Earlier this week I was drawn to re-watch the film Into the Wild. I like this movie not only because the poem, “I Go Back to May 1937” by Sharon Olds is quoted, but also because at times I can relate to the desire to go off and tough it out on my own. I admire McCandless for his ability to focus solely on what he felt he needed to do – to abandon society and live off the grid, with integrity and purpose. He went into the wild not just physically, but also mentally, and one of the quotes we have from him is a realization that he probably did not expect to make on his solo journey: Happiness is only real when shared.
A wonderful article on relationship in the Buddhist mag Tricycle, “No Gain,” by Barry Magid, gives insight to relationships and how they have the potential to help us grow. As someone who values independence and solitude, I often find myself fantasizing about going quasi-Kerouac. After all, when people (either close or acquaintances) hurt or disappoint me, my gut reaction is just to determine that I don’t need that person in my life anyway (much like McCandless’s approach to his parents and what he viewed as a sick society). So when I read the following quote on relationships, I was taken aback: With the strategy (or curative fantasy) of autonomy, we go in the opposite direction and try to imagine that we don’t need anyone. But that strategy inevitably entails repression or dissociation, a denial of feeling. It seems my rationalization of getting through life by excluding others who disappoint me is a “curative fantasy”! After reflecting on that (and the opposite, which is trying to control people and thinking we will be “fixed” if they would only do what we want them to), I realized that I have to embrace that a paradox exists. We cannot expect others to fix our problems by attempting to control their actions; nor can we exclude everyone from our lives and assume we will be okay totally alone. As Magid articulates, To open yourself up to need, longing, dependency, and reliance on others means opening yourself to the truth that none of us can do this on our own. We need one another to help us through life. Paradoxically, this means that opening ourselves to up to others also means that people will, at times, fail us.
We all have a dark side, or shadow, just as life has its light and its darkness, which brings me to the Jungian view. “In Spiritual Maturity, Individuation, and Bright Shadow,” The Rose, Issue 19, Jeremy Taylor (Unitarian Universalist, dream worker) shares that Carl Jung believed the difference between a mature religion/spiritual practice and an immature one is its attitude to paradox. The more developed religion or practice does not attempt to eliminate paradox with dogma, but instead allows the praticione[r] to remain open-minded, open-hearted…(10). In relationships, there can be much good, much support, much love that one can receive, but simultaneously the opposite can also be delivered. Situations in life are similar – great things can happen, awful things can happen. Suffering and darkness exist. Both are part of life, cannot be avoided, and ultimately as Taylor states, the very worst experiences are in fact potential bridges to the very best outcome. Yes, it is hard to stomach at times, I admit. But the truth is there. Weren’t those teachers who were the toughest on us some of the best with which we studied? Is it not the most profoundly distressing situation that forces us to look deep inside and make changes or at least stark revelations about ourselves?
In her poem, “I Go Back to May 1937,” Olds talks to her parents, who are seen as they graduate from college, having yet given birth to their daughter. She writes,
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it – she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of…
But, even having suffered through the “bad things,” the poet does not stop her parents from their union. Her reason? I want to live. To live means we get through the suffering. To live means we are open-minded to the paradox that people/situations in life will both help us and hurt us. To live means acknowledging that life will be a mix of joy and pain. And, if we have the ability to hold this paradox up and let it exist as is, then we become a more whole person. We can experience the happiness that is most real when shared – with others and with a developed Self that can hold the tension of human existence in a most balanced way. The thing is, it’s a process. It takes community to get through life. We can’t do it all alone, on a bus in the wild, or holed up in our writing corner. Life here on earth is a mix. It’s a gift most enjoyed when shared in a myriad of ways.