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Free Will in the Face of Fate

She came to my consultation room with the recovered memory of a great man's counsel, and a terrible childhood trauma. She had remembered being brought, naked, with all the other members of her family— and many, many others as well— to stand at the edge of the recently dug mass grave, and she had remembered the machine guns that quickly killed them all. All but her— she was not as tall as the others, and the bullets had all flown safely over her, above her. But she knew enough to fall among the other bodies and to lie very, very still.

There she lay, with the bodies of the others all about her, all morning and all afternoon, until night fell. Even then she lay waiting, not knowing what next to do. Eventually she heard slow, shuffling footsteps move about nearby, and then approach her— and then she felt herself being lifted up, and rocked gently, and held closely as a gruff voice said: "When you're caught up in a tree, make like a little birdie."

This was how she had met Viktor Frankl, the famous psychiatrist who was then simply another prisoner at Auschwitz. His experiences in the prison camp brought him to believe that mental health is a matter of finding personal meaning in a life conditioned by what seem meaningless and chaotic events. Frankl would have said that it is less a matter of changing fate's conditions, and more a matter of learning to exert a personal will, or determination— to mean something in our search for meaning.

To identify ourselves, to determine ourselves, to establish resolute character in the face of an ambiguous danger, to express ourselves with an increasing clarity, countering hardship with intention— these are the ultimate triumphs of mental health. To become increasingly individuated (to use the term of another great European psychiatrist, Carl Jung) in the presence of one's marriage or career— this is the work before us. As I have said before, only the truly autonomous can be truly intimate, and only the truly courageous can truly love. The word "courage", remember, comes from the French word for "heart": coeur.

Enmeshment, on the other hand, provides the addictive, interlocked relationships of hostage and guard over which no one really has control, in which blame becomes the projection of self-pity while self-pity becomes the introjection of blame— and both are signs of shame, a fatal passivity towards the conditions that life hands to us. People who will live this way take no responsibility for the part they play in life, and do not develop character.

The word psychology is composed of the ancient Greek words psyche (soul) and logos (the relationship between thoughts and the words used to express thoughts). Psychology is therefore a discussion of the fundamentals of human experience, or, more precisely, a discourse upon the soul. Reference is made to the now famous lines of the poet John Keats, cited as a motto for archetypal psychology by the post-Jungian psychologists James Hillman and Thomas Moore: "Call the world, if you please, the vale of soul-making. Then you will find out the use of the world."

However, the psyche is not itself something invented or developed in the world; it exists primordially, archetypally, in advance of the human condition to which it must submit in time. What takes place here, in the personal life lived within this world, is the inevitable, interminable, evolution of a personal awareness, a personal consciousness through an unfolding experience of— and relationship with— the soul. The "problems" encountered along the way are then understood as particular events that serve to gather and accumulate this personal evolution of consciousness towards character.

The conditions of the world cannot be simply changed to suit our wants, of course, but they can be struggled with, and savored. It is during this work that we encounter soul, and build up character. Personal responsibility implies an ability to respond creatively (creating one's own self) rather than react defensively, in defense of our image. This requires courage and self-discipline— a quietness of the heart and a discipleship to the selfhood that will evolve through an unfolding relationship with the soul. Sigmund Freud's description of the evolution of ego through the interaction of id and superego is an earlier understanding of this fundamental human enterprise.

Clinical applications of these views focus upon the healing process of observing— passively witnessing, and then actively participating with— human experience. Control and manipulation in the service of "improving" life is discouraged; the digestion and integration of life is encouraged instead. Interpretation ought to be employed only to clarify and amplify, not to reduce and define; it is intended to promote comprehension, assisting in a metabolism of experience that will nourish in turn the evolution of a personal consciousness that can savor life. Translation ought not become indoctrination, and interpretation must stop at that level of conceptualization where opinions begin to form.

Opinions that are allowed to accumulate build up— like plaque— an attitude that will reinforce the resistance of an intellectual narcissism which— in its reflexive self-consciousness— will hinder the natural "thirst for spiritual wholeness" that Jung recognized and focused upon throughout his work. The phenomenological suspension of presuppositions and opinions permits the more existential approach to a life lived more effectively, more satisfactorily in the present, from the heart.

Many years ago a young man came to me complaining of a colossal disorientation, after having ingested far more Lysergic Acid Diethylamide than was appropriate. Drenched in the realm of soul his mind had become scrambled, and thoroughly shot through with imaginal information that no one could have integrated whole cloth. I introduced him to a simple grounding exercise that involved deep rhythmic breathing as he gathered himself to a center at his heart.

After taking in a deep breath with his hands clasped together upon his heart, he slowly exhaled while bringing his hands and arms apart and gradually outwards, opening widely from his heart. Then, inhaling slowly and deeply, he brought his hands downward and back together in a wide and gradual sweeping arc, scooping and bringing back up into his heart all that was there. Then, exhaling again, he brought his hands and arms outwards, opening widely from his heart. Then, inhaling deeply, he brought his hands up overhead and back together in a wide and gradual sweeping arc, gathering and bringing back down into his heart all that was there. Together we did this simple maneuver for many months, as he brought himself back together, integrating himself at center. Then we were able to begin meeting his life without having to lose what he had learned in the imaginal realm, informing his behavior with the inspiration of soul— developing character.

The middle path of the heart lies in neither avoiding nor indulging the experiences of life, but in simply being courageously present, willing to take part, and addressing what more we may learn of ourselves in learning about life. Neither overwhelmed nor controlling, neither invading nor abandoning, but simply residing here and now at the center of all infinity and eternity. This is what I take to be soul-making, or more properly, character-building, as the body rises to absorb a shower of experience within the crucible of psyche.

This article previously appeared in The Listener: volume four, issue one (Spring 1999).

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