The Best of Times

My son gave me a song to hear yesterday, “The Best of Times” by Sage Francis, from his new album, Li(f)e (“lie with an ‘f’ in it”). I wanted to share it because it made me cry. If you’re visual, you can go to the web site or YouTube and watch the video for the song.

I’ve been thinking lately about life and lies, and about what I wrote about mentors last month. I’ve thought a lot, in fact–so much that I haven’t wanted to write anything. In a life full of fruits, I’m a root vegetable, brooding and buried deep and cold. So a song about life and album about lies comes at a good time, for after letting my thoughts lie in the cold, dark earth of my unconscious for awhile, I realized that I not only believe but am quite certain of a few things involving truth and people. The song had an uncanny connection to what I’ve been thinking, perhaps mostly because the artist is simply honest. He’s honest about himself and his life–and after all, what else can we be honest about? Other people’s lives? Other people’s selves? Hardly. We can only observe others; it’s our own selves we are supposed to be living.

Only the True-Hearted Say, “I’m Sorry”

What does my own self know and believe? What I know is that only conscious and even enlightened people can be honest and truthful. I also believe that only a real person can say and mean, “I’m sorry” because they can empathize with the other person’s suffering, or can humbly and honestly put themselves in someone else’s place. And, after thinking about it, I still deeply believe in the need for mutual accountability, transparency, and, yes, mentoring in relationships. These are some hallmarks of awake and loving personhood: Honesty. Empathy. Humility. Accountability.

Why? Why do I believe we need teachers or mentors, someone with insight who is willing to call us out when we bluff ourselves or others? I believe we need independent accountability mentors because when someone who needs me or uses me is in relationship to me, their need can blind them. I can mislead them or lie to them just as I mislead and lie to myself; but when I’m in relationship to someone who doesn’t need me but simply loves me, and has the courage to reflect truth, then and only then am I in a relationship where I can have my own flaws reflected to me with all sincerity. I have seen so many times when even inside a long-lived marriage, one spouse is a liar and the other is completely bamboozled. The bamboozled needs to be bamboozled and dazzled; if the bamboozled one wakes up to the truth, then the truth is going to need to be dealt with. Since the truth is often messy and can cause suffering, a lie is easier to deal with. And so the web of deceit continues, and anyone who won’t participate in spinning or maintaining it or in catching prey in it will be summarily dismissed.

We Need One Another

In Proverbs it says “deceitful are the kisses of an enemy, but faithful the wounds of a friend.” In half a century I’ve learned a lot through experience and book learning, and from being a counselor and mentor, mother, wife and friend, and what I have seen is that a friend who’ll tell you the truth is invaluable. A mentor who sees you but loves you and is willing to hang in there with you while pointing out your deadly mistakes is worth his or her weight in gold. So, after thinking about what Dr. Hollis told us a few months ago about the fundamental need we have for accountability and mentoring, I have to agree with him. The need to be part of a community of those growing toward consciousness, and also to have mentors or teachers is a central tenet of all our religions and there is good reason for that. Otherwise it’s too easy to be self-deluded. We need others to remind us of so much–that we are lovable, that we need teaching, that we resist being humble and teachable, that we are liars and yet, at the same time, we’re also so good.


I’ve known and continue to know some neurotic and personality-disordered people, and without exception they share the traits of being unable to empathize, of being defensive and unteachable; they are unable to think outside whatever box they live in, and they are dishonest. They avoid suffering like the plague and they prefer a pretty lie to the ugly truth. They generally can’t say, “I’m sorry,” which means that they don’t take personal responsibility for outcomes. They are victims, even when they don’t whine, and even when their finger-pointing is subtle. They don’t participate in solving problems and indeed don’t approach life as though it has solvable problems. People are problems for the fuzzy-headed and wonky-hearted. They don’t call a spade a spade and consider it rude to be honest or to have spontaneous feelings and reactions. They are often measured people with textbook approaches to life, but no real joy, passion, or suffering.

I love the song my son shared with me because the artist says therapy couldn’t break (the real) self, that therapy and life never taught him a word to “insure safety.” People tend to want safety and to avoid suffering. But safety and comfort are impermanent if we rely on outward circumstances to give us those feelings. Safety and comfort arise from conscious relation to oneself, others, and to the Ineffable Mystery we call G*d.

It was beautiful
It was brutal
It was cruel
It was business as usual
It was heaven
It was hell

That’s life for the alive.

Master, Mentor, Teacher, Guide

And so we have sat with the baby, calling to mind how small and helpless we were so long ago, how patterns we have had in our lives since infancy and early childhood have stuck with us, in some cases crippling or hindering us in ways we do not wish–in ways that we can’t seem to quite overcome just yet. Just days after my own birthday, I thought about my experiences in the hours, days, and weeks following my premature birth and subsequent lengthy hospitalization, and I have looked at the patterns I began to learn then, and wondered. I wonder because in our Jungian studies classes, over and over again the seasoned analysts, writers, and scholars who teach us say that even their clients in their 50s, 60s, and 70s haven’t been able to adequately compensate for the patterns stamped indelibly on their souls, patterns that give them problems their entire lives and which, in later ages, bring them to the analyst’s office.

“Given how difficult it is to change,” I ask, “do people really change? And if so, how?”

I direct this to Dr. Hollis, whose presence and generous contributions of self I so appreciate, who replies that yes, people do change sometimes, but change is difficult if it occurs, and it cannot occur unless a person has a mentor of sorts, a conscious, wise, and mature counselor to whom one is accountable. This someone is there to ask after the what and wherefore of one’s actions, to gently point out the pattern and how it lames a person or hinders her, and to listen. This mentor is one who sees and hears you, and tries to understand. Without this person in your life, you are flying blind and without adequate training to make it through.

Another analyst who is also a priest taught us that he was taught that one in a hundred people are actually analyzable. What does this mean? It means that most people don’t consider unconscious motivations, don’t believe they have patterns that drive them to repeat and revisit their wounds over and over again, and will not cooperate with any kind of analysis of the evidence of their unconscious. They don’t want to see and therefore there is nothing to be seen, no matter how in-your-face the obvious is to the observer. We are being slapped in the face with the other person’s unconscious patterns, but they’re oblivious. It’s painful to experience, and out of necessity one has to move outside the range of the flailing if one hopes to escape harm.

A person who changes lifelong patterns does it through consistent, wise, reliable accountability to another, and also by having the structure that supports the pattern systematically dismantled. This dismantling is easiest to observe in addiction recovery, where the first thing that happens is an addict is removed from his usual environment and put into a treatment facility. There, his old friends and haunts and substances are not available. He has no familiar tools or routines, nor access to the destructive treatment program he’s designed for himself. We remove the structure supporting the addiction and then we look at what remains. What remains is what we’re after. An addiction functions very much like a complex, or what Buddhists call a knot, in that it has a cold, calculating, and single-minded obsession with serving itself. It seems to have a life of its own, which is why it’s called a disease. The addiction, like the neurosis, complex, or mental illness is very much like a wicked witch who has cast a spell over a person and holds him in her thrall. We are helpless in the face of its power unless someone comes to our aid, some elixir is found, some rescue attempted.

A prince goes by and hears Rapunzel singing; the prince kisses the Sleeping Beauty–something happens with a force of “Otherness” to it that on an archetypal level is about an imprisoned, poisoned, sleeping part of ourselves that needs rescuing by the awake, alive, and virile part. This is one reason why we love a good romance, long for the knight in shining armor to come over the hill on his white horse bearing his coat of arms. We sense that the power of rescue is within us, but we can’t do it alone. We need help. We need a force stronger than ourselves to get us out of the clutches of our own destructive process.

And so the addict goes to treatment. There he eats new food, does not use harmful substances but is given new substances, new tools, even a new language for conceptualizing life and communicating with others. He is given a new peer group and, yes, a sponsor. In every single system of recovery, recovery and consciousness begin with a mentor and a big change that puts the old habit pattern on its ear. But even this isn’t enough; we hear all too often about addicts relapsing, because the power of the old pattern is so much stronger than the loose and frightening feeling of being uncontained after being released from treatment. Therapy, group work, or analysis may provide enough of a constant context of care to counterbalance a person’s lifelong patterns; but more often than not, people regress or fall back into the hole again. Anyone who has tried to stop smoking, to diet, or to change any habit or reoccurring pattern of relating or reacting knows how hard-won any change is.

Though I use addictions as an example, what I mean to say is that change is difficult for anyone. We really can’t do it without an accountability partner and mentor. We also need a friend or friends with whom we can partner, if possible. But we need a teacher. We need the Zen master, priest, rabbi, mentor, counselor, crone, analyst, therapist to whom we are accountable over time–over a long period of time. The pattern that your mother and father set going in you from infancy onward is not going to be modified, corrected, improved, much less eradicated if we are lone wolves, loping off into the dark night on our own. We are likely to remain predators or even become prey, doing things that way.

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