better on the other side
This essay is the interweaving of many experiences with two in particular being explicit participants. The first is my reading of the book Under Saturn’s Shadow: The Wounding and Healing of Men by the American Jungian psychoanalyst James Hollis. The second is my participation in a Scottish men’s group 4-days residential in February 2023. Concepts, ideas, images and experiences are interwoven together in a dance.
Three men are sitting in a living room. They all belong to a different generation. They could be a son, father and grandfather. They are sitting slouchy. The atmosphere is that of after a big festive lunch. The sunshine comes through the window, so it could be Easter.
OLD MAN. Last week I noticed something interesting. I did many errands and I noticed how at every customer service desk, if there was a young lady there, she would smile at me. I noticed it because this used to never happen to me. So after the third or fourth time I started wondering why. Then it dawned on me. I am old and unthreatening now, so they smile freely.
MIDDLE MAN. Or maybe customer service is getting better. Let me say that I have been pushing for our salespeople to smile more for the last few years and I expect that by now they would be smiling to our customers regardless of their age or gender.
YOUNG MAN. But all smiles are different, aren’t they? I went dancing yesterday and we started with this exercise of intercepting the gaze of the people we encountered walking around the dance floor. When I looked into people’s eyes, most of them smiled, but there was mostly embarrassment and awkwardness in those smiles, including mine.
OLD MAN. Wait a minute, since when do you dance? And what kind of dance is this stuff where you look awkwardly around while walking?
YOUNG MAN. It is formless dancing. There are many different flavours but the gist is that one takes time to express themselves freely through body movement and interactions. It feels pretty liberating and healing and I have been going regularly for about a year, since my friend Nicola invited me to try.
MIDDLE MAN. Healing? When did you get injured?
YOUNG MAN. Haha, I am not talking about physical injury. I am talking about emotional and spiritual healing. You know, I feel like I was socialised to serve and maintain the institutions. But it required the repeated sacrifice of my inclinations, so I need to express myself, to dance.
The explanation of the young man leaves room for a long silence wet with awkwardness. All three men look in different directions as if none else was with them in the living room. You can tell that each is feeling something within but they are not letting it out.
OLD MAN. Uh, as I hear you, a story comes to mind. Let me share it. When I was a child, every now and then during supper my father would tell me and my siblings the story of these two men. The first man was eating supper with his family when he suddenly stood up, walking out and away. He started walking eastward and kept walking for days. Some say he was looking for a church, but none knows because he never came back. All his children said blessings on him as if he were dead. The second man was also having supper with his family and felt a similar calling to a church, but never left and remained inside, going onto washing dishes and glasses. And so, it was his children that had to go far out eastward, towards that unnamable church that he ignored.
MIDDLE MAN. Mh.
OLD MAN. He was often serious and composed when sharing this story. I often asked myself what he meant and never came to any understanding of it until many years later.
YOUNG MAN. So what did you eventually understand?
OLD MAN. Well, story is story my dear. If I tell you how I interpreted it, then will you care to interpret it by yourself? You know, we are not at home, not reliably, in the interpreted world.
While the young man ponders about the response of the old man and the old man giggles, a softer silence rises like gentle fog. Then, it is suddenly interrupted by the middle man shouting.
MIDDLE MAN. It just so happens that I am sick of being a man!!
YOUNG & OLD MAN: What?!
MIDDLE MAN: Haha, do not fret. It is a quote, just a quote. I was thinking about what you said about the sacrifice you make for the collective and it made me think about this book by Neruda I read years ago. The book was about how to be a good father and it opened with this strange quote that impressed me. I was trying to recall it all along until now. Our conversation today really has the same flavour of that book.
YOUNG MAN: Well, are you yourself sick of being a man?
MIDDLE MAN: Uh, I would say I am sick of existing, sick of being a person in general. I am sick of this life of quiet desperation.
First interruption: interesting ideas from the book
The feminine is experienced by men on three levels. He encounters it in the presence of a woman or the feminine side of other men. He meets it in his relationship to his own femininity. And he encounters it in his relationship to nature and to the life force in general.
No youth would voluntarily relinquish the comforts of the hearth. Its warmth and nourishment create an enormous gravitational pull. The affectively charged idea of mother is in us all. When someone feels the craving for this, they either bury themselves in a woman’s arms and ask her for healing, which she cannot provide, or they hide themselves in pride and enforced loneliness.
In some way every act of life thereafter is seeking reconnection through objects of desire. Hence the world religion, from Latin religare, “to bind back to or reconnect with”. Sometimes, knowing he cannot return to the womb, a man will project the yearning onto the cosmos. The mystical experience is essentially ineffable and involves a merging with the All.
Three women are sitting in a living room. They all belong to a different generation. They could be a daughter, mother and grandmother. They are sitting composedly with their arms collected in their laps. The atmosphere is that of a small gathering.
OLD WOMAN: When do you think they will come back?
MIDDLE WOMAN: I am not sure. It seemed to me like they had a lot they wanted to talk about. So perhaps a couple of hours?
YOUNG WOMAN: Well, that’s good. It finally leaves us some time together.
MIDDLE WOMAN: Yes! It has been a while since we had some time together, isn’t it? I have been waiting ages to tell you something.
YOUNG WOMAN: Tell us then.
MIDDLE WOMAN: I have fallen in love again.
OLD WOMAN: Oh wow! With who? And how did it happen?
MIDDLE WOMAN: Haha, here is where it gets funny: with myself.
OLD WOMAN: Oh wow! Tell us, tell us then, what led to it?
YOUNG WOMAN: Wait, sorry, before that, what do you actually mean that you have fallen in love with yourself again?
MIDDLE WOMAN: I will give you an example. I think that will help. You know those spacious mornings, those times where you feel like you have those gaps before the day actually starts. When you sit on the couch or on the bench after breakfast. When the sun shines and the birds chirp. They do not last long and show up only now and then. But these days, when that happens I can feel this warm feeling of life flowing through me. It is not always pleasant, but I can feel the flow. I am connected, plugged in and that’s because I allow myself to be that. I love what passes through me. I love the vehicle that I am for this to exist.
OLD WOMAN: So how did it happen? How did you get there?
MIDDLE WOMAN: I was ill this winter. I caught a very nasty cold and I was in bed for a long time. I was tired and didn’t really feel like watching something or distracting myself, so I just lied there. I was lying, sitting, and resting. And I was thinking. I was thinking quite a lot. And then it arrived from somewhere, who knows where. I suddenly remembered that I used to enjoy life much more, that I used to be more in touch with my body, that I used to feel these subtle sensations. That I used to feel this unreasonable love for walking around and dancing to music. I don’t quite remember when I stopped feeling that, let alone why.
Second interruption: more interesting ideas from the book
When fathers and sons stopped working together in the fields, when father left home and went to the factory and the office, the son was left behind. Fathers so often returned home dispirited and soul-worn. These were our fathers, more wounded then we can imagine, with no alternatives or emotional permission to be themselves, and unspeakably lonely. For such men we must unashamedly grieve.
Now, the wise elders are gone, lost to death, depression, alcoholism or corporate boardrooms and golden parachutes. The average man feels ridiculous meeting out in the forest to beat a drum and will seldom risk being vulnerable with other men. As men were seldomly held and hugged by their fathers, they correlate matter with mother, and disconnect from their bodies. These men have the crazy notion that they ought not be afraid, that their task is to conquer nature and themselves.
To live the journey of the soul is to serve nature, to serve others and to serve the mystery of which we are the experiment. Then we will have incarnated the invisible, made luminous this short episode between two great mysteries.
Dialogue continues again
A woman and a man are standing in the forest. They are both wearing dark robes. It is a moonlit night. The atmosphere is that of something you never saw before.
MAN: Alright, I will read it to you then. Here I go:
for one year I have been grieving for something that never was
time seems to have something to do with movement
thank you for remembering about love
have a meeting starting from the end
WOMAN: At this point, the only reasonable thing to do is to read it.
MAN: So, given that you can understand all this, what to do?
WOMAN: Your scepticism makes sense to me. It is very hard to see the consequences of our actions when we take them. When someone’s mind becomes balanced, it is hard for someone with an unbalanced mind to see them. I can see that you are refraining from giving advice and passing it into in a legible and persuasive form. You do not know if that comes from a more balanced or more turbulent state of mind than where you are now.
MAN: I have been struggling with this for a long time. My wisdom is fleeting and playful. I struggle to know when it is appropriate to say or not say something. It feels like every sentence, every poem and every book contains both a fragment of the truth and hugely misleading ideas at the same time. Perhaps it is because only very few things and ideas matter, and everything else is a play, a dance on top of it, during which you can do anything you want and everything will be okay.
WOMAN: What is the problem about it? Why are you holding it back?
MAN: Well, I may have something, but I am uncertain. I read a book, I met people and I wrote a poem. I feel it contains some gist of what we need, but maybe also not.
WOMAN: Now, we need a sigil, or this will feel silly and will not stick. Any suggestions?
MAN: You are welcome… Uh, that was not easy. I felt it all over my body. Now what?
WOMAN: Thank you for letting that out, really, thank you. I saw your pain.
Final interruption: interesting ideas from Jung and Rilke
The greatest burden the child must bear is the unlived life of the parents or the complexes that they have not resolved within themselves.
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart
and to try to love the questions themselves
like locked rooms and like books that are written
in a very foreign tongue.
Do not now seek the answers,
which cannot be given you
because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it,
live along some distant day
into the answer.
Whenever healing occurs, it is due to a transpersonal, mysterious agency, experienced as grace. Then we know that there is room in us for a second large and timeless life.