“Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” — John Lennon
Photographer Bob Gruen remembered John Lennon as a man who could never be exposed in a biography nearly as well as he had exposed himself to the world in life. Lennon was unafraid to be naked and vulnerable to the world, warts and all, and in some cases he literally went on record to confess his sins. While co-writing Getting Better, Lennon’s lyrical contribution included the line, “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved.” Most people would be terrified at the notion of admitting something so horrible, much less singing about it. But I’m inspired by the courage Lennon summoned to own his mistakes.
In that spirit, I will be baring more personal details on this blog than I ever expected to. You see, I’ve recently experienced some major unexpected and unwanted upheavals in my life. Well, that’s the pretentious, dramatic, Woe is me, I’m such a tortured artist! way of putting it. Guarded behind a mask and keeping a safe distance. The honest way—the naked way—of putting it is that my girlfriend left me for another man and a week later I lost my job. Now you see the appeal of the masked way—the naked way is too embarrassing to be stated out loud and with a straight face, not while also maintaining awareness of all the real problems in the world. It makes this whole thing seem more appropriate as an entry on White People Problems.
It certainly would fit better there if my ultimate aim was to garner sympathy. Instead, my whole motivation is that I already know everything I’m going through has been faced by countless other human beings. The question I ask is, no matter how many others have gone before, and no matter how strong a face we put on, doesn’t each of us still succumb to the same Woe is me! thinking, down in the secret Self that we keep hidden away from everyone else? Even while I shame myself for being a drama queen, I still know deep down that the effects of radical change are undeniably dramatic. I think in these moments we deserve to have a respite from keeping our strong faces on, to stop pretending to not be human, and to discuss, analyze, and understand these problems and how they change us.
Better yet, we deserve to explore whether radical change, even change that is out of one’s control, can be willfully directed toward a positive end. That is what I intend to document in this ongoing series. Because I’m not the first to go through this, I’m also not the first to get through it better off than I was, nor am I the first to wonder how other people managed it. I would consider this project a success if just one thing I say gives some small help to someone, somewhere, who like me has broken down into a crumpled, pathetic, sobbing heap and screamed out loud at God, Why me? Not because I have all the right answers, but because that person also wants to know that they are not alone and are not going crazy. To quote John Lennon once more, “We’re not saying anything new. One hundred million other people have said it, too. All we are saying is, ‘This is what is happening to us.’ We are sending postcards. I don’t let it become ‘I am the awakened; you are sheep that will be shown the way.’ That is the danger of saying anything, you know.”1
“Become an alchemist. Transmute base metal into gold, suffering into consciousness, disaster into enlightenment.” — Eckhart Tolle
Now for the geeky bit. I’ve chosen to title this piece My Long Alchemical Engagement as an allusion to the concept of the “alchemical marriage” found in Western esoterica, because Alchemy is all about radical change. An alchemical marriage was a term for a correctly conducted alchemical process meant to unify opposites into a single whole, the end product being the Philosopher’s Stone. But the process also involved an element of spiritual purification. Carl Jung absorbed the symbolism of Alchemy and transformed it into a method of understanding psychological healing through unifying the opposites of masculine traits (logic, aggression, destruction) and feminine traits (emotion, compassion, creation) into a balanced Self. This allegorical use of the word “marriage” builds on the medieval understanding, as the titular character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet put it, that “man and wife are one flesh.” When radical change hits, when Life interrupts your plans, everything becomes a confusion of opposites. Right and wrong, which so often seem as easy to discern as black from white, are lost in a gray haze of doubt. Using the allegory of Alchemy for finding something that makes sense out of this confusion seems as natural to me as it must have to Jung. Balance out of imbalance. Harmony out of dissonance. Light out of darkness.
And so it could be said that I’ve knelt down and proposed marriage to my better, balanced Self. To be completely honest, I’m hoping for a long honeymoon!
Now, here’s a song, apropos of everything (except John Lennon).
1Playboy, January 1981