Sunday, January 22, 2012

Raise High the Roof Beam


Old Man Mosie, Sick in the head
Called for the doctor and the doctor said.
Please step forward, turn around.
Do the Hokey Pokey and get out of town.

I’ve never been a big fan of therapy. I’ve often felt that it admits the failure of a circle of listening friends who will listen for free. It puts too much weight on our personal problems when part of our issue is cultural and collective. It tries to fill the gap of the shaman who will sing you through your suffering and call on helpers from the invisible world (often not invited into the therapist’s office).

Consider. Someone feels disconnected, alone, at dis-ease with the demands of the world, their own body, their own feelings. But before they lie down on the couch to talk about their mother, it might help to realize that they live in a place with ten bolts on the door next to neighbors they don’t know. They sit on a trafficked freeway listening to the news of the current war or murder or bill taking money away from children’s schools, or commute on a crowded train or bus where no one talks to each other, instead buried in their text messages or plugged into their private listening station. They work in some cubicle in some office with forced air sitting in front of screens all day doing work they don’t particularly care about. Back home way too late, pick up some fast-food cooked in greasy vats with no care or love, plop down in front of the TV and watch Judge Judy. Four more days and then it’s the big shopping trip down the strip mall to Walmart or Costco, pick up the magazine at the counter to see how Brittany or Jennifer are doing, home at night to tune into the circus of the Republican primaries, people vying to be leaders of the once almightiest nation who can barely speak English and have the emotional maturity of a troubled 6th grader. Need we wonder why they feel “sick in the head?”

Along comes Old Man Mosie’s doctor, who wisely advises:
1.     Step out of your limited point of view. Get out of the rut you’ve made for yourself.
2.     Turn around, like the Shakers turning to “come round right,” the dog in front of the fire, the Sufi whirling dervishes finding their still center in the swirling movement. Look what’s behind you and around you.
3.     Dance! The Hokey Pokey, salsa, contra-dance, tango—whatever! Get the body moving, especially with other people, feel the healing power of rhythm, get the heart pumping and the breath alive.
4.     Get out of town! Travel, see other places, get new perspectives, whether on a bike or train or in your imagination through the power of reading.
5.     Then come back and we can talk about your mother.

Of course, it’s ridiculous to discount the entire profession of therapy. We indeed have hidden patterns that work against our own best interest and in the hands of a skilled, caring therapist, can begin to discover and reveal the things that block us and inch our fragmented self toward some hope of wholeness. But the issues are always larger than our own personal world—there are collective forces at work that also need our attention. What good is it to be whole and well in a sick world?

We’ve Had A Hundred Years of Therapy and the World is Getting Worse is a book co-written by one of the most brilliant minds of our times, a therapist who constantly challenged his own profession to widen its perspective and bring world, imagination, art, mythology, nature, culture into the conversation. A man who delved with the full radiance of his mind and breathtaking articulation of his language into such areas as the soul, aging, men’s issues, poetry, dreams, as well as the difficult places of suicide and “our terrible love of war.” Wherever he turned his attention, he brought light into the dark corners of the subject, always taking reality on its own terms as a starting point and probing for the meaning of each facet of its display. He was a translator, interpreting and finding words for the esoteric languages of our behaviors, our symptoms, nature’s workings, nurture’s effects.

In the past twenty years, I went to bookstores awaiting the next publication by this author the same way I used to await the next Gary Snyder book of poetry, Barbara Kingsolver novel, Keith Jarrett recording. I heard him speak live on many occasions and listened to him on tapes/CD’s on many a long car ride. He was a feisty person to interview, turning the questions back to the interviewer and exposing their shaky assumptions. The sharpness of his intellect cut like a sword through murky thinking, always with an impassioned energy and ultimately jovial embrace behind the edge of his complaints. 

His name was James Hillman.

Imagine my surprise when I found out accidentally in conversation that he had passed away at 85 years old a few months back in October. How did I miss that news? And why wasn’t it worthy of national attention? And so I imagine the carpenters in the other world “raising high the roof beam” to allow him to pass through. At a time at school when I’m reading to the kids a picture book titled “Americans Who Tell the Truth,” I would hope that a future edition include James Hillman. He didn’t give up his work to feed the poor with Mother Theresa or put on combat fatigues with the next Che Guevara, but within his chosen profession as a Jungian analyst, worked tirelessly to bring conversations up to the next needed level, speaking the truth as he saw it.

Amongst his many books are the collection of poetry inspired by the “men’s movement,” The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, (written along with his friends Robert Bly and Michael Meade), The Force of Character dealing with aging, his difficult last book, The Terrible Love of War and what I consider one of the most remarkable of his or anyone’s books and one that landed him on Oprah—The Soul’s Code. 

This last book is a modern re-interpretation of an ancient understanding that we are born with an invisible twin, a daimon who presents the central image of our incarnation, our particular purpose for being born, and if we pay attention properly, guides us to fulfill it. Hillman challenges the Freudian idea that we adults are dealing with the psychological fall-out of our childhood experiences and traumas that shaped us into who we are and suggests that life is lived backwards, that our childhood helps reveal the image we are moving toward that is present with us at our birth. He gives an example of how classical psychology interprets the shy boy named Manolete as becoming a bullfighter to compensate for his childhood shyness. Instead he suggests that as a child, Manolete already knew his destiny and wouldn’t you be hiding behind your mother’s skirts if you knew a ferocious bull awaited you some years down the line?

Hillman’s range and depth of ideas were so large and all-encompassing that my hope of including quotes and such in this modest memorial simply can’t happen in this small Blog format. So for now, 9 bows to this man who elevated intellect one notch higher, always keeping it connected to heart and soul and culture and caring. Raise high the roof beam, carpenters. A great man is passing through. 

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