Actually I will not be seventy-two until June of this year, but I have always imagined I turn a year older on the first of January. I mention this because I am thinking about growing old this morning. Why you ask? Well a couple of weeks ago a friend sent myself, and a mutual friend, a suggestion. She suggested that we submit an idea for TEDx Philadelphia talks. When I got the email, I remember appreciating that she thought I might have something to say, but I did not prepare a submission. Then last Thursday morning, as I sat down in my office and prepared to work, I realized something needed to be done, but I could not put my finger on what it was. On my desk there is always a pile of notes I keep to remind me of things to do. I started rummaging through the pile and came upon the one to submit an idea for TEDx Philadelphia. I went to the website and discovered this was the last day to submit for the 2014 talks in Philadelphia. I do have an unconscious that pays attention to details, even if I do not!
I immediately called my friend, who like me, had forgotten about the deadline. Then I set to work to find a subject for TEDx Philadelphia that others might find interesting. I thought of “ensemble storytelling”. I am in the middle of producing a storytelling concert to be presented at the Mercer Museum here in Doylestown in three weeks. I thought about my stories from Carl Jung’s, The Red Book. This new performance will be ready to perform this spring. I rejected these subjects, not because they were not interesting, but I intuitively sensed there was something bigger, more important in my life. I remembered the decision made seven years ago when I turned sixty-five: I would focus on stories for the last third of my life. Many of these stories have already been shared in this blog. But is there a quintessential story that represent my experience of, or hoped for experience, of my last years on this earth?
Please bear with me while I switch gears and do a little reasoned thinking before I invite an intuitive answer to this question. A good part of my past seven years have been spent thinking about and telling stories from the life of Grandfather Jung. From the many lessons he has taught me, I think the most important for my present stage in life is the lesson about “wholeness”. Jung is not the first or last sage to suggest this mirror to reflect upon our time on earth. He shares the idea in his discussion of the concept of “individuation”. What is individuation? For me it is about understanding who I am, not who I want to be, or who others want me to be. The Jungian analyst, June Singer, in her book, Boundaries of the Soul, says it a little differently, “the individuation process is an opus contra naturam; it is a struggle against the natural, haphazard way of living in which we simply respond to the demands made upon us by the circumstances of our environment.”
This focus on individuation is important not just for old people like myself who are trying to discover fulfillment at the end of life. It is important for young people who need to guide their lives based not on someone else’s idea of who they are and who they should become, but on their own sense of being. Life never works out the way we plan it. Few of us become who we set out to be. But, if we take responsibility and live consciously aware of the unconscious, we can become who we are meant to be and discover a sense of wholeness in our life.
Back to stories for the last third of life and creating a TEDx Philadelphia talk for the spring of 2014: what story does my intuition suggest that I tell? It is a story that has been shared already on these pages, Becoming Whole, my blog from December 29, 2010. When this story came to the forefront of my conscious mind in the process of writing this blog, I did not remember the title, or the fact that it had already been shared on these pages. I just felt this story best told who I am today, and what I hope to become more in the time left to me. Here is the story so that you do not have to scroll back in time…
Once upon a time, not so long ago, there lived a man who was not so different from you and I; well, that is if you are over sixty-five with graying hair, wrinkles and an ample belly. The man in our story lived a good life. He had a wife, a true partner for life. He had children and grandchildren who loved him. He had a fine home and enough wealth to be comfortable. He was a respected member of his community and he gave generously of his time and wealth to those who had less than himself. By all observable measures of a human life, he should have been happy; and he was happy, but in some way, some how, there was some thing missing from his life.
One day the man decided it was time to consider this question of the thing that was missing from his life. Slowly he started to make changes. He found a way to work less at earning a living. He took time to sit quietly and listen to the music that stirred his heart. Contemplation replaced action in his daily life. Slowly, ever so slowly, he began to explore the eternal questions that humans have considered since the beginning of human consciousness: Who am I? Why was I put on this earth? What will happen to me when I die?
One night the man had this dream. He sat on a great rock by the side of a flowing river. He saw that the water sparkled with every color of the rainbow. As he contemplated the beautiful water, he heard the sound of a walking stick: a tap, tap, tapping on the rock as a someone approached him. As the tapping came closer he heard the rustling of a long satin cloak and he smelled a sweet aromatic mix of saffron, nard, cinnamon and callamas that seemed to come from the Garden of Eden. The man did not turn his head from the flowing river.
“Peace be upon you” said the visitor.
“And upon you the same”, said the man.
“Do you know who I am”, inquired the visitor to his dream.
The man pondered until these words came to his dream mind…he is the one who turns the thoughts of God to humans and the thoughts of humans to God… he answered, “yes, you are Elijah the prophet, the one who intercedes between God and humans.”
“You are right”, said the visitor, “I am Elijah, and I have been sent here for a very special reason. God has heard the questions on your heart and in your mind. Because you have lived a life of love for family and your fellow humans less fortunate than yourself, you will be granted the answer to one question. What question is most in need of an answer?”
The man thought of the questions he had considered in his time of contemplation…Who am I? Am I simply human, or is there a spark of the divine in me? Why was I put on this earth? Is there something I am still to do in my life? And what happens to me when I die? He could not decide which question was most important. The man sighed as he considered which question was most important.
The prophet Elijah smiled kindly as he considered the man’s dilemma. Finally, the he spoke again, “I can see that this is a difficult decision, one not easily made. Think about it for some time. I will return another night to your dreams”.
Then the man heard the rustling of the long satin cloak as Elijah rose to go. He heard the tap, tap, tapping of the walking stick going off into the distance. But the smell, like a mix of all of the scents in the Garden of Eden, seemed to linger in the bedroom after the man woke from his dream. In the early morning light he lay in bed still pondering the questions.
Now the man and his good wife had a habit of sharing dreams when they woke each morning. As they lay together that early morning the man told his wife of his dream. Eagerly he asked her advise on which question he should ask the prophet Elijah.
“Do not worry my wonderful husband”, said the wife, “all will be for the best. The day is before us. Our grandchildren are coming for a visit. Let’s share our precious time with them in play and enjoying a good meal. Questions of the night can wait until the night returns”. So the man and his wife gave themselves over to the events of the day and neither thought for one moment on the question for the prophet Elijah.
That night while the man was brushing his teeth before going to bed, his wife came to him and she whispered in his ear. He smiled and said, “What a treasure I have in you! That is exactly the question to ask. You have found the perfect way to phrase it; now, if only I can remember it when I have fallen asleep”. As he lay in bed waiting for sleep to come, the man repeated the question over and over.
And, it was not long before he found himself by the stream of water again, and seated on the same great rock. He watched the beautiful, splashing water that shone with every color of the rainbow. And he again heard the tap, tap, tapping of the walking stick on the rock. There was the rustling of the long, satin cloak; and then, finally there was the smell like every scent in all of the Garden of Eden. And Elijah the prophet came and sat down next to him again.
“Peace be upon you”, said the prophet.
“And upon you the same”, said the man.
For a long period of dream-time, the man and the prophet sat beside the beautiful flowing river. Then the prophet Elijah spoke , “well, now it is time. I can grant only one question. Which will it be?”
The man hesitated for a moment. He took a deep breath and he remembered in his dream world the words of his wise wife, “Is it possible, that is, may God grant, can you please tell me the story of my life: who am I, and why was I put on this earth, and what will happen when I die? If it pleases God, can you tell me the whole story of my life?”
For a moment, all was silent except for beautiful flowing water. Then Elijah threw back his head and began to laugh and laugh. He said: “I can see that you managed to get all of your questions into one! I’ll bet that God is enjoying this just as much as I am. And I am certain that God will see to it that the whole of your life will be revealed to you.”
The man smiled as he heard the rustling of the satin robe and the tap, tap, tapping of the walking stick going off into the distance. But the smell like every scent in the Garden of Eden, that sweet smell lingered long after the man awoke in the early morning light from his dream.
It is said that after Elijah’s visit, the man never lost the scent of the Garden of Eden, that sweet aromatic mix of saffron, nard, cinnamon and callamas; and he never lost his passion to understand, to live and to tell the whole story of his life. May the prophet Elijah visit your dreams this very night to hear your question for God… Peace be upon you.
I have always thought of myself as the son of a steelworker from Pennsylvania. This means that I am practical. I know how to work with my hands. I deal well with the mundane things of life. I like my home, good food, a drink or two, and someone who enjoys a good conversation. I also like to control the events in my life, to maintain my sense of place and order. To balance this workaday side of being, I am intrigued by the spiritual side of human nature. I explore the expressions of non-rational reality, particularly as they are expressed in different spiritual traditions. For me the writings of Carl Jung are less about science, a school of psychology, and more about a world view, a way of living the life we have been given to live on this earth. And I appreciate that my creative expression grows out of disorder and a willingness to not control everything in my life. Wholeness is about honoring these different expressions that exist in us all.
And as I run deeper into the last third of my life, I ponder the reality of death. Is it simply a cessation of all that is Ray Gray when I stop breathing? Or, are there other realities to be experienced after death? This past summer I found myself drawn to sitting in the back yard at night and looking up to the stars. I imagined that when I die, I will rise into the heavens and become part of the universe. So at the age of almost seventy-two, I contemplate being more than becoming, and I search further for the understanding that will allow me to be whole.
This brings me back to the beginning of this essay and the potential to present for TEDx Philadelphia. Regardless of the outcome, I thank my friend who instigated the process, and my unconscious for reminding me to follow up on it. And I do like that nearly forgotten story, and I will think about how it fits into my work in other ways.