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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Little Did He Know

A month after my husband’s death, I wrote that I had discovered the substance of my faith and “found out what’s true for me.” This morning I smiled wryly as I re-read what I wrote then, because I don’t know a damn thing today.

 

“Little Did He Know . . .”

What I thought I knew then and what I think I know now call to mind a scene in one of my favorite films, Stranger Than Fiction. In this delightful movie about one man’s growth of consciousness, IRS auditor Harold Crick suddenly finds himself the subject of a narration only he can hear. One morning as Harold waits for the bus, things take a grim turn when the narrator foretells Harold’s imminent death.

 

Alarmed, Harold consults a psychiatrist who tells him he has schizophrenia. He counters by asking what she would advise if he did not have schizophrenia, but was in fact hearing a narrator. In that case, she replies, he should visit an expert in literature. Her recommendation leads Harold to literature professor Jules Hilbert, played by Dustin Hoffman. Professor Hilbert is dismissive of his story until Crick explains that the narrator predicted his death beginning with the phrase, “. . . Little did he know.”

“Little did he know? Little did he know?!” Hilbert exclaims. “I’ve written papers on ‘little did he know.’ I’ve taught classes on ‘little did he know!’” A common literary device, “little did he know” implies the existence of someone who does know. The omniscient writer knows, and wants you to know, explains Hilbert. Theorizing that Harold may be a character in a novel, Hilbert advises him to analyze the narration to determine whether his story is a comedy or tragedy. That way he will know whether he lives or dies in the end.

 

The Story of My Life

If, like Harold Crick, we saw our lives as novels and ourselves as characters, what sorts of characters would we be? Would the narrative be comedic, tragic, or romantic? Would our lives have epic proportions, or would they be the sorts of novels nobody could finish reading? Would my life make the best-seller list for its tragedies and horrors, or would others find its depressions and black holes unbelievable? Would I enjoy reading my own life, and want to turn the next page?

A writing friend asked recently if I’m writing these days. I answered that I’m not writing at all. What I really meant was that I don’t even feel I’m living my own life. I’m busy and active all the time, but I am not alive to the narrative of my own life. I’m much like Harold Crick, an average person going through an average day by rote. What voice will wake me from this slumber?

 

The Coniunctio

A Jungian might describe the sense of bland conventionality I am experiencing as arising developmentally in a metaphorical process the alchemists called the “conjunction” phase of the Great Work. This is a place of fixation in which things congeal. Everything sinks down solidly into the earth, for earth is its element. It is also a phase of copper, bronze, brass, and sometimes gold. One imagines pickaxe-wielding dwarves mining ore deep in the earth.

Coniunctio, the Conjunction, is a stage of humble downfalling. Jungian analyst and writer Marie-Louise von-Franz explains that

The coniunctio happens in the underworld, it happens in the dark when there is no light shining any more. When you are completely out and consciousness is gone, then something is born or generated; in the deepest depression, in the deepest desolation, the new personality is born. When you are at the end of your tether, that is the moment when the coniunctio, the coincidence of opposites, takes place (von Franz, 162).

Conjunction

Conjunction

This all sounds well and good, like an epic adventure or romance in which all the suffering is worthwhile because something magnificent springs from it. The symbols of the coniunctio tell a cautionary tale, however. The symbolic rendering of this phase show the sun and the moon coming closer, so close into the orbit of the other that their shadows meet and the moon is overshadowed by the sun. In the medieval Church, the sun symbolized Christ and the moon the Church, so their union represented the wedding of Christ and His Church. Though on the face of it, this all sounds quite glorious, in fact an eclipse has caused the moon to go dark. Von Franz explains that such a conjunction “is like two loving people where the more love increases, the more doubts and distrust increase too; one is very often afraid, since if one opens one’s heart, the other can do so much harm” (von Franz, 164).

A person is made ready for the coniunctio by the ego’s conflagration and reduction through Calcination, by the displacements of Dissolution, and by the utter breaking apart brought on by Separation. Suffering, loss, and failure deprive us of the ego strength we built during youth and mid-life. We are humbled by our lack of control. Rather than planning and praying for a future dream, we ask only for our daily bread. What nourishes us for this day, for this current task, or for the immediate future is enough.

References

Alchemy: The Great Work

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

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

Moving On

Individuation means separation, differentiation, the recognition of what’s yours and what is not. The rest has to be left alone. Libido and energy should not be wasted on things which do not belong. Therefore it can be said that there is just as much separation as integration [. . .] (von Franz, 257).

Alchemists were medieval chemists doing science without a scientific method. Like modern-day scientists, they were looking for a deeper understanding of the nature of matter. Although alchemists couldn’t agree on the number, nature, and order of the stages of their work, they agreed that theirs was an obscure art applying esoteric techniques, with goals similar to that of other esoteric traditions, namely the transformation of the soul.

A common misconception is that alchemists were charlatans seeking to transform base matter into gold. Through their work, though, substance and scientist were to be transformed. Their pursuit of transformation brought unexpected results that are still useful to us today. For example, alchemists discovered five elements during their scientific inquiries: zinc, antimony, arsenic, and phosphorus.

Another significant contribution of alchemy was corpuscular theory, proposed in the 13th century by an alchemist called Geber. He postulated that particles that could not be further divided existed as the building-blocks of all matter. Today, we call these particles atoms.

Psychology & Alchemy

If we were to look at our lives as matter, and worked with ourselves the way alchemists worked with matter, what might we learn? What might happen? These are questions Carl Jung seemed to ask during the latter part of his life, when he noticed the similarities between the work of medieval alchemists and modern psychiatrists. Jung first recognized parallels between alchemy and psyche in his analytical work with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli, a pioneer of quantum physics. Many of Pauli’s dreams produced the selfsame symbols used by medieval alchemists, yet Pauli knew nothing about alchemy. From this, Jung drew an analogy between the Magnum Opus, or Great Work, of the alchemists and the process of psychological growth epitomized by the cycle of death and rebirth, or the reintegration and individuation of the human psyche. Jung published his work in 1944 in Psychology and Alchemy, the 12th volume of his Collected Works.

Getting Personal

Supposing we looked at these processes the way the alchemists saw them? What would the separation phase look like? It would be a time that came after the great, fiery, roasting reduction of the calcination phase. After this, some part of the self was reduced to a smoldering, charred lump through an intense conflagration. In the next part of the work, dissolution, this dark, heavy, smoldering lump was taken up and gently washed and simmered in the Bain Marie, the double-boiler—as if one cooking isn’t enough. The first phase was one of trauma, sudden death, quantum leaps into the unknown. We experienced profound changes that threw us out of orbit. It doesn’t matter whether the trauma was a happy one, such as the birth of a baby and advent of parenthood, or a devastation such as the loss of life or limb: it’s a roasting conflagration that reduces us in some way to ashes. Its element is fire, and it burns away all that the ego thought it held together. Every new parent knows this feeling in the middle of the sleepless night, as he or she paces the floor with a howling baby and understands with finality that a 12-pound infant can defeat the most erudite parent.

So we are lumps. I am a lump. You are a lump. There we sit, and sit in our lumpishness. We think we will never come out of this reduction. If we sit in our lumpishness long enough–and we usually do–we become comfortable with it and think to ourselves, “Ah, so this is it, then. I’m reduced. This is me.” We are gently lulled to sleep in a dissipated sort of way. We think we’re “done,” but there’s an unfinished, dissatisfying sense of things when we are lumps.

Just when we think we’ve become used to the gentle dissolution being brought on by the Bain Marie, things change. We’re suddenly removed from the gentle bath, and begin a separation by fission and cutting. The separation stinks of rotten eggs. It cuts with biting blades of iron and steel. It is not an easy process.

Being Refined

Whenever in our lives we are being separated, we find ourselves leaving much behind—habits, things, places, people. Whatever can’t weather our transformation falls by the wayside. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s part of the growth process. As Saint Paul wrote, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Sometimes we have to move on, because what is no longer necessary or supportive of growth must be let go. This separation is about us as much as it is about the Other. Something within us has changed, and no longer wants or needs the outward prop of an inner reality that is disappearing. What remains is more refined than what was at the beginning, before the great conflagration.

References

von Franz, Marie-Louise. (1980). Alchemy. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.

Letting Go

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.

Separation

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.

Letting 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).

References

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.

My Alchemy Series

  1. Tending of the Flame
  2. The Affliction of the Soul
  3. From the Darkness
  4. Doing the Work
  5. The Hidden Seed
  6. Slime of the Small World
  7. Hour of Lead
  8. Things Fall Apart
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