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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Campbell, J. (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton
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.
A handsome young boy in an orphanage receives an unusual visitor. This is, in itself, a singular occurrence, since the boy has never had a visitor in the eleven years he has lived in the orphanage. But if the circumstances seem strange, the visitor is even stranger. He has deep, warm eyes and an aura of agelessness about him. He speaks in a firm and reassuring tone. The man tells the boy that the two of them share something in common: they are both “different” and have remarkable abilities—they are wizards. The man enrolls the boy in a school for wizards and witches and takes him under his wing. So begins the story of the strange and troubled relationship between young Tom Riddle (who later becomes Lord Voldemort) and Professor Albus Dumbledore. You may recognize this scene from J.K. Rowling’s sixth installment in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
The present past
How does the gifted, charming, and handsome Tom Riddle become the evil sorcerer Lord Voldemort? In order to understand the wicked villain, we must travel back into his past to discover what energies and forces may have shaped his life, much in the psychodynamic manner of seeking clues to a person’s adult personality by investigating his or her childhood. In fact, Dumbledore tells Harry that the only way he can defeat Voldemort is by gaining insights into his early life.
This is how we find ourselves in this bleak orphanage. We are traveling back in time by means of a Pensieve (another of Rowling’s delightful magical creations) through Professor Dumbledore’s immaculately stored memories. The memories have been carefully captured in the form of swirling silvery substances that are poured from tiny crystal bottles into the Pensieve. In this way, Harry Potter (and the reader) plunge into the wretched childhood of the boy Tom Riddle. Here, we see some of Riddle’s past experiences, as well as the ancestral forces that shaped his life.
It is by traveling into Voldemort’s past that we find out that he is the heir of the powerful and ruthless Slytherin family; that his mother, a witch, fell in love with a handsome Muggle (nonwizard); that she was ridiculed and ostracized for this; that Voldemort was born of this union. Voldemort’s fate and troubles appear to stem from his tempestuous past: he looks just like his Muggle father but intensely hates that part of him that connects him to this non-magical family. He despises his mother for not using her magical ability to prevent her own death while giving birth to him. He detests the children and staff at the orphanage and plays cruel tricks on them. He kills his father, drops his Muggle name, takes on the title of Lord Voldemort, and wages war against all Muggles and Half-Bloods. We are now beginning to understand the makings of a villain by peering into the complex inner world of a brilliant but disturbed young boy.
Splitting the soul
But it isn’t until the seventh and final book in the series that we learn about Voldemort’s grand master plan: his scheme to split his soul in order to gain immortality. Voldemort secretly discovers the Dark Art of soul-splitting as a student at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and spends many of his adult years in exile working on it. But splitting the soul comes with devastating consequences and is considered one of the most dangerous things a wizard can do—the deepest violation against the soul—because it renders the soul, in Dumbledore’s words, “unstable.” Literary, mythical, and cultural narratives are filled with cautionary tales about what happens when our souls are violated: Faust sells his soul to Mephistopheles and begins his rapid descent into depravity; Okonkwo transgresses against his chi or personal god (some may call this “soul”) and everything crumbles around him in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; in Rowling’s masterpiece, Voldemort is defeated when he splits his soul and its fragmented pieces are destroyed.
Jungian psychology is not new to the phenomenon of soulsplitting. Donald Kalsched, Jungian analyst and guest speaker at the Jung Society of Atlanta in February, presented an insightful workshop on how unprocessed traumas, including sexual, physical and emotional abuse, can cause the soul or psyche to split. According to Kalsched, because unbearable traumatic experiences “cannot be fully metabolized” by the individual, they cause the soul to dissociate in fragments. This trauma becomes what Kalsched refers to as “the inexperienced experience.” Kalsched sums it up thus: “If you are in an impossible situation and you are helpless to leave, then a part of you leaves.” So the individual may well survive the trauma, but does so in pieces. This phenomenon has been seen, for instance, in people who suffer from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder, where, as a result of intolerable trauma, the person’s psyche dissociates into different identities or personality states. In this way, says Kalsched, “the psyche provides a partial cure of trauma so that life can go on, but there is a great price for this self-cure—loss of soul.” (Kalsched, 2013, p. 20)
In Trauma and the Soul, Kalsched states that the process of soul-splitting is orchestrated spontaneously and unconsciously by what he refers to as “the self-care system”, a survival mechanism that “protects and defends the vulnerable core of the self from further annihilation.” But after the soul splits, where do these vulnerable, fragmented pieces go? Kalsched contends that they retreat into the personal or collective unconscious for refuge and support. In this way, they may remain relatively inaccessible except through processes like psychotherapy, dream work or active imagination.
But Kalsched warns that the self-care system is not benign. While it may initially take on the protective role, it tends to turn persecutory by keeping this vulnerable part of the self sequestered and in a regressed state, thereby preventing psychological growth and healing. Also, because the self-care system has access to powerful archetypal forces in the collective unconscious, traumatized individuals may enter into altered states of consciousness where they find themselves encapsulated in inner worlds with powerful archetypal figures that can be at times numinous, at other times mephistophelean. Because the ego often cannot deal with the tremendous psychic energy and emotional content from the archetypes, it may regress into that infantile period when it got split by the trauma. In dreams, this regressed part of the personality may appear as a vulnerable and innocent animal or child that needs protection.
I would like to offer a recurring dream vignette that reaches back into my own childhood here. Over the years this dream continues to be one of my most frequent nocturnal visitors. First, a little bit of background and context for the dream: As a child, I was very small and sickly. We moved to a coastal town in Kenya where the weather was hot and humid. My father worked as a manager in a huge oil refinery, and we lived right next to it. The air was thick and polluted and I often found it difficult to breathe. I developed painful rashes and other skin ailments which made it difficult for me to be outdoors. I also developed asthma, bronchitis, and malaria all within the same period, at the age of 9 or 10. In one of my hospitalizations, I remember being placed in a women’s ward because the children’s ward was full. I felt lonely, vulnerable and frightened. Also, because I was in the women’s ward, I did not get to see or play with any children during my hospitalization. I was treated by the women’s nursing staff, and not the children’s nurses. The dream:
I am in a forest and I hear a weak meowing sound. I come closer and realize it’s from a tiny abandoned kitten. The kitten is scared and weak with hunger. I pick up the kitten and realize there are more, a litter of around 5 or 6. I feel overwhelmed and wonder how I can feed and protect all of them. Suddenly, I hear a loud, menacing sound. A wolf-dog is approaching. It looks fierce and ominous. I know it is here for the kittens, and because I am in its way, it will harm me too. I want to run away but can’t leave unless I take all the kittens with me. I decide I will scoop all of them in my arms and make a dash for it. I am filled with terror and panic.
What I have noticed in this dream and its other variations is the presence of a protector, a predator, and helpless creature(s), usually kittens. (Incidentally, as a child, I would always bring home tiny orphaned kittens. Today, I have a cat that I rescued as a kitten three years ago.) The dominant feeling tone of the dream is always one of fear and vulnerability. In my interpretation of this dream, I see the protector as the archetypal Self appearing in order to assist the various parts of the wounded or traumatized self, which appear as vulnerable, helpless kittens. I view the malevolent figure of the wolf-dog as an externalized threat representing the frightening environment and experiences around my illness and subsequent hospitalization. These unconscious energies still accompany me today whenever I walk into a hospital and get that strange feeling of uneasiness that I haven’t been able to shake off after all these years.
It has been said that none of us ever leave childhood unscathed. If this is true, we are all carrying the wounds and scars from our childhood traumas. For the majority of us, these are traumas that the psyche, with time, can process on its own, perhaps through positive life experiences and nurturing relationships with others. Some may be fortunate enough to find a good psychotherapist to guide them through the journey into healing. But these traumas can be dangerous to the psyche if left untended over time. Kalsched points out that this is why a trusting therapeutic relationship is so important to a person who has suffered trauma: it offers a safe container in which the individual can gradually begin to “re-open the transitional space” between his or her inner and outer worlds, between the spiritual and the material worlds, the unconscious and the conscious, the past and the present. This then gives the soul an opportunity to dwell in what Kalsched refers to as the “mytho-poetic matrix,” a place where one’s imagination, hopes and dreams can be rekindled, where the figures in dreams, whether diabolical or divine, can lead towards a larger mystery and healing.
Back to Harry Potter: Voldemort learns that there is only one way to split his soul: he must commit the most heinous act possible—cold murder. Each time he kills, his soul splits again. But splitting the soul is just the first part. He must then find new “homes” for the split fragments. This is where we learn about Horcruxes, which are considered the darkest of the Dark Arts. A Horcrux is an object that has been enchanted using powerful spells in order to conceal a fragmented part of a person’s soul. Horcruxes are such taboos in the magical world that Dumbledore himself cannot bear to talk about them. Having found what he felt were excellent Horcruxes for his fragmented soul, Voldemort embarks on his final business: obtaining the Elder Wand and wielding its power over the wizarding and Muggle worlds. This gripping story is told in the final installment in the series.
As the Harry Potter narrative progresses, it is clear that Harry and Voldemort have a lot in common: both lost their mothers in infancy, both wizards can speak to snakes using Parseltongue, both learned they were wizards at the age of eleven, both were exceptional students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, both their wands share a strange and powerful connection, and later it emerges that they both, in fact, share parts of the same soul. The gravity of this fact is not lost on Harry, and he agonizes over it more and more as the story progresses. For if it is possible that he and Voldemort share the same soul, does that not make him just as contemptible as Voldemort, whom he so despises? Are all Harry’s efforts to fight the dark forces just a defense against facing who he truly is? Harry is plagued by these questions throughout the book.
It is interesting to note that although Harry experienced enormous traumas in his past—the murder of his parents at an early age, painful rejection, excruciating loneliness, and neglect at the hands of his relatives, the Dursleys,—he ends up for the most part, psychologically whole. Where did Harry find the psychological resilience to deal with his traumas? A central theme that follows Harry throughout his adventures points to one of his best defenses: his close friends and fellow students Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, who walk with Harry through his perilous adventures, much in the same way that Kalsched describes Virgil acting as Dante’s guide and witness in the underworld. Additionally, Harry has the wise and benevolent Dumbledore as mentor, the loyal friendship of Hagrid, and support of the stern but kind Professor McGonagall. Lastly, Harry has the most powerful defense of all: his mother’s fierce and protective love, a legacy she left him when she died. In contrast, Voldemort had nobody—he was unwilling to form any kind of reciprocal relationship with others, and this became a key element in his defeat.
Re-finding the soul
In a sense, I think we are all a bit like Voldemort. We split our souls—unconsciously, by not accepting all parts of ourselves—then conceal these “soul pieces” and continue to live our lives with the discarded fragments scattered messily about. Our task then (if we are conscious of it), is to embark on what Jung called “re-finding the soul.” Jungian psychology offers the process of individuation as a way to do this, where all aspects of the soul—the good, the bad, the ugly, the scary—are gathered and embraced into an integrated whole. In Jung’s Red Book he writes very personally about his own journey to re-find his soul. But like all archetypal journeys, it is not for the faint-hearted. Jung referred to his own individuation journey as “plunging into the depths” of a sort of personal hell, filled with both terrifying archetypal figures and numinous entities. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections Jung states that the years he spent on what he described as his “confrontation with the unconscious” were so emotionally devastating that he felt he was “doing a schizophrenia” and would fall apart; yet he also asserts that they were the most productive years of his life.
In order for Voldemort to re-find his soul and piece back its fragmented parts, he would have to feel remorseful about his evil deeds and suffer the pain and agony of his victims. Harry and Dumbledore know that this kind of undertaking is much bigger than Voldemort’s limited egoic machinations, and would require certain character traits that Voldemort clearly does not possess, such as insight and empathy. Therefore, only one solution remains: Harry must destroy the Horcruxes.
Towards the end of the Harry Potter series we encounter Lord Voldemort again in what appears to be an alternate timespace reality. But he is completely unrecognizable now. Gone is the powerful, merciless sorcerer who terrorized both the Muggle and wizard worlds. Instead, we see a pitiful regressed creature: wounded, tiny and naked, it is curled up on the hard ground. It is helpless and alone, and emits gut-wrenching whimpers of unspeakable suffering. Harry feels a gush of pity— mixed with a good measure of repulsion—for the creature, but Dumbledore’s stern advice is clear: the creature is to be left alone to deal with its own fate. Voldemort violated his soul when he split it into pieces, and was unwilling to do the “soul work” of retrieving and integrating its fragmented parts when he arrogantly rejected Harry’s final offer for remorse. His monumental failure became his final death sentence when Harry destroyed the Horcruxes and recovered the Elder Wand.
Nothing can be done to save him now.
Nyambura Kihato is a therapist who works primarily with refugee and immigrant communities in Clarkston. She also teaches psychology part-time at Georgia State University.