A friend of mine was devastated recently when his wife of thirty years left. As they met to work out the details of their separation and divorce she said to him, “If just once you had put your hands on my shoulders and asked, ‘What do you really want?’”
I was surprised. I know he’s said this and much more to her, supporting her desire to go back to school and to try different careers many times. Of course there’s a great deal I don’t know about their marriage, but her remark made me wonder- Was she really addressing the man in front of her? Who else might she be talking to? Her father? Her mother? Or was this the voice of her soul speaking to her, asking why she had never asked herself what she really wanted in the very depths of her being?
In The Eden Project Jungian analyst James Hollis writes about how we project the Magical Other onto intimate partners in the hope that they will take us to a pre-conscious, warm, fuzzy place of undifferentiated unity. Why? Because being individuals who take responsibility for ourselves, doing the necessary work to understand how our history and our wounds distort our perception, and unfolding to be all we are- while rewarding and enlivening- can be hard and sometimes painful work. We often want the other to do what we find hard to do for ourselves. They can’t. They can encourage us as we do the work of living consciously. They can get out of the way and do their own work. But they cannot do ours for us.
One of the things Hollis repeats is that we must allow the other to be wholly other, must acknowledge that each person has their own history, perception, wounds and experience and so will also have their own preferences, dreams, hopes and perspective. When I forget this I find myself trying to convince the other that the way I see things is. . . .well, if not The Way, surely a better way. But the other is not me. The other is wholly other.
Paradoxically, each other is also another myself, another tender, flawed, struggling human being who wants to love and be love, to unfold and be all they are. Holding the tension between these two truths- the knowledge that the other is both another myself and wholly other- is how we find a way to dance together. Sadly, we can spend years swinging between the dark side of exclusively seeing the other as another myself (enmeshment) and the dark side of only knowing separation (demonizing the other.) We see this not only in relationships between individuals but between groups.
A couple of days ago, I went to the town near our home to get my hair cut. It’s a small town of five thousand surrounded by farms. The best place to find out what’s going on in town is at the barber shop or hair salon.
As I sat in the chair Sally, the woman cutting my hair, asked if I’d heard about the mosque coming to town. I hadn’t, and I wondered out loud if there were enough Muslims in the area to support a mosque. Sally told me that the townspeople were expecting more to move into town once the mosque was established. Apparently many were irate and trying to figure out a way to stop the mosque from being built.
“Really?” I said naively.
“Oh,” she replied, “it’s all anyone can talk about. People are so upset.”
“That’s crazy,” I said, trying to mentally sort out if this was basic racism, or religious fundamentalism fuelled by the twelve churches in the area, or somehow related to the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.
“Well, you know what I tell the people who are upset?” she asked
I looked at her in the mirror expectantly. I didn’t know Sally well, but I was hopeful. She seemed like a reasonable and generous woman.
“I tell them, ‘It’s better than a crack house!’”
I can honestly say I was speechless. For a minute I thought she might be joking. But she wasn’t. Having a Muslim house of worship in the community was, in her mind, clearly only marginally better than having a drug dealer set up shop.
That’s what happens when we do not take responsibility for exploring and owning our unconscious material: the other is left holding the bag- either as a partner who failed to magically rescue us from the work of being an individual or as demons who threaten all we hold to be true because they do not see or express things the way we do. Not only does this mean we are left angry and flailing at the other in potentially harmful ways, it also means we miss the great gift of meeting the other, of knowing them and savouring their mystery, of coming together in relationship to create a wholeness (a partnership or a community) that is greater than the sum of the parts.
And that is a waste that makes my heart ache.
Oriah (c) 2010