Sharing an essay I wrote for the First Person series at Vox:
White people are doing a lot of soul-searching these days.
Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who recently admitted to wearing blackface in a Michael Jackson impersonation competition, just announced that he’s going on a “listening tour” to learn about racism. Actor Liam Neeson admitted to wanting to commit a racist murder in his youth, saying, “It was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that.”
I’ve been thinking about the complexities around confession and forgiveness. As a psychotherapist for 25 years who has worked immersed in issues of race and racism, I believe it is important for white people to find spaces where we can name our past racist failures and identify the ways we have been both contaminated by racist systems and have perpetrated racist acts.
Click here to continue reading…
You haven’t heard much from me at this blog – unless you are a subscriber to the online reading group/Seminar essays – because I have been working hard sorting and writing about the 3000 or so dreams about our current president that I have collected at the 45 Dreams Project.
I will be releasing a new chapter each month at the projects new webpage – and I invite you to click over to read Chapter One – which explains how I came to start this project, how I understand dream work and my thoughts about “interpretation” and the wider perspective that dream collections can offer us into our collective and unconscious response to a troubled era. If you find the project interesting and want to read along, I encourage you to sign up to follow 45 Dreams Project so that you will receive a monthly notice when the new chapters are released.
Here is an excerpt:
It started with my own dream, as so many things do in my world, a month or so before the 2016 presidential election:
A friend, who has worked with various celebrities as a personal assistant and a dresser called: He was leaving town, and needed me to cover for him. “Its easy!” he said, “you just have to stop by and feed him – I’ve left everything out with a note!” He gave me an address that leads to the top floor of a six floor walk up apartment building.
When I arrived, I unlocked the door, unsure of who or what I would be feeding. The door opened into a family/television room – the curtains drawn, a large TV blaring on the wall. On the glass coffee table sat a large metal dog bowl. A bag of kibble sat near the door. And on the sofa, Donald Trump, in a large adult diaper, sat sleeping with his chin on his chest. I filled the bowl with nuggets and slid it toward him on the table. As I looked at him sleeping, I was filled with disgust, and then flooded with pity. He is obviously sick. Disabled. Infantile and senile. Feeble. Something was profoundly wrong with him. He then woke and without acknowledging me in any way, began gobbling the food, chewing loudly with his mouth open.
I decide that it would be too cruel to let him just starve to death, but at least he was contained – as he could never be able to walk up or down all those stairs. I did the bare minimum for him, only what I would offer to any stranger, any human being. I got him a cheap pre-paid flip phone for emergencies only. All his previous handlers abandoned him, he seems a debilitated pawn, whose delusions, phobias and bigotries were being exploited. Yet somehow despite his incompetence he was still able to head an effective, angry, divisive, xenophobic campaign.
I woke, both disturbed and confused by the dream. It seemed to confront me with the ways that it was easier for me to think of Trump and Trumpism as “sick” and “not responsible” for his actions. I suspected it was a dream that compensated for the conscious anger and horror I felt as I watched and took what action I could to push back against xenophobic campaign rhetoric and negotiated the daily barrage of lies.
I also noted the dream’s warning that my wish to be a good kind person kept the campaign regularly “fed.” The belief that he was “contained” and “feeble” and should be treated with the same basic concern as “any human being” in distress – seemed to provide the movement a with a life-line, and offered just enough assistance to allow his campaign to flourish.
I thought about how difficult it is to discern “sick” from “bad” – that the course of normal empathy seems to lean towards offering deviant behavior the benefit of a doubt, assuming that it emerges out of illness and suffering – eliciting pity and making excuses for “bad” and immoral behavior. The dream pressed me to confront my own complicity, my desire to consciously view Trumpism and the resurgence of right wing extremism as something aging, feeble, and powerless – nothing to take seriously. A wish to relax out of my own assertive impulses left me with an inability to confront regressive, propagandist messages. My dream-ego confronted me with an image of myself as someone who could unwittingly feed a virulent movement.
It was a dream of complicity, of the bonds of empathy and common humanity exploited. It was also a dream that revealed a desire to let my guard down, and the potential consequences. And certainly I was not the only one experiencing this bind as we headed toward an election that no one I knew imagined he could ever win. The comfortable certainty surrounding me frightened me even more.
When he won, I was not surprised.
To continue reading – click here:
I also want to let you know that I have opened a new dream collection – Climate Dreams – gathering dreams of climate breakdown and our psyche’s response to the crises of global warming.
If you, or someone you know, would like to share such a dream – you may simply leave a comment on the Climate Dreams blog page – all dreams will be stripped of identifying information before they are made public. Additionally, I am gathering and retweeting climate related dreams shared publicly at the Twitter account @Climatedreams . You may also email dreams to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every once in a while i feel compelled to dash off some writing that I don’t know what to do with – so I put it at my other blog at Subtext Consultations and release it to the wild for it to do whatever it is supposed to do on its own.
You can read it over there if you like by clicking below:
illustration by the brilliant Cranky Muse Projects
I learned yesterday that a dear friend, colleague and collaborator, Jason Evan Mihalko, Psy.D. died last week.
I first contacted Jason after I came across a stunningly brave series of essays he had written after surviving a client’s suicide, and quickly we became fellow advocates for a new kind of transparency in our profession and the value of psychotherapeutic perspectives in our national social conversation.
He was a brave, loving, radically compassionate, fierce and funny man, who will be dearly missed by the thousands of people whose lives he impacted.
But his words, at The Irreverent Psychologist should speak for him. His beautiful series of essays: “Dear Young Therapist” remind us all of the core values that sit at the heart of this impossible profession.
And this is from my favorite of those essays:
I’m old enough to no longer care how my fellow psychologists evaluate me. I’m skilled enough to know how to wield these twin tools of relational growth and change within the safe boundaries of a therapeutic relationship.
I’m thankful that I’ve never met a patient that I couldn’t love or couldn’t learn to love. It’s from that space that I begin to see the seeds of where a person might be able to go, grow, and let go. It’s from that space that I can find the confidence to let go of wanting a patient to be something I need them to be (or society needs them to be) and let them go about finding what they need themselves to be.
Still, young therapist, I don’t frequently tell my patients that I love them. It is often dangerous and disruptive to use the word. Patients can become incredibly confused and conflicted. Too many therapists also become confused and conflicted.
Just because love is dangerous, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be thought about.
I am not afraid to love and to say that I do when a moment of genuine honesty is the best intervention. Don’t forget this, young therapist. Don’t forget that our work is built on a foundation of faith in humanity and love of the person who sits across from you.
Please go read this series and explore his blog if you haven’t.
I don’t know if this blog, What a Shrink Thinks, would exist if I hadn’t met Jason. He made me feel braver as I stuck my nose out into an online world and we made joyful noise together.
If you want to hear us gabbing and laughing our fool heads off you can listen in to the one podcast we had a chance to record before life took a detour that derailed us.
And if you feel so moved, please consider making a donation in his memory here.
Grateful for all that he gave. Words fail me.
There is a Bible in every wanderer’s bedroom, where there might better be the Odyssey. Greek polyistic complexity bespeaks our complicated and unknown psychic situations. ~ James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
I took a vacation. I went with my husband and kids to a couple of Greek islands, a few days in Athens, a day trip to Delphi (I insisted on Delphi) and then home again.
We haven’t traveled as much as we’d like. It is expensive. And we’ve been derailed bit by – I guess you would have to call it – fate.
My son is especially ambitious and yearns to travel the world. He chose Greece. And my husband, the practical one who usually vetoes any wished for large expense surprisingly said: “What the hell! Let’s do it! Let’s go to Greece!”
Greece persists as an inscape rather than a landscape, a metaphor for the imaginal realm in which the archetypes as Gods have been placed. ~ James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
My first thought, fair or not, was this: “He’s agreeing to this now because if I start dying in earnest and we didn’t take this opportunity – he’ll regret it forever.”
I thought the same thing, last spring, after a long fall and winter of inpatient chemotherapy, when he contacted the handyman and asked him to build a handsome fence around my vegetable patch. He knew it would make me happy and deepen my commitment to growing things. If I spent my last summer lamenting all the kale the ground-hog had devoured, he would hate himself for withholding the fence I had fantasized about.
Eat, grow vegetables, and go to Greece for tomorrow we may die.
Or, to be specific: I may die. Or I may not.
There is no knowing.
Critics are right when they see the “return to Greece” as a regressive death wish, an escape from contemporary conflicts into mythologies and speculations of a fantasy world. ~ James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
I’d spent the past year acclimating to a daily oral chemotherapy to suppress a chronic leukemia that had emerged, mysteriously, strangely, uniquely, in my spinal fluid and central nervous system instead in of my blood or bone marrow.
Un-stageable. No predictions or prognosis possible.
They discovered it as I first felt excruciating pain, and then lost sensation from the base of my spine, down my right leg to my foot. They’d found a way to treat it, by giving me higher doses of chemo than those with the “normal” version of this leukemia, enough, hopefully, to cross the blood brain barrier.
And miraculously it worked. The pill I take each day suppresses any evidence of disease. My spinal fluid tests “all clear.” There are no more lesions up and down my spinal cord.
They say the life expectancy for “normal” people with this cancer is “10+ years”, if you look online. I did of course. Even though there is no way to know if these statistics can generalize to my circumstance or not.
Most see me now as “well”, the cancer as“gone” and “the worst behind us.” So, eighteen months post-diagnosis maybe I have “8+” years before “the worst” could re-emerge ahead of me. Maybe I would make it to see my children complete high school, maybe even graduate from college. Maybe I would live to sixty-three.
It is hard to feel “lucky” although I know that I am.
The “return to Greece” is a psychological response to the challenge of breakdown; it offers a model of disintegrated integration. ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
I take the pill every day and live with the side effects:
Curly hair that I am learning manage. Fatigue, which falls on me like a lead weight in the evenings. Susceptibility to infection. I’ve been told if I develop any cough at all I must contact my treatment team immediately because of the dangers of a particular fatal pneumonia. Bruising. Joint pain. Muscle cramps and spasms. Mouth sores. Anaphalaxis and angioedema (I’ve had both since starting this medication, they are uncertain if I am “allergic” to the chemotherapy or the cancer itself). Some memory troubles and fuzzy-headedness, as chemo-brain leaves me less able to retrieve dates and times, names and details.
And painful inflammations, which the doctors can’t really explain and don’t concern themselves with overmuch since the cancer has been so successfully controlled: a suddenly swollen hand, or elbow, or knee or foot, A “flare” of some sort, usually lasting four or five days. When it strikes a muscle or a joint on my leg or foot or hip it can be so painful that walking is impossible. In my arms or hands, it slows down texting or writing, requires that I ask others to open jars and bottles for me, and carry my bags. But then, after four or five days, the tightened skin, the throbbing bulge, recedes. As if it was never there.
Only then I am allowed to forget, but only for a week or so, that I am “sick.” I am, recognizable to myself for a brief interval. Until the next throbbing “flare” – even as the joint lays immobile through the night. I try to ignore it, but when I can’t my mind races: Is this damaged nerves coming back online? Is this nerve pain from a new lesion? Is this a muscle spasm from the medication? The heart is a muscle too – and of course I remember at 3:00 am that dangerous arrhythmia and cardiac arrest are possible “side-effects” of this medication.
Joint pain and mobility impairments came on slowly, belatedly as cumulative side-effects do – only emerging after taking the medication for a year or more. I had also been trying, although it was intensely uncomfortable, to reanimate my nerve-damaged body, to resurrect the dead zones and zombie-parts with intensive acupuncture. It remained unclear, a full year after lesions had been washed away by curing poisons, what might regrow, and what neuro-connections were severed permanently.
I had tried to attach to the cultural myth that sick people recover, get stronger if they don’t die. Now it seemed that I was as better as I was going to get. Getting worse was now more likely, even while keeping “the worst” at bay.
Was the medication saving me or killing me?
The divine physician is the sickness and the remedy… He who wounds also heals.~ C.A Meier, Healing Dream and Ritual
And the other “effects” – post-traumatic/existential anxiety that destroyed my sleep disrupting my dreams. No matter how philosophically, mindfully or thoughtfully I “processed” my experience in the daylight – at night my terrified-rabbit-body panicked in the bushes, heart-pounding, hiding in the dark from a predator that circled and sniffed mere inches away. No meditation or prayer or discussion or cognitive re-framing or acceptance or self-care could soothe it. I could only slow my pounding heart, by watching British real-estate home-shows on my phone, until my eyes grew heavy. Carefully courting sleep floating in a wash of comforting accents, borrowing the future of a proper middle-aged couple from London who hoped to start another life completely alien to the one they lived before.
The doctors suspect-guess that if I discontinue the medication that the cancer would re-emerge. It isn’t active, or detectable, but neither is it gone or considered curable.
It has all been, one highly educated, yet totally wild guess.
Mystery is the new “same old same old.”
My fate rests in the hands of the gods, like everyone else – but also, somehow not like anyone else at all.
But the “Greece” to which we turn is not literal; it includes all periods from Minoan to Hellenistic, all localities from Asia Minor to Sicily. This “Greece” refers to a historical and geographical psychic region, a fantasy or mythic Greece, an inner Greece of mind which is only indirectly connected with actual geography and actual history ~ James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
Those who encounter me day-to-day, clients who come to my office for psychotherapy, friends who have supported me and deserve support back, the neighbors I encounter on the street, my amazing beautiful teenagers who I try to allow to be as selfish as they are developmentally entitled to be – often see me as “back to normal” or close enough. And, although I know nothing will ever be normal again in my life I try to let them think what they need to. I live in this strange space full-time but I’ve learned that others can only visit these existential realities for a few minutes here and there. In my daylight hours, I’ve learned to stop talking about the things I really think – about how feral and brief and random our lives are – I lock it in the vault so that I can listen to their normal worries, their hopes and fears for the future, their “five year plans,” the expectation that they will simply “go on being” their need to fantasize about a future that I may not be around for. I try to join them where they are, and do everything I can to avoid disrupting their necessary denial of the unfathomable, relentless, traumatizing uncertainty of life.
When they ask how I am, I tell them I am fine, or maybe complain a bit about an ache or a pain.
I can’t explain how much work it is –to see living and dying as present, concurrent and continuous events – in a world that insists they are opposite and antithetical to each other. Whether it is a reasonable goal or not – my aspiration in the face of this ruptured denial of death – is not to just stuff it back into the basement and forget it. I don’t want to fight it, or conquer it. I want to live with it, along side it.
I can very nearly imagine a way of being that can apprehend life and death as the warp and woof of the same fabric. What would it mean to be awake to death as ever-present in every aspect of life – and the mirror-world – life as never absent from death? What if they need each other for both to exist? What if matter and anti-matter are not merely opposites, rivals, enemies but intimate partners that have forged the entire universe?
For the “return to Greece” offers a way of coping when our centers cannot hold and things fall apart. The polytheistic alternative does not set up conflicting opposites between beast and Bethlehem, between chaos and unity; it permits the coexistence of all the psychic fragments and gives them patterns in the imagination of Greek mythology ~ James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
I am trying (and some may think it foolish of me):
to tolerate this paradox,
to see what happens if I suppress nothing,
to attempt to withstand it, to see what might emerge from the excruciating tension,
to integrate non-being and being into something truthful and whole.
I may be too ambitious.
Two of my oldest, dearest friends lived every minute of their adult life, eighteen until their mid-thirties and -forties with HIV and AIDS. But they are not here to coach me through this – and I know that my own existential-terror-death-denial cocktail offered them no real companionship or support with the load that they carried. When her time came to face mortality my mother relied on her favorite life-long defensive maneuver: “I just try not to think of it.” Younger friends and loved ones “kept fighting” – as a young person should- right up to the moment that the possibility of continued living was taken off the table.
Nothing is as firmly based on the subjective conviction as the spiritual element. If the patient needs it for his cure, he must discover it by himself, in himself, it may be said to his own great astonishment, as the result of his most personal research and effort. ~ C.A Meier, Healing Dream and Ritual
I try to work this through in the daylight: as I read, write, meditate, pray, walk, daydream. But even so the terror, the hum and buzz and crackling static of Precariousness and Uncertainty, Mystery and Aloneness creeps out at night and seizes me, while my defenses and cognition rest. When all the humans I love and care for are sleeping deeply I talk to the dead and wrestle with my pounding mortal heart alone.
I remember a chaplain who came briefly to visit my mother the day we removed her from her apartment, her cats, and everything she cherished, and placed her in residential hospice.
“Dying is such hard work” she said. “No one understands what hard work it is.”
Forging a relationship between living and dying is hard work too – but it is work that ends only at “The End” – and every kind of labor requires that we take some rest and recreate ourselves.
But this goal is an achievement not easily attained. The illness must yield a meaning. This is the age-old pious concept that behind the sickness a meaning lies hidden which demands recognition – philosophical the causa finalis. ~ C.A Meier, Healing Dream and Ritual
So Greece was now, or maybe never.
This was the moment to strike, and the day to seize, I suppose.
Friends and acquaintances would squeal with anticipatory vicarious glee:
“I’ve never been! I’ve always wanted to go! Oh my god, you will love it! It is one of my favorite places! You have to be sure to go to (fill in the blank)! You so deserve it!”
But I couldn’t feel it. Why should I travel halfway across the world for a farewell tour when all I wanted was for the gods to grant me permission to remain at home and watch my children grow as long as possible?
I was frightened of being far from my medical team in case of emergency.
Frightened of being exposed to some respiratory illness on the plane.
Frightened my night-fear would be impossible to contain in a shared hotel room.
Frightened of sitting through a long flight, of muscle cramps and nerve pain.
Frightened that fatigue or a “flare” would emerge to disappoint my kids, my husband, myself, confining me to a dark hotel while they set out on a gorgeous adventure.
And no one wanted to hear me fret about traveling to Greece for god’s sake.
I mean, would you?
When the dominant vision that holds a period of culture together cracks, consciousness regresses to earlier containers, seeking sources for survival which also offer sources of revival. ~ James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
So the week before our flight I stuffed my anxieties in the bottom of the suitcase along with a fat stack of books to read or re-read: James Hillman would be perfect to sink into in Greece, a delicious poolside consolation prize if I couldn’t go exploring. I limped to the drugstore to grab travel size toothpaste and a bottle of something over-the-counter sleep aid to knock me out at night – reluctantly surrendering to the necessity of “even more pills” – so my 3:00 am thrashing and fretting wouldn’t disrupt my children’s sleep.
And off we went, to the first Cycladic island on our journey.
We are trying to understand both what is this “Greece” that so draws the psyche and what the psyche finds there. ~ James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
A valium swallowed on the plane helped an inflamed knee to release and relax so that by the second day on the island I was no longer limping. I was relieved to be reminded what slug-a-beds teenagers are and how willing they would be to nap while I rested and read in the late afternoons. They helped with my bags and opened my water bottles through the airport while my hands were swollen, but soon the full range of motion returned to my fingers.
Then to the precincts of Gods we went: I was strong enough to lead the charge as we explored the birthplace of Dionysus, climbing the hill to a temple honoring Demeter – whose grief over her separation from her child was so overpowering it ground the whole world a halt, my own terror at being torn out of my children’s life validated.
We hiked to a sacred spring. We gazed at the sea through the Portera of Apollo. I passed people younger and healthier than me on the hot, dusty trails.
Instead, Greece offers us a chance to revision our souls and psychology by means of imaginal places and persons rather than historical dates and people, a precision of space rather than time. We move out of temporal thinking and historicity altogether, to an imaginal region, a differentiated archipelago of locations where the Gods are, and not when they were or will be. ~ James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
We were all hungry to linger in vacation-time, deep-time, dream-time, mythic-time. To eat the healing sunshine as it photosynthesized and infused every drop of olive oil, bite of fruit, taste of cheese, spoonful of yogurt.
We swam in the sea, floating on our backs, staring at the sky.
We generally consider Hippocrates as the “father” of medicine as a “Western” and “rational” science. But Hippocrates was raised in a famous healing temple called an Asclepieian, his father a priest-physician (a therapeutae) in service of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing and medicine. Most of us are vaguely aware of the snake wound around the rod of Asclepius painted on the side of an ambulance, or in the logo on their pediatrician’s website.
You marvel at the serpent curling around him and say that it is the symbol of the healing art, because just as the serpent sloughs the skin of old age, so the medical art releases from illness… For gods of this kind must have wounds and physicians. ~ Theodoretus, Graecarum, Affectinoum Curatio VIII, 19-23 quoted in: Emma Edlestein and Ludwig Edlestein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies
And here is what happened in an Asclepieian: supplicants would arrive, sleep among the sacred snakes in the inner chamber of the temple and in the morning they would tell the priests the dreams they had in the night.
And their dreams would cure them.
And occasionally, when the dream itself did not complete the task, it offered up a prescription, a directive to be followed which would consolidate the cure.
Asclepius as a giver of dream oracles only made use of that means by which gods and men were supposed to communicate. In dreams, the soul came into contact with those divine powers surrounding men and the world which it could not apprehend while awake. ~ Emma Edlestein and Ludwig Edlestein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies
That dream prescription was usually a compensatory or paradoxical one: The weak must move a heavy stone. The wasting patient must eat a food they had no hunger for. The frenetic must stay still. The stagnant must move. Baths to re-invigorate a waning life-force.
Asclepius was the son of Coronis, a mortal princess, and a god, Apollo who forced himself upon her. When Coronis laid with a mortal man while she carried the god’s child, Apollo retaliated by sending his sister to murder her. As Coronis burned on the funeral pyre, Apollo reached into the flames, and tore the infant Asclepius from her burning body. Asclepius was placed with The Centaur, Chiron, to be raised by him and instructed in the healing arts.
A demi-god born of death, Asclepius became a master physician, and dared to raise a mortal man from the dead.
Wherefore (Zeus) The Thunderer, in his anger, struck him with a bold of lightening and deprived him of his life… But this Asclepius who was born, rescued, reared and burnt in the aforementioned way, they enrolled among the other gods, made sacred precincts for him, and consecrated altars to him… ~ Theodoretus, Graecarum, Affectinoum Curatio VIII, 19-23 quoted in: Emma Edlestein and Ludwig Edlestein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies
And I began to dream again for the first time in months:
I dream I am brought to my knees with all I have lost, grieving.
I dream of a circular graphic that depicts psychotherapy as a hopeless strange loop.
I dream of caring for stubborn cranky old people, who insist on going to an ancient stadium/amphitheater. They fall down the steps, break their brittle bones and worse.
I dream I am sick and need to ride a large bus to the hospital.
We moved on to the next island – and our explorations continued . I was sometimes nervous: We went to swim in the sea near large slippery rocks. I needed my husband to demonstrate a viable way back up to shore I could negotiate with a deadened foot. He found a pathway for me. We climbed steep stairs, and rocky volcanic hills and jumped off of the side of a tour boat to swim to a hot mineral spring.
We watched the sunset over the sea.
In the afternoons and evenings I would read and rest and stare at the horizon and the sea and the stars as the rest of the family explored in shifts and brought dinner back to eat together on our whitewashed patio.
One night I received a text from my daughter, off exploring:
“LOOK AT THE MOON! ECLIPSE!” and I looked to see the moon had turned blood red.
Soon the temple servitor put out the lights and bade us fall asleep nor stir nor speak whatever noise we heard. ~ Aristophanes, Plutus, quoted in: Emma Edlestein and Ludwig Edlestein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies
That night I dream:
I follow a path to a grove of intentionally planted trees. They are planted in rows, in tiers, in an arc, three-quarters of a circle. I walk along the first line of trees.
Friends and family are just behind me.
The tree trunks are weathered, twisted and ancient, like the trunks of old olive trees, but the leaves are larger, the size of my palm, and shiny.
I notice the leaves are turning black.
I move to the side of one particular tree. My friends and family station themselves throughout the grove, near all the other trees. We find some kind of hydraulic pump, that we must press vigorously to send water and minerals and some kind of “treatment” deep down into the roots of the tree. The work is muscular and frantic and sweaty. The ground becomes saturated, and we continue to pump and there is a sense that if these trees are to survive we must drive this tree medicine deep into the soil and up into their roots as quickly and continuously as possible.
But the ground is also flooding, and over-saturation can’t be good for the sickened trees either – as we pump and pump I am feeling increasingly anxious that the root treatment could be harming the tree, killing it – even as it is treating the disease. Someone from a nearby tree comes to take over my pump as I begin to tire and doubt our efforts.
As I circle the tree to assess its status, I spy some small green shoots, some new life, sprouting like fuzz, like delicate baby hair at the top of the tree. I do not know if this is the tree’s last gasp, if this new growth will be enough to sustain this old trunk or not – but I know that either way, this growth must be exposed to full sunlight. I begin to grab the lower branches and shake all of the large dead leaves off of the tree. I snap off the deadwood branches and leap in the air to reach the next branch to shake it as hard as I can. Old leaves rain down on the ground like a fall day. At last the tree is bare. A naked stump with silly green shoots growing from the very top. As disproportioned and ridiculous as it looks this tree will live or die growing, with its new leaves unfurling toward the sun.
I awoke in the morning like an astronaut who had just returned to earth from deep space.
Thus in cases where the inner sense of sickness is personifies and expresses itself through symbols, a cure can take place. ~ C.A Meier, Healing Dream and Ritual
We left the Cyclades in a few days more, and moved on to Athens. We of course visited the Acropolis: We filed past the temple of Nike, the Erechtheion and the Parthenon. We scaled the steps of the theater of Dionysus, and passed the shady Asclepieion where the sick came to sleep among the snakes, incubating healing dreams or soliciting a dream prescription from the healing god.
We moved through the city past the Agora, and circled the Temple of Hephaestus and on to the Kerameikos and Athens’ ancient cemetery. Monuments and memorial stones lasting thousands of years beyond the life they were carved to commemorate.
A pomegranate tree grows near the entrance. A reminder, that if Hades captures you, as he did Persephone and drags you to the underworld, don’t eat a single thing, not even a pomegranate seed or you will walk half of every year in the land of the living and spend the other half in the realm of the dead.
By stepping back into the mythic, into what is nonfactual, and nonhistorical the psyche can re-imagine its factual historical predicaments from another vantage point. Greece becomes the multiple magnifying mirror in which the psyche can recognize its persons and processes in configurations which are larger than life but which bear on the life of our secondary personalities. ~ James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
We took a day trip to Delphi, to Apollo’s temple and the oracle.
That night I dream again:
I am in a suburban kitchen. There is a large kitchen island dividing the living room in half, green wall to wall carpeting, and the ivory floor to ceiling drapes have been drawn closed. I have been brought there, like Neo in The Matrix to face the Oracle.
She comes into the room, and hitches her big middle-aged bottom up onto a kitchen stool, with one foot still on the floor. She is blonde. Older than I am. Her hair is long and in a large bun on top of her head, like a plump school teacher.
I think to myself in the dream: “I guess the oracle comes in whatever shape it thinks is both familiar and unsettling to you.”
She asks me about the suburban community I now live in. I say: “It’s okay. It’s fine. I don’t feel particularly connected…” She asks who we know in town: “Just a few people, slightly really. We’ve had a lot going on—”
She cuts me off – it becomes clear that this is idle chat, meant only to put me at ease – and I am answering too deeply.
“Listen,” she says, impatient with this scenario and wanting to get down to brass tacks:
“You just need to do something totally different. Forget anything you were doing before. You have to start something totally new. From scratch.”
“Just pick something. Anything. Like, take up… cake decorating…” she makes a dismissive gesture with her hand implying “…or whatever.”
I wake up.
The main offering to Asclepius, as performed in early centuries, again, is attested only for Athens. Honey-cakes, cheese-cakes, bakemeats and figs were laid upon the holy table of the god. ~ Emma Edlestein and Ludwig Edlestein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies
And my first thought upon waking was:
Great. Thanks. Super practical. I’m sure I can set aside 30 years of developing mastery as a psychotherapist and a supervisor and support my kids by opening a little shop decorating cakes.
But the part where I had to let go of everything that has come before?
It felt portentous, important, and perhaps a little frightening. I’d let go of so much. Must I remove even more dead wood?
But it also felt essential.
Shed all dead skin, shake off all dead leaves, let go of anything – any belief, any practice, any obsolete way of being. Strip down to newly exposed flesh.
“Renaissance” (rebirth) would be a senseless word without the implied dissolution, the very death out of which that rebirth comes. ~ James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
Death serves life.
Life, growth, consciousness does not exist without death, decay, unconsciousness. Death is not merely the consequence, the goal, the outcome of life, or the tax we must pay to live a life at all – it is the stuff of life itself.
Our food, our fuel, our very being emerges from and returns to it. Leaves and branches die. Shoots may grow from severed stumps. And if not, moss, fungus, worms and bugs will convert the deadened wood into rich dark loam from which life will sprout.
You cannot separate the fuel from the flame.
To see death and life as mere opposites is to succumb to an illusion.
Decorate cakes for tomorrow we may die – and still be of service to life in some new form, completely alien to the life we lived before.
It is time to start from scratch, as ridiculous as it seems.
And when this phase of being has run its course, we will start from scratch again.
We are not sick or well, alive or dead. We are sick and well, living and dying.
Withstanding the tension of the opposites, allowing the paradox to synthesize, brings us face to face with the healing god.
Indeed, the physician must be able to make the most hostile elements in the body friendly and loving toward each other… It was by knowing how to create love and unanimity in these that, as these poets here say and I believe it, our forefather, Asclepius established this science of ours.
~ Plato, Symposium, 186D, quoted in: Emma Edlestein and Ludwig Edlestein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies
And perhaps the healing is found in the gift of facing our fear of death with some small piece of lucidity, as Socrates did – his final words expressing thanks to the Divine Physician:
Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius, do pay it. Don’t forget.
And that reminds me:
I didn’t have another episode of joint inflammation for the entire two week trip.
Nor have I had one since.
Sensation has incrementally begun returning to my numbed and paralyzed body parts.
I still wake sometimes at night – but soon my thoughts “return to Greece” and I drift back to easy sleep and dream of non-binary worlds governed by a pantheon of gods who are never merely good or evil, mortal or immortal, impotent or powerful.
Do I think a dream healed me? Do I think the dream told of a healing that was already unfolding, or perhaps represented a psychological a resolution I had forged myself? Maybe the dream was merely a somatic one: a dream of deadened nerves starting to regenerate.
Or else, a randomly and impulsively purchased over-the-counter dose of acetamiophen and diphenhydramine counteracted chemo side-effects, enabled sleep and prompted dreams of sweet relief.
People went to the Asclepia, they had dream visions and awoke healed, or at least informed what to do to heal themselves. ~ Emma Edlestein and Ludwig Edlestein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies
Dreams may simply show us the ways that we already know to heal ourselves.
Healing may mean cure, it may mean relief from suffering or symptoms, or it might mean acceptance of reality as great and terrible as it is.
The god himself, or his priests never asserted that he could do everything, nor did they promise immortality; they promised assistance. ~ Emma Edlestein and Ludwig Edlestein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies
Aseclepius was known to request and inspire offerings of written testimony, prose, poetry and hymns from any of those who might find language for their experience.
I have not (yet) baked a honey cake.
But I will gladly offer up thank offerings for the assistance I have been granted.
And, luckily for me, as I struggle to compose a fitting paean to Ascelpius –
it is the the most personal of offerings,
and the simplest gifts,
– that please him best.
Those of you who have followed this blog may have noticed that I am not posting “public” essays as frequently – and there are a few reasons, that I realized that I should share with readers and subscribers.
In addition to the subscription Seminar essays which I am writing as small online “lectures” for psychotherapists and counselors – I am working on two larger projects – I imagine them as books although – who really knows?
The first is a piece, started just before I was diagnosed, of memoir and analysis, currently called The Good Thief, exploring archetypes of good and evil, through my memories of and my research into the life of a mysterious priest who played a pivotal role in my family history. I am looking forward to exploring some archived church files at the end of this month as part of this project.
The second project is the 45 Dreams project. I have spent the past six months collecting and sorting though thousands of dreams about our president, on Twitter and through the 45 Dreams blog. I have been sorting them into categories – which has been simultaneously fascinating, encouraging and frightening – and will be discussing these dreams alongside the writings of Charlotte Beradt – a German analyst who collected and analyzed about 300 dreams during the rise of the Third Reich.
So, please rest assured that I am hard at work, and you will hear from me again – I will share the outcome of these labors here with you in one way or another.
And promise that I will, when the spirit moves me, post an essay that asserts itself. And as one or the other of these projects draw to a close – I will return to writing shorter form essays to share again with you here.
For updates feel free to follow my Twitter feed or the What a Shrink Thinks Facebook page.
And thank you all, for your continued good wishes and support.
Perhaps, long long ago, once upon a time, in the year of our Lord, when the world was new – tribes of giants really walked this earth. Maybe we slayed them all or maybe they were so dim-witted and so aggressive that they destroyed themselves. Maybe giants were just really very tall people, not really giants at all. Seven or eight-footers, the kind who still roam the earth today – and who are weary of strangers asking if they play basketball.
There is no fossil record of a giant humanoid to measure out in cubits.
In the psychical world, however, giants do still exist.
It is completely beside the point whether they really exist.
~ C. G. Jung, Children’s Dreams
We live in a time of giants. Whether they exist or not.
There are giants on every side: In our personal and professional relationships, in our communities, our economies, our media, our political systems, and in public office.
And also in our hearts and deep inside our instinctive lives – giants live.
We’ve been facing giants together and on our own for thousands of years.
We write about it, and pass the stories on from generation to generation.
And a generation or two ago, all the psychoanalytic theorists and practitioners, living through the aftermath of the Holocaust told their own stories of facing dangerous giants – in the world and in themselves, wrestling with the cowardice and the heroisms they had each shown and seen in the face of a great and insidious horror.
They spoke plainly of the problem of evil:
I can tell you stories which say if you meet evil you must fight it, but there are just as many which say you must run away and not try and fight it. Some say to suffer without hitting back; others say don’t be a fool, hit back!
~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
Our era has its own giants to battle and it seems to me to be a time to take a account of wisdoms generated by our ancestral struggles and successes against such destructive creatures.
Giants are half-human creatures, larger than life, who obscure the sun and cast a cold shadow over the land. Giants crush and devour tiny mortals, sniff human meat out of its hiding places, and use their victim’s bones to pick their teeth.
Entities who – at first – appear to loom so large, make us feel so powerless “to ourselves we seem like grasshoppers, and so we seem to them” ~ Numbers 13:33
Yet, for thousands of years, we’ve recorded – in great detail – in scripture, myth and in fairy tale, the various methods we’ve employed to bring them down.
Generations of giant-wrestlers offer us their legacy as an inheritance.
There are tactics to avoid, but if you are wise and listen closely, you will see that there are a hundred ways to subdue a giant. And when we are clever, brave and thoughtful, when we pay careful attention?
Giants always fall.
Hercules learned, when assisting the God’s of Olympus in their battle against the giants – that giants can never be defeated on their own turf, and if they are brought down on their own terrain, they must be dragged from their land in order to be destroyed.
Giants cannot be defeated on their own ground.
And later, when facing down the Twelve Labors, Hercules took note of another important pattern:
A celebrated exploit of Hercules was his victory over Antaeus. Antaeus, the son of Terra, the Earth, was a mighty giant and wrestler, whose strength was invincible so long as he remained in contact with his mother Earth.
He compelled all strangers who came to his country to wrestle with him, on condition that if conquered (as they all were) they should be put to death. Hercules encountered him, and finding that it was of no avail to throw him, for he always rose with renewed strength from every fall. ~ Bullfinch’s Mythology.
A giant’s skills cannot be used against him.
If you use the giant’s methods, he will only be strengthened.
If you try to take him down with brute force, he will rise again.
Hercules found his own solution, he raised Antaeus high up, lifting the giant’s feet from the ground, and strangled him in mid-air.
When David faced Goliath, it seemed he had learned or thing or two from Hercules.
And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. ⁵ He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. ⁶ He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. ⁷ The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; ~ 1 Samuel 17: 4-7
For forty days the giant stood at the front and cried out his challenge. Until, David, a shepherd boy heard the giant’s call and decided he would answer it. He had battled bears and lions to protect his sheep, and this giant seemed no more of a danger to him than that. King Saul accepted his offer, and prepared the shepherd for battle:
Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. ³⁹ David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. ⁴⁰
David refused to dress himself in armor inauthentic to him.
He faced the giant in his own skin, no matter how exposed.
He would not match weapons with a giant.
He chose to protect himself and those he loved using only in the most natural, the most elemental artillery: five smooth stones, polished by a river – that fit perfectly into a leather sling.
Others trembled for him. The giant was contemptuous, certain of his dominance:
The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. ⁴⁴ The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” ⁴⁵
But in the blink of an eye:
David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground…There was no sword in David’s hand.
~ 1 Samuel 17 1-58, The New Oxford Annotated Bible
If our nighttime dreams gather up our unnoticed fears and hopes, intuitions and instincts in response to the challenges of our daily lives – then myth, scripture and fairy tale are our the records of our collective dreaming, the counterpoint of our collective consciousness.
Compensatory tendencies are to be found in fairy tales everywhere, so before I finish an analysis or interpretation I always say to myself: to whom has such a story to be told? Who needs that? ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
I have my own questions: What function do these stories serve? Why do we tell, and retell and revel in stories of defeating dominating, slow, cruel aggressive giants? What are “giants” when you dig right down into it, and why have we had to devise and record so many different giant-killing methods? What messages might these tales transmit forward from generations past?
In her extensive life long studies of fairy tale – Marie Louise von Franz, as a student, translator, and later a collaborator of Carl Jung’s – sought out the warnings and the wisdom embedded in simple folk tales of daring, magic and adventure.
Giants, she explains, emerge in creation myths all over the world, – and were “abortive, not very successful” attempts to produce human beings. They are lumbering, their thoughts move slowly, and they are irritable and reactive. They are also perniciously unaware, or unconcerned by the destructive impact that have on the earth, and on those of us who inhabit it with them.
Giants are mostly responsible for the weather: they create mist and in many countries even now, if there are thunderstorms, it is said that giants are playing in the heavenly countries and rolling their balls or bowling. There are thunder giants, lightening giants, and giants responsible for landslides and for boulder or rocks falling from the mountains; when the giantesses have their big washday, then the whole country is covered in mist. From these associations we can see that they represent the brute, untamed power of nature. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
We are overpowered by giants, as we are by nature and natural disaster – and in our inner lives, we also have storms and tantrums and moods which can sweep through us like tidal waves, settle down on us like a thick mist, or leave us as crushed as if we were pinned under a giant’s boot. The emotional currents of our lives, our internal weather-systems, can overpower us in an instant:
Jung himself, sees our interactions with giant as imagery that depicts what happens when we are possessed by archetypal instinct. We can be swept up in energies which may destroy or devour us – or swell and inflate us, transforming us into monsters ourselves.
The connection of the giant with emotion and affect is practically visible in the fact that whenever one gets emotional, one begins to exaggerate: we make, as we say, elephants out of lice. A little remark by another person, or any detail, becomes an enormous tragedy as soon as we are overwhelmed by our emotion. The emotion itself is what is powerful and magnifies everything in our surroundings. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
Perhaps we tell stories of battling and subduing giants as a means of gaining control over our inner storms and tempests: our uncontrollable, illogical, thick-headed, reactive, and irritable emotional lives.
That is why the giants between the gods and man are generally destructive. Their stupidity is easily understandable if we look at them from this angle, because everybody who falls into a state of affect becomes automatically stupefied. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
Giants may be big, imposing, and destructive, but you don’t need to be a genius to outwit them:
Take Jack for instance:
He wasn’t the brightest boy, he traded the family cow for a handful of magic beans after all. And we all remember what happened overnight after his mother tossed them out the window.
Jack, of course, climbs the beanstalk that reaches high up to the giant’s kingdom. His knock on the castle door is answered by a tall woman, the giant’s wife, who quickly takes pity on him and hides Jack in the oven (perhaps he set off on this adventure only half-baked, needed some more time to rise to the occasion).
Fe Fi Fo Fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman!
Be he alive or be he dead I’ll grind his bones to make my bread!
Jack’s giant may be brutal and dim-witted, but he lives close to his raw instincts. He can smell Jack’s humanity, or perhaps he just smells Jack’s fear. Mrs. Giant has a cover story ready: “It’s only some bones that the raven’s have dropped down the chimney” she says.
When the giant falls asleep – Jack is able to get away with a sack of gold. And here we see that the giant is easily confounded by his bride, as the same human odor is easily explained away when Jack returns twice more to steal the hen that lays golden eggs, and the magic golden harp that plays the sweetest music in the world.
Jack seems to have learned from Hercules and David experiences: He does not attempt to battle the giant on his own land, but relies on hiding, observation and stealth in order to lay claim to the giant’s wishes.
And when the enraged giant impulsively follows Jack down the beanstalk, Jack doesn’t engage (or inadvertently empower) the giant directly in any way. He does not attempt to respond to dominance by attempting to dominate in return, nor does he use the giant’s weapons. He doesn’t even attack the giant – Jack simply cuts off the structures that support him. With a stroke of an axe, Jack made sure the giant lost all footing and came crashing down to earth.
Only by avoiding direct confrontation, by becoming small, silent, swift and strategic is Jack able to get to the “core of (the giant’s) being whence he draws all his secret energy.”
You can’t “out-rage” a giant.
You will only strengthen him if you do.
It really is the same thing when one is confronted with somebody who is in an overwhelmingly emotional state. It is of no use to openly fight another person’s emotion. Trying to talk somebody out of a rage will just send him sky high. But if one can get at the secret curse behind it, at the basic motif, which the person generally does not know, then one may get at something to make the whole thing collapse. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
If we follow those tidy ravens – that deposited their trash down the giant’s chimney – eastward as the crow flies, from Britain to Germany, we may find more clues about the moral nature of giants:
It turns out that ravens like to drop their bones down the Devil’s chimney too.
In Grimm’s The Devil With Three Golden Hairs, a duplicitous King send a brave and fortunate boy on an deadly quest: to return from Hell with three golden hairs from the Devil’s head.
On the road to hell, the brave boy passes through two villages who ask him for help with their communal troubles: a magic fountain has run dry, a golden apple tree no longer bears fruit. He also meets a ferryman doomed to never stop rowing who asks to be freed from his dilemma.
“I know everything” the brave boy answers “only wait until I come back”
He may not have the answers at top of mind, but he trusts that if he is courageous and patient, the answers will come.
As he approaches the Devil’s house, the Devil’s Grandmother decides to protect and assist him – transforming the boy into a tiny ant, and hiding him in the hem of her skirt.
The Devil also sniffs out the scent of human vulnerability, is placated, and eventually falls asleep with his head in his Grandmother’s lap. Once he snores she suddenly plucks a golden hair from scalp: “Do not take it ill,” she says each time she jolts him awake for another hair, “I did it in a dream.”
“Who can help bad dreams?” she says.
The Devil asks about her dreams – she tells him she dreamed of a town whose magic fountain has gone dry, a village whose golden apple tree is dying, and of a sad ferryman who must row forever. The Devil tells her he has blocked up the fountain with a toad, he has set a mouse gnawing on the tree’s tap root, and that the ferryman has only to hand his oars to an unwitting passenger to be released from the Devil’s curse.
When the Devil had gone out again the old woman took the ant out of the folds of her dress, and gave the child of good fortune his human shape again. ‘There are the three golden hairs for you,” said she. “What the Devil said to your three questions, I suppose you heard?” “Yes,” answered he, “I heard and will take care to remember.” “You have what you want,” said she, “and now you can go your way.” He thanked the old woman for helping him in his need and left Hell well content that everything had turned out so fortunately ~The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales
The brave boy leaves the gates of hell behind him, releases the villages from their dilemmas, and tricks the cruel King into accepting the ferryman’s oars.
Perhaps is he ferrying still? If he is, it is because no one has taken the oars from him.
Here our hero is trapped between two evils, a lying mortal king and the Devil himself. He doesn’t enter into any combat with these forces at all, but in the end, undoes them both by setting them against each other. He has no tools. No tricks, no arms, no armor, no axe. Not even five smooth stones.
He is confident, that if everyone can be patient, he will eventually find the answers that will liberate others from their suffering and fulfill his own quest.
He relies upon grand Mother Nature to protect and guide him.
He is willing to become small and still.
He takes care to remember.
He will not be distracted from his purpose.
The phenomenon of evil is simply the appearance of something demonic or abnormal, a kind of overpowering nature phenomenon, which does not pose any ethical problem but the purely practical one of how to either overcome or successfully escape it. It becomes a question as to whether one can overpower the phenomenon or whether one simply has to save one’s own life. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
Holding back to assess the circumstances rather than going off half-baked, is necessary in order to assess what kind of evil we are encountering, what its motives, strengths, and vulnerabilities might be. We need to first understand what kind of giant we are facing before we can develop a strategy to survive it, or defeat it. It is necessary to spend some time hiding in the oven, under the bed, or in the folds of a skirt in order to determine what kind of evil we are up against.
von Franz speaks of the temperamental differences in myth and folktale between fire giants and ice giants – and the importance of discerning between “hot evil” and “cold evil.”
Hot evil – is passionate, reactive, irritable, explosive, angry, volatile. But it is also more easily confined, restrained. Its fire flares and recedes. The raging giant spends himself and falls asleep at predictable intervals. Our heroes have, so far, encountered irritable giants with hot tempers, and fiery emotions.
But there are cold and calculating giants, giants who feel nothing, whose blood runs with ice and who send chills down the spine of any who encounter them. Cold evil requires entirely different methods to survive, restrain or defeat. von Franz recounts a tale of an encounter with cold and deadly giant which I will tell you briefly:
The Giant Who Didn’t Have a Heart in Him:
A king sends six of his seven sons out to search for brides. On their return journey a giant turns them all, six princes and six princesses, into stone. The youngest, seventh son sets out, upon an old, slow horse, to rescue his brothers and their wives.
Along the way he meets a starving raven and shares his food.
He meets a salmon, trapped in dry mud, gasping for air, and returns him to the water.
He meets an emaciated wolf, who offers to carry the prince on his own back, if only he might eat the prince’s old horse. The prince gives the wolf his horse and the wolf becomes very strong, and the prince is able to harness him and rides him to the giant’s court. The wolf shows the prince a secret door, and there he meets a young princess, who agrees to help him conquer the giant and save his siblings.
The princess informs the youngest prince that no one can kill this giant because “his heart is not with him.”
She tells the prince to hid under her bed, to keep still, to listen carefully.
Like the Devil, and like Jack’s giant, the giant without a heart detects the smell of humanity – each time he returns to the room: And as before, the princess deflects and blames the birds for dropping bones down the chimney.
Just before sleep, for three consecutive nights the princess asks:
“I would like to know where your heart is”
He tells her it is buried under the threshold, hidden in cupboard. She and the prince search in those spots, and leave a wreath of flowers when they cannot find it.
The third night, simultaneously flattered by her apparent devotion and calling her a fool for believing him, he offers up the truth:
His heart is where she can never reach it: Far away, on an island, on a church well, on which a duck sits, “inside which there was an egg, which was his heart”
An infertile heart, unhatched, unborn.
The wolf carries the prince to the island. They summon the raven to help them find the key to door in the church wall. The duck releases its egg, which sinks to the bottom of the well only to be retrieved by the salmon.
From this point, to the end of the story, it is the wolf that directs the action:
“Squeeze the egg!” he directs the prince. The giant buckles in pain and begs for his life. “Tell him,” the wolf says, “to turn your brothers and their wives back into human beings.” The giant does this, and pleads to be spared.
And the wolf says: “Now! Squash the egg!”
and the giant burst.
The princess, the prince, his brothers and their wives return to their father’s kingdom and had a great feast, with the youngest son honored with a seat at the head of the table.
Humans are warm-blooded passionate creatures, and we have some begrudging ability to identify with big, hot-headed fire-giants. We can succumb to our impulses and our tempers too, and hot evils, crimes of passion, are easy enough for us to understand and identify in ourselves.
But cold evil, when we meet it on this earth, can paralyze us with horror. We are shocked, and flabbergasted by its cold-bloodedness. We see that it is devoid of empathy, that it is merciless, unfeeling. And a common response to exposure to icy dehumanizing evil, is to feel frozen and objectified. As though we have been transformed into statutes of stone.
It seems to me that the story of the heartless giant expresses the archetypal pattern which underlies what psychiatry calls psychopathy. In psychopathic patients we often meet a seemingly complete heartlessness, no feeling, and no ethics. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
And we see that it is a far more complicated process, when facing a cold evil, to “get to the heart” of the matter, it takes many more allies, and it requires a longer “journey” to get to the core.
And only if we have the giant’s heart in our hands – when we have brought the heartless giant to his knees – we may see a shred of his half-humanity: He pleads for his life. We may identify with his terror momentarily. But if we are in the presence of a sociopathic evil – these are likely crocodile tears – shed only for the self, and not tears or repentance or regret. If we have not assessed the circumstances accurately, we may hesitate, entangled in a misplaced compassion.
(Socipathic evil) … behave(s) as if they had the right to lie, cheat and murder with no self-doubt, and no self-criticism. Underneath somewhere is also an ego-centric baby full of idealistic delusions, which, by its touching innocence hauls others into wanting to help and rescue the poor person; but that inner infant is a parasite – it never develops and therefore sentimental pity is inappropriate. . ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
And our young hero doesn’t make this determination himself, to destroy the giants infertile heart. The animals he has forged an alliance with carry him through to restoration. It is as some parts of our young prince, his complex moral reasoning is stunned and frozen – turned into stone as well – and other instinctive animal energies must see him through.
… one must never hurt the helpful animal in fairy tales… If you do not listen to the helpful animal or bird, or whatever it is, if any animal gives you advice and you don’t follow it then you are finished. In the hundreds and hundreds of stories that is the one rule which seems to have no exception! ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
Ravens carry messages from the heavens down to humanity. Salmon carry intuitive knowledge up from the water unconscious to the surface.
And the wolf?
The wolf shows what to do: with grim determination he squashes the egg and kills the giant. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
We cannot take necessary action in the face of evil with out harnessing the wolf and all that it represents. We cannot make such decisions with our simple, young, idealistic humanity. We must know when to allow our response to be directed by a well harnessed, primal, animal instinct.
This would mean that obedience to one’s most basic inner being, one’s instinctual inner being is the one thing which is more essential than anything else. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
So many fairy tales warn us of the danger and destructiveness of unrestrained wolfishness. And we’ve learned to beware wolves when we are carrying goodies through a dark forest. But it is important to recall that according to Red Riding Hood, and the Three Little Pigs wolves who are not reigned in, will die by their own greed and destructiveness.
In its negative aspect the wolf is dangerously destructive… There is a saying that if one speaks of the wolf, it appears – just as when you speak of the Devil. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
But once we have forged an alliance and reigned in our own destructive impulse, we can see that it serves a natural, essential purpose, necessary to maintain the collective balance.
The wolf’s dark, dangerous firmness, which, if used at the right moment, is sometimes absolutely necessary in the process of individuation in order to mobilize the right values against evil… In such a moment one needs grim determination, the decision of a surgeon who has to cut off a limb to save the rest of the human being. This is what the wolf represents here. The surgical determination to cut something where there is no possibility of evolution. The combination of egg and giant has to be destroyed as a whole and then a new life begins away from this area. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
Sociopathy summons sociopathy. Encounters with giants will activate our inner wolves.
In von Franz’s words:
To look upon evil is to become infected by it.
And we can feel our hunger for justice, our desire to dominate and destroy, a killing rage rise up inside of us.
And there are times when must repress it.
And circumstances where we must bide our time.
And dangers we must sometimes run from
And there are crucial moments, where we must summon our own capacity for destructiveness, harness it, focus, and use to it cut off an overwhelming force of unrepentant evil.
There are tales of mighty saints who were able to harness the powers of the greatest giants, taming and training them to building enormous cathedrals.
These are not simple tales of good versus evil. Wives and grandmothers betray their partners. Giants are undone by thieves and tricksters who would steal their treasures and the very hairs off their head. Wolves remind us that idealistic compassion is not always simple, not always wise.
These are tales which show us that evil is a universal condition, present in each and every heart.
We may either harness it and use it wisely, or we may succumb to it.
Or worse, we could become giant.
The greatest challenge in battling giants, as von Franz would suggest, may be “stepping out of a problem of evil by getting beyond the problem of the opposites, getting close to an inner center beyond the duality of good and evil and its fight.”
The only way to defeat a giant is to use one’s wit, to be wiser, cleverer, more intuitive.
Those who know their own evil well and intimately, who have an alliance with it, who have harnessed their destructive capacities – hold the advantage over those who are merely possessed and driven by the desire for dominance.
Knowledge, if linked with a state of higher consciousness, is perhaps the greatest means of fighting evil; dissociated from consciousness, it is just one magical trick against another… The rival whose knowledge means wider or deeper consciousness will probably win against the rival who simply uses traditional knowledge without knowing its real meaning, not being essentially connected to it. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
I have one more story to tell you.
It is the story of The Valiant Tailor, retold from the Brother’s Grimm.
There was once a brave little tailor, who killed seven flies with one swat of his tea towel, and who took this stroke of fortune as a sign that he should venture out into the wider world and encounter the adventures that called to him. Before he left he embroidered his waistband with the words “Seven at Once!”
He quickly encountered a tribe of irritable giants who challenged him to a contest of strength, which the tailor wisely side-stepped with clever sleight of hand. He was able to squeeze “water from a stone” by replacing the stone with a round of cheese, and tossed another “stone” (in actuality a small bird) so high into the air that it never returned to the ground. These wondrous feats coupled with the emphatic message on his waistband, convinced the dull-minded giants that the tailor was a fearsome enemy.
A king would hear of his branded waistband and his giant victory and would conscript the tailor into tending to two more troublesome giants “who caused great mischief with their robbing, murdering, ravaging and burning.”
The little tailor, not idle gathered two pockets full of stones, and with these climbed up the tree. When he was half-way up, he slipped down by a branch until he sat just above the sleeping giants, and then let one stone after another fall on the breast of one of the giants. For a long time the giant felt nothing, but at last he awoke, pushed his comrade and said: “Why are you knocking me?” “You must be dreaming” said the other, “I am not knocking you.” They laid themselves down to sleep again, and then the tailor threw a stone down on the second. “What is the meaning of this?” cried the other. “Why are you pelting me?” “I am not pelting you,” answered the first, growling. They disputed about it for a time but as they were weary they let the matter rest, and their eyes closed once more. The little tailor began his game again, picked out the biggest stone and threw it with all his might on the breast of the first giant. “That is too bad!” cried he, and sprang up like a madman and pushed his companion against the tree until it shook. The other paid him back in the same coin, and they got into such a rage that they tore up trees and belabored each other so long that at last they both fell down dead at the same time. ~The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales
The cleverest ones may avoid engaging in false moral binaries all together, they side-step displays of dominance, and seek out a safe perch above and outside of the action. They may rely on the nature of giants, and Nature Herself to take care of the problem and correct those who have embraced and who exploit psychological imbalance.
Nemesis comes from the word nemo, which means to distribute, to attribute each one his rightful lot. Nemesis is a principle of natural justice by which everyone gets what he or she deserves. We cannot avoid seeing that there is such a principle in the unconscious, which has a curious way of exactly what one feels is somehow deserved. It is not justice in the human sense of the word, but there is an uncanny regulating force in nature which acts like justice and strikes one as being meaningful.~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
Nature abhors a vacuum, but that is not all it abhors, like a pendulum, like the weather itself, Nature compensates and corrects any imbalance, overgrowth or inflation it detects.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall.
There is not one story.
We all have our own giants to face, and we will each have to face them in our own way.
But our ancestors have offered us valuable clues to support us as this fearsome crossroads in a land of giants:
Don’t fight them on their own ground.
They will be strengthened by your aggression.
Trust your instincts.
Don’t use methods that are not natural to you.
Women know. They live with this every day. They know how to operate safely behind enemy lines.
Don’t let the monster eat you alive.
Wait until your foe falls into unconsciousness. Giants always do.
Knock the supports out from under them.
Get small. Stay still.
Be confident that the answers will come.
Help others along the way.
Trust Mother Nature to do her work.
Don’t forget those who have been turned to stone. They may be released.
Always listen to the helpful animal.
Know your enemy. Evil is infectious.
You cannot out-rage a giant.
Harness your wolf. But trust him and let him loose if you have to.
Celebrate your small victories and let them strengthen you for larger ones.
Simpler is better.
Know yourself. Be brave. Be clever. Be simple.
And remember that no matter what, one way or another:
Giants always fall.
I’ve started a project – that I will ultimately write about in some form:
I’m collecting the dreams that others have had about our current president. I have no idea where it might lead us individually or collectively. But it seems an important time for us all to listen for collective wisdom:
I’ve set up a blog for the sole purpose of gathering/archiving dreams for now.
You may share your dreams in the comments, which will be unpublished until they have been stripped of identifying information.
Click here to hear the stories of our collective dreaming…
I was ashamed to tell this once, but now . . .
He came like a wrestler, magnificent, took me down and breathed his fire through me and – I yielded, then at the climax I recoiled -I deceived Apollo –
Even then I told my people all the grief to come.
Once I betrayed him I could never be believed.
~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia, Agamemnon
The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.
~ Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman, M.D.
Dusk. I stand in a bay window scanning the scenery. It is bucolic; a lake in the foreground, a village nestled between the far shore and the surrounding woodlands and ascending foothills. A small mountain range cuts a jagged line across the sky. The evening light is purple, and I notice, the peaks are backlit, glowing. I know, instinctively, that the far side of the hill is aflame, and that this raging wildfire will spread, climbing toward the crest, and then descend toward the woods, engulfing the village, and surrounding the house I am standing in.
My housemates insist it will be fine. “The flames are miles away. It would take days before it would reach us, if it were even to head this way. The winds could switch, the rains could come. There was no emergency-broadcasting signal; no firefighters had called for evacuation.” I am too alarmed, they say, and prematurely, over a remote possibility.
And although I wanted to act with every fiber of my being, my warnings had fallen on skeptical ears. “Go to sleep” they tell me. “You are overreacting,” they say.
But I know. I feel it in my bones. I have been burned before and I can see exactly how it will all unfold.
The others in the house head off to bed. I won’t preserve myself alone, nor do I want to. I need us all to move to safety.
And because they will not, I cannot either.
I fall asleep with the others.
The smell of smoke and ash wakes me. The hills, the valley, the forest, the village are all on fire. As I stare out the window in horror, hundreds of wild animals, panicked deer, bobcats, bears, coyotes are tearing through the streets, barreling toward us, fleeing the flames. Their eyes roll with terror. They trample anything, anyone in their path.
I wake my housemates: “Move!” I scream. “Go! Now NOW!” The volume and primacy of my scream mobilizes them. As they scramble protect the valuables. I am rooted in place. Watching. Seeing. Screaming.
My labor has all been channeled into seeing, anticipating, and withstanding the mounting fear and horror alone, until it hits an intensity that others can experience.
A canary in a coalmine. A Cassandra.
And as I scream I see the very ground beneath us is glowing hot and orange. Boiling magma. The world itself is on fire.
So many Cassandras.
In my 25 years as a psychotherapist, I don’t think I have experienced a single workday that did not contend with the aftermath of sexual violence, violation, or harassment in some form. Every day of my professional life has involved sitting with another Cassandra who no one else would believe.
Raped, abused, harassed, molested, groomed, threatened, assaulted, stalked, terrorized, groped, forced.
By their fathers, uncles, brothers,
By their parent’s friends, and their friend’s parents,
By teachers, coaches, doctors, priests, and other therapists,
By dates, friends, husbands,
By customers, bosses, co-workers,
By neighbors. By strangers.
And I’ve sat with boys and men who have been abused as well as those who have perpetrated abuse. And so often, these were the same people.
Those who were shamed and ashamed, and those who were proud and unrepentant.
This fire has been burning for centuries, since the beginning of recorded time.
There is nothing new under Apollo’s sun.
And because I cannot share the private stories that women have shared with me, and because I cannot tell the details my of own experience, I will speak through Cassandra’s archetype, for the vast and hidden army of Cassandras.
But I will say this first for myself: of all the varied experiences of sexual violation that I have experienced in my lifetime, from age 12 on, across the continuum from the merely icky to psychologically traumatic: there were none that I could stop, even when I saw them coming. Even when I saw the smoke and knew the fire would follow.
They were all bigger, or older, or stronger, or wealthier, with greater status.
They all held the power to both corner me and render me unbelievable.
I spoke up, when I could, when it seemed prudent and viable.
It changed nothing except this:
It conscripted me into the secret sisterhood of Cassandaras, who no one would believe.
But we believe each other.
And the innocent boys I knew long before they were perpetrators – they were once Cassandras too, who escaped their curse by assuming Apollo’s throne.
Cassandra in her youth was drawn into the service of Apollo, the God of Truth, of Music, Knowledge, Foresight, and Healing. God of Sun and Light.
Zeus’s son, the Patron of Patriarchy.
And young Cassandra caught his eye.
Cassandra, the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, once fell asleep, they say, in the temple of Apollo after growing weary from play. Apollo wanted to ravish her, but she refused him access to her body. So he made it that no one believed her though she prophesied the truth. ~ Apollodorus’ Library and Hyginus’ Fabulae: Two Handbooks of Greek Mythology
And even sun gods have their shadows and Apollo’s father, Zeus, saw sexual dominance as his godly entitlement too.
Apollo is a pervasive cultural archetypal force, the patriarchal principal, which allows any human channeling its energies to momentarily see themselves as a shining god on a golden throne.
CASSANDRA: But the lust for power never dies – men cannot have enough. No one will lift a hand to send it from his door, to give it warning, ‘Power, never come again!’
~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon
It is wise to remember that the gods hold powers that mere mortals cannot sustain, for Nemesis, the goddess of Divine Retribution will, eventually, topple all mortal hubris. The reckless power-drunk, imagining they are as omnipotent as gods, ignite the fuse of tragedy, which burns towards its explosive end – destroying the innocent in its path, and destroys the pseudo-god as well.
CASSANDRA: God of the long road, Apollo my destroyer – you destroy me once, destroy me twice. ~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon
Cassandra is twice destroyed, first by the assault, and then by Apollo’s curse, the curse that she would never be believed.
CASSANDRA: See, Apollo himself, his fiery hands -I feel him again, he’s stripping off my robes, the Seer’s robes! And after he looked down and saw me mocked, even in these, his glories, mortified by friends I loved, and they hated me, they were so blind to their own demise -I went from door to door, I was wild with the god, I heard them call me ‘Beggar! Wretch! Starve for bread in hell!’ And I endured it all… ~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon
Apollo’s ability to control the narrative, to enlist and conscript the community to enforce his curse, speaks to the ways that we collectively defend against the existentially intolerable realities of trauma and abuse.
The knowledge of horrible events periodically protrudes into public awareness but is rarely retained for long. Denial, repression, and dissociation operate on a social as well as an individual level. ~ Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman, M.D.
In Trauma and Recovery, Herman describes the cycles of collective cultural examination and denial of the pervasiveness of abusive trauma, and names three distinct historical-political eras that permitted and withstood a legitimizing study of trauma and its aftermath: The decade when Freud and his mentors undertook the study of hysteria and explored its connection to pervasive sexual abuse, before Freud, (and not Freud alone but the entire medical/neurological/psychological community he was embedded in) “glimpsed this truth and retreated in horror” from its implications. The study and legitimization of “shell-shocked” soldiers, previously defined as cowards or malingerers, culminating in the formalization diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. And the focus of second wave feminism on sexual violence and the emergence of rape and domestic violence crisis centers.
The systematic study of psychological trauma therefore depends on the support of a political movement. ~ Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman, M.D.
We are in such a moment of political potential now as our entire culture contemplates yet again whether or not we will enforce or fight against Apollo’s curse of disbelief.
Trauma is endemic, inherent, natural. Animals are traumatized by wind and weather, by flood and fire – and they experience trauma inflicted upon them by other animals, and by other members of their own species.
Maybe we are designed to survive simple trauma. But abusive trauma is compounded by a culture of stigma and disbelief. We are surely not designed to withstand being scorned, stigmatized, or banished from the troop of human monkeys for stating concrete experiential truths.
And the Curse of Disbelief is damaging in large part because it disrupts the process of meaning making, blocking Cassandra’s ability to use her injury in service of protecting others. It means that Cassandras cannot warn or insulate others who may also be in harms way. Pending disasters, clear and present dangers cannot be averted.
Cassandras are doomed to watch horrors that could have been stopped, unfold. We must watch, speechless, as the harm and the human toll mounts.
Those who do speak up to sound the alarm risk being crushed – depicted as defiled, liars or insane, and may grant their perpetrators even more power and sadistic pleasure. Who can take the risk, of empowering their abuser and harming themselves further while sparing no one else?
I cannot calculate how many hundreds, maybe thousands of women, and girls and boys might have been spared if the curse were lifted in my life alone, if I had the power to stop the cycle and cauterize the damage at each and every instance. If all of the Cassandras could disrupt the tragic cycle from unfolding at the moment of ignition, what new myth might we be living out?
CASSANDRA: Apollo the Prophet introduced me to his gift.
Abusive trauma may leave life-damaging symptoms: dissociation, constriction, intrusive thoughts and memories, hypervigilance, fearful arousal. But traumatic exposure also does something else: It gives us a glimpse of a larger and more terrible truths.
The Sun God you worship may also violate and curse you.
Civilization is a thin veneer.
The wilderness is amoral.
Human beings are also human animals.
Cassandra has been shown the truth about the feral universe – and this truth disrupts the hubris of those who believe in the safety of civilization.
We like to imagine that civilization is a secure proposition.
That safety and fairness are the normal baseline that the walled city cannot fall.
We like to believe that forces larger than us are fair ones, that if we are “good” and our intentions are “good” and we make regular offerings, that the gods will concern themselves with fairness and justice.
Cassandras know that the wilderness exists in our most civilized spaces: the temple, the office, the home, and the public square.
Cassandras have learned: abuse can be as bold as broad daylight.
Stability is temporary, and security is insecure.
Cassandra’s eye was opened and she could never blind herself to that reality again.
CASSANDRA: When all is well a shadow can overturn it. When trouble comes a stroke of the wet sponge, and the picture’s blotted out. And that, I think that breaks the heart ~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon.
To hold traumatic reality in consciousness requires a social context that affirms and protects the victim and joins victims and witnesses in common alliance. For the individual victim, this social context is created by relationships with friends, lovers and family. For the larger society, the social context is created by political movements that give voice to the disempowered. ~ Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman, M.D.
And when the necessary social contexts are not in place, our communities will not heed the visionary warnings of the disempowered, which places the entire collective in harms way. Ultimately the Curse of Disbelief destroys us all: Trojan Horses are accepted as gifts to the gods, despite all the signs and warnings of the danger, the downfall, that lurks hidden and silent inside.
Overjoyed, they dragged the horse in, set it up next to Priam’s palace, and discussed what to do. Cassandra said that there was an armed force inside, so some decided it was best to burn it, and others to hurl it down a cliff. But most decided to leave it alone since it was an offering to a god. They then turned their attention to sacrifice and feasted. ~ Apollodorus’ Library and Hyginus’ Fabulae: Two Handbooks of Greek Mythology Trzaskoma, Stephen M.; Smith, R. Scott
And the kingdom falls. The walls of civilization are breached and the world is revealed to be ruled by wild and feral gods, concerned only with power and not with justice.
As moral as a brush fire.
Captured by the invading king, foreseeing his destruction and her own, her community and kinsman in bondage, Cassandra finally revolts against her god:
CASSANDRA: Before I die I’ll tread you (ripping off her regalia, stamping it into the ground) Down, out, die die die! Now you’re down. I’ve paid you back. Look for another victim -I am free at last -make her rich in all your curse and doom. ~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon
Cassandras can become a dangerous force in themselves. Volcanoes may sleep, dormant for hundreds of years in between violent fiery eruptions. And silenced screams become more dangerous and destructive over time as the pressure builds.
Her screams become embodied curses, calling down the unceasing anger of the avenging Furies, who destroy their enemies by shredding them to pieces with a studded scourge.
We have enacted Cassandra’s ancient cycle since the dawn of Western civilization. Can it ever stop? Will the curse be lifted?
The myth leaves us with no solution. Only destruction. Troy falls. The ruling members of both parties – the Greeks and the Trojans are destroyed by The Furies, by each other and by women’s rage. And Cassandra is killed by her captor’s wife.
Cassandra predicts this herself, foresees it all, unable to stop or derail the horrific events.
And Apollo is unmoved.
The myth is an inherently tragic one.
Our only hope is to live a different myth entirely:
A myth that values women’s voices exactly as men’s voices are valued.
A myth where children of all genders are cherished and protected.
A myth that transcends punishment and revenge.
A myth that does not require forgiveness or submission.
A myth that allows us to guard and keep each other,
To repent from our cruelties,
And to make meaning from our wounds.