In February of 2011, I began a series on the topic of alchemy, the medieval science and philosophy used metaphorically by depth psychologists to explain the intentions of the psyche. I most recently wrote about dissolution, the corrosive process whereby what is unnecessary to the work is systematically dissolved away. The application of the effects of this alchemical stage to our own experiences in life is straightforward: Whenever we experience a significant loss or change, additional changes accompany the larger loss like ladies’ maids.
Life changes, and what is no longer necessary or supportive to a new way of life must be sundered. One change begets another, a process the alchemists called separation. In City of God, Saint Augustine wrote that bereavement and calamity are fuels for the fire that burns away all that is not essential. The deaths of my daughter and husband, for example, caused other losses and changes in my life. One of the most obvious immediate changes following a death are those that arise from dealing with your loved one’s things, so changes to my physical environment had to be worked through. The size and shape of my social networks changed, too. Relationships that had once been of importance were corroded by the impact of my losses, and over time came to be less important. Other relationships grew, becoming more influential.
When large changes occur in our lives, the habit patterns we’ve built around the person, place, or circumstances that have changed must, of necessity, change. Creatures of habit, we are anchored in days, weeks, and months that go by with dependability because of them. When the basis of one or more habits decays or disappears, though, we discover we don’t know who we are any more. The widow, so accustomed to her role as a wife, is left standing alone, clothed with the tattered habits that served her only when her husband was alive. The father and husband whose wife leaves with the children finds himself suddenly a bachelor again, clueless about how to handle a life in which he sees his own children only by schedule. Elderly suburban householders sell the home in which they raised their children and move to a condo or retirement community, then feel like exiles in their own lives. All these are examples of what occurs when big changes beget numerous offspring that demand to be fed and kept in order. We are as overwhelmed as new parents, for the squalling demands of this new way of life keep us up nights.
You Can’t Go Home
In his fascinating book, Surviving Survival: the Art and Science of Resilience, Laurence Gonzalez writes that
The bigger the trauma, the more dramatic the requirement for change. In many cases, the necessary adaptation is so extreme that an entirely new self emerges from the experience. In most cases, there is no easy return to the old environment. Sometimes you can’t go home at all (p. 5).
We cross ourselves and pray as we drive by a nasty accident on the freeway. We take a casserole, and write a sympathy card to the bereaved co-worker. We listen sympathetically to the friend whose husband just cheated on her and left with a younger woman. We murmur our distress when a colleague discloses that his business partner embezzled money and left him bankrupt. But most observed losses don’t have much impact for long, because the life-changing impact of loss and dissolution belongs to the person experiencing it. Until we’ve experienced first-hand what it means to be rendered psychologically, spiritually, emotionally, or physically homeless, we don’t understand. Perhaps this is why Solomon wrote that “the heart knows its own bitterness; and a stranger does not share its joy” (Proverbs 14:10).
The past two years since my husband’s death have been impossibly painful. One of my sons remarked afterward on my utter brokenness. This brokenness is what the medieval alchemist would call a dissolution, the second stage in the alchemical process. Following on the heels of dissolution is separation, a sifting and filtering of what elements remain after a great sundering. One is already broken and divided, but more cutting and separation remain to be done. We know this truth instinctively, for it’s integrated into our everyday language. After a great change, we “re-group.” When dissolved by crisis, we try to “get our acts together.” Trauma that upsets daily or even life-long routines makes us “scatter-brained.” We strive to “come to our senses” after feeling we’ve “lost our minds.”
To come to our senses and get our acts together means to recognize what belongs, and what does not. One moves to a new home, and finds that the old furniture doesn’t fit, so out it goes. Larger losses require larger realizations about what fits, and what has to be left behind. Even when we want to waste energy and time on what no longer fits, it’s impossible to continue with hands full of broken bits that can’t be fitted back together, and are of no further use. To attempt to carry what is irreparably broken is to prolong suffering that is unnecessary. Separation gently but firmly urges us to let go.
Others want us to get on with our lives after a great loss. To get on with our lives means to integrate our losses and the changes they require. We can’t fully integrate a loss without also separating out what rightly belonged to the way of life associated with the lost person, job, home, era, or circumstance. Put another way, we can’t keep wearing our mini-skirts into our 60s—right, ladies?
Separation allows us to let go of ideals, attitudes, and habits that no longer fit. To find peace is to find the place where nothing remains that is not essential. We are then “redeemed from the constant effort to achieve something in the wrong direction” (von Franz, 257).
Gonzalez, Laurence. (2012). Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co.
von Franz, Marie-Louise. (1980). Alchemy. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.