By Jim Moyers, MA, MFT

Part V


In many traditonal tales, the hero is the youngest and seemingly least promising of several brothers.  He appears to be a simple fool predestined to fail at everything he does.  His ambitions are ridiculed by everyone.  Still, willingly or unwillingly, loved or rejected, for reasons good and bad, like so many other young men before him, he sets out to do the best he can.

Movement from the familiar into the unknown activates a dynamic, archetypally based constellation of opposites.  On one side is the desire for a familiar, secure place where one unquestionably belongs, the rules are known, and basic needs are always provided for.  On the other side is the drive towards self-sufficient independence.  Many men find coming to terms with these seeming mutually exclusive needs difficult, especially when confronted with the fact of their dependence.  Having been told countless times that "real men always stand tall on their own two feet," proud in their ability to go it alone, boys and men come to believe that radical independence is an indispensable quality of manhood, and judge anything less in themselves as failure.

At the seemingly opposite end of the spectrum from the man who fiercely resists all attempts to limit his freedom, yet so closely linked as to often be manifest in the same man, is the man who is apparently incapable of doing anything on his own.  Seemingly lacking a life force of his own, his very existence seems to depend on his ability to link to some external source of vitality.  While the connection can be to anything or anyone, more often than not the object of his dependence will be some representative of the all nurturing, all engulfing Great Mother, a figure both longed for and bitterly hated, often at one and the same time.

In actuality, the man who habitually denies the fact of his dependency has no more escaped from the clutches of the Great Mother than has the man who repeatedly flees from the threat of independence back into her arms.  The aggressive misogynist fears that, if he relaxes his guard, he will be swallowed up by her.  For the passively dependent man, the realm of the Father seems to threaten destruction should he venture out of the Mother's protective, suffocating embrace.  Neither man knows the wholeness of the embrace in which both parents, and their domains, join to become one.

The Great Mother is, in developmental terms, the omnipotent caregiver of early childhood upon whom the helpless infant is utterly dependent.  She devotes herself totally to the child who as yet lacks the ability to either care for himself or effectively resist her.  In turn, his attention centers on her as his literal source of life.  In a healthy maternal-child pair, the relationship of helpless child and all powerful mother is gradually modified as the child becomes more able to care for himself.

Every child, as it grows, both rebels against maternal dependency and longs to return to the time when mother could magically make everything right.  While both sexes experience this conflict as a generalized ambivalence towards women, the traditional and all too insistent definition of men as beings radically distinct from the feminine virtually guarantees that there will be some degree of confusion, some mixture of longing and fear, love and hate, in a man's every encounter with women.  The man who avoids women due to the mysterious and terrible anxiety he experiences in their presence, the man who dares not openly oppose his mother or wife, and the man who violently dominates women to prove himself a man, all alike make the mistake of confusing flesh and blood women with the archetypal Great Mother.

Schizophrenia, a serious mental disorder characterized by dissolution of ego, the sense of a personal self, in the sea of the unconscious, often offers direct glimpses into the archetypal patterns underlying human behavior.  I have known a number of adult men afflicted by schizophrenia whose symbiotic relationship with their mothers strikingly resembled that of the Great Mother and her son-lover.  Every step, no matter how minor, taken by the son away from the chronically dependent state to which his mental illness had seemingly sentenced him was met by a countermove in the mother-son relationship.  Usually the net result was a worsening of the son's condition with his dependent status becoming all the more firmly fixed.

Schizophrenia often produces a seeming permanent disintegration of the self, precluding the possibility of an effectual engagement with life.  In effect and timing, if not cause, schizophrenia can be viewed as a catastrophic derailment of the process of leaving home.  Typically it first becomes apparent during late adolescence or early adulthood, a time when most people in our culture establish a life apart from that of their family of origin.

While the development of schizophrenia involves a biological predisposition, individuals lacking such an inherent proclivity sometimes experience a similar less severe disintegration of self when subjected to extreme stress.  Almost everyone has at some time experienced a sudden sense of vulnerability, intense anxiety, distorted sensory perceptions, or disorientation in response to some unexpected event or stress.  Most people quickly regain their equilibrium as the crisis passes.  But persistent and severe trauma, as experienced by abused children or in battlefield and disaster conditions, can result in long lasting, gross distortions of reality.  Extreme gaps between experience and expectations, such as are sometimes encountered in moving suddenly from a sheltered environment out into the world, can seriously disrupt one's ability to function.

The psyche is basically conservative - rather than changing beliefs it prefers to bend perceptions to fit preconceptions.  The resulting distortions range from the relatively minor to full-blown psychosis.  The potential for recovery from psychic disintegration of any degree and, beyond mere recovery, integration of the experience into an expanded awareness is directly related to one's willingness to challenge the psyche's conservative bent.  Acknowledging how little we actually know makes space for those parts of reality that, for better or worse, do not neatly fit our preconceived notions.  Only as we are willing to examine and, if need be, change our beliefs can we learn from our failures to be as expected, the disasters that defeat our every effort to avoid them, and the successes that often come when least expected.  And when we open to the possibility, we find that there is somewhere deep within ourselves, in the midst of all the confusion, vaguely distant, yet near and familiar, a powerful resource ready and able to help if we will only let it.

As he left the forest for parts unknown, the boy in the Grimm's tale seemed to be utterly alone, with no means whatsoever for directing his course in the world.  But somewhere, hidden and perhaps even forgotten for the time being, he took with him the promise of Iron Hans’ help should he ever need it.  At the tale's end, everything that belonged to Iron Hans, all of his immense strength, wealth, and wisdom, would be the boy's.  But that was too far distant to be at all apparent when the boy was sent out on his own into the world.  The process of internalization,  the work of taking in and making our own what we value in others, is a lengthy one.  The boy had a long, very hard road to follow before he could be a worthy heir to his mentor.

So far the boy's adventures had brought him nothing but trouble.  In only a few days, the royal child had been reduced to a homeless wanderer.  He had managed to lose even the perhaps dubious privilege of living in the forest with the wild man.  Totally alone in a world about which he knew nothing, the boy's future seemed anything but promising.

There are times in life when it is hard to avoid the belief that we have been condemned by some terrible fate to helplessly stumble along from one disaster to another.  Lost and alone, there seems to be no way out of our hopeless situation and no one to whom we can turn for help.  St. John of the Cross, a sixteenth century Spanish mystic whose own life had more than its share of darkness, coined the term, "dark night of the soul, "to describe this sort of experience.(1)

While the dark night of the soul experience can certainly be described as depression, it is not "just depression."  At least it is not the sort of depression that readily yields to treatment based on the idea that such dark feelings are the result of cognitive errors that can be remedied through behavior modification techniques. Detailed objective examination, as is done in cognitive behavioral psychotherapy, of habitual thought patterns and behaviors as reinforcers of depression can, in fact, be quite useful.  But the difficult existential questions that are encountered in the dark depths of depression demand and deserve recognition in their own right.

At first glance depression might seem to be more of a problem for women than men, with the reported incidence of major depression for women about twice that of men.  But social expectations and stereotypes make it more difficult for men to admit to being depressed.  Men are supposed to be in control rather than be controlled.  A man lost in a dark mood he can neither understand nor change, unable to take charge of himself much less anyone or anything else, is apt to be regarded by both himself and others as a poor excuse for a man. Male depression often remains hidden with even the affected man unaware of his condition.

A major characteristic of depression is an overwhelming sense of utter helplessness.  From the perspective of a seriously depressed individual, there may seem to be absolutely no way to make things better.  John of the Cross recognized this in his description of the dark night in which the soul is "purged from all help, consolation, and natural apprehension with respect to all things."(2)  As in the spiritual dark night, there may be little a depressed individual can do beyond acknowledging the fact of the terrible mood that seems to have swallowed him or her up.

Recognizing that one is in the grip of a mood greater than one's willful self creates the possibility for establishing a relationship with it, of following it down into the darkness to find out where it comes from and where it might lead.  In such surrender there is more than an element of faith that something greater than one's personal self is in charge of the process, directing it towards an eventual emergence of meaning from what seems to be utter meaninglessness.

Surrender as a positive act is a difficult concept to grasp in our culture, especially for a man.  After all, how many mythic heroes are so honored because they surrendered?  To give up, to acknowledge  a power greater than himself supposedly diminishes a man.  But recognition of one's limits is often the first step towards regaining control, and is in fact the first of the famous Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

When things are not going well, the psyche naturally tends to withdraw from the world.  The low energy and subdued mood associated with depression force a time out from normal activities.  Socially we recognize this in allowing a period of mourning, during which one is not expected to be as usual, to those who have experienced the death of a loved one.   And at the core of depression, whether recognized or not, there is very often a loss of some kind.

Sometimes the loss and its connection to the depression is clear.  However, things that cannot be seen or touched, but are nonetheless very real, can also be lost.  When the loss is of something intangible, recognition of the fact of the loss, not to mention its resolution, is much more difficult.  This is especially true when the loss involves an aspect of one's self, something that, even in the best of circumstances, is usually more than a little vague.

Despite his almost total ignorance of his origins or identity, Parzival before his exposure as a failure gave little thought to who he was.  As do many men, he apparently assumed that he was more or less what he did.  But then he was denounced as a knightly fraud.  Suddenly everything that he had done, all that he had thought himself to be, became empty and meaningless.  Prior to his encounter with the wild man, the boy in our story was a royal child whose every wish was undoubtedly a command for a multitude of people whose duty it was to serve him.  But away from his father's palace, alone in a world which had no regard for him, he was a total nobody.

Depression that follows the collapse of core beliefs about oneself and the world can be a long time in healing.  After his disgraceful exist from the Court of Arthur, Parzival spent five years aimlessly wandering through "the Waste Land of his own disoriented life ,"(3) letting his horse, a representative of the instinctual life force that carries us onward even when we have no idea of which way to turn and no will to continue, take him wherever it wanted.  Traveling at random "over paths beaten and unbeaten," the exiled hero of the Grimm's story learned well "what it is to be poor" in spirits as well as material goods.  At last he came to a city where he hoped to find some means for changing his so far dismal luck.

For as long as there have been stories, the tale has been told of the youth who sets out for some distant place anticipating a better life there.  And almost as often, the story tells of shattered dreams as the young man becomes just one more unknown, lost soul awash in a sea of uncaring strangers.  In such an impersonal, perhaps even hostile world one can easily go astray, losing sight of his ideals and even his identity.  In the biblical story, the Prodigal Son, having wasted all his inheritance, became a keeper of pigs, a most shameful occupation for a Jewish man.  "The Hymn of the Pearl,"  a beautiful Gnostic poem about as old as the parable of the Prodigal Son, tells of a young prince who set out from the house of his parents to seek "The One Pearl."  But, alone in an alien land, he forgot both his mission and his royal origins.  

So the wandering boy in "Iron Hans"  came into town in a most un-princely situation.  As a child in his father's palace, assured of having his every need met, he had no reason for acquiring practical skills.  But alone in a place where he was just another stranger down on his luck, no one wanted to take on such a useless boy as him.  Finally he made his way to the palace of the king who ruled the city.  Luckily for the boy, he was likable.  As Iron Hans said, there was no wickedness in his heart, and his naiveté helped win over the people he approached at the palace. He was given a menial position in the palace kitchen.  So the prince, once destined to rule a kingdom, became a cook's boy, his real identity lost and hidden from everyone, including apparently even himself.

Many a young man has coasted along under the impression that everything he wants will come to him without the need for effort on his part only to be, much to his surprise, brought face to face with the necessity of making his own way in the world.  He discovers too late that there is a most distressing gap between his expectations and reality, especially in what seems to be the shocking indifference of the world to him and his dreams.

Somewhere along the road to manhood, sometime during the course of his initiation (whatever the form it takes), every boy will be faced with the necessity of compromising his dreams as he finds that neither himself nor the world is quite as expected.  Of the infinite number of possibilities that seem to be just over the horizon in childhood, only a very few become adult realities, and fewer still realize anything like their full potential.  Maturation is in part a process of disillusionment in the discovery of the difference between life as imagined and life as lived.

While dreams often fall victim to the struggle for survival, some individuals settle into a position well below their actual abilities as a way to protect their golden fantasies. Attempted realization of a dream entails the possible loss of both the dream and the potential it holds.  So long as grand plans and dreams remain pristine, un-compromised by concessions to unyielding actualities, they can live on as possibilities which may someday, somehow come true.  But one can cling to hopes of "someday" for a whole lifetime.

Little boys often play at being superheroes, complete with mask and cape concealing their real identity.  Although they might be reluctant to admit to such "childish nonsense," many grown men continue to imagine themselves in such a role.  Like Superman/Clark Kent, a man may split his life into inner and outer, heroic fantasy and mundane reality, with an impenetrable barrier erected between the two parts of himself.  Such a life, split into halves that are carefully kept apart and even secret from each another, is not a life to be envied.  Each half is misunderstood and neither, without the other, can ever be whole.

The man whose specialness, the unique possibility he has to offer the world by simple virtue of being who he is, is hidden by fears that he cannot live up to his fantasized potential is caught in a double bind.  He is secretly proud of what he might be, but at the same time is ashamed of his impossibly grandiose visions.  He fears exposure while longing for someone who will recognize and activate his hidden potential.  Driven to conceal his true self, his secret hope that someone will someday penetrate his disguise may never be unfulfilled.

The prince-become-a-cook's-boy continued to hide his golden hair, the mark of his shameful failure at the spring, keeping his head covered even when he came into the royal presence.  Given what happened later in the story, had the boy removed his hat as the king demanded, it would have been clear to all that he was no mere servant.  But, like the man who habitually counters every compliment with a recitation of his faults, the boy kept his beautiful hair hidden with the excuse that he suffered from a terrible scalp condition too repulsive to be exposed to view.  His real identity still a secret, the boy was declared by the outraged king to be unfit for royal service.  But people again took pity on him.  Instead of being thrown out of the palace entirely, he was banished to the garden, there to await discovery by someone who would be neither satisfied with his explanation nor put off by what he appeared to be.

GO TO PART VI: Of Golden Hair, Wildflowers, and Foolishness


(1) John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, E. Allison Peers (trans. & ed)  (Garden City, NY:  Image, 1959).

(2) ibid. p. 122

(3)Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God, Vol. IV:  Creative Mythology (New York:  Penguin, 1976), p. 460.

©1999 James C. Moyers




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