I’ve always appreciated the work of the Jungian analyst James Hollis. His books hold prominent places on my shelves. In Swamplands of the Soul, he says we must learn to embrace life as it is, not as we wish it to be, or as we are working to make it be.
His words remind me of one of the last entries in Dag Hammarskjold’s journal, which later became the book Markings. Shortly before his death in a plane crash in Zambia in 1961, the Secretary General of the United Nations wrote: Night is drawing nigh. For all that has been, thanks. For all that shall be, yes.”
I’ve always been both haunted by and drawn to Hammarskjold’s words. I would like to live with his sober recognition of both the blessings and responsibilities of life. He lived wholeheartedly. And by wholeheartedly, I do not mean he lived with gusto. I mean he lived with an eye for joy.
Hammarskjold led the U.N. during the height of the Cold War, when the world was closer to nuclear disaster than it ever has been. His perspective allowed him to accept the heavy weight he carried as he steered the superpowers in the direction of peace. Khrushchev and Kennedy didn’t agree on much, but they agreed on Hammarskjold. They said he was the greatest diplomat of the 20th century. Dag Hammarskjold found a way to view life that allowed him to embrace its complexities from a place of hope and possibility. He really was an extraordinary leader. I am not Dag Hammarskjold.
I always have begun my day reading the Washington Post and New York Times. Until 2016, I always found it enjoyable. Over the past five years, it has rarely been enjoyable. Now, when my day begins with America’s two premier newspapers, the emotion stirred within is fear, not life’s possibilities. Dag Hammarskjold’s words rarely come to mind.
The past month has been overwhelming. Here in Colorado, we have been dealing with some of the poorest air quality in the world, all stemming from wildfires in California and Oregon. The ongoing images of the insurrection of Jan. 6, and the denial of its significance, are never far from my consciousness. And then there’s Afghanistan. What a humanitarian disaster. Beneath all that, it’s been a difficult month personally. Doing more than 40 interviews about a raw memoir is not necessarily good for the soul.
Last week I changed my morning routine. Instead of reading the newspaper first, I have been sitting on my back patio and writing in my journal — one page of gratitude, one page of stream of consciousness. I drink a cup of tea and write until I am done.
“In my own life and therapy, insights have been pouring from the heavens lately, overwhelming the gutters I have so carefully positioned around my ego.”
The job of a therapist is to bring insight into a client’s life. The insights come from helping the client remove obstacles stopping them from getting beneath their ego to their soul. The soul is where the insights lie. Then it is up to the client to act on those insights and endure through his or her actions.
In my own life and therapy, insights have been pouring from the heavens lately, overwhelming the gutters I have so carefully positioned around my ego. I am soaked to the bone. In more normal times, I can receive these insights and decide what action to take. For instance, you might realize that since childhood you always felt like you were on your own, and therefore always had to scramble to protect yourself when you thought the sky was falling. Now that you have gained that insight, you act, learning to allow others to care for you, and practicing that new action over and over, until it becomes second nature. That’s what I mean when I say therapy brings insight, but you alone can act and endure.
But when you are soaked to the bone with new insights, it is hard to turn those insights into enduring actions. You just sit in the damp cold, shivering. When the world appears to be drowning, it is even harder. You want to do your part to get everyone to dry land, but right now I think, “Yeah, well, I’m a mess, so what good can I be?” It’s a little whiny, don’t you think? (By the way, the only review of my book that I happened to see — an accidental reading — said the book was the tiniest bit whiny. That’s why I don’t read reviews.)
“When you are soaked to the bone with new insights, it is hard to turn those insights into enduring actions.”
In the midst of my whiny-ness, I am brought back to the words of the Greek writer Aeschylus, who said the gods have ordained that the pathway to wisdom is through suffering, which takes me again to the words of the aforementioned James Hollis, who said most of life is lived in the swamplands. Which brings me back to the words of Dag Hammarskjold: Night is drawing nigh. For all that has been, thanks. For all that shall be, yes.
Hammarskjold found dry land in the swamp. I’m tired of being soaked to the bone. I want dry land too. You know, the book reviewer might be right. For an entitled white man who now has a pretty comfortable life as a transgender woman, it all sounds kinda whiny.
And so it goes.
Paula Stone Williams is a pastoral counselor and internationally known speaker on gender equity, LGBTQ advocacy and religious tolerance. She is lives in Boulder County, Colo., where she also serves as a pastor with Left Hand Church. She has been a keynote speaker for hundreds of conferences, corporations and universities around the world. Her TED Talks have accumulated more than 6 million views. She is the author of a memoir, As A Woman, What I Learned About Power, Sex, and the Patriarchy After I Transitioned, released by Simon & Schuster in June.
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