he experienced with Don Juan, his mentor-shaman. But what made his work so relevant was his attention to the human need for myths to live by — at a time, when all myths of the establishment were being called into question and dismantled.
While counseling a young man with whom I had worked for over three years, discussing his thoughts about the kind of man he wanted to be, Journey to Ixtlan spontaneously popped into my mind. It was if I had suddenly time-traveled back to a period in my young adult life when I, too, was struggling to decide what kind of man I wanted to be. I had a shaman of sorts — a Chaplain supervisor — who often helped to put me back together after long days of tending to the sick and the dying. Young men and women need such shamans or mentors to model what a meaningful life as a man or woman looks like. They demonstrate what personal empowerment is and what a difference inner power makes.
Falling apart and putting oneself back together is not an uncommon experience — if you live long enough. Like Castenada following Don Juan into the pitch-dark night, you have no choice but to trust your instincts in the face of the terrors that befall us: broken relationships, lost jobs, depression and anxiety-filled traumas of all sorts and kinds, and near brushes with death. We’re left feeling disoriented and off-balance — not readily aware that these “brick walls” sometimes turn into welcome “detours.” I consider myself fortunate to have had several mentors along the way who had already built up a store of power from their own life experiences. I became an apprentice to how they had learned to manage ordeals of suffering. They spared me the gory details of their own experiences, but in essence, they taught me how to transform my own encounters with sorrow and suffering into personal power.
We pay it forward anytime we lend our emotional support to a young adult who is looking up to us. Our own experiences of transformation help them, not by giving them our power but by showing them how to develop their own internal resources.
A client may say to me in the middle of a counseling session, “I wish this wasn’t so hard!” I feel that, too. But then, reflexively, I think, “If it hadn’t been for the hard things I’ve dealt with, I might not be here, right now, today.” I may recall and even share a funny but poignant scene in the movie, A League of Their Own, when the coach, played by Tom Hanks, yells at his right fielder for dropping a fly ball. Right there on the baseball field, in front of all to see and hear, she melts in tears, crying out at her coach, “It’s too hard!” To which Tom Hanks replies, “Hard? Hard? It’s the ‘hard’ that makes baseball great!”
The most important, if not all, lessons that I’ve learned in life have come by using the storm force winds of life to steer me along the edges of apparent or real defeat towards some new perspective or some new awareness that I may have, otherwise, missed completely. The guiding stars of my life have only been noticed by embracing the darkest of times.
So when my clients sometimes comment that they wish they didn’t have it so hard, I’ve been known to quip, “Is it really harder to face this and challenge yourself than it is to continue doing what you’re doing? It may take as much energy to change as it does to maintain the status quo – but the payoff is a heck of a lot better.” It would not surprise me at all if, in response, I was told “Go to Hell!” But so far, that has never happened.
Our best friends, by far, are those who can tell us the truth in the face of our ordeals, while being kind about it, too. Personal power comes from these moments of truth that are like seeds that take time to germinate and grow. Later, we may laugh together when they tell us, “I’ll never forget the time when you told me…, fill in the blank.” What was hard to hear at the time became a lesson never forgotten, because it was exactly what we needed in order to move forward, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Light found in the midst of darkness becomes truth that empowers us to live fearlessly and with joy.
You can make an entire life worth living by mining the treasures buried in sorrows, frustration, and defeat. It probably won’t be easy, but each time we face our ordeals with the right kind of support and with courage, we experience a new burst of power, while becoming stronger, wiser, and more deeply in love with the mystery we call life.
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.
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“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.
Married partners who have, at some point, participated in an affair is a phenomenon that is now a common part of our cultural landscape. Some estimate that only as low as 26% of Americans have had affairs while being married. Others estimate — when all kinds of “strayings” are included, from online relationships to the use of escorts and the regular use of pornography — that as many as 75% of married women and men have participated in extramarital sexual activity at some point along the way. So how come?
Something that happens with a great deal of frequency across the cultural spectrum of committed relationships must be important, in any number of ways. From a depth psychological perspective, the question needs to be asked: “What is the soul looking for in a marriage where one or both partners go astray?” This question avoids the too-easy kind of moralizing heard from pulpits or from a variety of cultural or sociological perspectives. A sociological analysis might, for instance, look at the pressures modern day marriages face: two-career income families that are stretched beyond thin, the demands of balancing devotion to the company versus devotion to one’s family, or the ways in which many families today are now child-centered rather than being centered on the ongoing development and maintenance of the health of a marriage. And this is only a very partial analysis.
But the soul-question lingers, partly because sociological pressures and other pressures will not simply go away or change. The momentum of history and the values of the larger culture are firmly in place. We can rely, however, on what people report in their closely held stories about their secret relationships. In my own listening to these stories during the 30 years of my practice of psychotherapy, I hear one particular, recurring theme, from both women and men in affairs.
That recurring theme is the theme of “aliveness.” People in affairs universally, it seems, feel incredibly alive. And they don’t primarily mean that they feel alive to sex. In fact, most often — and this is true as much or more in stories I hear from men — the aliveness to which they are referring is the kind of aliveness that they feel when they have someone who listens to and understands them and accepts them. It is this kind of aliveness that seems to create a kind of glue in affairs that is difficult to resist or to leave when that time comes. They picture returning to a dead marriage or a functional life devoid of feeling and meaning or returning to simply pushing the same rock up the same hill every day as in the Greek myth of Sysiphus. I can hear the protests of those who might judge such a simplification of the soul of affairs: “Oh yeah! Easy for someone to feel acceptance from someone they rendezvous with on occasion without any responsibilities or expectations of accountability?” And those protestors are right! The problem, though, is that the needs of the soul will not simply go away or return to the repressed land of psyche — without meaningful connections with others, we are all vulnerable to the allure of an affair.
Quite often, I get to be an honored witness to those courageous and determined couples who decide to transcend the violation of fidelity in order to make a new life for themselves — one that includes the needs of the soul. When they decide to do so, they are in for a lot of work as they heal what has been torn asunder. I am in awe of this process and the sorrow and suffering that has to be worked through inevitably. But for all of those who act on their fantasies of having an affair, I still worry as much or more about those who never act but only fantasize, maybe feeling guilty or ashamed or maybe even just incredibly frustrated by a life wrapped in the trappings of duty and conventionality. Where do they find solace for the yearning of soul? Where do they find support for the call to “be alive?” Life is short, as they say, and it’s certainly not a dress rehearsal. So where are the priests, shamans, and cultural commentators who will show us the way to transform marriage into the amazing mystery of a lifetime that it can and should ultimately be?
In the ancient wisdom tradition of the early church, it was an accepted fact: we dream in order to know God. How, then, is this ancient tradition connected to the contemporary idea: we dream in order to know ourselves?
This, I think, is a great question for our consideration. It addresses the criticism of some who see working with dreams as simply a form of navel-gazing, a merely selfish — while entertaining — enterprise. While others, such as those involved in Christian dreamwork circles, see dreams as a way to bridge “knowing the self” and “knowing God.” We can, they claim, do both — and do so with curiosity, increasing skillfulness, humility, reverence, and even entertainment as well!
Death, for example, is a familiar theme in both religious practices and depth psychological ways of viewing the life of the soul. “Dying daily” to sinfulness and selfish-attachments is not just the perview of Christians seeking to become closer to God. For death, symbolically, speaks to multiple ways in which our ego-centered lives are confronted by the challenges of growth and openness to change — always a blend of hope and new life mixed with suffering and angst. We can literally “die” inside, for example, if we stubbornly resist adjusting to changing circumstances — classically exhibited in cases of delayed adult maturity or in cases of dependency on substances rather than relying on building healthier means of coping. “Letting go and letting God,” a slogan made famous by the Alcoholics Anonymous movement, embodies the reality that growth and change involve both dying to self and walking more intimately with the Divine.
So, while experiences of death in a dream — of either ourselves or others — can be deeply disturbing on the face of things, depth psychology and dreamwork open the way for seeing God’s hidden hand at work shaping our souls. Death can be seen as a metaphor or symbol, rather than as a conrete fact.
For example, a recent conversation between me and my wife centered around the death of beloved “parts of me” in a dream that I had the night before. It turned out that both of us were holding fears within us about impending changes in our lives and how those changes — which both of us wanted and desired — felt somewhat threatening at a personal level. Our discussion did not absolutely resolve the “threats,” but by allowing the metaphor of death a legitimate voice, we were able to experience a greater sense of mutual support, understanding, and energy for facing into the changes.
In the Christian tradition, the Celebrant at the Lord’s Table calls out to us in the name of Jesus Christ: “Come, die with me. Come die with me, so that you might really taste life and live fully!” And the promise is that, in dying to ego-centeredness, we will find both more of God and more of our authentic selves at the same time. Spiritually then, death is not necessarily a tombstone blocking our paths. It may be, instead, a potential warning, or an invitation to grow, or a mirror that shows us truths about our struggles, or even a spirit-guide who leads us onward towards a life of Resurrection, of hope, of faithfulness, and of vitality.