Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Other

A friend of mine was devastated recently when his wife of thirty years left. As they met to work out the details of their separation and divorce she said to him, “If just once you had put your hands on my shoulders and asked, ‘What do you really want?’”

I was surprised. I know he’s said this and much more to her, supporting her desire to go back to school and to try different careers many times. Of course there’s a great deal I don’t know about their marriage, but her remark made me wonder- Was she really addressing the man in front of her? Who else might she be talking to? Her father? Her mother? Or was this the voice of her soul speaking to her, asking why she had never asked herself what she really wanted in the very depths of her being?

In The Eden Project Jungian analyst James Hollis writes about how we project the Magical Other onto intimate partners in the hope that they will take us to a pre-conscious, warm, fuzzy place of undifferentiated unity. Why? Because being individuals who take responsibility for ourselves, doing the necessary work to understand how our history and our wounds distort our perception, and unfolding to be all we are- while rewarding and enlivening- can be hard and sometimes painful work. We often want the other to do what we find hard to do for ourselves. They can’t. They can encourage us as we do the work of living consciously. They can get out of the way and do their own work. But they cannot do ours for us.

One of the things Hollis repeats is that we must allow the other to be wholly other, must acknowledge that each person has their own history, perception, wounds and experience and so will also have their own preferences, dreams, hopes and perspective. When I forget this I find myself trying to convince the other that the way I see things is. . . .well, if not The Way, surely a better way. But the other is not me. The other is wholly other.

Paradoxically, each other is also another myself, another tender, flawed, struggling human being who wants to love and be love, to unfold and be all they are. Holding the tension between these two truths- the knowledge that the other is both another myself and wholly other- is how we find a way to dance together. Sadly, we can spend years swinging between the dark side of exclusively seeing the other as another myself (enmeshment) and the dark side of only knowing separation (demonizing the other.) We see this not only in relationships between individuals but between groups.

A couple of days ago, I went to the town near our home to get my hair cut. It’s a small town of five thousand surrounded by farms. The best place to find out what's going on in town is at the barber shop or hair salon.

As I sat in the chair Sally, the woman cutting my hair, asked if I’d heard about the mosque coming to town. I hadn’t, and I wondered out loud if there were enough Muslims in the area to support a mosque. Sally told me that the townspeople were expecting more to move into town once the mosque was established. Apparently many were irate and trying to figure out a way to stop the mosque from being built.

“Really?” I said naively.

“Oh,” she replied, “it’s all anyone can talk about. People are so upset.”

“That’s crazy,” I said, trying to mentally sort out if this was basic racism, or religious fundamentalism fuelled by the twelve churches in the area, or somehow related to the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.

“Well, you know what I tell the people who are upset?” she asked

I looked at her in the mirror expectantly. I didn’t know Sally well, but I was hopeful. She seemed like a reasonable and generous woman.

“I tell them, ‘It’s better than a crack house!’”

I can honestly say I was speechless. For a minute I thought she might be joking. But she wasn’t. Having a Muslim house of worship in the community was, in her mind, clearly only marginally better than having a drug dealer set up shop.

That’s what happens when we do not take responsibility for exploring and owning our unconscious material: the other is left holding the bag- either as a partner who failed to magically rescue us from the work of being an individual or as demons who threaten all we hold to be true because they do not see or express things the way we do. Not only does this mean we are left angry and flailing at the other in potentially harmful ways, it also means we miss the great gift of meeting the other, of knowing them and savouring their mystery, of coming together in relationship to create a wholeness (a partnership or a community) that is greater than the sum of the parts.

And that is a waste that makes my heart ache.


  1. We enjoyed your message and wanted to offer our own response in the spirit of open conversation. When we began our own partnered journey, we used the words "surrendering, and rendering" as our guiding principles. Using the model of a simple country church designed by the famous Cataln architect Antoni Gaudì we set off on what has now become a 10 year process. Following is the link to our story/music and art from a decade ago, expressing our vision of a new and powerful relationship.

  2. Cheryl and Emerson, thank you. Oriah

  3. Oriah...
    Thanks for this.
    However to my shock I have learned that there are people who choose unconsciousness. I always thought it was because they were unaware and, some people stick their heads in the sand on purpose.

    What people don't realize is nature humans feel the urge to grow. To what extent we cultivate this innate desire which promotes personal development or whether we whither in complacency varies from person to person but it determines much of our life experience, especially in partnerships.

  4. AQS- well I think the truth is not that some choose unconsciousness but that we all choose unconsciousness some of the time, albeit some more than others. :-) And while we do indeed have the urge to grow, we also often have the urge to hide, to shrink, to hunker down and hang on and try and keep things static. Impossible I know- but the contradictory urges are there!

  5. Your observations remind me that I can tolerate almost anything in people except intolerance. And boredom.

    I know better. Both debilities are wedded to a lack of curiosity, and all three conditions are likely to have had a crippling cause. But once I infer any of these things about someone, there is nothing else I want to know about them.

    So I admire that your 'I' (your inward eye) refuses either self-servingly to separate from 'we' or royally to impose upon it.

  6. I very much agree. The maddening desire to seek and evolve yet the attraction to stability and security. Sums up my life! haha!

    I wrote more on this earlier today
    here, if you care to see almonds in full blossom!

    yaaay...we are on the same frequency again! :)

    you are simply amazing, oriah.

  7. oh speaking of my 'almonds post'---i think of you when i think of the word “Saleheen", an Arabic word which means potential of our soul...those that attempt to actualize their potential. YOU! and hence will live eternally! just a I heart Oriah kind of day today.

  8. Wilder, your comment re: a lack of curiosity having a "crippling cause" is helpful. I am always bewildered when I engage with someone who seems to have very little curiosity- about themselves, others, the world, life. . .. but your way of putting it reminds me that this lack is no doubt the reflection of an eariler wound. Thank you, Oriah

  9. Annie (a.q.s.) the almond post - pictures and text, is lovely. Thank you.

  10. Wilder--I appreciate your response as well. It helped me realize when I am most judgmental: complacency borne out of lack of curiosity. P.S. Your blogger profile is not available? :)

    Thank YOU Oriah.


  11. A while back I met a man online who I liked very much, but I wasn’t sure if he was for real. Then he sent me your beautiful “Invitation” text and I felt he had to be someone special. After a few more e-mails, I decided to meet him. We shared a wonderful intimacy, for a few days. He was sweet to me and I was happy. I felt wanted.

    I had to go away for a short while, but I was sure we would pick up where we left off as soon as I got back. The complete opposite happened. He told me he was too busy because of his work and that he was a mess because he was ‘searching for himself’. He expected me to wait without telling me when he would have time again. But he also said some very loving things in his e-mails and he gave me attention and asked me about things that happened to me. But he wasn’t there. I couldn’t handle the uncertainty and went nuts. First I tried to lure him, then I begged him, then I sent him abuse and tried to scare him away.

    This made him come to me, strangely, but he acted weird. On the one hand he told me he couldn’t resist me and I was lovely, on the other hand he called me crazy and put me down as if I was a child for not using the right words. I wanted him so much I allowed him to do that to me. I wanted him to tell me exactly what to do.

    I know that I did this to myself and have ended the affair now. But this guy really got into my head and I have trouble thinking. Not so much about him, but about who I think I am and why I let this happen. It’s very confusing to me how he used spirituality to draw me out and after that, to block me. And I have trouble getting to terms with the fact that everything changed so quickly. I have no regrets about the intimacy I shared with him and I still think it was real, but it almost feels to me as if somebody died. I don’t know if I should stop thinking about it full stop or if I should keep thinking about it until I learn something (I have no idea what).

  12. Wow! Sounds like a difficult roller coaster ride. As to thinking about it, you probably can't help it to some degree, but you may want to contain it so it doesn't become obsessive. You can do this by simply saying I will meditate or journal on this for 10, or 15 minutes at a certain time (probably best later in the day but not right before bed.) Then, when you find yourself trying to figure it all out, just gently say, "Oh, not now. I will focus on that for a short time later."

    We are drawn to people initially because we project some longed for aspect of self on to them. Sounds like a spiritual side of yourself may have been projected on to him. The hard part of this is, of course, is that other aren't our projections- they are themselves with their own agendas, ideas, needs, confusion etc. and sooner or later we find ourselves getting our projections thrown back at us and it is very painful.

    Happily hearts do heal- may you find some peace about this. Oriah

  13. Re: March 21, 2010 9:18 PM

    Thank you so much for your answer and advise. It helps me a lot to say to myself "Not now, I will focus on that for a short time later". I'm glad I found your site.

    This has been a strange, often painful but useful experience. Next time, I hope I remember that if someone won't allow me to show the best of myself, there is really no reason to show him anything else.