Finding the Gold in the Iron
Making the Inner Marriage
Lori Green, July 11, 2018
Astonishingly, the cat could still move—astonishing because the cat was severed in two. Riveted, I confirmed with my eyes what my bare skin sensed: the ticklish rub of a grey tiger feline walking in figure-eight patterns around my ankles. I was horrified, but she did not appear the least bit agitated. In fact, she seemed to simply want my attention. Back and forth, back and forth she went. The images of the dream began to swirl as I realized that the scene was both real and not real. A feline messenger from my psyche had put me on notice: it was time to tend to the sensual life. As she traced the patterns of infinity, this courageous animal—instinctual and clearly a survivor—was paradoxically revealing both her timelessness and her need of me. Her midsection was cut in profile, so I could easily see her guts, frozen yet not cold. Her pink innards were contained, but there was no vital blood flow; the life force was static. Miraculously, she continued to function, but not in her wholeness. This premier symbol of sensuality and independence was giving voice to a part of me deep within, injured but still alive and seeking healing and union. And she arrived within days of my meeting the man who is now my second husband.
I was married for seventeen years to an alcoholic. Our life was not always turbulent. In fact, the searing truth is that I loved him deeply and we shared many happy times. But as my own unquenchable curiosity about the life of my soul took center stage in my consciousness, my former husband turned to liquor to deal with both the shifting dynamics between us and the initiatory call of his own life that he had thus far refused. An acute pain links the awakening soul with the ending of a marriage, for one cannot go back to how things were. When, through a transcendent moment of grace, a light is cast in the depths of the psyche, one cannot un-see what one has seen. I had perfected the twisted art of emotional contortion in my sincere efforts to keep the toxic marriage alive. But life was not having it anymore; it “saved” me in the form of my husband’s infidelity and unthinkable betrayal. Redemption can arrive in the ugliest forms; fairy tales reveal this motif time and again. But the archetypal framing of these events helps me continue to heal, for though my soul is breathing more easily, my ego took a big hit. From a depth psychological perspective, a marriage is not only a dynamic story of two but also a mirror of the innermost soul workings of one, a journey of the disparate parts of one’s self seeking integration, finding their way home. If I have learned anything about marriage it is this: the greatest legacy I can offer my outer marriage is soulful, abiding attention to my inner union.
The Caged Panther
In discovering the potential of my inferior function, extraverted sensation (Se), I began to strengthen my animus. After the cat dream, my wounded animus showed up again in the form of another magnificent cat: a caged panther. Deep in graduate studies, I read the poem by Rainer Maria Rilke titled “The Panther: In the Jardin des Plantes, Paris”:
The passing of the bars fatigues his gaze
so much, that it can hold no more.
To him, it is as if each bar were a maze
that led to another, and another barred door.
The quiet pacing of strong and supple limbs
that turn around the very smallest sphere
is like a dance of power around the rims
of circles, that hold a great will numb in there. (Rilke, as cited in Polikoff, p. 310)
By the time I read this, though my outer circumstances had greatly improved, I was nevertheless in my nigredo time, that period of chaotic confrontation with one’s darkness and unlived life, which takes as long as it takes. Reflecting back on the end of my first marriage, I knew when the nigredo phase had begun. Lying on my side in bed, in broad daylight, I was staring out the window at the distant mountains, like the panther in his cage, when my husband came striding into the room. He halted, tensing at what he saw, knowing he could no longer avoid the cost of recent revelations of his behavior. He lay down beside me and attempted to put his arm around me. I stiffened, curling tighter into a fetal position. And then from a voice that was not my own came words I had no awareness of speaking: “Something’s dying.” The voice was not referring to the marriage; in effect, it was already over. The voice was also not referring to my drunken husband being pulled over by a cop with another woman in his vehicle while I waited with our children for him to arrive at a Christmas party. The voice came from a place both ancient and familiar, a place that had not made its presence known in quite a while. It was the voice of my soul, announcing ashes and shadow.
I was both transfixed and oddly comforted to learn that the great Rilke had endured a similar darkness. Poet and translator Daniel Joseph Polikoff (2011) portrayed a time when Rilke was creatively frozen, disillusioned with the manner in which he had thus far approached his art. A fortunate mentoring by sculptor Auguste Rodin assisted the mercurial Rilke as he embraced an entirely new movement in his work: honoring the dignity of the object. The highly sensate Rodin challenged Rilke to go to the Jardin des Plantes and intensely observe the animals, the “thing” itself. The result was “The Panther”—and an entirely new phase of Rilke’s poetry. While I cannot speak to Rilke’s psychological type, in connecting with the foreign nature of my own Se inferior function, I sensed the tremendous value in this exercise.
What seized me the first time I read “The Panther” was, ironically, not the aching, caged containment but the life pacing to break free, the wild current in the spaces between the bars, the electricity beginning to spark deep within my own being:
Only seldom does the pupil’s curtain slide
Soundlessly up—. Then an image enters,
ripples through the tensely stilled stride
and ceases where the rhythm centers. (Rilke, as cited in Polikoff, p. 310)
I wanted to scream a guttural war cry. It was time to know the agency that had been quietly gathering, and it became increasingly clear I would need the otherworldly assistance of my inferior Se to do so.
It seemed the perfect storm was brewing. My awakening animus and my underdeveloped Se were in need of guidance. As synchronicity would have it, I picked up a copy of storyteller and poet Robert Bly’s Iron John: A Book About Men (1990/2004). Though I had read it years before, the folktale’s wisdom leapt off the page anew, feeding a wary, yet hungry sojourner, my neglected animus. In immersing myself in the story of “Iron John,” I discovered that a man needs to both seek his feminine side and form a connection with his wild nature. “Iron John” speaks to the latter. I realized that the folktale held a similar message for me: I was a woman on such a mission. In addressing the classical Jungian definition of animus, analyst and author Clarissa Pinkola Estes (1995) revealed that “the revivifying source in women is not masculine and alien to her, but feminine and familiar” (p. 310), but she nevertheless believes the animus concept to have import. Estes said,
Animus can best be understood as a force that assists women in acting in their own behalf in the outer world. Animus helps a woman put forth her specific and feminine inner thoughts and feelings in concrete ways—emotionally, sexually, financially, creatively, and otherwise—rather than in a construct that patterns itself after a culturally imposed standard of masculine development in any given culture. (p. 310)
The animus is an essential “bringer and bridger,” said Estes (1995); “he is like a merchant of soul” (p. 310). Thus, an engagement with “Iron John” provides men and women alike the opportunity to relate to a robust animus not often embraced in the culture, an animus in service to the feminine along her path to unity, the ultimate marriage.
As I read Bly’s exploration of eight distinct phases of the masculine journey, I readily came to see the stark contrast between the animus models I had historically experienced and the vibrant, engaged animus that could be. And as I continued to digest this remarkable tale, three salient points struck close to home: reclaiming the golden ball, tending the wild garden, and establishing inner sovereignty. As the young boy matured in the story of Iron John, so did my growing animus sensibility.
There was, once upon a time, a King, who had near his castle an enormous forest, in which wild animals of all sorts lived. One day he dispatched a hunter into those woods to take a deer, but the hunter did not return. “Something went wrong out there,” said the King. (“Iron John” cited by Bly, p. 250)
Reclaiming the Golden Ball: The Audacity of Play
From the outset the tale points to the untamed part of the interior life. The king keeps losing hunters in a remote area. Even he is at a loss about how to proceed—until an intrepid young man arrives saying that this is just the sort of adventure he seeks. The man loses his dog to the cause but discovers a wild, hairy man living at the bottom of a lake. After a posse of men drain the lake and capture the savage now referred to as Iron John, the king’s curious eight-year-old son, playing in the palace courtyard, loses his golden ball as it rolls into Iron John’s cage. A conversation begins, and two things are certain: the ball will only be returned when Iron John is set free, and the key to his cage has been deposited under the queen’s pillow. Bly (1990/2004) referenced Jung as saying the psyche likes to make deals. He added, “Conversing with the Wild Man is not talking about bliss or mind or spirit or ‘higher consciousness,’ but about something wet, dark, and low—what James Hillman would call ‘soul’” (p. 9). There comes a time when one has to gather the enterprise to strike out on one’s own, free of the niceties of acculturated parenting, or in regard to type development, the preferred functions.
My superior function of introverted intuition (Ni) often “know[s] what is needed or should be done before others start to contemplate the ideas” (Shumate, 2017, p. 8). Additionally, my auxiliary function of extraverted feeling (Fe) helps me to interact with others “so as to accomplish goals that serve the best interests of all concerned” (p. 25). Ni and Fe assisted me as a kid in cluing in to my parents’ and younger brother’s moods, but the shadow aspect of these type gifts is that I was frequently in the adult role. For example, I remember how the kitchen telephone would ring and my mom, jaw clenched and rolling her eyes, would refuse to answer it because she “knew” it was my grandma. Feeling guilty, Mom would then vent to me about her frustrations with her own mother. Even though I was only eight years old, my strong Ni/Fe combination partially understood what my mom was talking about, but these adult exchanges kept me from simply running outside to play. I was often such a good listener, being the Dear Abby for my family, that I think I began to actually mistrust play because there were no familial rewards associated with it. My family did not need me to play; rather they needed me to hear them and provide a sounding board. This reinforced an identity that was rooted in both Ni and Fe, but as one enters adulthood, an exaggerated reliance on the preferred functions is insufficient. Those with Se in the inferior position “may find a creative outlet in artistic endeavors” (Shumate, p. 6), and my inferior function, extraverted sensation (Se), began to emerge when,at midlife, I wanted to give expression to my artistic side. An artist must play in order to create, and must be allowed the space and time to “fail” without worrying about everyone else’s feelings. This is the golden ball I had lost long ago when my eight-year-old self exchanged her sense of autonomy and play for the greater demands of the family’s emotional comfort. Play time still feels indulgent, an activity I should only do when everyone else’s needs are met, which is never.
Illustrative of my determination to work my extraverted sensory muscle and revel in pleasure, four years ago at Christmas I ran off to Ireland to marry my second husband, with only my children in tow. My family of origin felt betrayed. During my divorce I had needed their support, and I think they grew accustomed to having me “in the fold” once again. Moreover, my fiancé felt foreign to my rural Wyoming folks. He had backpacked a year in Europe, regularly shouted “Hey, Freaky!” in lieu of “hello,” and proudly declared himself an artist. Marrying abroad was not about my parents, and I felt I had done my part by inviting them to the wedding. Rather, I needed to reclaim my privacy and establish my new family, and neither my husband nor I had ever been to Ireland. Indeed, our intention for launching our life together was to boldly embrace new territory. Entering the Se atmosphere of sensory wonder—amber rays piercing the ancient, black chamber of Newgrange on the Winter Solstice, rosy-cheeked carolers on cobble-stoned Grafton Street, pelting December rain, dark molasses plum pudding—I felt positively victorious. Reclaiming my golden ball fed my imagination. And with my free-spirited spouse leading by example, I began to open up, referring to baristas and other such occasional “strangers” by name, spending over an hour savoring a meal, and playing Mexican train dominoes with my daughter. Ireland was essential to my well being and to my awakening animus that was now in the business of negotiating the choices of a life well-lived for me.
Tending the Wild Garden: The Writer’s Life
The boy, who really did want his ball back, threw caution to the winds, went into the castle and got the key. The cage door was not easy to open and the boy pinched his finger. When the door stood open, the Wild Man walked through it, gave the boy the golden ball, and hurried away. The boy suddenly felt great fear. He shouted and cried out after him, “Wild Man, if you go away, they will beat me!” The Wild Man wheeled around, lifted the boy onto his shoulders, and walked with brisk steps into the forest. (“Iron John,” as cited in Bly, p. 251)
Regarding touchiness and wounding, Marie-Louise von Franz (1971/2006) said, “The inferior function and the sore spot are absolutely connected” (p. 15). The synergy created as a result of the innocent and wild parts of the psyche joining forces is pivotal. In type terminology, both the promise and the unknowns of the fourth function have declared themselves. Even in all the confusion, and while the boy might not be consciously aware of the psychological shift, the wound inflicted by the escape is far less dangerous to the boy at this juncture than his remaining with his parents. Iron John, the wild psyche, has both communicated with and kept his promise to the boy; the lad has suddenly questioned the shelter of the known, and the choice to discover the unknown is made. Iron John tells the boy that though he will never see his mother and father again, he, Iron John, will watch over him and he has more treasure than anyone else in the world.
While one does not disregard the other functions when the inferior position awakens, the center of gravity nonetheless shifts. Von Franz (1971/2006) put it this way: “The inferior function is the ever-bleeding wound of the conscious personality, but through it the unconscious can always come in and so enlarge consciousness and bring forth a new attitude” (p. 68). The boy’s world is thoroughly remade. He is growing in agency. Not only has he gone against civilized influences and stolen the key but he has also struck out for wild territory, leaving both parents behind. The psyche requires boldness at times, and Bly (1990/2004) summed it up best when he said, “If a son can’t steal [the key], he doesn’t deserve it” (p. 12). But stealing from the family of origin is often a fraught occasion. Reflecting on the original wound of my own upbringing, I know for certain that re-visioning an empowered view of anger as an agent for relatedness and change is essential. With Fe in my auxiliary position, I rarely present as an angry person, but I feel anger’s raw energy and accept that I have not given voice often enough to its appropriate expression.
An example of how rare it was for me to express anger as a child occurred when I was twelve and my younger brother and I were playing with neighborhood kids a few blocks away from our home. My brother’s bike started behaving erratically, and I hopped off my own bike to help out. In seeking to guide the chain back onto the spokes, I caught my finger between the spike and the metal cog. The injury immediately shot into a gushing wound. I yelled, to no one in particular, “Damn!” My brother’s eyes grew round in surprise, and he tore off in the direction of our house to tell our dad I had used a “cuss word.” I couldn’t believe it. If getting my finger caught between a metal chain and spoke wasn’t good enough occasion to curse, I didn’t know what was. But I felt afraid. And sure enough, my dad was mad. Inconceivably, he said he would have understood if I had slipped up and said “damn” with a group of friends, “But to say such a word in anger… ,” he emphasized, trailing off, not finishing his sentence. I was speechless. His argument made no sense to me. But I was powerless at that age to challenge the belief that what I had done was wrong.
This early model of animus lodged itself deep within my psyche, coloring my actions and reactions for years. Predominantly, I could tell that my dad was uncomfortable with the energy that cursing signaled: How could kind little Lori have another side? We like her better the other way. But I also internalized that it was not okay to crack the façade of the respectable family. Both of my parents had risen from poverty, and our family was to look and behave differently: We were always to appear happy. I grew to despise the fakeness of this setup, but I had to keep my emotion under wraps.
Not until I was in high school do I remember turning on my dad with what felt to me like verbal poison. My mother was out of town, and I needed to cook dinner for my dad and brother. Lost in my own thoughts about homework and all I needed to accomplish before school the next morning—I was a straight-A student, of course—my dad interrupted my inner dialogue and asked, “What’s wrong? You seem a bit pensive.” Those few words were all it took. I remember where I was standing and where he was sitting. I wheeled around and shouted, “You know what I envy about the Koch family? They might be poor, but at least they’re allowed to have a bad day and get mad at each other!” I had been wanting to scream that since the bike incident, and now it was out. An incredulous look from my father over my reaction to his innocuous question might have been in order, but he just stared back at me. He didn’t move. He didn’t retort. Some part of him knew I was addressing unfinished business. We dropped the conversation, thankfully, because I was loaded for bear had he pressed.
It takes a while to get skillful with anger, and if one is never allowed to express it, the dark trickster nature is one option for its release. I look now with overdue compassion at my “choice” in a first husband. Perhaps it wasn’t a choice at all. Perhaps I had to marry a man about to explode, a man who would unleash wreckage and public humiliation so I could start to understand the hidden value in chaos. In a sense, my original wound drove me deeper into a situation that would ultimately demand I confront my first husband’s betrayal, which was my second, profound wound. I was strong enough to face it by then, and without a doubt this dark face of the trickster continues to evolve.
Realizing I have a choice in how I wield my anger is liberating. My animus is a good guide. He is teaching me the wisdom of giving creative expression to anger first and when the occasion calls for it, speaking directly and without apology. Archetypal psychologist Keiron LeGrice (2016) illuminated the conscious animus when he stated,
A developed animus is only possible after one has made conscious and critically examined the ideas, beliefs, and opinions by which one lives and which one espouses and unconsciously entertains. When the animus is consciously differentiated from the ego, it can function as a principle of creativity and critical authority, fostering an independence of spirit and strength of ideas. (p. 56)
Ironically, my relationship with my dad is better for the “old king” energy being dead. My difficult trickster has emerged as wickedly funny numerous times. My dad and I laugh. I use swear words (worse than “damn”), and we laugh some more. My dad rarely curses; he still finds it uncomfortable. But he almost seems proud that I can and do.
Like the young man in the tale, I learned to trust my own wildness. By uniting the preferences of my dominant Ni with the growing capacity of my Se, my approach to my writing career began to honor my own pace and style. For instance, I like to work earlier in the day, with good strong coffee, and then let my intuition take over the writing as I tend to my family and home. In particular, my Ni works keenly during sleep. My husband is precisely the opposite. Both his vocation and his art require him to work with his hands, an Se trait I greatly admire, and he much prefers to follow his inspiration into the night. The point is, in maturity, after much weeding and tending to wild shoots, one eventually finds one’s way and enjoys the nature of it, allowing others to do the same.
Establishing Sovereignty: Finding the Warrior Within
“You will receive that, and more than you have asked for as well.”
The Wild Man turned then and went back into the woods, and not long afterwards, a stableboy came out of the trees leading a war-horse that blew air through its nostrils and was not easy to hold in. Running along after the horse came a large band of warriors, entirely clothed in iron, with their swords shining in the sun. … The boy and his iron band rode there at full speed, galloped on the enemy like a hurricane, and struck down every one that opposed them. (“Iron John,” as cited in Bly, p. 256)
The young man has reached the moment when his warrior nature awakens. War has come to the land, but when he requests a horse in order to join the impending battle, he is laughed off by the other men and given a lame nag. Yet he will not be deterred. The young man is now self-possessed enough to ask something of life, to call out to Iron John for help. Psychologically, not only is the young man in the folktale in a time with no father, but he is also coming in to a relationship with a new king. Bly (1990/2004) referred to this as a shift from the earthly father to finding one’s inner sovereignty: “The process of bringing the inner King back to life, when looked at inwardly, begins with attention to tiny desires—catching hints of what one really likes” (p. 112). “Tiny desires” ultimately lead to the discovery of a phoenix rising.
My experience shows that the inner warrior sneaks up in unexpected moments. In illustration, my teenage son recently needed to finish an algebra test before school. I had an early engagement as well, which I had warned him about due to the fact that I was providing his ride. He slept in. Poked around. Yawned. One of us was going to be late. I felt a palpable, mounting tension in my own being: Should I “save” him because his grade was no doubt going to be affected this late in the semester, or should I honor the sanity of my own schedule? I chose the latter. My son was incredulous: “Mom! You can’t make me walk from here! I’m going to be late for Ms. King. This is important!” “Yes, I know. Good luck creating a miracle for yourself,” I replied, grinning. My comment was absent of snark. I genuinely meant it. Feeling triumphant, I noticed the spring air swirling in through the open car windows, exploding with lilac scent (which my Se relished). I had just experienced my sword-wielding animus. He had stepped forward in good humor and made a choice that released both my son and me to our deeper resources. The school sent a letter home the following week indicating that my son would likely need to attend summer school for algebra. Like a boy possessed, my son sprang into action. He contacted his eighth-grade math teacher and started meeting with her at Perkins for pie and study sessions. In three weeks’ time, he had raised his algebra grade by ten percentage points; he passed with a solid C. I had to respect his moxie.
Shumate (2017) described a person in command of a healthy extraverted thinking (Te) function as one who “may assume a can-do attitude that makes difficult tasks seem feasible” (p. 18). Te occupies my trickster position, but whereas I once relied on subterfuge to achieve an end, I am changing this weaker pattern through conscious engagement with my animus. As I demonstrated to my son, Te in the trickster position can also “replace old rules with new ones and persuade others to comply” (Shumate, p. 20). The war horse is a vibrant example of what an evolved trickster can produce, what an awakened, battle-savvy animus can accomplish. According to Shumate (2017), Beebe has proposed that the inferior function can only be integrated if we have first accessed the trickster function (p. 39). When I became aware of my trickster capacity, my Te and Se joined forces with each other and the outcome was not only an exhilarating departure from my comfort zone but also a strategic strike from the psyche’s wisdom.
The emergence of play and creativity in my life, as well as the reclaiming of appropriate anger, has greatly assisted me in getting out of my own way. In the words of analyst and author Marion Woodman (1998),
We must first awaken to our needs, feelings and values. Then the masculine can grow up and say: I shall stand up for these needs, these feelings, these values. I shall put them out there in the world, I shall work with you in all your creativity. (p. 154)
The inner union is, indeed, the work of a lifetime. But to establish inner sovereignty, to both intimately know and rely upon such an electric, healing force is fine incentive to keep going. I have a father, a husband, a son; I wish to understand them better. And I have an inner king guiding the ways in which I will skillfully command my creative work in the world.
At present, Sly, my three-year-old cat nudges against my hip. My children brought Sly and his brother Cola home as orphaned kittens. Being a dog person until the cats’ arrival, I find them to be funny and unexpected. Cola is the silvery color of the severed cat in my long-ago dream, and Sly is, both in spirit and color, a miniature black panther, decidedly uncaged. Beebe (2004) referenced the developed superior and inferior functions as establishing a “spine of consciousness” (p. 92). The psyche not only revealed my once severed condition but also the means by which I could re-fuse: discerning, deciding, and reclaiming on my own terms. Beebe (n.d.) once explained his spine metaphor in an interview with author James Arraj:
This definition of the spine is a very real thing. … That sense of self we all have is along that mysterious axis between what we are best at and what we are worst at, which is the spine of our personality, and there is our uprightness, there is our integrity. Another way of saying this metaphorically and analogically is that a personality needs to drop anchor.
I marvel at the daily reminders I have in the wiry playfulness displayed by Cola and Sly. But the most moving realization is the knowing that while I seek the inner marriage, it is also seeking me.
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