Bring on spring

I’m ready for spring. I’ve almost finished winter quarter classes — just the writeup of my HLM project left to turn in. The snow is finally melting off my front lawn. The crabapple trees are putting out buds.

It hasn’t been a hard winter like 2006 but still it’s been grey and icy for far too long.

And these past ten weeks were seriously strange.

This Ph.D. pursuit is psychologically much bigger and harder than I imagined. It’s turned into some sort of monomythical journey, and in winter quarter I traveled the road of trials.

Something like this:

Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials…. The original departure into the land of trials represented only the beginning of the long and really perilous path of initiatory conquests and moments of illumination. Dragons have now to be slain and surprising barriers passed – again, again, and again. Meanwhile there will be a multitude of preliminary victories, unretainable ecstasies and momentary glimpses of the wonderful land.

It did feel like a dream landscape, absurdly odd with strange events and people and strange projects too. The trials came from inside me: sticking out a class that I despised when I’m used to quitting whatever doesn’t please me, confronting demons from my past as I spiraled back on old decisions and events that led me to this place, stifling my familiar ways of approach so that I could build new relationships for the journey ahead.

Were there “preliminary victories, unretainable ecstasies and momentary glimpses of the wonderful land”? Yes and yes and yes. My professor’s telling me my project had a good chance of yielding publishable results, then sharing my proposal with the class as an example of how one should be done. A raucously funny altercation in psychometrics that made me laugh so hard I really did cry, not just over the unexpected outburst but because of the good friends I have more unexpectedly found. Monthly department meetings, begun at my suggestion, where, for the first time, I could imagine myself as some sort of academic. Dreaded group projects that turned into opportunities for intellectual sparring and companionship, things I have so thoroughly missed over the past ten years.

Thinking into the future of this mythical story, I wonder what Atonement with the Father could possibly mean for me. I know it doesn’t mean atonement with my actual father, as we are not opposed. I think what it means is atonement with the father inside me. Figures in the hero’s journey are symbolic, not literal. The Goddess is not always female, woman as temptress doesn’t necessarily mean some other woman (isn’t the temptress inside me? yes), and each person has masculine and feminine inside.

For the past ten years, the mother inside me has been dominant, as I had babies and raised them and put work mostly to the side. Even before that, I made choices from the female side of myself: dropping my plan to get a Ph.D. in favor of my boyfriend’s career and our plans to buy a house, having my first child at a relatively early age thus stalling my career progress, moving to Virginia to be closer to family, choosing to have a third child even though with only two I could have gotten back to work earlier.

I can even see how my stereotypically female side has actually been in charge for far longer than that; before I married, I lost myself in romance again and again.

It would be too pat if spring brought atonement and rebirth. More likely, I will have to keep slaying dragons and passing surprising barriers as I look for the ultimate treasure. And what is that treasure? Perhaps I have already found it. As Michael Foley in The Age of Absurdity says, it is the journey itself:

The search for meaning is itself the meaning, the Way is the destination, the quest is the grail.

psychology, that's random

Telling stories to the remembering self

I’ve been thinking about Kahneman’s remembering self, and how that part of the self needs memories woven into meaningful stories. Joseph Campbell’s monomyth structure offers a structure for telling stories to the remembering self. No matter how bad a particular experience is, you can probably make it into a story of struggle and growth, of confronting temptations and trials, of finding support where you thought you had none, of being in the wilderness then finally finding yourself again.

Here is Joseph Campbell on the temptations that a hero (or heroine) faces:

The crux of the curious difficulty lies in the fact that our conscious views of what life ought to be seldom correspond to what life really is. Generally we refuse to admit within ourselves, or within our friends, the fullness of that pushing, self-protective, malodorous, carnivorous, lecherous fever which is the very nature of the organic cell. Rather, we tend to perfume, whitewash, and reinterpret; meanwhile imagining that all the flies in the ointment, all the hairs in the soup, are the faults of some unpleasant someone else.

I do find it difficult that the actual experience of life is often so different than how it seems it should be. Telling stories about the bad experiences makes them make sense, turns the difficulty into something desirable, something that leads to learning and growth rather than something to be avoided or denied.