Character

“A man’s character is his fate.” Heraclitus (540 BC – 480 BC), On the Universe

“If the final purpose of aging is character, then character finishes life, polishes it into a more lasting image.” James Hillman

Anna Rebecca Smith

If I have felt compelled towards living life closer to the margins, seeking out what is obscure, liminal, or for more deeply understanding the nature of life – I might trace these loose threads back to childhood and the memory of my dear Great, Great Aunt Bunny. The family myth taking root early in my life, often compared my oddness to hers. Maybe another child would not have taken the myth to heart, and some may say a child should be left without a myth or vision handed down by an ancestor, but I remain grateful.

Although long since passed on, her presence fosters in me a love of life’s oddness. Through the legacy of family stories that tell of her adventurous nature, and a sustained presence through reading her letters, postcards and books, I find solace and appreciation for the courage and daring this passionate woman had. She lived a non-ordinary life, and if in some ways her image remains idealized, it has also been a healing fiction.

Aunt Bunny’s distinguishable traits are what James Hillman calls character. Her styling, from the occasional wearing of men’s clothes, living with a female companion, to her exotic collections, stand out with bold acuity in my memories. When I felt misunderstood and misfitted, it was this ancestral connection to Bunny’s oddity that kept me going, encouraging in me a lifelong curiosity to my troubled, youthful attraction to oddness.

So, what is character? How do we account for that which gives us our unique character?

medium[1]James Hillman, in his book titled, The Force of Character and the Lasting Life, suggests that character is a shaping form that is part of our being, not just the psyche but the whole of who we are. Of the word character he says:

“The very word derives from kharassein, Greek for “engrave,”“sketch,” or “inscribe”; kharakter, which is both one who makes sharp incisive marks and the marks made, such as letters in a writing system.”

Hillman refers us back to a time when character was understood less as desirable traits and more as the force that forms, shapes and marks us throughout life and become more striking as we age – as evidenced in the lines of our face and in our personality. As we age we are actualising a unique image we’re born with, marked as much by the cosmology of the world at the time of our birth, as it is by inherited traits and afflictions of family and culture.

We can understand then how it is that astrologers envision the influence of the cosmos upon our nature. Our birth itself is an event compelled by all the prior events of the cosmos. Each birth an expression of the circumstances of both family and tribe and the far-reaching motion of the planets and stars. Modern science, psychology and theology narrows the understanding of birth influence to that of genetics, childhood or original sin, but those explanations can’t account for the full range, motion and depths of character, and our unique drive and expression.

Robert Fludd’s An Astrologer Casting a Horoscope 1617

Character is qualitative and keeps us a little off, never quite normal – just a type or statistic. Just as the earth wobbles, imperfectly round, eccentrically circling the sun in a not quite 360 degree revolution, the force of character compels each of us, as perfectly imperfect.

Character’s inescapable force guarantees no particular moral outcome and is both a blessing and a curse. Hillman stresses the importance of seeing aesthetics before morality; not because morality does not matter, but because it’s not enough. To look only at morality launches us into the duality of assigning values of right and wrong, tempting us to summarily dismiss the ungraspable or misunderstood nature of ourselves. An ethical evaluation of character leaves out the important truth; that all of us have faulty, frail, vulnerable, flawed, shadowy aspects to our character. The compassion that leads to love comes to us primarily through our own inescapable vulnerabilities.

“Character forces me to encounter each event in my peculiar style. It forces me to differ. I walk through life oddly. No one else walks as I do, and this is my courage, my dignity, my integrity, my morality, and my ruin.”

Failings, sufferings, afflictions can then be seen as breakdowns that lead to a loosening of the armor of idealism and perfectionist tendencies we accumulate in youth. It is through aging that character begins to gather in us a lasting expression of our place and time. What lasts and finally moves us into the realm of ancestors is an amalgamated, complex image, layered with a lifetime of becoming, that places us too in the realm of myth for all who would know us and for those who come after.

“The plots that entangle our souls and draw forth our characters are the great myths. That is why we need a sense of myth and knowledge of different myths to gain insight into our epic struggles, our misalliances, and our tragedies. Myths show the imaginative structures inside our messes, and our human characters can locate themselves against the background of the characters of myth.”

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” Helen Keller

All quotes except where noted, Hillman, James (2012-11-07). The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

JANUARY CHALLENGE… My Awakening Experience And Moving Forward

Here is my contribution to Barbara Franken‘s January Challenge series.

This is a story in which the right kind of trouble unexpectedly brings a gift.

From an early age, I struggled to feel a sense of belonging and identity. As a child I loved play-acting and imagining what it might be like to be a bear, a dog, a fox, or an orphan, a prisoner or conductor. My attempts at belonging were easily expressed by play-acting where I could put on a mask and give myself over to fantasy. But when not play-acting, I felt lost, convinced that I was missing something that others must have.

According to my parents Merriam-Webster dictionary, identity was defined as the quality of being a particular thing and not some other thing. Yes, I thought, my problem has something to do with a lack of being someone in particular. As I grew older, anytime I felt that others were defining me, even when they were being complimentary, I felt alienated. How could they know something about me when I had no clue? I was a fake, and I knew it.

Years later when in my early 30’s I moved to Oregon from Long Island, New York. After a few stormy years of relationships that failed, and feeling the need for solitude to just let myself be me, I started to practice meditation.

Some months later though I started to feel strong, uncontrollable emotions and I could no longer make it through a single day without crying. This was not the kind of crying where a few tears run down your cheeks, but gut-wrenching crying that would last until I finally fell asleep exhausted.

A year later, I was ready to seek out a guide. Having a love and familiarity with the writings of C.G. Jung and James Hillman, I entered into analysis. In the course of a three-year long therapy, traveling to the depths of hell and back, I experienced a most amazing and unexpected healing.

Not that I went from 0 to 250 in an instant. There was plenty of work to be done. Exploring my dreams, memories and relationships led me to see that I was filtering my experience through a very cloudy lens. There was a series of recognitions that came from therapy that both broadened my view and opened me up to not be afraid of an ongoing increase in that opening.

Many insights began to come into view, including a painful recognition that how I understood myself, others and the events of my life needed a revisioning. But with that came a recognition that nothing could happen without seeing how tightly I held on to a view of the past and present which bled into the future. Even if there are objective facts about my life that get to tell the story their way, what I needed was a story that made room for all the longings I ever knew and how to live with and through their power over me. That meant looking fear right in the face and learning how to talk back, and most importantly, learning to talk at all.

Seeing a deficiency in my use of language was a huge part of the work and it still is today. A love of words and language allows for an ongoing stream of ideas leading to new ways to experience and understand all that life has to offer. And for me, learning to open up to deeper levels of myself and others eventually led to the following life-changing experience.

One morning, much later in the therapy, upon waking from an emotional dream, I felt an intense burning and buzzing at the base of my spine. I sat up in bed, and felt what can only be described as an electric shock shooting up my spine into my head. I thought I might die it was so intense, but it only lasted a few seconds. I knew that something very big had happened. Over the course of the next few years, I began to feel different, physically, emotionally and intellectually. I felt tremendous healing as I slowly began to live closer and truer to matters of the heart.

It is as if now I am now more like a hollow reed where before I was a lead stick. It’s difficult to describe, but I continue to feel a sense of opening, enfolding, better able to love and be loved. And especially to belong – in my body, in my family, and in the entirety of this big, beautiful and crazy world.

There’s not freedom from suffering but to suffer as love does when it lives on in spite of the relentless longings. Feelings flow, moving through me without resistance. If I could bottle the experience, I gladly would and give it away. I am most grateful for feeling a sense of renewal.

Surprisingly, the one thing I thought I was missing; having an identity, I now know I never needed.

Next up in the series is one of my wonderful sisters in blogging, Linda – http://lindalitebeing.wordpress.com

The Unveiling

Perhaps we moderns no longer see ourselves as living under the influence of myths or belief systems. Whatever their source, they no longer serve us because any belief we subscribe to does not necessarily come to us through the culture of our familiars. More than any other period in history, we have become fractionalized as our awareness of the big menu of ideas, belief systems and cultures increases. Even the beliefs we first experience through the childhood lens of family and small communities of fellow believers are contaminated, if not corrupted, as we venture forth into adulthood where we discover a bigger world of competing beliefs.

Perhaps the act of choosing our beliefs rather than adopting what is handed down to us causes some of us to lose the inclination to sign up for any structured system of beliefs, especially as it has become increasingly evident that all communities are susceptible to the failings of their all-too-human members. Modern communication tells all and every belief system is at risk now of being de-mythologized. Even in looking for something to believe in, we find the only way to sustain our true-believer status comes at the price of excluding other beliefs, even of people who we love and respect as rational beings like ourselves.

File:The Caxton Celebration - William Caxton showing specimens of his printing to King Edward IV and his Queen.jpgOr, maybe we can no longer “believe,” because our exposure to competing beliefs leaves us with the belief (ironically) that any belief system is man-made, constructed, and so we come to acknowledge the fantastical nature of all sets of ideas which drives us to conclude that the only viable search for truth left for us moderns is one we have come to call reality. Secular, if not down right atheist, we will not be fooled again, or so we believe.

In pondering this idea of reality, I have wondered why we moderns seem to be so much under its spell. What do we mean when we make reference to reality, declaring something to be real (or not), and how is it that this modern usage came into being? What new shift in our experience does it reflect?

Reality as a belief, perhaps brings us to the ultimate supposition that there is one true background to all that exists, and paradoxically seems to show us that we live amid a multiplicity of perspectives, but at the same time insist, either that one of them is true, or perhaps something grander, that an as yet to be known truth does in fact exist. This now makes sense to me – to see our notion of reality as that which refers to the Whole, a sense that there is an undivided nature of all that was, is and will be.

File:Motorway (7858495690).jpgHow did we get here, to this point where we now experience ourselves as separated parts that make up a whole? We might agree that what has changed is our ability to both relocate and communicate at the speed of light and to any geographical distance, either physically or virtually, through the technology of travel and telecommunications. We no longer live in small localized communities that stay together generation upon generation, because we are not as confined and limited as were previous generations. We now have the means to move, in varying degrees, through both physical travel and the use of the internet to anywhere around the globe. As both the speed and frequency in which we move increases, perhaps so does our sense of separation from others and from the past. Especially in Western cultures, our independence reinforces the notion that we are separate, forging our own paths and no longer bound to a collective set of beliefs or the past.

Recently, I have been entertaining that notion that in order to restore the feeling of belonging and caring more for each other and for earth our home, we need a new myth. Some of us can see that it is a common mythology that holds a culture together. Only in our modern, historical, non-mythological culture could we think it possible that if we could just find the right myth all will be well – returning us to a paradise we imagine was once there.  Our de-mythologized state may be what allows us to entertain a notion like that but as well curses us with a mythology that says there is no myth, only reality! That is our myth, that there is a reality, even if we don’t feel ourselves to belong to it. Totally unreal! 🙂

File:Ottheinrich Folio296r Rev13.jpgWhat is it then that we need? Perhaps the historical perspective needs its grand finale, transforming us out of its myth of progress, and at last freeing us from the sins of the fathers.

I would guess, that the more we try to power our way out of the current global storm, the stormier it will get. If something must die, and it’s not a literal dying, what is it?

Maybe all that is left is to see is that there will never be an escape from myth. We are myth makers, and whether we call it reality, fantasy, science or religion, we are bound and contained, limited ultimately by our sense of who we are. The more we try to and need to define ourselves, the more caught we’ll be. If we are not who we think we are, then who are we?

If You Could Read My Mind

“Whatever is not being said is not being thought…and if it’s not being thought it is lost, and it is just those things that are lost that we need.” Michael Meade

Somewhere in my late teens, I began to struggle daily for that feeling of peace and belonging I was sure everyone else must have. But more than that it felt as if I were losing the sense of the familiar in the day-to-day of living, including the natural ability to use language. People would talk to me and all I could hear were the sounds. Yes, it was scary. People Talking Clip Art

It came and went over the course of a few years, ebbing and waning during the period of my life where the sense of my identity seemed most fragile. The experience changed my relationship to language. It was as if the location of my awareness had slipped far beneath the surface where language was once readily available – and in order to feel at ease with language I had to learn to translate non-verbal awareness into words.

This sensation of perceiving from some deeper non-verbal place of awareness, remains with me to this day and in some ways still hampers, or at least slows, both my ability to write and to speak. I am an incredibly slow writer, and editing is most of the work. Reading back what I’ve written invites the chance to refine what is being said, forever reaching down into the well in the hopes of bringing to the surface what seems hidden.

But along with the practice of writing, what continues to bridge the verbal and the non-verbal world is the practice of reading.  It is through developing the skills of language that a renewed understanding of the nature of the world and a broadening of the sense of what is possible is continually enhanced.

IMG_20130824_091312_984During my struggles with language, I picked up one of my favorite childhood books, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and started there. It took a couple of months until reading felt seamless again, and it renewed in me a curiosity for ideas and knowledge that have not left me since.

Reading set me on a quest to want to know everything about anything. How did we get here? Where are we? What are we? Why do we have a level of abstraction that seems far beyond what is necessary for survival?

Perhaps the reason we talk is the same reason that birds sing. Auntie and Uncle 1663

But all language, by its very nature constricts, defines and narrows. All language comes through the context of the writer or speaker. Language can never, by itself, say all that the world is. And yet, without it, how diminished our world would be!

Perhaps that is why we keep on talking, writing, reading, to ourselves and to each other. We never quite get around to saying exactly what we meant to say. There’s always more ways to say more.

And that is why by myself, I will never be enough, but need you, dear reader, dear fellow writer. Our language may never be quite the same, but when we get close enough to rub shoulders, feeling touched, we know we are not alone.

“In a castle dark or a fortress strong
With chains upon my feet
You know that ghost is me
And I will never be set free
As long as I’m a ghost that you can’t see” Gordon Lightfoot

Religion, re-organized

I hear it said by many today, that spirituality is the important thing, religion not so much. I take this to mean that some people have come to prefer not belonging to a particular church, even though spirituality remains an important part of their life. Sometimes people tell me religion is an obstacle to God. If you ask me, being human is the biggest obstacle to encountering God, as well as to encountering each other and sometimes even oneself.

I don’t know how the cultural history of the of the word “religion” led to its popular meaning today of “blind and boring ritual that has nothing to do with God”, but you often hear the profession “I am spiritual, not religious.” The root, “religere,” meaning to bind, is a fitting way to describe what happens to the heart smitten by God or anything that comes to hold power over us. If my religion binds me to God or anything else, is it the binding itself that is too hard to bear? Even with greater than ever freedom, we moderns often suffer from a decreased capacity to bind, commit to, and especially to stay the course. We move, change jobs and partners more often than any generation in the past.

Perhaps it is so that many people who have had a gripping encounter with transcendence are disappointed when the church experience fails to deliver to them any sort of connection to God, to others, or even to oneself. Having had several transcendent encounters with the invisibles, ancestral and angelic, it never occurred to me to view church and spirituality as mutually exclusive or inclusive locations to meet up with unseen entities.

I have attended church in the hopes of encountering God. More often than not, the only encounter I have is with myself, my thoughts, feelings, hopes and worries wherever they happen to be that day. But there is an encounter in church that seems to require the confines of sensual structure; the building, the people, and our increased reception to what enters into us both physically and mentally because of the particularity of place, time and otherness.

People outside church may also be similarly engaged, but the people in church; those at Mass who are there for the ritual, believe they will encounter the risen Christ. They are there to absorb the essence of God – body, blood and spirit – into themselves in the hopes of transforming their imperfections, weaknesses, and human frailty.

The church then is a container of sorts, in the same way that marriage, family or friendship is. There is something happening in us when we are contained. A relationship is constellated between the members that shapes meaning and purpose for each of us, and a shared identity between us. Parts of others that enter inside us inhabit us like furniture inspiring us with ideas and emotion. Over the course of our lives these relationships are a part of what transforms us.

There’s really no guarantee that those who still choose to go to a particular church with a ritual practice are necessarily doing so for a deeper transcendent relationship with a higher power. They may very well be in a blind stupor, endlessly repeating meaningless ritual because they are comfortable sheep in need of a shepherd.

Scan from Mystery of the Golden Flower by C. G. Jung

For those outside of traditional religious practice it may seem unnecessary, restrictive, blind and unoriginal to organize one’s practice institutionally among a flock or herd. Although I have left as many churches as I have joined, it is bittersweet to me that none of these practices have stuck. The religious urge remains, as Jung noted,

“You can take away a man’s gods, but only to give him others in return.”