Stories of the Borderlands

Three books I’ve been reading in the past week each invoke, in different ways, the borders that show up in life.

Earlier this week, I finished reading “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan. In his journey through the known universe, boundaries (unbridgeable distances and limited knowledge) are presented as limitations that will eventually fall with the advance of scientific knowledge–unless, of course, we destroy ourselves before this can happen.

I am currently half-way through “Dear Life: A doctor’s story of love and loss” by Rachel Clarke. In her autobiographical journey: first as a successful journalist; then as an Emergency Room doctor who became proficient in the rapid diagnosis of life-threatening injuries; and finally—realizing that she has become steeped in a medical model that sees patients as injured body parts and treats death as professional failure–she creates a palliative care unit where death is viewed as a natural bridge at the end of every life.

The other book that I am reading—”Hermes and his Children”, by Jungian psychotherapist Raphael Lopez-Pedraza–explores the borderland between our conscious and unconscious minds. I have very little preparation for his exploration and am surprised at how interested I am. My unpreparedness includes that I have not read Carl Jung’s writings and I know little about psychoanalysis. The one preparation I do have is that I have read some Ancient Greek literature in which the Greek gods play their parts.

I have always considered Apollo, Athena, Zeus, Hermes and the Delphic Oracle to be allegorical figures expressing the idea that we are ruled by forces outside our control. With the modern belief that we are free to make our own choices, those gods seem like metaphors for a world view that no longer corresponds to how most of us think about our lives these days.

But reading about Jungian archetypes and their connection to the gods of Olympus, another dimension of the Ancient Greek’s religion is coming to the surface. Perhaps the Greek’s multiplicity of gods was not just a primitive precursor to monotheism (and its vision of an all-inclusive oneness), but provided a penetrating way to understand the multiple dimensions of the human psyche.

Among the Greek gods, Hermes stands out as the one who doesn’t have his own province of influence in “the affairs of man”. Whereas Apollo represents knowledge, learning and accomplishment, his brother, Hermes, is said to be the god of the borderlands. While the other gods have fundamental roles, in which they are at the center of the capacity they represent, Hermes has no center and rules no particular area of human endeavor.
Apollo exemplifies the great benefits of human knowledge (in which Carl Sagan excels–in his tour through humanity’s gathering knowledge of our place among the stars), but Hermes can only be found at the border between the known and the unknown.

I can appreciate anything that helps me explore—or even believe in the existence of—hidden elements of my own being. Jungian psychoanalyst Lopez-Pedraza attributes to Hermes a spirit of psychic movement and considers the movement of the psyche to be more important for health than the restoration of a relationship between the patient and the conventional world (with its Apollo-inspired models for thinking and behavior).

I wonder if this affirmation of the importance of movement within our psyche offers a path to appreciating our connection to a greater wholeness (whether or not we think of that unity as the presence of a “One God”). The strategy of complying with the values of society or with the exhortations of a religious teaching is clearly not working very well. Those values are offered as a way for individuals to live successfully in a society that is built upon them. But looking around us, it is clear that something important is being left out. Could the missing piece be that our inner being must be able to move, evolve and launch along pathways that we cannot discern until we take our first step?

The trickster messenger of the gods is never what he appears to be. He represents the spirit of movement itself, not the residue left behind after that movement has been taken. He sits on no boards and has no diplomas; he is never involved in the status quo unless it serves his own purposes. Perhaps his is the force that can get us out of the state of a world in which power is wielded by a parliament of ghosts. If those ghosts could realize that they are already dead, might they then step down? Or, better still, might they learn to see through the frozen residues in their own psyches, which need to shift before a future which has room for our neglected dreams can arise?

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