(Image from the farside: a sheep searching for transcendence)
I love House M.D., and the social questions which get asked. It’s been interesting to explore how a doctor who asks the hard question of “Who benefits from this status quo.” can bring about debate and exploration.
The asking self is described by Whitmont as absolutely crucial. Evoking the myth of the holy grail, he explains the importance of going beyond the wastelands, dried and barren, and into a space of moistness, soul and transformation. Whitmont explains:
What matters most is the asking itself – regardless of what the answers might mean, or even whether there is an answer. (p173).
Questioning or challenging the status quo is uncomfortable though. Going beyond the given answers offers a space for creativity and transformation. And yet, in a very technocratic culture, we are taught that discomfort is to be avoided at all costs. We can take pills (which are likely to be very helpful if a person feels incapacitated and cannot manage to explore new answers without them), buy things in search of happiness and ease, or take up spiritual goals as a means of bettering ourselves. But one thing it seems we cannot do is feel anxious, angry or out of control.
A couple of years back, I read Boler’s critique of the concept of Emotional Intelligence (EQ), and her opinion that EQ values empathy and optimism, while casting anger and anxiety out of favour. I’d never been very interested in EQ. It felt quite corporate and measured, and I find HOW TO/SHOULD guides frustrating. And so I read what she said, felt grateful for the information, and then I moved on.
But as this year has gone by, EQ, or the debate around it has raised its head again. Because how can we question the world we live in if we won’t let ourselves feel anxious? How can we feel outraged at abuse or contempt if anger is cast out of favour. And how can we feel true empathy, or claim to value empathy, and cast certain emotions into shameful boxes, encouraging people to repress them instantly?
I’m not saying people should be free to be abusive, but why do we want to judge, silence or repress emotions, and who gets to decide when that should happen?
Should we stay happy and optimistic when people treat us with contempt, or should we be able to share our anger and our anxiety? Repressed emotions burst out all over the place, or they create scape – goats who are ‘bad’ or ‘faulted’ and just not ‘good enough’. And the questions which come with these emotions, questions like “Who benefits?” go unexplored.
James Hillman speaks of the importance of soul, that grounded, connected, emotional aspect of life which feels, processes and explores. Modern psychology, James Hillman explains, is afraid of soul. And in a world with a lack of soul, we move into spirit, logic, masculinity and a quest for goodness. In an attempt to transcend all that is human, we are unable to address our wounds, bring about transformation, or process our lives, histories, or the feelings which come with this.
Hillman gives us the theory of the soul code, encapsulated in the image of an acorn, which must grow down into the ground, as well as up into the sky. That grounded, emotional, and, Whitmont explains, feminine aspect of ourselves brings about the possibility of healing. Unless, of course, we are taught to deny it.
Working towards constant happiness, although noble, means we deny our own souls, and the souls of other people. And ironically, this leads to a world of war, hierarchy, discrimination, pain, and the inability to question or process why this is happening. We lose our own voices when we don’t process our feelings and allow them to guide us, shaping new options or possibilities. We lose imagination and the ability to respond to the world.
Allowing ourselves to feel pain, discomfort and the crisis this sometimes evokes within us means allowing our hearts to explore different answers to the ones we have always been given. And so we recognize our own lives, our humanity, and the rights of others, both human and non human, as the very first step in working towards a more just world.
James Hillman asks that we do not work towards enlightenment, but towards the transparent self, no longer ashamed, but open to who we are (and therefore human), accepting of that, and therefore able to accept others.
Edward Whitmont. Return of the Goddess. Continuum.
James Hillman. A Blue Fire. Harper Perenial.
Boler. Feeling Power: Emotions and Education. New York: Routledge.