The last time I posted, I wrote about having a sense of a deep sinking into myself. A few weeks later, I began reading The Interpretation of Fairy Tales by Marie-Louise von Franz, and discovered that the experiences I described in my last post are often symbolically represented in fairy tales. Von Franz uses the fairy tale “King Thrushbeard,” to illustrate aspects of the feminine journey that parallel my own experience lately. It was comforting to read about the feminine journey, which von Franz contrasts with the masculine one. Their journeys are different because the masculine archetype hunts and kills, whereas the feminine gives life and nurtures; therefore a man dealing with his anima confronts and becomes entangled in life, whereas a woman dealing with her animus encounters situations involving aim and direction. Put another way, as part of his journey, a man is thrust into life; but a woman is called out of it.
Our contrasexual parts, anima for a man and animus for a woman, are our inner opposites. Though they act in different ways in men and women, their purposes are to act as soul guides, presenting creative possibilities and making individuation possible. So many women are always longing or looking for a “soul mate,” ignorant of the fact that a woman’s soul is expressed through her animus. Her inner masculine is the one who will get her to where she needs to go, but she tends to project her inner needs outwardly, seeking them in some man. This was true of me for well over a decade in my own marriage, when I sincerely believed that my husband could meet my needs, if only he (or I) would try harder. At that time, we attended a church that taught us that something was wrong if our husbands didn’t meet our needs; the idea that we could be one another’s soul mates was part of the doctrine. They taught that unhappiness or dissatisfaction in a marriage resulted from a wife not being good enough to inspire her husband to meet her needs; or else the fault was with the husband. I’m reminded of an old book titled, You Can Be the Wife of a Happy Husband, which expressed similar ideas: Wives who did all the right things would in return receive all the right things from their husbands. It was some years before I realized that my man would never make me happy, and that all my joy and happiness had to come from my relationship with God and my own Self.
If ever the fantasy of the soul mate who completes her can be put away by a woman, she may be ready by middle-age to deal with her male side, the animus. This inner character can be a very low sort, appearing as an animal or in other instinctive, natural forms in dreams or art. He may come as an evil spirit or he may appear as a helpful animal, but his basic nature is instinctual. Being a hunter, he is goal-oriented, even driven.
Just as the anima confronts a man with numerous psychological and emotional challenges, so too the animus confronts a woman. He causes her a great deal of suffering. How do we handle this suffering? Von Franz writes that
One way of dealing with the animus problem is for the woman simply to suffer it through to the bitter end. Indeed, there is no solution that does not include suffering, and suffering seems to belong to the life of woman (p. 177).
In this approach, a woman hunkers down to wait it out. I had quite a strong sense of this in my life when I plunged into the dark wood of mid-life, a strange contrast to my earlier way of life, which was always to be right in the middle of it. Being right in the middle of life is a feminine characteristic, for to live the feminine life is to be related, connected, and in community. We women serve the archetype of wholeness by trying to bring and keep people together, to foster relatedness if not relationship.
I grew up camping with my family, and one of the experiences that stands out in my mind is the memory of the ebb and flow of daily life around camp. We were all up at or before day’s first light, the smell of brewing coffee mingling with frying sausage. While my mother and grandmother gathered the cooking implements, the men built the cooking fire, organized their fishing gear, and checked the boats. After breakfast, the men inevitably went somewhere–fishing, hunting, tromping around in hiking boots, discovering. They went on the water, not into it. Though anyone could go anywhere and do anything either group was doing, the feminine camp was the camp that stayed put, stirred the pot, tended the fire, read books under the shade trees, laid in the hammock and dreamed. Women went into the water to bathe, play, or wash; men went on the water to fish, or ski, or explore.
At the end of the day as darkness fell and the last plate was being scraped and washed in my grandmother’s big metal wash tub, the men would gather around the camp fire. Grandad would fish his tobacco pouch out of a jacket pocket and tamp a bowl of tobacco into his pipe. When it was perfect, he’d light it. The smell of pipe tobacco mingled with that of the camp fire as the grownups began to swap stories or tell us tales from their childhood. In the circle of family around that fire, we were both male and female; both aspects mingled to make a whole that gave us the deepest sense of connection and identity possible. This is just how it works as we individuate: We call the fragmented parts of our psyche to the camp fire. We swap stories. We listen. And we are carried away on a stream of consciousness that both grounds us and sets us free.
The Magic Flight
As a woman begins to realize that she’s not going to get what she needs from a man–not her father, not her husband or her lover, not her sons–she’s confronted with the problem of her own lack of wholeness on the masculine side. She’s spent her entire life longing for something and someone who can only be discovered and related to if she turns inward. Because she wasn’t developmentally ready for it, or because she was wounded there, or because our culture demands we be either this or that, or for any variety of reasons, she’s estranged from her inner male. She has possibly pushed his energy down for years and years, so when it bursts forth, it is neither refined nor cooperative. It feels strong, out of control, even frightening.
The animus energy can be so great that a woman is confronted with the problem of being possessed or overwhelmed by it. She can try to strengthen herself and stand up to the animus and try to conquer him, or she may flee–a motif von Franz calls “the magic flight.” Such a flight is characterized by throwing things away, ridding oneself of possessions, and getting rid of all that encumbers one. “Stripping oneself gives mobility,” von Franz points out, and therefore, “there are situations in which one absolutely has to give up wanting anything, and in this way one slips out from under; one is not there any longer, so nothing more can go wrong. When one is confronted by a hopelessly wrong situation, one must just make a drastic leap to the bottom of open-minded simplicity, and from there one can live through it” (p. 179).
I’ve noticed that many middle-aged women choose that time of life to down-size. They sell their large homes and purchase a smaller. They come to visit children with trunks full of memorabilia that they leave behind. Many end long-term friendships or business relationships that haven’t been working. They strip themselves of all that cannot help them during the second half of life, of whatever hinders, and of what will never serve individuation.
Other women struggle and fuss, argue and fume with spouses or adult children, neighbors or best friends, until they finally come to the end of themselves and their opinions and ideas about what must be. They learn that they can’t control or change anyone, and rarely can even influence another human being. All they can do is influence themselves, and that too seems impossible with a naked, muscular, hairy male running through their unconscious, brandishing a machete. They come to this impossible place, and their only salvation is to throw themselves into this “open-minded simplicity” von Franz writes about.
“Unless you become as little children,” Jesus said, “you cannot enter the Kingdom of God.”
Another characteristic of a woman’s animus struggle is that she goes into exile. In many fairy tales, we see a female character who flees or is driven or exiled in the woods, in a wasteland, in some tower or wilderness fortress. In “The Girl without Hands,” the central character bit by bit drifts out of life and eventually must go to the woods and live an isolated life. Von Franz writes that
This is a very frequent motif, and being excluded from life for many years seems to me typically to illustrate a problem of feminine psychology. From the outside it looks like a complete stagnation, but in reality it is a time of initiation and incubation when a deep inner split is cured and inner problems solved. This motif forms a contrast to the more active quest of the male hero, who has to go into the Beyond and try to slay the monster, or find the treasure, or the bride. Usually he has to make more of a journey and accomplish some deed instead of just staying out of life. There seems to be a typical difference between the masculine and feminine principles. The unconscious is experienced as isolation by the heroine, and afterward comes the return into life (p. 106).