Leper

Leperous Job

Four years, four months, and eight days. 

This is how long it has been since my husband ended his life.

This is how long it has been since my husband ended my life.

The mercy of the first year of grief was the numbness. I sleep-walked through twelve calendar months. When I began to stir from the opiate of grief, memories came up like photographs in a screen saver: Disorganized, disembodied, disconnected.

I preserved a sense of household normalcy through strength of will and habit. Friends and family were supportive, but I could not be comforted. Deeply ashamed, I would not tell strangers how my husband died. I told partial truths, “He had Parkinson’s Disease.”

He committed suicide. He died by suicide. He killed himself. He took his own life.

We were Christians and Catholics, among whom one would expect to receive mercy, but where, more often than not, judgment is harsh and more liberally dispensed than in any gathering of sinners. I learned to shut my mouth and my heart.

Year one passed by.

ico1

Year two was worse than the first. Old schisms and fissures expanded. Brittle relationships buckled and failed. Someone whispered he was the good one. Another said you’ve changed too much and unfriended me on social media.

She’s a bitch. She’s a sorceress.

She’s too liberal now.

He was the good one.

I stopped trying to explain myself.  I drank more wine.  I wanted to die.

ico1

During the third year, a leprosy of my soul set in: Nerve damage, a loss of vision, the bloody stump. A corruption made visible, emblems of decay and pollution, weakness and sin.

“Unclean! Unclean!” I rang the leper’s bell.

Stay downwind; stay away from us. We’re not like you.

Don’t associate with them, their dad killed himself.

Something is wrong with that family.

I learned why Jesus associated with whores, thieves, tax-gatherers and sinners. I drank vodka tonics at the bar. I learned to make the perfect Bloody Mary. I stopped going to mass.

ico1

At the end of the fourth year, my friend died. She who was at the births of my twin daughters. She who was like a second mother to them, a daughter to me. She who communicated the love of Christ better than anyone else I’ve known, other than my husband. She who carried me through the years of grief over my daughter’s death, over my husband’s death.

Daddy, Mommy’s asleep and won’t wake up.

Daddy, I can’t wake Mommy. 

She who had three young children ages two, six, and eight was dead on her daughter’s sixth birthday, a Happy Birthday banner strung across the fireplace.

Life and Death

Once upon a time . . .

My child died.

We had almost recovered, but then—

He was diagnosed.

He grew ill.

He wasn’t himself.

He had a wreck and nearly killed a man.

He lost hope.

He ended his life.

He ended my life, and then—

My friend of 24 years died.

ico1

The process of suffering gone to decay and degradation has a name in alchemy: fermentation. Fermentation is a two-step process that begins with the putrefaction of a child, the hermaphroditic child who resulted from the conjunction process.

Pay attention here:

A union occurs, a marriage, a conjunction.

A child is born, a whole and glorious child, the fruit of this union.

But then, the child becomes diseased and dies.

The child putrefies and rots.

ico1

Once, I was blessed, O so blessed.

I married the love of my life and received every good thing.

Every wish I ever wished came true.

But then, my husband became diseased and died.

And now, I putrefy and rot.

happy_birthday

Suggested Reading

Alchemy: The Great Work

Von Franz, Marie-Louise. Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology. Toronto, Canada. Inner City Books, 1980. Print.

Healing

I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections.

And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.

I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self

and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time,

only time can help

and patience,

and a certain difficult repentance . . .

— D. H. Lawrence, “Healing.” The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence.

I Have No Idea Where I Am Going

I will not fear.

I will not fear…

Breaking Up

 

I’ve been cheated / been mistreated / when will I be loved?

I’ve been put down / I’ve been pushed ‘round / when will I be loved?

When I find a new man / that I want for mine

He always breaks my heart in two / it happens every time

I’ve been made blue / I’ve been lied to / when will I be loved?

Linda Ronstadt’s 1975 hit, “When Will I Be Loved?” aptly illustrates separation, the third of the operations of transformation in alchemy, and a necessary aspect of psychological transformation. Someone dies. Someone leaves. Something is lost. You are bitterly disappointed in an outcome. You experience the brokenness of the separation that “breaks [the] heart in two.” Suffering reduces you to the smallest particle possible—to the essence of you.

Reduced to the Utmost

The separation process reduces one to his or her utmost, most essential aspect, much as matter can be reduced to the atomic level. It was quite appropriately philosophers, not scientists or physicians, who first proposed atomic theory. In the second century BCE, Hindu philosophers Vaisheshika and Kanada postulated that all objects in the physical universe were reducible to a finite number of atoms. Centuries later, alchemist Pseudo-Geber postulated the existence of corpuscles, a theory expounded upon later in 1661 by natural philosopher Robert Boyle, who proposed atomic theory.

Perhaps philosophers discovered atomic theory because philosophers studied suffering. One who suffers knows what it means to be reduced to the utmost. One “falls apart,” “comes unglued,” or is “unhinged.” We feel disconnected, we withdraw, we seek separations and divorces. The language we use indicates our experience of separatio.

The word “separation” is from the Latin separare, from se– ‘apart’ and parare, ‘prepare.’ We can be sure that when we’re set apart, or when something or someone is separated from us, our experience of loss is a preparation. No matter how brutal the process feels, it will transform us if we let it.

Before separation, we experienced a nigredo stage of chaos, a massa confusa in which soul and body were inextricably wed and unconscious elements related to everything instinctively. This was a sort of slavery in which the enslaved and his chains were one. During the dissolution phase of transformation, the fetters were dissolved. Unfortunately, the slave still perceived himself a slave. One who has long lived with a harsh master encounters this same harsh master time and again in his environment or in others.

In practical terms, one is enslaved as long as one is deluded by projections. The separation phase of transformation is therefore essential, for by it we come to see where we end, and the other begins. A most important stage of therapy consists in making conscious and dissolving the projections that falsify a person’s view of other people and the world, and obstruct his self-knowledge. Once projections are made conscious and dissolved, psychological and physical symptoms may be managed consciously. A person is then able to set up a rational, spiritual, and psychological reality to aid him when he experiences turbulent emotions or troublesome bodily symptoms and urges.

What You See is What You Get

Object relations theory proposes that we relate to people and circumstances in our adult lives according to habits established in our family of origin. For example, a woman with a self-absorbed, abandoning mother will expect similar behavior from those who unconsciously remind her of Mother. She will gravitate to those who remind her of Mother and are similarly abandoning as long as the Abandoning Mother is unconsciously internalized.

As a result of the separation process, however, she is somehow forced to see that the problem isn’t actually “out there.” The problem is “in here.” We go through life projecting our stuff onto others until we meet someone with enough self-knowledge and self-love to object to being objectified. “Stop that,” they insist, “Cut it out.”

Jesus, one of my favorite psychologists, illustrated the unhappy results of projection when he taught, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1-2, NIV). Put another way, “we accept the love we think we deserve,” (Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower).

When Will I Be Loved?

Without psychological cutting, sifting, and separation, we don’t know where we end and the other person begins, what belongs to us and what belongs to the other person, what is essential and what is unnecessary. Our projections veil the reality of things until we withdraw them and set ourselves and others free. Only then are we able to live rationally and perceive truth. Only then will we be loved.

Resources

Alchemy: The Great Work on Third Eve

Hour of Lead

In depth psychology, we often use the language and images of alchemy metaphorically to describe human growth. Bear with me, then, as I use the language of modern and medieval sciences to describe a process that lends soul-making meaning to scientific method.

As I’ve indicated before, calcination is the first operation of alchemy. Calcination is the thermal treatment process of applying a low, constant heat to a substance in such a way that decomposition occurs. The substance never comes to the melting or boiling point, and does not roast, either; the heat is that low and constant.

Phase Transitions

In addition to causing decomposition of a substance, calcination may also cause phase transition or the removal of a volatile fraction. A phase transition is when an element or compound transitions from a liquid phase to a gas phase. Vaporization is a phase transition. You can see how these processes work in the diagram below.

In chemistry and physics, volatility is the tendency of a substance to vaporize. The volatility of a substance is directly related to its vapor pressure. At a given temperature, a substance with a higher vapor pressure vaporizes more readily than a substance with a lower vapor pressure.

Some substances, such as dry ice, can change directly from the solid state to a vapor without becoming a liquid. They are sublimated, a different process of transitioning from one state to another.

The requirements for transitions are innate to the substance. Put another way, the nature or quality of the substance itself demands the circumstance under which it can be transitioned and transformed.

I think you see where we are going, here, don’t you? Isn’t it likewise true that one’s own nature requires a certain amount and type of influence before dismemberment, disintegration, and decomposition can occur? It may take a long time of calcinating before you enter a transitional stage that leads to transformation. Perhaps you’re the sort who doesn’t transform under low, constant heat; you may be the dry ice type, a person who doesn’t collapse into a puddle before transforming, but instead goes straight to falling apart.

In any case, there are a variety of experiences that shake us to our footings. “Violence, loss, grief, catastrophe, privation, illness, despair, envy, fury, and ecstasy induce altered states that dismember by delinking the personality from its habitual moorings” (The Book of Symbols, p. 766). One of us is undone by depression and despair; another by envy. A friend is shaken to her bones by grief and loss; a neighbor by a long illness. Anger drives one person to stumble and then finally fall apart, while another is transitioned by ecstasy. Wouldn’t we like to be able to choose which states produce our transitions? I, for one, would much rather be transformed by ecstasy than catastrophe!

Live Like a Pilgrim

Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose the means of our transitions and transformations. What changes us is proportionate to our own nature. In his second letter to the Christians at Corinth, St. Paul described the process of change in spiritual language:

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh—for the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds—casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; and having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled (2 Corinthians 10:3-6).

I love these verses, because they show God fighting on behalf of God against God-like structures. Paul is saying that it requires a mighty, gargantuan force to pull down the huge structures of experience, habit, training, and ego that separate us from God. The obedience of Christ is the willingness to go straight to the cross, to sacrifice everything and hang, suspended, between heaven and earth, to be one’s highest Self, in answer to the call of the Transcendent.

Paul is telling us that our work is to destroy fantasy and illusion in order to come home to the essentials, to a deep knowledge of absolute truth and love. God is love, and “love is all you need,” but so much separates us from love that we need TNT to blow all our structures into smithereens so we can finally arrive at a destroyed state.

The destroyed state is a transitional state. By whatever process it is brought, it is a state between what we were, and what we will become. You may pitch a tent there, but don’t get too comfortable; it will change. Though you abide in a place for 30 years, as I did in my marriage, you won’t stay there. Everything changes: you can count on that. Live like a pilgrim.

Hour of Lead

I like the language of science. I like that we can predict that at so much heat, after so much time, a liquid will transform into a gas. The words for these processes say just what they mean, yet also elegantly describe what we all experience at one time or another in our lives: the low, low, long, slow heat of reduction.

Calcination is slow, and has a low feeling to it. Calcination is like depression. One loses life, zest, and passion and begins to live in a twilight of indifference, going through the motions. We are like a homeless man, slumped against the bricks of a restaurant wall as patrons dine and laugh only a few feet away. We become mute witnesses to the pleasures and joys of others. There was a time when we longed for what they have, but longing requires focus and aim. Longing consumes energy. Exhausted, we lie down on the pavement with the homeless man. Who cares?

An indifferent shrug of the shoulders has a whiff of sulfur to it. An oppressive state of leadenness has overcome us, a time that Anne Morrow Lindbergh called the “hour of lead” after her infant son was kidnapped and killed. This leadenness is heavy and ponderous. It is black and magenta, like a bruise. It has a caustic sort of bitterness to it that erodes one’s substance ever so slowly. It smells of biting brimstone, which is sulfur—an element essential to all life.

References

The Slime of the Small World

Ronnberg, Ami & Kathleen Martin (Eds). (2010). The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images. Cologne, Germany: Taschen.

 

%d bloggers like this: