The Passing of a Soul Tender

James Hillman, the founder of imaginal psychology, died on October 27th of last year.

His work was provocative, explosive, relentless, and complex. Far beyond any mere summary I could offer here. He didn’t just contribute to the field of psychology – “contribute” is far too mild a term for his life’s work. He turned the field on its head. He pushed constantly to expand psychology’s standard ideas about psyche and fiercely challenged the very foundation of psychotherapy. He pushed downward into the juice and dirt of our pathologies and outward beyond our skin, an arbitrary boundary between us and the world, he said.

He is the reason I use the term “soul” in the name of this blog and not something airy and transcendent like “spirit.” He is the reason the sun in my logo is black and not bright yellow. It wasn’t that Hillman idealized our suffering – in fact, he railed against people’s tendency to frame suffering as a doorway to growth. The idea of working through suffering to get to some more positive way of being beyond it was, to him, to miss the particular wholeness and aliveness, the full embodiment, of the suffering itself. Sound masochistic? It does seem that way, I think, unless you have read some of his writing. And even if you have read his writing, it might still seem, well, a little over-the-top in its insistent call to allow ourselves to BE in our dark places.

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Our emotional distress and agony IS aliveness. It is our truth in times of difficulty. If we attempt to bypass it or amputate it, we deny our experience, similar to denying a broken bone. At the same time, it’s a particular variety of aliveness we absolutely do not like. Our automatic tendency is often to skip it or numb it or try to get to the other side of it as fast as possible. To not marinate in the dark long enough. And understandably so. It hurts. It can be terrifying. It can feel overwhelming and endless.

But being in it and feeling it all the way through – not dodging it, not numbing it – changes us. Yes, as much as Hillman would criticize me for saying so, we grow from it. It’s not happy, sunny growth but a radical expansion and deepening of who we are and our resiliency. We go from being 2-D to 3-D.

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Easy to say, yes, but hard to do. When I find myself in one of those difficult times, whatever its cause, I can still (still!) forget how to BE in it – I can start thrashing about, gnashing my teeth, feeling hopeless, discouraged, alone, spinning my emotional wheels, mindlessly agonizing. For me, this is not really being in it. The churning and despairing is a way of trying to avoid it and hoping to find a way out. It can still take me a while sometimes to realize I am doing that. Then I start to remember: I can let myself be in the yucky feelings. I remember that I can take care of myself while the feelings move through and that I can be curious about what’s happening. I remember that I have others who I can trust to be there with me. And – how can I not sound cliché’ here? – I remember that this is part of what it means to be alive and that letting that life flow and pulse will give me deeper, stronger roots. It is the only way to be me, all of me.

I think that’s key for all of us: learning, not just logically but viscerally, that we really can let ourselves be in difficult experiences and feel difficult emotions and that we’ll be not just okay but that we’ll be more authentic, resilient. That isn’t something many of us learned or saw examples of growing up. We often have to learn as adults how to allow big emotions in. We have to learn, in times of strong emotion, to be true to our experience and give ourselves what we need, whether it’s playing sad music or going for a walk. We have to learn to find other people (and that we need other people) who can be with us, who won’t rush us through it or turn away.

These things are crucial in navigating the dark times in your life – knowing how to let yourself BE in them, knowing how to give yourself what you need in the midst of them, and knowing how to turn to others for help. It is utterly astounding how often we are not able, for a variety of reasons, to do these things.

And I think we spend our entire lives learning again and again how to do them.

© Amanda Norcross and Learning to Listen to Soul, 2012.

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4 Responses to The Passing of a Soul Tender

  1. jcnorcross123@aol.com says:

    Imagine where Lennon’s mind was when he composed “IMAGINE”

    • I’ve always liked that song and stop to listen to it anytime I hear it. Although I suspect Hillman wouldn’t believe in the possibility of Lennon’s utopian vision, Lennon did, like Hillman, passionately urge us toward a different way of seeing. And I value ANYONE who does that. We too easily get trapped into believing that all we see is all that there is or all that can ever be, whether it’s emotions or life circumstances or global circumstances or anything else. We need ALL of the passionate ones who stir us and open our eyes and shake us up and call to us to see and believe something more. Because that’s where it starts. And I don’t know that I would have thought of it in this broader way without your comment – thanks for posting it!

  2. I so appreciate your writing about Hillman, about the darkness. And the WAY you write about the darkness. Yes. Yes. Yes. That’s what I have to say, my dark friend…

    • I’ve been wanting to write something about Hillman since he died – his perspective has affected me so much, and I felt the loss of his voice when I heard of his passing and I still feel it. He always insisted on showing us the many aspects of soul we didn’t want to or couldn’t see.

      Thank you for your response, Candyce. I am always delighted and newly inspired when others feel the same richness in exploring the darkness.

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