The Transcendent Function

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. 

Moving beyond

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

The Archetype of the Ally

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.]

On archetypes

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.

John Lewis: March Graphic Novels

Podcasts and videos

Trevor Noah on the “Social Contract” that has been broken in America

Brian Stevenson TED Talk: We need to talk about an injustice 

Toni Morrison Documentary: The pieces I am  

Rev Dr Martin Luther King

Ijeoma Oluo, “So You Want to Talk about Race” 

NPR’s Code Switch Podcast: “Can We Walk about Whiteness”

This Jungian Life Podcast: Fanny Brewster on The Racial Complex  

Dr Thema Bryant Davis: Moving from cultural competence to anti-racism 

Dr Nadine Burke Harris on childhood trauma

Photo by Tina Witherspoon on Unsplash


Fed up and fired up

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, being consumed by one’s primal instincts (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

Shift Happens

When I posted my previous article on solitude earlier this year, who would have thought we would soon find ourselves using new verbs like social distancing, and old ones like quarantining and isolating, in everyday speech? This is what COVID-19 has presented to humanity: a new reality, a shift from what we knew as normal. As I was writing that piece, the Coronavirus was already starting to wreak its havoc in China and was getting ready to break out to the rest of the world.

Now the full reality of its impact is upon us and we find ourselves, like it or not, in forced opportunities to spend less time in the outside world and more time in our inner worlds. I recently listened to a psychologist on NPR talking about how people’s nighttime dreams are becoming more intense and vivid during this time of heightened anxiety and uncertainty, indicating the activation of our unconscious psyche as it tries to regain its equilibrium.

Podcasts, online discussions, and social media posts are busier than ever, discussing meditation and inner reflection, gratitude and acceptance, webinars and Zoom meetings (what’s the proper lighting and background for online meetings? Must we wear pants?) And who would have imagined that election fever would suddenly become a lukewarm headline of a forgotten era?

I do several weekly webinars, teach classes, have teletherapy sessions, attend online group meditations, and show up to work meetings all from home. I Skype, WhatsApp, and FaceTime with friends and family, I take the dog for long walks. While stuck at home, we are learning to cook, learning new languages, learning to homeschool, recalibrating our priorities. We are falling to pieces or coming together. It is a blessing and a curse.


Jungian analyst James Hollis gave a fascinating talk a couple of years ago at the Jung Society of Atlanta about how quickly our world is changing, how the terrain we traverse now as a human species is so different from what we have been familiar with in the past. The personal and collective imperative to make conscious choices has never been greater. He described how we find ourselves in a singularity, a place where our reality has already shifted so much that we cannot possibly get by with our old maps, and yet we still use them because we are unconscious of this shift and are still holding on to old realities.

His point was that we need to awaken, discard our old maps, and create new maps to navigate and thrive in this new terrain. That we must be flexible and above all, conscious. Only then can we be active participants in the transformation that is already occurring. Such prophetic words for our current times.

Living consciously

Certainly, everybody now is feeling this shift. Whether in terms of COVID-19, politics, climate change, racial justice, LGBTQ+ activism, technological advances, everything is changing so quickly. And nobody knows how it will all play out in the end. Do we emerge in paradise or in hell? Only time will tell. Yet this question can best be answered by how conscious we are as we proceed, how we handle this opportunity to evolve.

A couple of days ago, I attended, yes, a webinar! by Rick Tarnas, cultural historian and author of Cosmos and Psyche, in which he described some of the challenges and opportunities we face as a human race in the face of this global pandemic. He emphasized that in spite of the chaotic feeling that everything is out of control, we still have agency in the cosmos, which responds to our actions. We can always do something about whatever shows up in our reality. Hearing him say this makes me feel like we are in a kind of cosmic game show. What will we choose? How will we choose? Our survival appears to hinge upon this.

While I hope that collectively we will make conscious choices, ultimately, each of us has a responsibility to make personal choices that benefit our immediate environment. We can be more mindful of the resources we have, we can be kinder, more flexible, more present.

Now where did the time go? Excuse me while I attend my next Zoom meeting.

Photo by KT on Unsplash

In praise of solitude

While waiting for my friends to show up for our dinner date, I met a delightful woman at the bar who struck up a conversation with me. I asked her whether she was also waiting for someone; she said no, she was out alone celebrating her 58th birthday.

After wishing her a happy birthday and making introductions, she talked about the freedom she feels now that she is in her late fifties, and how she wished she had experienced this “life giving, don’t-give-a-damn freedom” earlier in life. She went on to tell me how it took being in her fifties, with her children grown and her husband dead, for her to feel okay about spending time alone, treating herself to dinners and movies, taking walks alone, sleeping alone. She was forced into learning to appreciate solitude, rather than choosing it willingly. We had a lovely conversation about the value of enjoying one’s own company at any age.

It got me thinking about enjoying solitude.

I appreciate how in some ways, we as a society are becoming more open-minded and accepting of solitude: meditation, silent retreats, and journaling are now commonplace solitary activities.Travel groups advertise trips for the solo traveler. Young folks are delaying marriage or choosing to remain single. You no longer have to be a monastic or widow/widower to justify your solitude. I love that instead of the heavy, judgmental “spinster”, we now use the more fun and free “bachelorette” to describe single women, or, my favorite: “singleton” (shout out to Bridget Jones).

Yet in other ways, we are still wary of solitude and being single; even the words “unmarried” and “childless” have negative connotations (especially for women), implying that something is missing or you are somehow incomplete if you are single or have no kids. Certainly loneliness is painful and can be emotionally and physically devastating. As humans, we are wired for social connections with others, and we benefit from nurturing relationships. Extreme loneliness can contribute to chronic illnesses, depression, despair, alienation, or suicide, the ultimate loneliness.

But being alone does not necessarily mean being lonely. It may take some practice, but we can learn to enjoy our own company without using others (or our electronic devices) as defenses.

Enjoying your own company

I’m reminded of the joke: “My mind is like a bad neighborhood – I never go there alone”. If you are unable to tolerate physical or emotional solitude, need constant distractions, and tend to fill your life with so many events, dates, friends, work, screen time, etc. that you are left feeling drained and empty, then it may be useful to ask yourself whether you are using these things as defenses to avoid some underlying problem. Sometimes we may need a life coach or therapist to help us explore the inner motives for our outer behavior, and the negative self-talk or anxiety that makes us fill our headspace and lives with too many activities, people, and things.

With practice, we can relearn the enjoyment of solitude. We were good at it as kids. We may remember this from our own childhood, or from watching a child play alone for hours, delighting in every moment, unconcerned or unaware of the gaze of others.

So don’t wait until friends and loved ones are gone or are unavailable. Go alone to that movie you’ve been dying to watch, treat yourself to a solo dinner at a nice restaurant (with the phone turned off! – phones are not dinner companions), sit at the mall and people watch, take yourself to an art show, museum, or play, or just stay home with the sole purpose of having fun hanging out with yourself. Knock yourself out.

Confessions of an introvert

Recently I was at a restaurant with some friends when I mentioned that I was an introvert. They were surprised and attempted to disagree with me: “But you’re so friendly!” they argued, “and not at all shy!” As evidence, they pointed out that I was the only one in the group who had engaged our server and started a conversation with her while she was taking our orders. 

This is a common misconception about introverts – that we are shy, antisocial, or unfriendly. These erroneous ideas have tainted the definition of “introversion” from the way it was originally proposed by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Jung himself was an introvert, and described introversion and extraversion as orientations of energy, i.e. whether a person is energized more by acting in the outer world, or by reflecting in their inner world. In his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (who else but an introvert would have such a title for their book?), Jung describes how he wandered off alone to spend time in quiet spaces, where he immersed himself in his inner world of ideas, theories, and fantasies. 

Where do you draw your energy from?

Introverts tend to focus on their inner world and need to withdraw in order to recharge their batteries, while extraverts feel more alive in the external world of people and activities; they draw their energy from the outside world like solar panels. If you like reflecting on ideas, tend to think a lot before acting, and hate interruptions while working, you could be an introvert. If you prefer to act in the outer world, enjoy stimulating environments like lively parties or active workplaces, or if you welcome interruptions as just the perfect diversion to take a break from your work, you may be an extravert. In reality though, we occupy various positions along this continuum, with ambiverts falling somewhere in the middle. Also, these states are not static; we tend to move up and down this scale depending on the situation. 

I’m a classic introvert. Respect my quiet time, and please turn off the radio while I’m working (I don’t even own a TV). Those friends I ate out with? I was happy to hang out with them and catch up, but it was so satisfying to decline their offer to join them at a club and head straight home afterwards, where I curled up in bed with a book for the night. 

Who will you walk with?

I once heard Oprah talk about how she deals with being a successful Black business woman in a white man’s world. She said she often walks into a meeting to find she is not just the only woman, she is the only person of color. Some of the people she meets can be intimidating or even outright hostile.

In times like these, she calls to mind all the strong Black women who came before her, like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Maya Angelou. She reflects on the hardships they encountered and how they impacted the world in such powerful ways while remaining true to themselves. Oprah describes how she invites these powerful women to walk into the boardroom with with her, to sit next to her at the table, to help her respond to the environment and the people with courage and conviction, and to remind her to be true to herself. This helps her find her own power, especially in unfriendly environments.

Courage to be you

Who gives you strength and courage to show up and be yourself? Who do you walk with into that work meeting where you are giving an important presentation? Who sits at the negotiating table with you as you ask for that raise you know you deserve? Your ancestors, your grandmother, a teacher or mentor? Listen to the wisdom they are sharing with you as you engage with others. Take a moment to reflect on how it feels to know that they have overcome insurmountable odds and are here to help you do the same, to support you, to be your guide and witness during the interaction.

Some of my favorite people to walk into such situations with are Oprah, Wangari Maathai, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou. To me, these incredible people represent the essence of humanity, creativity, and courage. As I reflect on who they are, I remember who I am. I feel their power and empathy surge through me; it infuses me with the courage to show up authentically and deal with whatever the moment brings. 

Encountering your shadow

Have you ever found yourself doing something that you felt was totally out of character? Perhaps you got into an argument and suddenly physically attacked someone, much to your surprise and horror. Or you felt a surge of an intense emotion such as jealousy or rage that seemed alien, like it wasn’t coming from you. It was as if someone or something else had taken over your body and mind and you were no longer in control.

Hello, meet your shadow.

Everybody has a shadow. While the shadow part of our personality can do much damage, this doesn’t mean it is evil. In fact, it can be a source of much creativity and insight, if we engage it consciously. Psychiatrist Carl Jung stated that it is healthy to have a good balance between our shadow (the part of our personality that we repress) and our persona (the mask we wear in the world to fit into society’s norms).

Our personality is healthy when there is a balance of opposing tendencies: extraversion balanced by some introversion; kindness and self-sacrifice balanced by some selfishness and aggression. The problem comes when we deny our shadow, or are unaware of it. If not made conscious, stuff from our shadow can develop into a complex, which hijacks us and our relationships, and traps us in dysfunctional patterns of reactivity.

Know your shadow

So how can we know more about our shadow and its contents? Because it is unconscious, we are likely unaware of its presence. Here are some suggestions:

  • Talk to someone close to you that you trust: your best friend, spouse/partner, sibling, close family member; someone with integrity and who knows you well. Chances are, they’ve seen you being seized by the complexes that constitute your shadow. And if they are comfortable being honest with you, they could give you insight into this part of your personality.
  • Pay close attention to your dreams: write them down or draw images that appear in them, maybe even join a dream group. The characters, plots, and situations that show up in our dreams can give us clues about the contents of our shadow.
  • If you feel ready to have an intimate relationship with your shadow, find out about Jungian analysts or certified dream therapists in your area. When we decide to explore our unconscious, it is a good idea to have a guide and witness to help us navigate through the dark, deep reaches of our psyche. If you are a trauma survivor, however, it is recommended that you see a trauma therapist and work on the trauma before starting on shadow or dream work.

Embrace your whole personality, the good, the bad, the ugly. It all makes up who you are. Work on parts you want to change while allowing all parts to balance one another. Honor your shadow; it balances your light.

Photo by Matthew Ansley on Unsplash

Find professional therapist help


Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

Have you ever watched someone (or even your cat or dog) sleep, and noticed their eyes darting back and forth under their closed eyelids? This is called Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, the part of the sleep cycle when we are dreaming. Sleep scientists tell us that REM sleep is important for memory consolidation and helping us process events that we experienced during the day.

EMDR uses this knowledge to help people process trauma by using eye movements.

The difference is that during EMDR, we do the eye movements while we are awake and conscious instead of during sleep. This technique is commonly referred to as bilateral stimulation. Sometimes, instead of eye movements, other forms of bilateral stimulation are used, such as tapping gently on one’s knees with the hands, using the feet to tap on the floor, or even listening to a recording that moves back and forth from the left to right ear.

Research has shown that when these kinds of bilateral stimulation are used in EMDR therapy, they can help integrate communication between our left and right brain, thereby allowing us to process traumatic experiences by resolving the emotional charge from the experience, while updating the brain with adaptive information. For instance, after being assaulted or abused, people tend to have the belief that they are damaged, unlovable, or worthless.

EMDR can help the brain find a more adaptive belief, such as: “I am OK just as I am”, or “I can accept myself”.

By using a strength-based approach that updates old negative beliefs with more adaptive beliefs, a person is able to move forward through a traumatic experience and not feel stuck in the past, or in repetitive patterns of behavior.

EMDR can also be used to manage anxiety and depression, overcome addictions, work through grief and loss, enhance performance, build self-esteem, etc.

Call me for a free EMDR consult



Image modified from original by Adam Neil from Pixabay.
Video courtesy The EMDR International Association.

The Hero’s Journey – Bilbo Baggins

I always thought my favorite hero’s journey was Frodo’s in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which was the story I intended to write about. But as I started writing about Frodo, I began to think about his uncle Bilbo Baggins of Bag End and felt I should probably mention him. Then it occurred to me: surely he deserves more than a mere mention in the whole saga. It was Bilbo who took in Frodo when Frodo’s parents died in a drowning accident, he was the first adventurer, the reluctant hero, he was Everyhobbit, living a comfortable and simple life in the Shire, doing things that hobbits do: spending lazy days reading in his cozy home in the ground, enjoying hearty meals (making sure never to miss second breakfast), and avoiding any disruptions to the normal order of things.

The call to adventure

Until Gandalf the Grey, “that old, wandering conjuror”, approaches him with the offer of an adventure. Mythologist Joseph Campbell (1949) writes about “The Call to Adventure” being the first step in the separation or departure stage of the hero’s journey. If Bilbo had not accepted his call to adventure, had not found The One Ring to Rule Them All and outwitted the creature Gollum to become its new owner, had not bequeathed the ring to Frodo, then the sequence of events and coincidences that led to Frodo being the hero in another larger adventure would never have happened. So, here’s to the hero Bilbo Baggins (with Frodo getting an honorable mention).

Bilbo’s book about his adventures, There and Back Again, in essence summarizes Campbell’s hero’s journey: separation, initiation and return. It describes Bilbo’s friendship with the wizard Gandalf and thirteen dwarves, his departure from the Shire, his encounters with goblins, elves, orcs, trolls, men, woodland creatures, the wretched Gollum, and the terrifying dragon Smaug of Lonely Mountain. And finally, his return to the Shire with a treasure trove of wealth and experience. There and Back Again was taken from Bilbo’s accounts from The Red Book of Westmarch, under the title The Hobbit. (It’s striking to me that Tolkien/Bilbo had a Red Book, just like psychiatrist Carl Jung, whose accounts of his adventures into his own unconscious mind and inner world were just as fantastic and terrifying).

The Hobbit begins with Gandalf the Grey showing up (uninvited) in the Shire, “looking for someone to share in an adventure.” Bilbo, predictably, is horrified. He had never set foot outside the Shire. “An adventure?… nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things.” But the seed has been sown, and so begins Bilbo’s journey to help the dwarves reclaim their mountain home which has been taken over by the terrible dragon Smaug. Bilbo encounters fantastic creatures and magical realms and survives countless perils in this quest.

Campbell writes about the hero of the monomyth possessing special gifts or qualities that are often unrecognized: it turns out that Bilbo is no regular hobbit after all: he is courageous, clever and quick; he outwits Gollum in a riddle game and acquires The One Ring; he turns out to be an expert swordsman and burglar, fighting orcs and stealing treasure from Smaug, then destroying the dragon by cunningly discovering his weak spot.

The witnessing consciousness

Throughout his perilous adventures, Bilbo receives what Campbell calls “supernatural aid” or the “unsuspected assistance that comes to one who has undertaken his proper adventure” (Campbell, 1949, p. 28). For Bilbo, this aid comes in the form of magical feats from the wizard Gandalf and protection and refuge provided by the Elves, who also give Bilbo magical gifts like “Sting”, the orc-slaying dagger, and other enchanted objects that help Bilbo (and later Frodo) survive hunger and cold, loneliness, despair and darkness as they battled with terror and evil.

Bilbo and Frodo do not embark on their adventures alone. Those who undertake epic and dangerous journeys need a companion to guide them safely through the horrors that lie in wait for them. Campbell and Jungian analyst Donald Kalsched mention the crucial role played by the poet Virgil as the “witnessing consciousness” (Kalsched, 2013) who, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, accompanies Dante through the underworld as his witness and guide as he descends into deeper and deeper layers of hell.

Both Bilbo and Frodo made descents into the underworld: in secret tunnels, in dark underground dwarf cities, in orc caves, in the heart of mountains, in the fires of Mordor, in the depths of despair. Bilbo has Gandalf and the thirteen dwarves as companions to help him defeat Smaug. Frodo’s loyal companion is his best friend, Samwise the Brave, who at the beginning of the adventure thwarts Frodo’s plot to sneak away on his own and insists on coming with him. Frodo would never have made it without Sam, who carries him on his back through the dark caves leading to Mordor and rescues him when he is trapped in the lair of the giant demon spider Shelob. Sam provides much needed levity and deep companionship for Frodo in his lonely and dark journey to Mordor, and ultimately saves him from the fiery depths, helping him finally to destroy The Ring and save Middle Earth. (Maybe I should have picked Sam as our hero.)

The return threshold

In the hero’s stage of “The Crossing of the Return Threshold” Campbell states that the hero’s return and reintegration with society is the hardest task of all. Before Bilbo’s adventure, he asks Gandalf, “Can you promise that I will come back?” Gandalf’s reply: “No…and if you do, you will not be the same.” What heroes experience in their journeys leaves them changed forever. Their old life, perceptions, relationships, and activities pale in comparison to what they have lived in their adventures.

This is true for both Bilbo and Frodo: they returned at separate times to Hobbiton but seemed to suffer from a deep kind of loneliness, as though they couldn’t fit into their old lives or habits any more. Bilbo leaves the Shire after disappearing mysteriously in the middle of a lively party he threw to celebrate his eleventy-first birthday. It later emerges that he went to Rivendell to live with the Elves in the house of Elrond, which is where Frodo later finds him after his narrow escape from the Ringwraiths.

After Frodo destroys The Ring and saves Middle Earth, both Frodo and Bilbo sail away with Gandalf and the Elves to the Undying Lands. Why the Elves? Perhaps because Elves are immortal and will never forget these stories. Or because Elves have seen unthinkable things and survived endless wars through so many lifetimes that they understand the bigger picture; they are unfazed by it all, or maybe just accept it. Or maybe they can empathize with the deep emptiness and loneliness that comes from experiencing the eternity of time, whether through a life-altering experience or the curse/blessing of immortality.

I think Bilbo and Frodo’s hero journeys can help us as a society to empathize with those who leave “home” (any familiar physical or emotional place) and have life-changing experiences: loss and grief, exile and forced migration, war, illness and hospitalization, etc. Some may be lucky enough to eventually go back to relative safety, but may be unable to metabolize the experiences they have lived or synthesize them with the normalcy of their daily routines.

It seems that once you accept the call to adventure (or it is thrust upon you), you can never go back: you know too much, you have seen too much, you are never the same again. This can be the source of profound loneliness, where life seems meaningless and you feel like nobody can relate to your experience. Perhaps if we had something like the Undying Lands of the Elves, we could sail there to find refuge, healing, and meaning for our life’s adventures and travails.

Works Cited:

Campbell, J. (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton

University Press.

Kalsched, D. (2013). Trauma and the Soul. New York: Routledge.

Tolkien, J.R.R (1965). The Lord of the Rings Part One: The Fellowship of the Ring. New

York: Ballantine Books.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (2001). The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.