How to establish it (and a defense of therapy)

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing)

I've been attracted to James Hillman's work for various reasons. Of particular interest is his work on destiny and calling. How does one find purpose and how is calling revealed in the midst of efforts to simply survive in this manic culture?- Richard S.

We do not live in a time that values "calling." Because we live so completely by the idea that our identities are shaped by the interaction of the environment and genetics, we view ourselves as consequences of the past. If we have a psychological problem in this view, it's because we were not treated correctly in the past. Thus Hillman sees professional psychology as perpetuating a culture of victimhood. (And who doesn't have some psychological problem - even the people who supposedly had good parenting?)

Many Hillman readers assume he means the past is irrelevant. He means nothing of the kind. It's how the past is understood that is important. For Hillman, purpose is given (as an image) with life and it is comprehended by the child long before he can effectively respond to it.

As a given whose realization can be felt but not actualized in the child, purpose is experienced as a calling from the future. It is present, in Hillman's vocabulary as an "acorn" or "daimon," but also as an expression of the future that we can see as clearly as the oak tree inside the acorn.

In Hillman's view, calling is always frightening because it wants us to become something far bigger than we are - like becoming an oak tree when we are barely bigger than acorns. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote often of angels, those messengers o destiny from the world of the invisibles. "Every angel is terrifying," he wrote, because our job is struggling with it even though our destiny is surrendering to it.

Thus, in Hillman's classic example, the bullfighter Manolete hid as a child behind his mother's skirts because he glimpsed his destiny, the bull charging out of the future, and had a very natural reaction to run and hide. We have been trained to see him otherwise. We say that he was a shy and terrified mama's boy who grew up to overcompensate by becoming a bull fighter. In other words, even greatness is pathology.

I think Hillman's view rings truer. One of the things I've noticed as I careen through middle age is how much sense my life begins to make. As a child, through adolescence, I was often terrified of other people. But even by the age of eight I had my own printing press with which I tried to stir up trouble. For most of my adult life I have sat in therapists' offices and been told my combative adult style is a neurotic compensation for feeling so beaten up as a child.

This never rang wholly true to me. What if, following Hillman's assessment, I really was born a provocateur and that my terror was shrinking from the often heavy criticism I knew was going to come to me? What if the role of my hyper-critical mother wasn't to make me a critic but to teach me how to live, painfully, with criticism provoked by my radical opinions? Such ideas reverse our idealized notions about family life in the vapid paradise of psychology's imagination.

How do we find calling? It is revealed in images - in the dream, in the fantasy, in the memory. I often ask clients: "When you were a child and people asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, what did you respond?"

The question almost always produces a smile and an immediate dismissal with the explanation that the memory seems grandiose or irrelevant. But - and this is very important - the image of the fireman, the nurse, the teacher, the weird scientist, the clown, the rock star suggests calling. It does not define it. So, you start with this image and you ask what it means to be a fireman. What is it about my character that is drawn to danger, smoke, heat, fire, water, ladders, heroic fantasies? Am I meant to put out fires, to help manage passions? Am I doing that? Or am I a person still trying to avoid danger and smoke? As you sink into these questions, following the image, character begins to speak as destiny.

Of course, it is hard to do this in a culture that is manic. The function of mania - staying in constant motion - is to keep us from glimpsing our purpose. Mania, like capitalism, values productivity of the ego over becoming. Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet, constantly urges silence and stillness - and the "young poet" is a man who is caught in the mania of soldiering by necessity. Each of us has to find a place of stillness in life. Most people need help doing that.

Finally, I always suggest people ask themselves each week what they experienced out of the ordinary. The unusual event often points to our calling. Also, we must always look to our resistance. Where we won't go is often exactly where our daimon wants to go.

More on calling
In defense of psychology

Thank you for your column on establishing calling….What leapt out for me was your mention of how therapists have explained adult roles as results of childhood trauma. I have long believed that traditional therapy perpetuates the mindset of being a victim. The irony is that often the patient is not a victim of their past but a victim of the therapist! But I say this after years of therapy. When I'd ask to not be considered a victim, for the therapist to get over my tragic childhood, they couldn't let go of it. I was in denial. Isn't that funny?

I received at least a dozen e-mails and as many calls about my recent column on calling and destiny. Many readers, like this one, focused on my criticism of the way psychotherapy conceptualizes our adult selves as consequences of childhood experience.

Interestingly, the same week I wrote that column, I went to a coffee and found myself in a four-hour conversation with two people about this same subject. One was a seminary student, who told me he often hears people say their therapists won't stick to the presenting complaint. "The client," he said, "says his marriage is falling apart and the therapist says something else is the problem."

The other was a woman writing a very interesting book about a particular form of abuse perpetrated by psychiatry. For her, therapy's failure arises from its being insufficiently scientific. For me, the problem is just the opposite: It's scientistic preoccupation with causes fails to address the actual nature of the psyche.

Ironically, despite my intense criticism of therapy, I ended up defending it to both people. What follows is meant to qualify my critique of psychotherapy.

First, it is essential to separate psychology from its practical application as counseling psychotherapy. It is possible to be psychological without also purchasing all 200 of psychotherapy's methods. Depth psychology - the psychology which Freud, Jung and Adler developed -- maintains that, because of the existence of the unconscious, things are never just as they seem on the surface.

That is why listening is so important to a therapist trained in depth psychology. It's about compassion, but it's also about learning to listen to the way the unconscious expresses itself as a subtext in people's narratives. Dreams, reverie, slips of the tongue, offhand remarks, metaphors, stories of odd experiences, accidents, synchronicities, the body's posture and processes undertaken to elicit images, like art or movement, all may give clues to concerns deeper than a client's presenting symptom.

Undertaking therapy with a depth psychologist - whether psychoanalytical or Jungian in orientation -- means making a broad inquiry into the nature of being. It starts with the assumption that your complaint is symptomatic of something deeper. This seems generally to be true and when one develops a psychological eye toward life, one learns to see through more than one's personal life. The whole of creation, the soul of the world, begins to reveal itself in new ways.

An example might be bringing a psychological eye to environmental issues. On the surface, it seems almost silly that people devote themselves to saving, say, an insect from extinction. But a psychological inquiry reaps deeper meanings. We don't become politicized over the insect itself. The insect becomes the symbol of ourselves, our relationship with the world. How are we going to maintain our own relationship with the living world? What in fact, does the world want from us? Psychology doesn't explicitly answer the questions. It broadens and enriches our lives by opening the discourse.

Thus depth psychology is a method of seeing and inquiry. It is not a litany of answers. Where psychotherapy - particularly the counseling psychotherapy taught in most schools now -- corrupts psychology is by trying to provide rigid explanations. Because it has come under the purview of science, far beyond Freud's own original intentions, it feels the posing of a question demands a concrete answer. The symptom must have a remedy.

Thus professional psychology took Freud's basic theory of development and turned it into a dogma. At the same time, it all but abandoned the theory of the unconscious. Thus, by dogmatizing, say, the influence of the mother on development but also eliminating the theory of the unconscious, counseling psychotherapy turns life into a reductive narrative of causes and effects. It becomes your mother who is the problem, not how you are going to live with the complexity of desire for mothering, and its loss, as an adult. The mystery of the unconscious, the unseen, is that in fact our lives are much more complex than therapy's explanations - that we, for example, love all kinds of things that hurt us now and then, that we hate things that love us. What does that mean for us?

If psychotherapy could return to its original meaning as a tending of soul, I'd be all for its salvation. But it is clear that therapy as it's now taught, practiced, regulated by the state and controlled by clients themselves, has become something quite different, even harmful. It is ironic that so many of us, like the people I encountered at Starbucks, can object to therapy for such very different reasons, with such diverse ideas of how it should change.

Copyright 2000 by Creative Loafing

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