What do you see in human experience?
C.G. Jung said that in Western civilization, the ancient office of tribal “ritual elder” was less and less occupied by clergy. Changes in modern institutional religion have turned parish clergy into administrators, teachers and fundraisers, and less and less available for the ancient symbolic functions of meaningful ritual and “testing the spirits” (discernment).
Jung believed that modern therapists were largely the default recipient of the shamanic role. This has always intrigued me and made me nervous.
I want to extend an invitation to veteran therapist/counselor types — you modern elders — who might be in earshot of this column: What do you notice? Wrap your arms around the years of individuals, couples, kids, teens and families that moved through your practice. What themes do you see in the modern human experience, either positive or negative? Put all that into a two- to six-sentence paragraph, and send it to me.
Here are a few things I notice:
* People seek redemption. Yep, regardless of religion or no-religion, people long to convert banal human experience into redemptive meaning: birth, belonging, hope, vocation, sex, pride, humility, fear, joy, forgiveness, justice, evil, anger, values, moral failure, guilt, grief, love, meaning, child-rearing, aging, death. You can see how Jung arrived at his conclusion; the list of presenting issues in therapy is virtually synonymous with the needs and hungers of any pilgrim on a religious journey.
* There is no escaping the paradox of The Individual and The Collective. Meaning, we cannot participate creatively in the wider human experience without possession of a healthy, separate self. Yet, the only way to grow a healthy, separate self is to participate in the collective.
* People are designed for relationships. Seems funny how often I remind folks of this. I think “individualism” is a near cult in America. People are surprised, made anxious, threatened, even embarrassed by their yearning for deep friendships, kinship and a great love affair. We embrace insipid mantras — or sometimes hear them from therapists who mean to encourage — such as, “You’re fine alone.” You’ll never hear that from me. Instead you’ll hear, “You’re fine enough alone.”
* Western civilization is a neurosis factory. Anxiety, self-consciousness, self-doubt. An overwhelming tendency to attach undue and largely negative meaning to self. So common is this outcome in human formation that consulting therapists will describe patients with a shrug, saying, “He’s a normal neurotic.” Meaning, he’s just like everybody else. Just like me, for that matter.
* People have answers for most of their questions. In fact, it’s uncommon for patients to ask me an honest question; meaning, a question seeking actual information about which they are ignorant. Nope, the majority of questions are rhetorical. The patient poses the “great mystery/crisis/dilemma” inquiry as a segue, a stage. Give them some room, and they will usually answer their own questions.
* Children need to be admired. They need to hear the “wow” in the voice of the mother, the father. They need to see the wonder in our eyes.
* Children are absurdly forgiving and breathtakingly resilient.
* We marginalize adolescents, yet reserve the right to complain about their despair.
* The best thing I have to say about hitting children is that it is unnecessary.
* The “nuclear family” is a ridiculous and historically unprecedented way to raise children.
* Narcissistic parenting patterns dominate the current culture of child rearing.
* As a group, we have sold ourselves a shameless bill of goods regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage. We’re personally affronted when we discover that our marriage has failed to sustain “in-lovedness” and happiness. We tell ourselves that divorce and remarriage is a terrific strategy for growth and personal development. No data supports this idea.
* Modern people are tragically separated from their symbols. Said another way, materialism and rationalism rule the day, both at the cost of meaning.
* It’s not abuse that makes children — and later, adults — feel or act crazy and destructively, it’s not being allowed to have any feelings about our abuse. To be separated from the reality of our emotional reality — that is crazy-making!
We’ve come a long ways, but it remains today axiomatic: Men can’t cry, and women can’t get angry. I’m serious. Can’t tell you how many times individual therapy with a man includes helping him take grief and loss seriously. Can’t tell you how many times individual therapy with a woman includes helping her take anger and outrage seriously.
A symbol is not a sign. A sign is merely a shape, a color, a gesture, an object or a word representing something else. A “stop sign,” for example, is a red octagon with the word “stop” on it. It is a sign representing a legal mandate, a boundary for people operating vehicles through an intersection of roads. The mandate is “stop.” Come to a full stop. Then go. Wait your turn. So you don’t die. Or kill anyone. Or smash up your car and watch your auto insurance rates go from ridiculously expensive to really obscene.
Signs are functional. Useful and necessary. But the stop sign itself is worth no more than the sheet metal and paint out of which it is made.
The difference between a sign and a symbol is something first felt, and only later comprehended. Consider this illustration …
Let’s say I’m standing in front of a stop sign, holding a 12-gauge shotgun. Let’s say I’ve had enough beers to open the padlock on the cage detaining and restraining Stupid Macho Man Moron. When Stupid Macho Man Moron gets out, somebody usually goes to jail, the hospital and, sometimes, the morgue. At the very least, there are repair bills.
So, Stupid Macho Man Moron gets the idea that it would be both fun and meaningful to shoot the stop sign with the 12-gauge. And so he does. Ka-blam. Buncha smoking holes in the stop sign now. SMMM has conquered, and is king of all he surveys.
Now, if the county sheriff happens to witness this little masculine adventure, he will arrest me. I’ll be charged with wanton destruction of public property. At the very least, I’ll be fined, put on probation, made to make restitution, perhaps sentenced to community service.
But it isn’t personal. No one would be “hurt.” Disgusted, maybe. But no one would be horrified or personally devastated.
Now, let’s say you’re happily married in a great love affair. I’m over for dinner. I compliment your wedding ring. Ask to see it. You take it off and hand it to me. I get up, step out on the back patio, take a hammer out of my pocket, and smash it to bits with three rapid blows. White gold flattened. Diamonds rendered to dust.
Your mouth would drop open in a silent or not-so-silent scream. You might cover your face with your hands. Hold your stomach, straining, bending over so as not to implode. You hold the ruined ring in your hands, cradling it like a dying sparrow chick, fallen from the nest. Eventually, you weep.
In some other — but equally real — reality, I have hit you with the hammer three times.
That’s the difference between a sign and a symbol. A symbol “participates” in the thing it represents.
Now I’m ready to answer your question, S.
I’m talking about all kinds of symbols. Marriage is a symbol. Wedding rings are symbols. That collar around the neck of the priest is a symbol. Old Glory is a symbol. Hair can be a symbol (see Samson). Fire (see sweat lodges). The Alamo is a symbol. (I was in San Antonio on the day Ozzy Osbourne urinated on it. Texans reacted, well, badly. Dramatically, even.)
Only in a culture as overly rationalized and material as this one could we …
* wear the American flag as jockey shorts;
* refer to a wedding license as “just a piece of paper”;
* be absent collective rituals for grief;
* be absent collective rituals for rites of passage to adulthood;
* think it’s funny to try to make the guard at Buckingham Palace laugh;
* think potato chips and Pepsi could stand in for bread and wine;
* refer to a girl’s first menses as the arrival of “The Curse”;
* think a glowing light bulb is the same as a perpetual flame;
* ask them to mail your doctoral diploma to your house;
* dare to be impatient when stuck behind a funeral procession in traffic.
Here’s my first question in premarital counseling: “What do you want to change in your relationship on (date)?” Wanna know the most common answer? The couple exchanges a befuddled glance. One of them sits taller. Proud of this answer, mind you. “Nothing,” he/she says quizzically, as if I’ve asked a very strange question.
If your goal was to change nothing, wouldn’t it make sense that you would do nothing?
Modern people are tragically separated from their symbols.
incomparable Nat King Cole on heart’s odyssey —