The verdict has been passed. George Floyd’s killer has been found guilty of charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. It’s hardly been a year since we saw the horrific images of Floyd’s murder all over the news and social media, and now we see Derek Chauvin being led away in handcuffs. Many people feel relieved that justice has been served, that a white man does not go home scot free for taking yet another Black life. Others say this will never bring George back, that there have been and will continue to be more George Floyds, that justice will finally be served when we no longer have these killings. Many just feel numb, hollow, and exhausted with the recognition that this struggle for racial justice continues indefinitely.
How do we come to terms with the racial reckoning that is a part of America’s past, present, and future? Psychiatrist Carl Jung said that the journey to wholeness, or what he called individuation, is an opus contra naturam, a work against nature. I take this to mean that this kind of work often goes against our natural human inclination towards apathy, passivity, and unconsciousness in the face of a lifelong, ongoing process towards completion. We yearn for something easy that we can do with little or no effort, something that has an end in sight. Yet the opus must be engaged with consciously, vigorously, endlessly. There is no other way.
It may be an opus contra naturam for some sections of white America to acknowledge the worth and dignity of the Black and Brown people who are their coworkers, neighbors, and fellow humans. Yet it must be done. Or for conservative governors to allow Black voters equal access to the vote (see Georgia’s new voter suppression bill) and to laws that uphold their humanity. But this is what is called for. It may be an opus contra naturam for conservative legislators to support diversity, equality, and inclusion at all levels of society for BIPOC, LGBTQ, Dreamers, refugees, and other minority communities, when it’s so much easier to cling to the status quo and remain opposed to whatever “the other side” proposes. Yet our conscience and our humanity hinges upon it.
Rest in peace, George Floyd. You helped America start to acknowledge that Black lives do matter.
Onward, America, we have work to do.
This month’s speaker at the Jung Society of Atlanta is Jungian Analyst Susan Olson, who will be presenting a lecture titled When Things Fall Apart – Holding our Center in a Broken World. She will be sharing with us a Jungian perspective on how to develop the psychological attitude required to hold our center as the world around us falls to pieces, a timely message for these extraordinary times.
The African Trilogy
It got me thinking about one of my favorite books from high school, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which is part one of the African Trilogy that includes Arrow of God and No Longer at Ease. I remember growing up with these books and seeing them, and others from writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Meja Mwangi, and Alex Haley, in our family bookcase (my father was and still is an avid reader), but I never got to read them until I was in high school. Come to think of it, I don’t know anyone from my generation who didn’t read Things Fall Apart as a “set book” in high school in Kenya. It was also in high school that I got to know of other authors in the “African Writers Series”, including Francis Imbuga, Ali Mazrui, and Shaaban Robert (remember Kusadikika?).
Recently, I was thrilled to learn from my friend’s daughter that American high schoolers today are reading Achebe in their African literature classes. It is inspiring that so many generations across the world continue to enjoy Achebe’s storytelling, just like I did decades ago. Here is what some of my favorite people have said about Achebe’s work:
Toni Morrison: “His courage and generosity are made manifest in the work”.
Nelson Mandela: “The writer in whose company the prison walls fell down”.
President Barack Obama: “A true classic of world literature….A masterpiece that has inspired generations of writers in Nigeria, across Africa, and around the world.”
Reading Achebe’s masterpiece in Form 1 was for me pure joy, and made for some memorable memories from my high school days (shout out to Mrs Linge and Mrs Gathenji). We took turns to read aloud, discussed the story and characters, laughed at their foibles, memorized and recited parts of the book that we loved, and learned Igbo phrases and proverbs. A class favorite was: “The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said it would praise itself if no one else did”, which I translate as permission for me to highlight my own achievements, whether or not the world acknowledges them.
Achebe’s title for his novel was inspired by W.B. Yeats’s poem The Second Coming:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…
In the novel, Achebe describes the fate that befalls our tragic hero, Okonkwo, and his community in Umuofia, as they reckon with the forces of colonialism that descend upon them, creating and exacerbating divisions among the people, testing their values, identity, traditions, and their vision for their future. Achebe writes that although Okwonkwo was young, “he was clearly cut out for great things….As the elders said, if a child washed his hands, he could eat with kings.” (Achebe, 1958, p. 9).
What I love about Achebe’s writing is his ownership and command of language and use of African expressions in such a natural and vivid style that he takes us right into the village with Okonkwo, sitting with the elders, eating kola nut, watching the wrestling matches, gossiping with the wives, contemplating the fate of the people.
Lately I’ve been feeling inspired by the novels of my youth, which keep showing up unexpectedly in my conversations and readings. So I decided to buy Achebe’s African Trilogy and reread it. I can’t wait to immerse myself in Achebe’s masterful writing and rediscover the words and stories that delighted me so many years ago. (And brush up on my Igbo proverbs.)
Achebe, Chinua. (1958). Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann.
W. B. Yeats’s poem The Second Coming from the Poetry Foundation.
On an online chat with my former schoolmates a couple of days ago, we talked about our high school motto “servire est regnare”, Latin for “to serve is to reign”. We waxed nostalgic about our high school days and how we loved to belt out this phrase from our school song in assemblies and speech days. It got me thinking about what servire est regnare really means to me: that by serving others, we uphold our humanity, exercise our agency, and reign over our lives.
This Black History month, I’m contemplating the many ways in which Black people around the world have served and reigned, by uplifting their communities and inspiring the world with their incredible vision, humanity, and courage.
Starting (of course!) with our Vice President Kamala Harris, an inspiration to Americans, to women of color, and to people all around the world. By electing this Phenomenal Woman to serve our country, we affirm our values as a nation and demonstrate that we firmly believe in The Truths we Hold. As I reflect on Harris’s monumental achievement, I remember the visionary leadership and sacrifice of other exceptional leaders, from Dr Wangari Maathai, Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Barack and Michelle Obama, to Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and Malcolm X (and so many others that I’m unable to mention here).
I’m soaking up the deep wisdom, insights, and creativity from the words of young Black women writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Tomi Adeyemi, and Amanda Gorman. They follow in the footsteps of other great women like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, and iconic African writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, and Chinua Achebe, all of whom dare to write in human and relatable ways about the ordinary lives, ideas, and experiences of Black people.
As a proud Atlantan, I’m deeply indebted to the extraordinary legacy of renowned Atlantans like Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. , John Lewis, and a long line of Black mayors who have served this historic city, from civil rights icons Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson, to phenomenal women Shirley Franklin and current mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. I’m inspired by the racial justice advocacy and activism in this multicultural city, spurred by Stacy Abrams, Killer Mike, and the Black Lives Movement, founded by activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. These outstanding people have all contributed to the freedoms, privileges, and opportunities that I enjoy today as an African immigrant living in America.
In my personal life, I’m filled with gratitude for the fierce support and encouragement of my parents, the sacrifices that they and their parents made to make this life that I live first a possibility, and now a reality. And to my friends and siblings who, whenever I have bouts of self-doubt, remind me and reflect to me, through their own successes and resilience, who I really am. Everywhere I look, I see the remarkable legacy of Black achievement and pride surround and embrace me.
Servire est regnare. By our service, we reign over our lives and our circumstances; we challenge the ignorance and prejudices that we encounter; we create joy, hope, and opportunities, and leave enduring legacies to those who come after us. This Black History month, I’m celebrating the incredible ways in which so many Black people have embodied this dictum with their acts of service and their towering human achievements. Together, we rise. Together, we reign.
Ever been in a situation where you had to make a choice between one thing or another, but for the life of you, you couldn’t decide – one part of you wanted to go one way and the other the opposite way? (And for the sake of argument: no, you can’t choose both). Our language expresses this dilemma. We may say, “Part of me wants to stay, the other wants to go”, or, “My mind says no but my heart says yes”, or, “I have half a mind to accept the offer, but…”, or, “I’m torn between this and that”. Or, or, or.
A non-pathological approach
Psychologist Richard Schwartz, founder of Internal Family Systems (IFS), says we all have multiple personalities, which he simply calls “parts”. Different parts, such as managers/protectors, firefighters, and exiles, have different interests, agendas, and motives, and devise clever methods of achieving their goals. It may be a simple (but sometimes agonizing) case of deciding between pizza or Chinese take-out; between working out or skipping it and feeling awful all day. Or it can be more ominous: a harsh inner critic part may be abusive, exacting, and judgmental, constantly putting you down and fighting with the part of you that feels vulnerable and scared. Finally, there is the part known as the Self, which Schwartz describes as the “compassionate leader”, the “seat of consciousness”, “the ‘I’ in the storm”, which balances and connects all parts to form a whole.
Many of us can recognize these parts in ourselves. But parts are not always what they appear to be. For instance, we may get to know a persecutory part (through journaling, therapy, meditation, reflection), and discover to our surprise that it actually wants to protect us from being ridiculed or attacked by others, a strategy that it may have developed when, for example, a person got abused, molested, or traumatized as a child. If we do not acknowledge and negotiate with this part, it may fight with other parts and blend with the Self, resulting in a crisis: having failed to consciously undertake the task of engaging and negotiating with all the parts, this rogue part simply goes ahead and acts through subterfuge in a way that alienates the other parts and hijacks the Self. In extreme cases, a persecutory part can cause a person to take their own life.
Although our various parts can wreak havoc in our lives, they can also be a source of deep insight into ourselves, our patterns of behavior, our relationships, and our psyche, which can lead to creativity and psychological healing from trauma and emotional wounds. Rather than pathologizing these different parts, Schwartz emphasizes the need for all parts to be valued, acknowledged, and allowed to play their “natural” roles in service to the whole or Self. For instance, Schwartz states that the goal isn’t to go to war with or get rid of a harsh inner critic part; it is to dialogue with it and eventually transform it by “unburdening” it from its extreme beliefs and emotions that got attached to it through some traumatic experience or emotional injury. Having done that, this part can play a more supportive role, e.g. it can allow a person to access courage and confidence.
Collective and individual parts
Writers and poets have captured this human condition, both on a collective and individual level. In works like Goethe’s Faust and Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the characters fought it out between their moral and virtuous parts (Carl Jung would call this their persona) and their more impulsive, selfish, and insatiable parts (their shadow). On a collective level, in Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece, Things Fall Apart, the inhabitants of an African precolonial community have to decide who they are as a people by either continuing their traditional way of life, or accepting the religion, education, and culture of the white man, with dire consequences either way.
Most recently, Amanda Gorman’s heart wrenching description of the challenges America faces in her stirring inaugural poem, The Hill We Climb, depicts the struggle between the part of America that strives towards lofty democratic human ideals on the one hand, and on the other “a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it/ Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.” We have witnessed America’s ugly parts, parts that every now and then get exposed when they erupt from their hiding place in the collective unconscious, take possession of people, and take root in our communities. Can we as a nation bring together our warring parts to become a coherent whole? We must actively engage this question as we usher in a new year and a new administration.
Psychologically, we bear the responsibility to become aware of opposing personalities within ourselves and learn how to manage and balance all our parts: the good, the bad, and the ugly, or else suffer the consequences of having them knock us about or worse, annihilate us. We could ask ourselves: when and where do our parts come out to play or to wreak havoc: in relationships, at work, in the way we sabotage our health, or avoid making decisions?
If you feel ready to explore and dialogue with your parts, it is a good idea to have a guide and witness to accompany you through these inner realms of your psyche. It may be helpful to seek out a therapist, particularly one trained in Schwartz’s IFS model.
But for now, I would just go for the pizza.
The Jung Society of Atlanta is honored to host a lecture on C. G. Jung’s Black Books on January 31, by renowned Jungian scholar, Sonu Shamdasani, PhD, Professor of Jung History at the School of European Languages, Culture and Society (German) at University College London.
Jung’s Red Book
Jung’s eagerly anticipated Red Book created much buzz and excitement when it was published in 2009. Many people in Jungian communities around the world rushed to buy their copies of this exquisite book. I remember spending around $300 for my copy, my largest book expense ever. I opened the red hardcover and jacket, marveling at the book’s size and Jung’s spectacular calligraphy and paintings. The Red Book is the largest book I own, more suited for display at a museum than in a bookcase in my house; we had to shift the height of the shelves to place it in its new home on the bottom shelf.
Our Jungian community here had an informal group to discuss the rich imagery and writings from Jung’s masterpiece, a collection of experiences, reflections, and paintings that Jung recorded during his “confrontation with the unconscious” that happened after his traumatic break with Freud. This was the period Jung described himself as suffering from his “creative illness”. He was terrified that he might “do a schizophrenia” and go over the edge like Nietzsche, whom he admired. One of the ways he coped with these powerful forces in his unconscious was to acknowledge their wisdom and record their insights in The Red Book.
We plunged into The Red Book and were inspired by Jung’s reflections, stories, dreams, and artwork. We laughed and cried as we broke bread and drank wine together, sharing experiences from our own encounters with our unconscious. Later, in February 2012, the Jung Society of Atlanta hosted an exhibition at the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art by Vicente de Moura, C.G. Jung Institute archivist and Jungian analyst, where we got a chance to see mandalas of Jung’s patients that were reminiscent of some of his own mandala paintings from the Red Book.
Jung’s Black Books
Now, we get to experience Jung’s Black Books, published last year, which provide deeper insights into the evolution of Jung’s intimate thoughts, creative process, and visionary ideas that formed the basis of his analytical psychology. Much of the material we have enjoyed in Jung’s Red Book was first captured and drafted in his Black Books.
We invite you to a stimulating and informative event with Professor Shamdasani. Be ready to be inspired by the rich and creative mind of one of the great thinkers of the 20th century.
Lecture (via Zoom) on Sunday, 1/31/2021, 2-4pm – Tickets and information
Buy your copy of Professor Shamdasani’s books at the Jung Society of Atlanta’s Bookshop affiliate site to help benefit independent bookstores and our organization.
Image from Carl Jung’s own paintings in his Red Book
The word trauma gets thrown around a lot these days. As a trauma therapist, many people come to me “to do trauma work”. Broadly speaking, psychological trauma happens when a person witnesses or experiences a negative event that is so overwhelming that they are unable to metabolize or make sense of it. Their brain and nervous system cannot cope with its emotional intensity, which can include fear, horror, guilt, shame, etc. People might say they feel “broken”, “devastated”, “stuck”, “flooded”, “numb”. If not dealt with over time, this unprocessed negative experience can remain in a “frozen” state in the brain, nervous system, and the physical body, months or years after the event. It can cause people to get “triggered” by stimuli like sounds, people, and situations that remind them of the original negative experience. When this happens, they relive the event as if it were happening here and now. This describes some of what we know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Trauma can negatively impact people’s relationships, work, thinking, emotional and physical well being, in some cases causing chronic pain and leading to physical illness. If left untreated, trauma can be debilitating and can drive people to suicide.
We all respond to life differently. Not everybody who undergoes a negative life event experiences trauma. This is why some survivors of extreme adversities like war, natural catastrophes, torture, domestic violence, etc. are later able to lead healthy, normal lives and have fulfilling relationships with others and the world at large. Why is this? There are several factors, including that of psychological resilience. People with “hardy personalities” are resilient and can bounce back after a traumatic life event. Others may be lucky enough to have loving and nurturing relationships, which provide emotional support and gradually help them heal. Conversely, research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (or ACEs) tells us that the higher one’s ACE score, the more susceptible one is to mental and physical health problems, which decrease one’s psychological resilience and ability to cope with life stressors. However, there are ways we can build up our psychological resilience so that we are able to withstand adversity and increase our flexibility in responding to unpleasant life situations.
Name it to tame it
Sometimes people are surprised to see a therapist and find out that the source of their anxiety, suicidal ideations, substance abuse, compulsive behaviors and other symptoms is unprocessed trauma. We do not always have the knowledge or language to understand our experiences or name things as they are. People may think they have moved past a difficult life event because after all they survived it, and have since adapted to their current circumstances. Yet they continue to suffer from underlying unease and dysfunctional behavior patterns, never realizing this is psychological trauma until they see a doctor or a mental health professional. Often they are relieved to find out because it allows them to begin to make sense of their symptoms and behavior.
So is it trauma or not? Everything is subjective and no two experiences are the same. It is important to see a licensed mental health professional for assessment, diagnosis, and treatment. Some therapists specialize in trauma modalities like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR); Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) and Somatic Experiencing. Like many therapists, I offer a confidential 15-minute free consult where people can discuss what kind of treatment is right for them. It is possible to process and heal from trauma and learn adaptive coping skills and self-care to mitigate the impact of trauma in one’s life.
Contact me if you are interested in learning more.
I love the word “transcendent” and all its derivations, like transcendentalist, transcendental meditation, and the psychological concept of the transcendent function. The International Cambridge Dictionary defines transcend as “to go beyond or rise above”. During these intense times, this definition conjures for me the image of a person floating up above our planet in space, rising above the conflict, chaos, and confusion, and looking back on humanity with a sense of compassion, calm, and clarity; understanding the higher cosmic order of things and the meaning of it all, or acknowledging the mystery that can never be fully grasped.
Holding the tension of the opposites
In analytical psychology, the transcendent function refers to the capacity to hold the tension of the opposites (such as the conscious and unconscious, the known and unknown), until “the third” appears. This is not an easy task and seems counterintuitive. When there is tension, why not find a quick release and feel some relief? Why hold the tension, with all its accompanying discomfort and pain? It takes an attitude of patience, trust, and courage to do so.
As we work our way through the seventh month of COVID-19, the still rising infection rates, teleschool and unemployment, and the much anticipated US general elections next month, it strikes me that we have no choice but to hold the tension of the opposites in our politics and Weltanschauungen, between our current reality and our future dreams (or nightmares), in order to pave the way for something that is waiting to emerge. We must stay vigilant and engaged in order to recognize this “third” when it appears, and to use it as a gift, whatever it may bring, because it will be a reflection of our level of consciousness as a people, a product of our own making.
Many of us are approaching the election results and the end of 2020 with both hope and dread, as we straddle the tension of the opposites and find ways to manage it without breaking apart or falling into the abyss. Our task, as I see it, is to continue to find ways to be flexible and open to the changes that are inevitable. To find a home of sorts between confusion and clarity, calm and chaos, right and left, stimulus and response, rising above and sinking below our comfort thresholds, as we move beyond what is now, and into whatever the next phase of life brings.
Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash
What does it mean to be an ally in the struggle for racial justice?
Jungian analyst Dr Fanny Brewster, author of Archetypal Grief: Slavery’s Legacy of Intergenerational Child Loss, was recently in conversation with the hosts of the podcast This Jungian Life, discussing the racial pandemic in America. [Listen to this powerful episode here]. One of the hosts and fellow Jungian analyst, Joseph Lee, spoke about the “archetype of the ally” and explored how white people can be better allies to African Americans in actively supporting efforts towards racial justice. In discussing the protests after George Floyd’s horrific murder, Lee mentioned how there is a tendency, for example, for white male protestors to “rise up to a heroic stance”, whereas being an ally calls for a deeper emotional engagement and human connection in the face of suffering, grief, and tragedy.
[Fanny Brewster will be giving an online lecture on 9/19/20 at an event hosted by the Jung Society of Atlanta. Details here.]
Psychiatrist Carl Jung described archetypes of the unconscious as emotionally charged images and ideas that are universal in nature and carry rich symbolic meaning in all human cultures, e.g. the archetypes of the Great Mother, the Wise Teacher, the Healer, the Sorcerer/Magician, the Tree of Life. Throughout the ages, ancient and modern humans have encountered these archetypes in myths, legends, religion, literature, music, art, rituals, and dreams.
A familiar universal archetype is the archetype of the Hero, which our modern storytellers have retold in books, comics, and movies like The Black Panther, Wonder Woman, The Matrix, The Hobbit. Predictably, every hero faces the opposing force of a villain. Popular villains in modern culture like Maleficent, the Joker, Saruman, Killmonger, and Agent Smith, play crucial archetypal roles in the development of the heroes in their stories because they dictate the direction and actions of the hero, and draw out his or her courage, strengths, and weaknesses.
Archetypes can play out in our personal lives; for instance, you may find yourself possessed by the Child archetype when you throw a tantrum, or feel vulnerable and helpless, or playful and innocent. Archetypes transcend age, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, etc.: for instance, anyone who cares for, supports, and nurtures the life of another embodies the Mother archetype, whether or not they are female or a parent; we see children of all genders in this role when they take care of their stuffed animals and pets, or comfort a hurt friend.
The archetype of the ally
Throughout history, allies have played essential roles in the transformation of societies and nations, from ending slavery and apartheid, to defeating the Nazis and the colonialists; from fighting for civil rights and gay rights, to fighting for Black lives. Being an ally is not for the fainthearted. It involves bravery, sacrifice, soul searching, and a commitment to universal human values. Characters like Virgil, who accompanies Dante down into the depths of Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy, or Samwise Gamgee, who sticks with Frodo all the way to Mordor in The Lord of the Rings and helps him destroy The One Ring, portray the archetype of the ally at its finest: as a courageous supporter and witness who walks with a person through darkness and terror.
It is significant that we are using the word “ally” in the discussion of racial justice in America: therapists are being called upon to be allies for their African American clients in catering to the specific mental health needs of Black people and other minorities who often cannot access psychological care, yet historically have been the ones most negatively impacted by racial trauma. Businesses, governments, schools, hospitals, the police, military, and legal systems are being called upon to be cognizant of how they contribute wittingly or unwittingly to the racial biases that underlie American society, and are being challenged to dismantle oppressive structures and become intentional allies for people of color. People of color themselves are also learning how to be allies, since we can consciously or unconsciously engage in actions that oppress our own communities and other minorities.
Becoming an ally
Being an ally is an active call of duty for every one of us. Imagine the transformation that would take place in our workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, police departments, if we had allies calling out injustice in all these places. We can all be more aware of the hidden biases, policies, and behaviors that oppress others, and can actively advocate for racial and social justice wherever we encounter prejudice and discrimination.
Here’s what I’m doing to be a better ally:
- Self-education: The United States of America was built on lofty ideals that unfortunately do not apply to everyone. Toni Morrison defined utopia as who is excluded from it. How does it feel for entire groups of humans to be excluded from areas of society that matter most: family, health, education, housing, political and legal matters? I am educating myself by reading authors like Fanny Brewster and Ibram X Kendi about what we can do to address intergenerational trauma, racial inequities, poverty, mass incarceration of African Americans, which all have their roots in slavery and Jim Crow. I’m following the advice of poet Sonia Sanchez “to reread Toni Morrison every decade in order to reimagine ourselves on the American landscape.” What does a reimagining of ourselves and our nation look like? How can America live up to the lofty ideals upon which it was founded?
- Access to mental health care for minorities: As a therapist, I’m keenly aware of my responsibility to facilitate, participate in, and advocate for programs that strive to make mental health services accessible to people of color through psychoeducation to destigmatize mental health, and the implementation of community programs that provide psychological care and social supports to minority communities.
- Active witnessing: Whenever I ride the train or wait at the airport, I hear the familiar announcement: “If you see something, say something”. Allies speak out when they witness injustice, wherever it may show up. They use their voices and actions to call out impunity and demand accountability. It is disturbing that the shocking murder of George Floyd may never have come to light had there been no active witnesses. How many other Black lives were snuffed out and never acknowledged, and perpetrators never brought to justice, because nobody bore witness to those atrocities? I am renewing my commitment as an active witness as I reflect on the words of Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr: “The presence of injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
References and resources
Brewster, F. (2019). Archetypal grief. Slavery’s legacy of intergenerational child loss. London: Routledge.
Brewster, F. (2020). The racial complex: A Jungian perspective on culture and race. NY: Routledge.
Kendi, I. (2019). How to be an antiracist. NY: Random House.
Podcasts and videos
The events of the past few weeks, particularly the sickening, cold-blooded murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in broad daylight, was devastating not only to Black communities in America, but to all decent humans everywhere. The outcry from across the country and the world was clear and immediate: it is time to fix the racial pandemic in America. We are fed up and fired up. And while dialogue is certainly an essential first step, most of us feel that the time is long overdue for swift action to implement policy changes that end racial oppression and inequities. As we grapple with the horror and trauma of what we witnessed, we are outraged to acknowledge that this kind of racism is part of the daily lives of so many African Americans and people of color.
The Alchemy of Change
The fires on the streets have since been put out, but the fires of injustice, outrage, and anger continue to burn inside us. Alchemically, fire has rich symbolism as the element of purification and transformation. The ancient art of alchemy (from the Arabic al-kimiya) was practiced in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. It is a process through which base metals and other materials undergo certain operations in order to transform them into valuable substances like gold, or the elusive elixir of life.
In Anatomy of the Psyche, psychiatrist and Jungian analyst Edward Edinger relates fire to the alchemical stage calcinatio, where a solid is heated until it turns into a dry powder. Edinger explains that this process could also refer to the transformation of a mental or emotional state. By applying intense heat, something is destroyed, or undergoes purification, purging, or drying out, so that it emerges in a transformed state. In the religious traditions, we see this in descriptions of hell fire, tongues of fire, purgatorial, crematorial, and sacrificial flames.
Fire is a good thing, when we know how to use it. Psychologically, fire symbolizes libido, desire, passion, commitment, rage (Edinger, 1985). It has the power to consume us, destroy us, transform us. The fire, intensity, and pressure of these turbulent times has the potential to transform society for the better, for instance, through the dismantling of old oppressive structures that have sustained racism for centuries. Like the ancient alchemists, we are called upon at this time to develop the ability to wield fire in constructive and transformative ways.
Fired up? Here’s what you can do
Exercising agency over things that matter to us is empowering, increases optimism, and decreases feelings of isolation as we collaborate with others towards a common purpose. Here are some suggestions for action:
- July is Minority Mental Health Awareness month. The timing and urgency of addressing the crisis of mental health in our minority communities could not be greater. Check out activities in your area and join in the conversation. Issues like cultural stigma, limited access to mental health care among minorities, generational trauma, racial inequities, LGBTQ+ activism, cultural competency training, etc. are being addressed.
- This is voting season. Research the candidates running for office in your county and city and vote for people who are committed to racial and social justice. The people we put in our sheriff’s office, courts, city councils, and schools influence the kind of progress and policing we see in our neighborhoods.
- Participate in civic, faith-based, and community organizations in your area that provide resources for education, employment, nutrition, mentoring, affordable housing, legal and health services in minority communities.
In the meantime, we keep the flames of justice, vigilance, and remembrance burning in our hearts, in our communities, and at the ballot box. Black Lives Matter. A luta continua.
Edinger, E. (1985). Anatomy of the psyche. Alchemical symbolism in psychotherapy. Illinois: Open Court.
Photo by Maxim Tajer on Unsplash