How Do We Grow?


imagesA hunger to understand the forces that aided my psycho-spiritual growth has dogged me since I first wrote about the inner life 27 years ago. Intuitively, I structured my first book, The Bridge to Wholeness: A Feminine Alternative to the Hero Myth, around stories of painful early experiences that had influenced my life. That’s when I realized it wasn’t my intellect or will power or idealism or good intentions or good behavior or following the rules or listening to sermons or heeding other peoples’ advice that instigated my growth. It was my painful experiences. 

These were experiences I couldn’t forget because they made a powerful impression on me, created difficult questions, internal conflict, fear, self-doubt and suffering. Like, why did Daddy divorce Mama and then die?  Was it because he was bad and God punished him?  Why did the Lone Ranger shoot me in my dream at the age of 10? Why was Ken mean to me in high school? Why did I get so angry at my fiancé for fearing for my safety and wanting to protect me? Was I selfish? Insensitive? Cruel?

We all experience things like this. It’s just the way the world is, the way the human psyche is structured.

To live oneself means: to be one’s own task. Never say that it is a pleasure to live oneself. It will be no joy but a long suffering, since you must become your own creator. ~Carl Jung, The Red Book, Page 249.

Painful experiences create painful emotions. Painful emotions create conflicts. Pain and conflict are notices that something isn’t working, and opportunities to try something different. Even though everything we’ve ever learned has convinced us that there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. Even though we know we are perfectly justified in being the way we are. Even though it’s so wrong and unfair we just want to forget it. Pain and conflict make us realize we can keep making the same old choices or make a new choice.  It’s our choice.

Adult suffering is caused by many things: physical pain, financial deprivation, illness, accidents, fear, self-hatred, regret;  bad memories, bad parenting, bad habits, bad luck, bad experiences, bad mistakes;  conflicting thoughts, painful emotions, a mind too rigid and closed, a mind too open and easily influenced; loyalty to old belief systems combined with fear of questioning them and risking something new; losses, betrayals, temptations; and any manner of other things. But whatever the cause of suffering and whatever else it may be, suffering is also a wake-up call from our unconscious asking us to pay attention, know that we have choices, and take action.

14918779_1402325989807599_6359112785560545926_oWhen we’ve had enough of suffering and summoned the courage to do something good for ourselves instead of waiting for something or someone to remove our suffering for us, we see an array of choices. We can change our partners, doctors, teachers, churches, addictions, bodies, lifestyle, home, job. Unfortunately, if our choices originate in fear of criticism or abandonment, anger, blame, self-hatred, self-pity, stubborn self-righteousness, or a refusal to take responsibility for our lives, they will take us from bad to worse. Fortunately, we can also choose to stop ignoring and despising our suffering and do something constructive to address it. Something like conducting our own research, reading a book, taking a class, committing to a practice, writing…anything we’re drawn to that brings insights about who we really are and why.

If you always do the next thing that needs to be done, you will go most safely and sure-footedly along the path prescribed by your unconscious. ~Carl Jung, Letters Vol. I, Pages 132-133.

But without the right motivation, choice and action are still not enough. Our action has to come from an honest recognition that we can’t do it alone any more. We need help. And it has to come from a humble attitude that sincerely wants and asks for help. Furthermore, our asking has to come from an attitude of surrender for the sake of love. Finally, we have to stay open and mindful enough to notice help when it arrives. It can come from anywhere: an experience that brings us to our knees.  A dream that frightens and fascinates us.  A new teacher or opportunity. A mind-blowing synchronicity between inner and outer events. A chance comment from a family member or friend. And when help comes and we know in our gut that it is beneficial and true, we have to trust our instincts, jump on board, seize it with all our being, and hang on for dear life.

This is a process with which I’m intimately familiar. Although the insights I’ve gained from studying and using Carl Jung’s practices have changed my life, I’m not just parroting his theories. What I know to be true for me is based on personal experience. Somehow in the middle of my life I started taking my life seriously. Somehow I sensed that my suffering and self-absorption, painful and humiliating as they were, had a healing purpose. Somehow I tolerated the tension of staying with it. Somehow I know others can too.

Whenever we’re led out of normalcy into sacred, open space, it’s going to feel like suffering, because it is letting go of what we’re used to. This is always painful at some level. But part of us has to die if we are ever to grow larger (John 12:24). If we’re not willing to let go and die to our small, false self, we won’t enter into any new or sacred space. Fr. Richard Rohr. From his online meditation, Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2016.

Bon voyage.

Image credits:  Growth:  Wikimedia Commons. Jung Quote: Thanks to Lewis LaFontaine.

Jean Raffa’s The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Amazon. E-book versions are also at KoboBarnes And Noble and Smashwords. Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications, Inc.

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16 Responses

  1. Stupendous as always! I have found this to be true in my own experience. At midlife I took a huge Uturn due to two dreams and an off hand comment from a friend with whom I shared one of those dreams! Eternally grateful….

    1. Thank you for letting me know you relate to this post. How very cool that two dreams and a comment from your friend were all it took to turn your life around! You must have been seriously ready! I certainly was.

  2. Jean, I’ve been meaning to say this with every post you write: thank you, thank you for being open and vulnerable with your feelings and for sharing them with us. I learn something (or am reminded) every time I read your latest digest. Just as important, you are keeping Jung’s discoveries alive. I remember how freeing it was to read this from Jung: “To this day God is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions and change the course of my life for better or worse.” It helped me view “the upsets” as potentially meaningful. But as you say so eloquently in your post, the time has come for each of us to carry our own cross, to take responsibilty for our own suffering. You are showing us how.

    1. Oh my, Diane. Thank you. Your warm words fill me with gratitude and the rare sense of being seen and appreciated for who I am and what I’m trying to do with my life. That means so very much, as you surely know, having allowed yourself to be equally vulnerable in your extraordinary book, The Unseen Partner. I thank you in return for keeping Jung’s discoveries alive in your work as well. Carrying our own crosses, i.e. taking responsibility for our own suffering, and doing it with love…or at least trying…is surely the message Jesus meant to convey. I’ll be forever grateful to Jung for showing us how to do this. It is an honor to bear that torch forward in our time. We are in such need of it. Again, thank you.

  3. Thank you Jeanie so much – a powerful post. Commitment to feeling our experiences, bearing our own cross and the surrender to that. I remember many years ago being very badly burned by steam on my right wrist while cooking something on the stove. I HAD to move on – there were pressing things that needed my immediate attention (it’s a long story so I’ll just give the bones of it). While I was waiting in the car later on wondering how in hell I was ever going to bear this, I also wondered how those being tortured would ever be able to withstand the pain. What went through their minds? What was it that they withstood their pain if they could? Did they surrender to that – the pain? Should I just surrender to it? I did, and the pain was GONE. I will never forget this … a true miracle …
    Thank you for the powerful quotes. I loved Jung’s one that Diane Croft posted.

    1. What a great story, Susan. So your experience taught you the same thing: There’s extraordinary power in surrender. Conventional wisdom sees surrender as losing, i.e. as opposed to winning. To lose control of a situation is seen as a terrible failure. Your amazing story highlights a paradox that our ego finds so very difficult to comprehend: the struggle to stay in control and press on regardless only increases our suffering. Surrender to “what is” brings the “real solution.” Thank you for providing a wonderful example of this basic truth.

  4. I only have a few childhood memories that aren’t painful. The exceptions were being deeply moved by the sacred power of nature as a five-year-old–at the Grand Canyon and at sunset in the Painted Desert. Otherwise, I mostly remember difficulties, loss, disappointment, humiliation, and fear. The grief around my dad’s illness and death began when I was under three years and molded much of who I am and what I believe. Thank you for that great Jung quote about knowing the next step. Thank you, too, for your thoughts about asking for and accepting help.
    Jeanie, it’s clear you aren’t just parroting Jung. You have these teachings in your heart and bones.

    1. As I contemplated your comment that you have few childhood memories that aren’t painful, at first I felt so sorry for you. But after more thought, I realized I don’t either! This is a new awareness for me.
      I mean I know without a doubt that I was loved and can recall happy memories when I put my mind to it. In most of them I’m with my father, in a few with my mother, and in many I’m simply alone with plenty of time for enjoying imaginative play and nature. What I’m realizing from this is that although I rarely think of these and other good experiences, they aren’t gone. They simply sank into my unconscious because I didn’t need them. And why didn’t I need them? Because over the years, they merged together and created a strong foundation of trust and comfort and love. And the coolest thing I’m realizing as I write this is that this solid core of good experiences and feelings has provided me (my ego) with the strength and courage to address the painful ones that still need to be healed.
      Thank you for saying just the right things in your comment to bring me to this realization, Elaine. And thank you for your heart-warming closing lines.

      1. Jeanie, I needed a modifying sentence after that first bold statement. I meant memories under five years old. And now I remember another positive moment when I was 4 1/2 and met my first puppy Amigo. I even remember the song being played: “Vio con Dios.” My first sentence was misleading. No need to feel sorry for me (as you quickly realized). I was never mistreated or purposefully hurt by someone close. I had grandparents and cousins, good food and a warm home with parents who loved me. I had a good life in so many ways, but earliest memories are often of disappointment or isolation or fear about what was happening to Daddy. So maybe my job is to seek out the earliest positive memories. I’m going through my mother’s photos and found images of my parents before my dad got sick. They were happy. Audio-visual aids for remembering the positive. I love where you’ve gone with my comment–to solidity, strength, courage, and a sturdy ego. Wonderful.

  5. Thanks for the explanation, Elaine. It makes sense. In my child development courses I was taught that our basic personality is formed in the first five years of life, when our egos are emerging from the maternal matrix and being shaped by experience. Without realizing it, children automatically begin to favor one pole or the other of basic attitudes like trust vs. skepticism, scarcity vs. plenty, security vs. insecurity, etc. and these underlay our later-life issues. Inner archaeology—sifting through the pictures, stories and memories of our earliest years—is the job of anyone who wants to keep growing.

  6. “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” – Friedrich Nietzsche … But from chaos comes order as Entropy Theory teaches us… I think that there is something trascendent and admirable in the fact of being able to make it through, against all odds. ( Resilience! ) Great reading!!!!!! 😉

    1. Thanks, Aquileana. I appreciate the visit and the comment. Yes, as Rudyard Kipling said in the poem “If”: “If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you; If you can meet with triumph and disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same;….. etc. Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
      And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”
      I received a graduation card from 12th grade with the poem “If” for girls, and kept it forever. Excellent advice. And also great reading!!!

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