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.”