A QUEST FOR UNDERSTANDING, NOT ANSWERS

We presented our storytelling concert at the Mercer Museum in Doylestown one week ago. The past few days have given me a chance to reflect on the work and receive responses from performers as well as people who were part of the audience. The storytellers were great and the audience response has demonstrated the appeal of adult storytelling in our community. There is more work to do in building this audience, but now it is time to turn my attention back to the “Red Book” stories and a performance of them sometime in May.

Yesterday I had lunch with my good friend, Bill Mettler, to talk about this new work. I had shared the script for my Red Book stories and we met at the Trolley Car Diner in Chestnut Hill to go over his criticism of the work. Bill, like myself, is a professional storyteller. We first met at the National Storytelling Festival in 1978. So for thirty-four years we have supported each others storytelling: discussing new work, attending the performances, and celebrating the successes and failures of it all.

I was not surprised when my friend started his criticism of my stories with a reference to the Myers-Briggs personality types: “these stories are too focused on ideas, too much thinking, not enough feeling”. Now how can I resent a criticism that comes directly from Grandfather Jung’s concept of psychological types? And he is right, I do create stories that explore ideas and thinking more than the feeling side of human experiences –that’s who I am. My criticism of his stories is often that his stories are too touchy-feely for me. Nevertheless, I will take his criticism and reread the script with his thoughts in mind -or should I say in my heart.

So what are the ideas that I am exploring in the Red Book stories? I suggest that they have something to do with the search for human wisdom. Jung explored an understanding of human wisdom in many ways. One way is his idea of “soul”. The idea of soul is explored through what Jung called, “active imagination”; that is, giving life to an idea through a story. Here is a story that I have created based on Jung’s, The Red Book.

It was a starless and cold winter’s night that I came upon a frozen cart track in a forest. With only the rut in the earth to guide my way, I struggled until I came upon a light in the distance. This light drew me to the door of an old, rather small castle in what I imagined as the center of the forest. I knocked on the door and waited. Snow started to fall and I felt the chill of the night. Shivering from the cold, again I knocked and waited. Finally the door opened and I was greeted by a manservant dressed as in a time long past.

            The servant asked, “What is your need”.

            I said, “a night’s lodging if it please the master of the castle”.

            Without a word more, he led me through a dark vestibule and up a set of worn stairs to a large hall-like room with  white walls and sparse furnishing. It was poorly lighted by several candles.  From this high ceiling room I followed the man into a smaller room furnished with proper chairs and wall hangings, but also  poorly lighted. The servant knocked at a door and opened it. He did not speak, but motioned for me to enter.

            I did as he directed  and found myself entering a study. The walls were lined with books and in the center of the room there was a large desk. An old man, wearing the long black robe of a scholar, was seated behind it. He was busy writing on a parchment that I could not properly see.

            The scholar’s shoulders were rounded and bent forward from long years of work at his desk. The thought occurred to me that he was a man who had literally been squashed by the weight of  his knowledge.

            For a long time I stood silent. The man seemed intent on his writing and did not look up to me. Finally, he paused in his writing and spoke without meeting my eyes, “what do you want?”

            Uneasy with his cold greeting, I hesitated to consider my response. Nervously I fidgeted about on my feet, then spoke, “If it pleases you kind sir, a night’s lodging away from the cold and snow of the forest.”

            The man did not respond, but went back to his writing for some time. Finally,  he looked up from his work and said, “You are still here. There is a room down the hallway. Now be gone”.

            I must tell you that I lingered a moment longer as I both wished to engage this scholar in conversation; and at the same time, I pondered the unpleasant reality that I might sit in his chair some day.

            Finally I turned to the servant who led the way down a dark hallway to a small room. When he opened the door, I saw a room with the same plain, white walls and a large bed. There was single candle to light this room. The servant nodded without a word for me to enter. He did not follow me. Quietly he closed the door behind me and I heard his footsteps retreating down the hallway.

            I was exhausted from my journey through the forest and the night’s chill had penetrated the old castle’s walls. I undressed partially and climbed into the bed without extinguishing the candle for fear of the dark. I might have expected to quickly fall fast asleep after my trek through the woods, but somehow I felt a new energy as I lay in the bed. My mind contemplated the peculiar path that led me to this strange lodging for the night. I pondered the scholarly owner who most likely remained in his study, deep in thought about one esoteric idea or another. No one else seemed to be living in the castle, except for his near mute servant. I must say that I felt a small attraction to this spartan ideal of the scholar with his books sequestered alone to carry forward some great work of science or philosophy.

            Then another thought came to me, and it shifted the focus of my ruminations. “What if this old man has a beautiful daughter? What if he has locked her in this old castle to keep her safe from the ardor of a man like myself?”

             Immediately I called to mind the hounds I released in beginning this adventure. A flood of ideas began spinning around inside of me until I stopped and said to myself, “These thoughts are proper for no more than a fairytale romance… yet, I feel impotent to elevate them. Perhaps I am meant to follow their lead, no matter how banal”.

            So it was that my mind raced forward again to complete my tawdry tale for a lonely soul. I imagine the old scholar’s daughter as blond, pale of color, and with blue eyes, with a slim stature, though ample in all feminine proportions”. “Surely”, I thought, “she is now in the hallway and about to knock at my door before entering.”

            Again, I attempted to reign in this hackneyed nonsense: “It is time for me to sleep if tomorrow I am to continue my spiritual journey in search of a soul….but wait, what is that I hear? Is it the sound of footsteps outside my door? Yes, I feel a chill as if  the door to my room has opened and allowed the air of the castle hallway to enter. No, this is the workings of an over developed imagination!”

            I refused to turn on my side in the bed to look at the door. “I simply must sleep”, I said to myself as I firmly closed my eyes.

            Machinations of the night, whether exploring sexual fantasies or the deepest spiritual yearnings, have an energy of their own, and the borders between madness and clear understanding are often crossed.

            So it was that night that I raised myself up and opened my eyes. At the foot of the bed there stood a vision of feminine beauty in the flickering candle light. My mouth agape, I cried out, “My God, are you the ghost of one long dead, or a figment of my sexual fantasies?”

            She answered in return, “You think me common, a character of pulp fiction that you read from the lending library?

            I answered in turn, “I both do and do not, but mostly I believe you are real, and in some way, part of my journey in search of a soul.”

            Again she responded in an even voice, “Your words give me life. Remember the fairytale romance is the great mother of all human stories, and the wisdom you seek will as likely be found in the hackneyed and banal of every day life, as in the books of the scholar’s study.

As I pondered the words of this most uncommon vision, my eyes turned to the light of the candle. For a while I sat upright in bed as if mesmerized by the light, when I turned back to pursue this intimate conversation with the feminine aspect of my soul, she was gone from the room.*

Jung’s active imagination, or story, shares an understanding of soul, as opposed to him giving an explanation, or an answer to the question: what is the human soul?

I will admit this appeals to me because my business is telling stories, but more important  is the distinction between “understanding” and “answer”. Answers determine an outcome while understanding allows for new and diverse perceptions. Understanding is a mirror that reflects wisdom. It does not define or explain wisdom. This allows each individual to discover her, or his, own wisdom.

So getting back to my dear friend, Bill Mettler, I will accept that my stories are more about ideas and thinking, but  I do not claim any importance for thinking over feeling, it is just a different way to discover the wisdom we are seeking in this life we have been given to live.

*I like to think, and I am fairly certain that the version of  this story in, The Red Book,  predates the explanation of the concept of “anima/animus” in Carl Jung’s academic writings.

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