Stories We Need to Know

Chapter One

The Problem of Soul Starvation

“If we do not believe within ourselves this deeply rooted feeling that there is something higher than ourselves, we shall never find the strength to evolve into something higher.” ~ Rudolf Steiner

There are so many people, many of whom we encounter every day, who seem to be suffering from some sort of soul starvation. Many of us feel this at some point in our lives. Perhaps it surfaces when we find that for some reason we feel bored and discontented and that we don’t care much about anything. At times like this nothing seems particularly important, in the sense that we feel no strong engagement with the outside world. Perhaps we slip into feeling that we don’t matter very much to ourselves. For consolation we may turn to junk food, or go shopping. We may eat, drink and smoke to excess, or pop pills. Or we sleep a lot and still feel chronically under-rested. Occasionally for some of us this behavior will take a nose-dive into the devastating condition of depression, which has been seen as one of the western world’s most persistent diseases. In a world that is full of beauty, of daily miracles, how can this happen? Unfortunately, for the person who feels lost nothing is beautiful.

In my work as a counselor I can say that this is the single most frequent reason that clients come to seek me out. Old or young, nothing much seems to have real meaning, and they are tired even of the obsessions that used to matter. This shouldn’t surprise us. An estimated one in four Americans will take prescription medications to deal with depression at some point in their lives, as they try to cushion the distress that accompanies feeling lost

Thomas Moore put the problem this way when he wrote in 1992, in words that apply equally well to our century: “The great malady of the twentieth century, implicated in all of our troubles and affecting us individually and socially, is ‘loss of soul’. When soul is neglected, it doesn’t just go away; it appears symptomatically in obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning.” He goes on to discuss how we can take time to care for our souls so that we do not remain in this lost and unhappy state. He suggests that the individual’s pain may, in fact, indicate a desire to find more to life than seems currently available, that it is a turning point in the growth of the psyche. Obsessions and compulsions become, therefore, a form of poetry in their own right since they articulate a way in which the individual is reaching for a deeper more vital reality than is currently available.

The situation is made more complex for the soul-starved person because we are routinely made aware by our news media that there are people who really do seem to be fully in the flow of life and who work effortlessly at what they do. Most of us will see this in its most dramatic form when we watch high level sports events, and the sheer physical mastery of those athletes thrills us. And yet the couch potato, living vicariously through TV sports events, is too prevalent a phenomenon for us to ignore; and that longing for a physical expertise that he or she will never achieve is, surely, a cushion against personal inadequacy. Was it just talent, training, and the accident of birth that made those athletes so proficient? How can it be that some people are so good at what they do, and others can’t find anything that they want to do?

In fact the phrases we use to describe this situation all sound rather daunting, and that doesn’t help. Finding ‘what we’re supposed to do’, our lifework, our true purpose, our direction – these descriptions make it seem as if there is just one thing we are here to do, so we’d better get started and track it down, and fast. But none of this tells us where to begin. Is it any surprise that so many people seem to give up? There are many popular books available that say they can help us. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and Eric Maisel’s Fearless Creativity are two good ones. But what if we are not particularly artistic? What if we’re not naturally writers, sculptors, musicians, painters? How do we nurture ourselves in that case?

There is an answer – or perhaps even several sets of answers – and this whole situation is made a lot easier if we can recognize that we have available to us a path that has been trodden very thoroughly by the generations before us. They wrestled with these questions too, and they’ve left us enough pointers so that if we pay attention we won’t get lost. These pointers have been present in our literature, in our folk tales, and quite possibly in our genetic structure for several thousand years. Our ancestors have, in fact, left us a road-map of sorts, one that needs a little explaining to understand – just as all maps do. In this case we’re not looking at roads and rivers, but at characters in the stories, characters who are images or archetypal representations of who we can choose to become at different points in our lives. These representations are clearly present in almost all of the major stories and religious texts that make up our culture, and if we choose to look into the stories and identify them we can find, for ourselves, considerable guidance as to where it is our souls will need to travel to over the course of a lifetime.

These writings, myths, legends, and stories suggest that as we go through our lives each of us can expect to encounter six distinct stages of personal development, which always occur in the same order, each of which it is necessary to complete successfully if we are to become fully-realized authentic individuals. Each stage is embodied in an archetype recognized in our culture already – once we know what to look for we can see them every day – and each stage leads on to the next in a clear progression. There may be more than six stages; the ones described in these pages are simply the six most important ones. Certainly they are the most observable. The trouble is that most of us don’t get much beyond the first two or three stages because we don’t know that there is anything else. This is a bit like a traveler going on a road trip and stopping at the first hotel he runs across only to find he doesn’t like it much. It doesn’t have half the things he wants. But he books a room for the entire vacation anyway because he doesn’t know that there are lots of better places just out of sight, barely a few miles ahead. Perhaps our traveler is lazy, or possibly he doesn’t truly believe he deserves a place he will like. If he’d had a decent guide book he could have avoided this mistake. Yet this is exactly how many people seem to run their lives, without any guidebook or roadmap.

My research and teaching over the past thirty years as a professor of literature and as a counselor has led me to identify the six major stages which we seem to need to go through, in the specific order in which they appear here, so we can reach the understanding that will bring us to a place of psychic peace.

Psychologists will probably label these as developmental phases, and they’d be correct. Yet they are also spiritual stages which, if we encounter them honestly and allow ourselves to understand what they’re able to tell us, will generate the spiritual growth that all human beings are offered, and which only a few of us seem to be able to take on fully.

Why is this? Well, the world outside frequently seems to have other plans for us that get in the way – plans that don’t include time for spiritual or mental growth. I’ll illustrate this by giving you a story from my early years as a college teacher. One cold spring morning I was at a parent-teacher conference, a brunch that the college I worked for periodically offered to attract parents and give them the chance to meet the professors. I sat opposite the parents of one of my more promising students. The father wore a neat gray jacket and a silk tie and was clearly afraid of his tall, stately, over-coiffed wife. Suddenly she leaned forward and spoke in a rapid whisper.

“Our Roland does enjoy your classes, you know,” she breathed, “but I don’t think it’s a good idea to have him reading those books. You know. They give him ideas. And we can’t have that.”

“Ideas?” I said, “Isn’t that a good thing?”

“Yes, but he thinks he can be more than he realistically can be.”

“I see. I didn’t think Gulliver’s Travels would do that.” I answered.

“Well, we want him to get his education of course, and get a nice job nearby, and settle down. That’s what we want.” The husband nodded his agreement.

“And that’s what Roland wants?” I asked.

“Of course he does. He’s twenty-one. We know what’s good for him. The trouble is he keeps saying he wants to travel…”

Here was a thoughtful, caring family. And yet they seemed frightened that their son would ask too many questions and wander away from home territory. After all, why should anyone leave a place that is safe and cozy in order to travel? Is it a good enough answer to say that it is because that’s what human beings seem to need to do? That we want to explore, even when we’re urged not to? I didn’t know what to say to Roland’s parents that night since they both seemed so afraid of what the future might bring. It was obvious that behind their fear was a huge amount of love for their son, and that caused them to want to keep him near.

Another example springs to mind. I was teaching a course on writing for self-exploration at my local Adult Education Center, and I asked the participants whether they felt the previous four or five class sessions had allowed them to think about writing in a new way.

Iruna, a lady of 92, piped up immediately, fiddling with her hearing aid.

“It’s making my writing a lot more difficult,” she announced.

“Could you say more?” I ventured, bracing myself for what might come. I’d been hoping for some friendly feedback.

“Well, every week I send a round-robin letter to the whole family, that’s 13 in all, and I used to be able to write pages and pages about the garden and the weather, and who’d been doing what. It was a way of making sure we all kept in touch. And it was no trouble at all. But since I’ve been coming to this class, doing your writing exercises, I’ve had all these thoughts. And they’re rather more complex. I simply can’t go back to the old way of writing at all.”

“Ah,” I said, “so what does that mean for you?”

“Well, I just can’t believe I wrote like that for so many years. I’ve had to re-think, you know, everything.”

These two examples, decades apart, are pretty much typical of what can happen when an individual starts on a journey of inquiry, when he or she starts to comprehend that there are other ways of seeing and of being. Things get shaken up. They get complicated. People get offended or afraid. Life gets richer than we’d ever dreamed, and sometimes the people we know seem to want us not to explore this richness. A woman of 23 who recently worked with me would arrive at my office each week in tears, because she routinely encountered a storm of opposition and emotional blackmail from her extensive Italian family whenever she tried to speak about her need to take certain career steps on her own. Things got so bad that she was tempted to give up her plans for a career in radio entirely. She persevered however, even though for a short period the verbal attacks she had to endure were brutal, unpredictable, and pitiless. By all outward assessments her family was a good, loving group that included uncles, aunts and many cousins – yet they are an example of how any of us can be held back from an exploration of our own abilities by those who profess to love us.

My purpose in these pages is to show how each of us can embark on our own journey, and what to watch out for as we do so, because even the best of intentions can never really compensate for a good map and the necessary background research as we set out. It’s a journey that those nearest and dearest to us may find confusing or even illogical – just as Roland’s mother did – and it may mean uprooting the habits and expectations of a whole lifetime, just as it did for Iruna at 92.

Joseph Campbell called this the mythic journey of the hero. Jung explored it in his extensive discussion of archetypes, as did his friends and close associates John Weir Perry and Paul Radin. When Perry and Campbell met up at a conference in 1972 they were both delighted to discover that they had spent their lifetimes working on the same material, coming to very similar conclusions, although neither had known of the other’s work until that point. These are the writers and thinkers whose explorations led me to the ideas we’re looking at here. The story of how I reached this version of the archetypal journey is to be found later in this book. For the idea of the archetypal journey is not by any means new, and I don’t claim it as such. It’s been in our culture for millennia, and it has been more or less completely buried for the past four hundred years. What I wish to suggest here is that it has not been systematically assessed and understood, nor has it been shown in action in terms we can understand today. It is one of the true deep structures of the human psyche, if we choose to take notice of it.

Joseph Campbell, for example, suggested that the mythic journey is an option open to all of us, at any time after puberty. Working with students in college settings I’ve seen again and again how they are all, at some point, faced with the invitation to go on this journey. It is a journey that asks them to discover what is true for them, rather than what society at large considers to be true. Not all take up the offer, and some of those who do cannot stay the course. Some get lost; sometimes temporarily, sometimes for good. More than this, however, is that most people I’ve worked with have almost no idea where they are in their life journey, nor what starting their journey looks like. In fact quite a few of them think they’ve already started, when they’ve done nothing of the sort. The engines are racing and the car’s in ‘park’.

It’s open to discussion, of course, as to whether life actually is a journey or not. We’ve no way of knowing for sure. It might turn out to be a pumpkin, say, or a ball of fluff. All I can state here is that human beings have for a very long time chosen the metaphor of a journey in order to attempt to describe the experience of going through life, and we still do seem to prefer that description. Even a quick glance at the world around us will reassure us that, yes, as far as most people are concerned life is best described as a journey. Right now I have a newspaper on the table beside me with a Citibank ad that proclaims ‘life is a journey’. A song on my car radio yesterday told me that ‘life is a highway’; Jerry Garcia is famous for having described his life as a ‘long, strange trip’; the Beatles’ song ‘The Long and Winding Road’ seems to claim the same thing. We could add examples from other times in which we’d have to note The Odyssey as a story that depends upon the main figure completing a journey, and the The Divine Comedy which is predicated upon a guided trip through Hell, Purgatory and eventually to Heaven. We’d also have to include John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (where ‘progress’ had the double meaning of moving forward spiritually and of taking a journey) and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. We can even find ironic examples of this metaphor, such as John Mortimer’s extraordinary evocation of growing up with his blind, overbearing father, which he titled A Voyage Around my Father. There are far more examples and we don’t need to record all of them here. What we do need to be aware of is that when people attempt to explain life to themselves and others they will tend overwhelmingly to use the metaphor of a journey to describe the experience of being alive. I will continue to use this concept, since it seems to be part of the way we turn experience into understandable language. That’s why I refer here to a ‘road map’ that is waiting for us.

It’s also worth noticing that many of the examples I’ve just given show the journey leading towards an explicitly spiritual goal – heaven, or fulfillment, or even enlightenment.

First of all, though, before we can go anywhere we have to know where we are right now. And that means we have to throw away the modern, popularly-acclaimed map that got us lost.

The information, which can help us – the roadmap for how to grow psychically and spiritually – has been in existence for as long as human beings have been telling stories. It’s just that we’ve tended to forget this, and in the process we’ve got derailed. In our society we’ve tended to value the amassing of wealth and prestige above real growth, understanding, and true happiness. This is what the modern road map leads us to believe is important. We’ve admired fame at the expense of a genuine sense of who or what is important. Just like Esau in the Old Testament, we’ve traded our future fulfillment, our heritage, for what the Bible calls ‘a mess of pottage’. Put in more contemporary terms this suggests that we are more likely to choose the immediate gratifications of right now – that bowl of savory stew when we’re hungry, which is exactly what Esau went for – rather than considering the longer demands of responsibility, of dedication, of authenticity, that will lead us to real contentment. A full belly is nice. Esau knew that. It makes us feel contented and sleepy. But the lasting sense of peace that comes from knowing what your life adds up to is worth a few hunger pangs along the way.

We’re in a world that doesn’t routinely want to wait for real rewards. As a result our world is littered with has-beens, broken people who had their fifteen minutes of fame or notoriety and cannot now accept that they have found nothing else to offer or take from the world. These are the people who fill the pages of our tabloid press, the famous and the glamorous who seem lost in every aspect of their lives except those in which they are repeating the lines others have written for them when they stand before the cameras.

As more and more Americans turn to the solace of drugs and alcohol, or to compulsive activities like promiscuity or shopping or ‘collecting’, or to the consolations of food (which is one of the reasons the example of Esau feels so poignant to me), we have the right to ask how so many people came to be so lost.

We also have a right to ask how we can find our way forwards.

You see, it all has to do with that journey Joseph Campbell wrote about, and it also has to do with myths and the archetypes contained in them, all of which exist in stories that we need to know.

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