Over the last few weeks, I’ve been voraciously reading the books of internationally known Jungian analyst and psychiatrist Jean Shinoda-Bolen. My introduction to the work of this tremendously insightful woman came by way of my good friend J. (who’s been the source of most of the resources that have hugely impacted my life one way or another this past decade). The sheer usefulness of the material Dr. Bolen presents has made me refer her writings to my closest friends—few books, in my opinion, manage to combine academic lucidity with existential practicality as much as hers do.
As a brief introduction, Dr. Bolen is what people in her field would refer to as an archetypal psychologist. The concept of the psychological archetype was developed and popularized by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Simply put, archetypes are universal and instinctive patterns of thought and behavior that human beings—regardless of culture, race and religion—share. They account for the similarities in the images and symbols found in the world’s art, literature and mythology as well as in the dreams of individual human beings. Dr. Bolen’s presentation of the universal archetypes draws from the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology—a choice I speculate was driven by the familiarity of this particular pantheon of divinities to the world at large.
One of the major assertions that Dr. Bolen makes throughout her books is that although more than a dozen archetypes exist (represented by seven goddesses and eight gods), the culture that has flourished the most spectacularly over the last two millennia has valued only a fraction—or specific fragments—of these archetypes while denigrating, suppressing or merely tolerating the rest.*
For example, the prevailing culture overwhelmingly tends to favor patterns of thought and behavior that exhibit the ambitious drive of Zeus, the disciplined logic of Apollo, the communicative facility of Hermes, the cool rationalism of Athena and the creative passion of Aphrodite. It does not, however, prize the raw emotionalism of Poseidon, the brooding introversion of Hades, the brute physicality of Ares, the quiet craftsmanship of Hephaestus, the intense mysticism of Dionysius, the withdrawn centeredness of Hestia or the psychic impressionability of Persephone.
These cultural values and disvalues are deeply embedded and expressed in our present society’s educational systems, labor markets and recreational media, manifesting themselves in ways that we’ve all personally experienced one way or another: You have to put yourself “out there” to succeed. You’ve got to be a people person. You’ve got to know what you want to do or be early in this life. Learn to think with your head and not your heart. It’s a dog-eat-dog world. You’re not going to make any money being an artist/painter/writer. Why can’t you get a normal, nine-to-five job? They also manifest themselves in our global society’s implicit and overwhelming preference for clarity, control, domination, expansion, growth, light, linearity, order, organization, perfection, progress, reason and results—and a concomitant anxiety and unease over brokenness, chaos, darkness, death, mystery, nothingness, opacity, regression, stagnation, stillness and uncertainty.
People born with the favored archetypal energies generally have it easier in life: who they fundamentally are finds validation in culture and society (the Zeus archetypes literally rule the world, the Apollos and Athenas serve as their right hand men and women, and the Hermeses do their collective bidding). People who are not born with the valued archetypes come into life with a serious handicap: if their sense of self is strong enough to endure the disfavor, they will still have to deal with the practical consequences of their authenticity; if their sense of self is weak, they will have to deal with a lifetime of insecurity and maladjustment.**
The bottom line is: it’s vitally important that this understanding of the diverse and innate ways of being in and relating to the world becomes popular knowledge. The consequences of continued and widespread ignorance are simply colossal: on the one hand, millions of people languish everyday in the quiet suppression or extermination of their spirit; on the other hand, the untrammeled valuation of ambition, logic and rationalism has only led to the excesses of capitalist greed, global warfare and ecological destruction. We have to literally re-examine our values and come to an appreciation of why a diversity of energies exists in the first place. We have to understand that the archetypes we were each born with have vital roles to play and meaningful contributions to make. This is not just about insisting on a right to be who we are for the sake of a defiant authenticity alone—it is for the collective sanity of a world in desperate need of balance.
The fact of the matter is, the state of society today reflects the accumulated consequences of thousands of years of mainstreaming an elect set of human archetypes while devaluing, sidelining or suppressing the rest. While much of this mainstreaming was admittedly generated by the sheer momentum of blind history, history is no longer as blind today: human beings are becoming increasingly aware—and with this awareness comes the capacity to choose. The more challenging task that remains is developing the courage to choose wisely.
* Why these particular values came to be favored, and how this particular culture—the Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian culture—came to be the dominant one is a long and involved discussion that requires a separate series of blog posts altogether.
** In a blog post I wrote two days ago, I described—without mentioning the archetypes—how my innate Hestia/Hades/Poseidon energies have generally incurred the disapproval of friends and acquaintances. Fortunately, I have enough Artemis/Apollo/Hermes qualities to compensate for these “flaws.”