Engaging Poverty

In the midst of my grief and loss over my husband’s death and adjustments to single parenting this year, I’ve had to do a great deal of writing for my Jungian Studies program. I am approaching the end of the program and have only my capstone paper to finish–two more pages, in fact, and they are the longest two pages I have ever written.

I’m writing about the Grimm and Grimm fairy tale, “The Handless Maiden” and what I think it has to say about the wounded feminine. In the story, a miller falls slowly into poverty, at which point the devil, disguised as an old man, appears and promises prosperity if the miller will give him “what is standing behind your mill.”

The miller considers the offer and realizes that there’s nothing of value behind the mill, only an old apple tree. He strikes the bargain, only to find out later that the old man was the devil in disguise, and that his only daughter had been standing under the apple tree at the moment the bargain was struck. He has traded his only child to the devil!

The girl seeks to defend herself, and manages to avoid being taken entirely by the devil. However, the miller then trades her hands for her life, and has to chop off her hands to appease the devil. She thus becomes the handless maiden referred to in the story’s title, and a picture of what the merely masculine, mechanistic attitude can do to the value-laden, feminine energy in a human being.

When one reads the story, one wonders how the miller could be so stupid, how it is that he fell into poverty in the first place, why he ends up making a crisis even worse. What is it about the miller’s character that is so ruinous?

While studying,  I ran across this paragraph in Gertrud Mueller Nelson’s book, Here All Dwell Free: Stories to Heal the Wounded Feminine:

Rather than engage this poverty into which he has fallen and then wonder what the other possibilities in life might be, the miller strains for a way out. He refuses to regret the wasted hours, the broken promises, the shattered dreams–whatever it was that brought him to this crisis. He does not examine his situation and upgrade his philosophy of life. He misses his chance to become creative and renewed by this experience of impoverishment. He misses the opportunity to look past his mill, to discover his own tree and his own daughter in his own backyard. He sells out to the Devil for an easy solution and unwittingly bargains away his daughter–his own daughter who is about to bloom or his own inner feminine side, his soul, which may be about to bloom into something new and promising (pp. 38-39).

I can identify with this miller, as can anyone who has had her (or his) dreams shattered. One always looks for the way out, because sitting in the crisis and feeling the pain seems unendurable. Like the miller, we don’t examine our situation, look into what brought us to the crisis, and upgrade our philosophy of life. We don’t grow.

This paragraph reminded me to engage my poverty, to examine my situation closely, and to accept every invitation to upgrade my philosophy of life. The end of a long and good marriage comes as a terrible blow. I’m tempted to view and experience it as only devastating. Faith, literature and psychology serve me like guideposts, though, reminding me that there are possibilities for growth in every situation.

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