An Edited Version of a Talk
to the Canberra Jung Society
by Ross White
Friday 3 March 2000
Tonight I want to consider some of the myths and expectations of men today. When I talk about myths, I’ll talk about ancient mythology as well as some of the myths that are assumed of men today. I shall be looking at some issues of today’s young men and men’s suicide and then go over some individual examples, some from case work and some from colleagues who have given me permission to talk about them.
These are men who have grown up with certain expectations of them and have had trauma as a result of the expectations. I shall also look at some of the old myths, basically The Fisher King and the Odyssey, and posit whether or not there are new myths or whether or not we just are reinventing or working with the old myths but in different ways.
Myths and expectations today
* What are some of the issues men in western society are facing today?
In Italy at present there is a real problem with population decline despite the fact that the Vatican City is in the middle of Italy and it is a very Catholic country. They’re very worried about the negative population growth and have identified the issues which are contributing to this as gender and financial equity and women going more and more into higher education. The issues are similar to those in Australia.
Men are having to face up to the changes that are expected of them and some of the different ways that they have to approach their life, their work and their relationships. These expectations have had an impact on men and men’s attitudes. Gender equity, financial equity, the breakdown of traditions and roles, changing work patterns and expectations seem to be some of the factors that are having an impact on birth rates. I put the question, “Have they really changed”? I think they have changed considerably.
I’ve been very much aware of the issues of gender equity since the early 70s. I think the huge movement that occurred in the 1970s and ’80s seems to have been lost in many ways in more recent times. For example, I have found that when I’ve run training programs and had younger women in them, often don’t know about a lot of the work that women have done in order to get gender equity in the workplace and in area of their lives. I think that’s rather sad, but that’s the topic of another talk.
I think that men have had to cope with issues of gender equity and many are still coping with it. Of course there are a lot of men who wouldn’t believe there’s been any change, and there are a lot of women also who probably believe there’s not been any change. But there have been immense changes. Take for example, financial equity. Because women are able to get loans, and have similar incomes - although I do understand that the average income of women is still less than the average income of men – there has been a huge difference in terms of the balance of power in relationships between men and women.
Breakdown of traditions and roles
Then there is the breakdown of different traditions and roles of men. The patriarchal society. Is that still around? Yes it is in so many ways but then again it has been challenged and has changed in many ways. There are other traditions, such as religion and the influence of the Church. People are prepared to challenge things more. Even with television and the ready exposure of people to politicians there has been an impact on the different expectations of men.
Work patterns and expectations.
Work patterns and expectations are also relevant and important. My awareness of work patterns is that there’s been a shift away from full-time work to part-time contract work and home based work. I work at home. Many people I know work at home, and that makes a huge difference in terms of behaviours and expectations. Within many organisations there has been a breakdown of hierarchies and a movement to flatter structures along with initiatives in industrial democracy over the years. That has had an influence on men and how they work.
Have they really changed?
There are a lot of men who haven’t noticed any change and who are continuing their usual behavioural patterns. That has an impact on them when they get challenged. So I think that things have changed, and expectations have changed and behaviours have changed. But the basic myths that people are working from may not have changed.
Work in the Monaro Region
* What is happening to the young men, especially in rural areas?
Let me tell you a little bit about some of the work that I’ve been doing in the Monaro Region in South East New South Wales, at Cooma and the Snowy Mountains. I supervised the Mental Health team at Cooma Community Health Services for a time until early last year and I have been running a private practice at Cooma. I have contract work with NSW police and work in the legal area including forensic work and assessments of victims of crime. I also work with young people through NSW Juvenile Justice.
The people in the Monaro district have been very concerned about the high suicide rate among men, not just young men but amongst all ages of men in that area. The rate is not any higher than the suicide rate in any other rural area, which is higher than the suicide rate amongst men in city and metropolitan areas. In the Monaro, the people of the community felt they weren’t getting anywhere with government funding or public support, so last year they decided to take their own initiative and run some seminars on issues for men. One was in Jindabyne in May 1999 and the other in Cooma in November 1999.
I was invited to be a speaker, along with others, and to advise them on some of the resources that are available in that area for men in stressed situations. They were trying to increase the awareness of the people in the district that there are things that you can do and there are resources available to help you and so it isn’t necessary to just top yourself. I haven’t had a lot to do with suicide in my practice but I have had some clients attempt it and some of the people I’ve supervised have worked with people who have suicided. I provided advice and support to the mental health team with suicidal clients.
From my experience, especially in the rural areas, I can’t see any real pattern in the types of both men and women who have attempted suicide. It doesn’t seem to me just because there’s been an economic downturn in the rural area. A lot of people who have suicided are psychotic or they want “to be closer to Jesus”. There are some who get concerned about things like the economic downturn. Some have wives and children who leave them and they don’t like the idea of being on their own, so they quite determinedly do things like take sheep dip, which has instant and tragic results.
The myth is that men use methods of suicide which are more readily able to be successful than women. Men use things like guns whereas women might use overdoses more. Both of them seem to use cars and to gas themselves quite readily. I don’t see any pattern. I don’t know why they do it, but they do. There have been changes in suicide rates in the last hundred years and I’ll talk about what are the causes and what’s happening to them and what are the identified problems.
* Changes in suicide rates over the last 100 years.
Let me show you some graphs, which indicate that over a hundred years from 1881 to 1994, the suicide rate has been very constant. There was a peak from 1925 to 1929 and in 1942 there was a considerable drop. The Depression was in the late twenties and early thirties. There was an increase among women in 1962 and 1966. There was a peak about 1962 and amongst women it’s been dropping off and amongst men it’s been constant.
There are some myths about suicide. First of all death by suicide is common. Three percent of all deaths in Australia in 1995, so it’s not as high as we might think it is. But that’s still a significant figure. In 1995 in the age 15 to 24 range, 20 percent of all deaths were by suicide, 25 percent for males, 17 percent for females. Another myth is that death by suicide is a new phenomenon. The rates have been the same in Australia for the last 100 years. For males, there’s been 20.6 deaths per hundred thousand in 1887 compared to 21 per hundred thousand in 1995 so male suicide rates haven’t actually increased. For females, the rate of 5.5 per hundred thousand has been constant.
The difference has been that the younger age group male rates have become higher and for females it’s higher than the 5.5 percent. So it’s a young person, a young phenomenon, and that’s where the change is, rather than anything else. Suicide is a youth issue today. It does transcend all age groups, but it has been historically associated with older groups. Over the last 30 years there’s been an increase in the 15 to 24 year old suicide rates, particularly amongst young men. On the television program, Backburner, last night they were talking about deaths through the use of drugs. They were saying that 80 percent of deaths through drug use are through tobacco use, 16 percent through alcohol, and four percent through the use of illicit drugs. Backburner made some comment to the effect that it just goes to show you shouldn’t be involved in things sanctioned by the government.
Another interesting figure from the graph was this one which was around the time of the War, the Second World War, the First World War, there was a drop in suicide rate. I’ve had a theory in that there’s something about young men. You could say that they’re suiciding by going to war, or there’s something about the psyche of the young men which is bravado. They’re not necessarily saying, “Okay Colonel, I’ll take the west hill and go and say shoot me”. But there is that risk factor, the sense of invincibility among them, that seems to be around. There’s no way I can prove that theory of course but it’s interesting that there was a huge dip then.
There are other things at wartime, such as the nation being asked to rally and do the right thing. That might mean people have got more purpose in life so they may chose not to be suiciding. My understanding is that in countries at war there’s a lot more patriotism, which may help some people not to suicide. On the other hand some people who would have suicided perhaps did die in the battlefield.
I think that what has happened in war also has to do with car accidents and high speed driving on country roads. I taught many years ago in a school in Sydney and one of the former students there was in a car accident when he was about 19. He became paraplegic, and a couple of years after that we heard that he and another paraplegic went on a drive and didn’t survive. And the theory was that they had decided to do themselves in. That sort of thing can happen.
* What are the causes from my experience?
What are some of the main factors contributing to suicide? First of all, according to a Victorian Task Force on Suicide Prevention(1), antecedents of suicide are prior attempts at severe self-harm, mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse. It is generally agreed that if people have attempted suicide, there is a good chance that they will eventually be successful. Other social factors are social adaptability, whether relationships are healthy or not, childhood abuse and sexual assault, unemployment, being in a rural community, being of a non-English-speaking background or in a community like that, and being in a high-risk group. High-risk groups are males over 80 and males aged 20 to 24, people with HIV and AIDS, gays and lesbians, Aboriginal people, the homeless, and people in poverty. Those in high risk also include people who are depressed, who feel guilty and have little self-esteem.
* Identified problems amongst young men.
In their book, What Men are Like (1988), Sandford and Lough(2), referred to psychological problems that contribute to the danger of adolescent years. They believe that there is no archetype for the prolonged adolescence in Western culture. That is, in Western culture both women and men are supported into their twenties. They go into higher education or take up apprenticeships and they don’t necessarily take on responsibilities that are considered to be normal for adults. Such people are looked upon as adolescent for a long time.
We seem to have gone into that by extending time in education and encouraging more people to be in education without setting up some way of holding people in that and giving them some means of maturing. Even in the Oxford style of tertiary education many years ago very few people undertook it and those that did withdrew from society for some years. They had their tutors and they spent many years talking about the meaning of life as well as doing their study. Even tertiary education isn’t like that now. You are forced to go into tertiary education, a lot of which is career oriented. There is not a holding space for people to have that opportunity to reflect on life. Hannibal was twenty-one when he made his conquests to the East. Alexander the Great was only about 20 or when he was at his peak. They had a lot of responsibility, and a lot of people nowadays don’t have that.
There’s the need to establish ego stability, which is basically having a sense of who they are. That often doesn’t happen because of child abuse, breakdown in families, and dysfunctional family situations. Another factor is that there’s no viable spiritual emphasis in Western culture. There are a lot of areas where I read they talk about the importance of the spiritual emphasis in life and how that’s been lost. It doesn’t mean that everybody should go back to Church, but it does mean that because there’s not a sense of the spiritual and a strong emphasis on the material, which can create problems.
* Contributions to the dangers of adolescent years.
As I said before there’s an emphasis on tertiary education for career as opposed to tertiary education for personal development and growth. I’m a psychologist, and I’ve been very aware of Psychology being a combination of Psyche and Logos. Psyche to me is the Soul and Logos is Logic. Even in psychology the emphasis is on the Logos side with the Psyche being the soul and the spirit in a person’s development. Western culture fails to provide a legitimate safe means of spiritual experience and in Western culture there’s a false picture of what it is to be a man.
I’m sure we’re all aware of that. There’s that picture that every male is a macho male and that’s the only thing you can possibly be, and if you’re not that then there’s something wrong with you. I’ll talk about that a little in some of my examples. There’s often not a social container for adolescents, they are left to drift. If a young guy who has to see me at 12 noon every Wednesday in Cooma isn’t there, all I need to do is go down to the park and he’s there with his mates. Perhaps you can say there is a social container but that’s not a strong social container and while he might be with his mates, they’re all sitting there wondering what they’ll do. They are just chatting without any real direction in their lives.
Some Individual examples
Let me give you some individual examples.
A life outline: the danger of the unlived lives of parents
Greg is a man of about 52, the youngest of three boys. His father was a musician in an Australian orchestra who was conscious of status and power. But to have power and status people need to have money and Greg’s father wanted those things. Even though his father was very successful musically he was not paid well in the orchestra. As well he didn’t see any status in it so he thought that the only way to have power, money and status was to be a doctor and so he decided to live his life through his children.
He tried to get his first son to do medicine but he wouldn’t and instead studied agriculture. He tried to make the second son do medicine and he wouldn’t. He studied pharmacy. But Greg, the youngest, couldn’t get away and so Greg studied medicine. The other thing about Greg was that his mother wanted a girl for the third child so when he was born she wouldn’t look at him for six weeks and for the first nine years of his life his mother dressed him as a girl.
He had curly locks and he was called Frances and so there were some issues about gender. Greg is a feeling sort of male in terms of personality type and he actually did quite like fashion. When he was a teenager he decided he wouldn’t mind going in to the fashion industry and so he got some cutouts from women’s fashion magazines and hung them up in his room. His mother verbally abused him about being gay and he had to get rid of them. He wasn’t gay. So he went and did medicine.
Impact on the individual.
Half way through medicine Greg pulled out for a year and he went to Melbourne and set up a fashion house. He did make some clothes and sold them to fashion houses. He was so successful he was terrified for he had no concept of being successful because he was always put down and told to be someone who he wasn’t. He ran away from the fashion industry and went back to medicine. He became a General Practitioner and hated it. He started to use drugs and he attempted suicide. I think twelve times or so. He didn’t do it in the end, but he went close to it.
He’s been married three times in unsuccessful marriages. In the early 1990s he decided to do something about this gender issue and so he decided to dress as a woman. For two years he went off to work to his GP practice dressed as a woman. Naturally everybody was pretty shocked, and this guy’s a pretty stocky sort of bloke. One day he woke up and said to himself that his name is not Frances, but Greg, and he began to wear men’s clothes again. He went into psychiatry, but he didn’t particularly like psychiatry, and he had a nervous breakdown at the time of the breakdown of his third marriage.
Out of all that he’s actually come out and been himself. He said he spent his whole life trying to be what society expected him to be or what his parents expected him to be, trying to live the life of his parents. And so the impact on him was really a horrific life. I said to him, “How do you manage to stand up?” And he said, “Well, you know I can and I think there are a lot of people around who manage to stand up despite what happens to them”. Now he doesn’t see himself as a psychiatrist but as a family systems therapist.
In choosing the myths I think he’s an example, but there’s a lot of men still living that myth and I think that men have been living that myth through the centuries and they still will in the twenty-first century. I don’t think it will change. I think there will always be parents who are trying to live their lives through their children.
The Australian dream
The other one I have picked is the story of Sam and Jenny Bailey which was on the Australian Broadcasting Program, Australian Story, on the 24th February this year. It was called, Something in the Air. Australian Story is a quarter-of-an-hour cameo of an Australian of interest. I was really impressed by it, and I must admit I cried through a lot of it. I followed it up on the chat forum on the Internet and I cried through the comments. I read them the other day and I thought they were just wonderful.
One of the things they talked about was the “Australian Dream”, which is another myth that we might think about. Sam Bailey is a young in his twenties, from north western New South Wales. According to the story, he was a wild young bloke. He went to boarding school and came back to the property. It was obviously a pretty well-off property. When he was 19 he was going up to the Northern Territory and was in a car accident. He was in the back of the car without a seat-belt on and was thrown out and received a spinal injury that, made him a C6,7 quadriplegic, which means he was paralysed from the chest down and has limited use of his arms and hands.
He actually overcame this awful situation and managed to start working on the farm and also got married to Jenny who was an ABC reporter at Tamworth. He proposed to her over the air, and that was one of the big issues of the Australian Story. Lots of people up in north-west New South Wales heard him proposing to her. They’ve been married a year and they’re apparently incredibly happy.
One of the things I noticed was that in the comments in the forum there were a lot of people saying wasn’t it wonderful to have the Australian Dream, and I was thinking what is this Australian Dream? What is this myth? I think it is coping against adversary, that old dream and myth that in many ways I thought might have been lost but is still there. There’s still a lot of people thinking about it; overcoming problems, getting there, making it, achieving and succeeding.
I’ll read some of the things that I thought were relevant. One was Sam saying, “I was born on the family farm near Moree and it was my dream when I left school to take over from dad, get married, have kids, you know, that was the life that I thought I’d have”. And then his mother was saying, “You know he was a terrible kid from the time he was about five years old. He had to be out where the men were, where the action was, and he was forever getting tangled in things. He ripped his thigh open on a barbed-wire fence. One time Graham, his father came in with a limp little body and said I’ve run over him”.
He was a wild kid but a kid that a lot of people would respect and love and look up to. Looking back it was a huge knock. At 19, six foot high, bullet-proof, he was having a wow of a time and it was a hell of a knock to all-of-a-sudden go from that to being completely dependent on everyone for everything for the first few months. But he said, “I guess I was lucky. From a very early stage I thought, well okay it’s happened. You can’t do anything about it. You know you don’t get any prizes for sitting in your corner and whingeing. And so Sam you’ve just got to make it, and do the best you can with what you’ve got left”.
I thought that was a powerful statement. To make such a statement there’s been a hell of a lot of background for 19 years in that kid’s development. There’s been strong family support and probably lack of dysfunction in contrast to others who have no background of support. For example, kids whose fathers are killed when they’re three months old and mothers in abusive marriages and kids going to bed each night saying I just wish mum would get out of this one and find a man who’s not going to bash her about. Sam had none of that, from what I could see. He may well have but didn’t seem to.
He said he would get his days of depression. He thought at times that perhaps others were right that perhaps he couldn’t work on the farm. It was suggested he go and work in an office and he didn’t want to do that. He went through a fair bit of depression and then one day his father and brother went into town and a guy in there said look how about taking one of these four-wheelers home for Sam? It was like a little dune buggy. He said “Don’t even worry about taking it off the back of the ute”. But they did and he had a go at getting on and he eventually got on and he was amazed at how stable he was.
That was the beginning. They rigged up a crane so they could put him into the tractor and then he decided he wanted to do flying. He’d always wanted to be a pilot, so he now flies a light aircraft, and took up flying an ultra-light, and he said it was brilliant. That was a Kosciusko. That’s what he called it, a Kosciusko.
How does he survive and others not?
I think in terms of this person that the family was influential in the district. They went into the town and the local owner of the farm machinery saleyard said take the buggy out and have a go at it. So many people don’t have that opportunity. Sam was in a community, which was supportive. This is important in terms of opportunities for belonging.
However, Sam said there was always a hole, a hole of not having a female companion. He wondered how his life was going to be with just his five dogs and himself. He then described how he met Jenny. They went together for two years and she was a special friend but she didn’t realise that he was wrapped in her. He was wondering how he could get her to know that she was the woman for him and he said, “I went through this enormous frustration of one day thinking, oh I can’t go through with it and the next day I’d think, yes I can. The next day I thought I couldn’t. I can’t load her up with this disability of mine”. Finally he woke one morning and thought, “Sam this is not the bloke that I know. What are you frigging around for? So get into it?” So he rang her up that night and she came up that weekend and away they went.
I thought once again he’s got in him some of those things we talked about that you need; ego stability and social factors. He had relationships, he probably wasn’t abused and he wasn’t unemployed. Even though he was in a rural community, he was in a very strong rural community and he wasn’t suffering from mental illness. He had the strength. It was a great example of a positive attitude.
They were married in the school chapel where he went to school. They returned home to the property and are restoring an old house and living beside his parents. It’s all working out very well, and that’s fantastic for them. Sam said I’m so happy. It’s as if I’m at the top of the hill just looking out. I wouldn’t be dead for quids.
In the forum there were some other quadriplegics who wrote in and who said, “Look I’ve got an avocado farm at Lismore, mate it’s terrific and me and my wife have had it for ten years”. And someone in Tasmania, a woman, said she had a farm and she’d met someone on the Internet and they’d been together for a year and everything’s fine, and they were supportive and there’s a lot of love. I think, and that’s the Australian Dream in a sense.
Compare with others who have none of these things.
To me that is how he survives and others don’t. Because there is social support, family, and he has a sense of belonging. Comparing him to others like some of the young clients I see, he’s doing pretty well. Others don’t have any of the support that Sam has, other young people have been on the wrong side of the law from an early age. Some were abused as a child, and other factors are in place, which go against them.
A quick list
The impact of lack of identity
I had a client years ago who gave me permission to use the following information. He was about twenty four and a heroin addict and really wondering what in hell he was doing with his life. I haven’t seen him for some years, but these are some of the phrases that he used to describe his situation in life at the time.
I’m the dragon-fly wing in the radiator grill
I’m the cricket smeared by the thong
I’m the soaking-wet newspaper in your garden
I’m the waxed strip torn from the bikini line
I’m the bandaid that covered the sore too long
I’m the blood clotted in the chamber of a pick
I’m the beer can home to lip-smeared butts
I’m the puke in the bag from an airsick child
I’m the denture scrubbed wholesome for the old relative in his Sunday best, motionless in the open coffin in the darkened front room of a housing trust flat
I’m the bloodied toothbrush from the overzealous scrubbing of a traveller with a gum disease.
I’m the filthy residue clogging the in-pipe of an ugly home-made bong.
I’m the eyelash on the pillow of an optimistic young actor.
I’m the smoking piece of shrapnel lodged in the organ of a black conscripted to fight a filthy war for a bunch of tough-skinned rich bastards.
I’m the repeat prescription for Aurox tablets which aid the disorganised modernist to “look on the bright side”.
I’m the emotionally charged customer disappointed with all that medical science has offered looking for to make a small long-term investment in a health fund which develops the alternative treatment sector.
I’m the worker whose bright ideas come back only to rupture the delicate tissue of his anal canal.
I’m a tumour controversially removed from the lung of an unborn child.
It’s pretty ugly stuff. Unfortunately there are a lot of young men and young women who are in that situation. He certainly is a great comparison to the Sam Baileys of the world.
Some old Myths for Men
Some old myths. Let me just talk about a couple of them, the Odyssey, the hero’s journey, and The Fisher King. I should say that why I’m talking about these old myths is that I think the old myths still apply today and I’m sure a lot of other people do too.
* The Odyssey
So the Odyssey; Odysseus’s story. It was all about the wooden horse of Troy and how he went out and won a battle but took many years to get home. To me it’s all about the hero’s journey some of the components of which are, the call and the denial, acceptance, and the journey, there’s meeting challenges and trials and overcoming adversity, and then the return. I’ve been thinking about the Odyssey in terms of modern men. A lot of people go on hero’s journeys. The Raiders do it every week and they eventually return home some time later.
But the thing that I was interested in was that in actual fact a lot of people didn’t get home. A lot of people are swallowed up in hell, or are eaten by these huge monsters, or burnt alive, or overwhelmed by the huge waves of the sea and the storms and drowned. It was only a few that got home and I think that’s one of the things that we have to think about in terms of men today and in future society. A lot of them don’t make it. A lot of them don’t get to the final return but do get caught on the waves on the way. Some of them may actually die, others might become disillusioned and depressed or whatever. There’s a lot don’t make the whole journey and don’t meet all the challenges and trials
* The Fisher King
The other old myth is The Fisher King. It’s about a king who was wounded when he was a young man. The wound wouldn’t heal and because it wouldn’t heal he couldn’t partake of the kingly court. Those of you who have seen the film, The Fisher King, with Robyn Williams might remember that wonderful scene at Grand Central Station in New York where he was madly in love with a woman who he followed but couldn’t connect with. Everybody was rushing and then suddenly they all started dancing. It was a wonderful scene but Robyn Williams couldn’t dance and the woman got lost in the crowd. I saw it as a tremendous representation of that inability to be part of the Court.
The only way the King could be released was by somebody asking the correct question whatever that was. There was the path of the innocent young man who of went out and did come to the castle but he was young and on his way to have fun and slay the dragons and so he didn’t even know how to ask the questions let alone ask them. Parsifal had a hair-shirt which his mother provided, and he got rid of that, dragging him away from his mother. Then he met Blanche Fleur who taught him some of the ways of the world. He met an old hermit who taught him other ways of the world and then eventually he came back to the castle and he knew the question, and the question was “Whom does the Grail serve”? It seems a rather a strange question.
I’ll read something a little bit at the end of He(3) relation to the Grail because I think it’s relevant in terms of myths and modern myth.
“Just down the road, turn left, and cross the drawbridge, which snaps closed ticking the back hooves of your horse. It is always dangerous to make the transition of levels that entering into the Grail castle involves.
Parsifal finds the same ceremonial procession going on, a fair damsel carries the sword that pierced the side of Christ, another damsel carries the paten from which the last supper was served, yet another maiden bears the Grail itself. The wounded Fisher King lies groaning in his litter, poised between life and death in his suffering.
Now wonder of wonders, with twenty years of maturity and experience behind him, Parsifal asks the question which is his greatest contribution to mankind: Whom does the Grail serve?
What a strange question! Hardly comprehensible to modern ears! In essence the question is the most profound question one can ask: where is the centre of gravity of the human personality; or where is the centre of meaning in a human life? Most modern people, asked this question in understandable terms for our time, would reply that I am the centre of gravity; I work to improve my life; I am working to improve my goals; I am increasing my equity; I am making something of myself -or most common of all- I am searching for happiness, which is to say I want the Grail to serve me. We ask this great cornucopia of nature, this great feminine outpouring of all the material of the world- the air, the sea, the animals, the oil, the forest and all the productivity of the world- we ask that it should serve us. But no sooner than the question is asked than the answer comes reverberating through the Grail castle halls- the Grail serves the Grail King. Again, a puzzling answer. Translated this means that life serves what a Christian would call God, Jung calls the Self, or and we call by the many terms we have devised to indicate that which is greater than ourselves.”
Johnson further says, “Dr Jung speaks of the life process as being the relocation of the centre of gravity of the personality from the ego to the Self. He sees this as the life work of a man and the centre of meaning for all human endeavour. When Parsifal learns that he is no longer the centre of the universe- not even his own little kingdom- he is free of his alienation and the Grail is no longer barred from him. Though he may come and go from the Grail castle during the rest of his life, now he will never be alien to it again.
Even more astonishing, the wounded Fisher King rises, healed in triumph and joy. The miracle has happened, and the legend of his healing has been accomplished. In Wagner’s opera, Parsifal, the wounded Fisher King rises at this moment and sings a wondrous song of triumph and power and strength. It is the cumulation of the whole tale!”
Essentially, says Johnson, the object of life is not happiness but to serve God or the Grail or whatever one understands of this. It is the dropping of the idiotic notion that the meaning of life is personal happiness. One will find the elusive quality immediately to hand and will probably be happy. I think that ancient myth is very pertinent to today.
In terms of its relevance and in terms of the Odyssey, we’re still on our own heroic journey. So many of us are, and some of us may get to the end. The journey does seem confusing at times and a lot of us fall aside on the way. Who hasn’t been wounded? How many of us become knights or how many of us are innocents? Perhaps we’ve got both in us. I wonder has society lost the focus of the Grail. There’s such an emphasis on material well-being as opposed to spirituality. I have to stress the issue is not about having a nice house or a nice car but about the emphasis put on having a nice house or a nice car.
Old and New Myths
So what are some of the myths today? There are some such as real men don’t cry or show their feelings. Well they do. Real men eat quiche or don’t eat quiche. Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. That’s an interesting modern myth. Every time I have clients who have read that book, the men usually say well I really think I come from Venus and she comes from Mars. The woman usually agrees. It’s a stereotypic attitude and it’s a myth. Some people come from Mars and some people come from Venus.
Life wasn’t meant to be easy. That’s a good one. Men don’t talk about their problems. Well, I don’t know. I find lots of men talk about their problems. I had a man ring up today and said that after seeing him and his wife as a couple, could he have an hour to talk about his problems. I thought, well here we go. In the end for some there’s only one way out. That’s not true just because a lot of people seem to think that. A lot of people say that it is out of their control and spirituality is irrelevant. There are modern myths and so many of them aren’t true
So do the old myths apply today? I think they do and some of the myths today like the hero’s journey and The Fisher King apply very much. In summary I’d say the same myths apply to men in the twentieth and the in the twenty-first century as have applied forever. Men are still working out ways to cope with the trials of today. Many young men are still not coping and taking the final ultimate decision. There are different circumstances now and men are forever challenged to cope with those differences but they’re still working on the myths that have been around for a long time.
(Ross White is a psychologist in Canberra with an emphasis on Jungian psychology.)
(1) Victorian Task Force Report, Suicide prevention. July 1997
(2) Sanford, John A & Lough, George, ‘What Men Are Like’. Paulist Press NY, 1988. p43 et seq
(3) Johnson, Robert A. He. Understanding Masculine Psychology. Revised ed.. 1989 Harper & Row. pp77.