A human life is nothing in itself, it is part of a family tree.  We are continuously living the ancestral life, reaching back for centuries, we are satisfying the appetites of unknown ancestors, nursing instincts which we think are our own, but which are quite incompatible with our character; we are not living our lives; we are paying the debts of our forefathers.

–C. G. Jung

The Story of a Symbol

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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

No matter what we’re reading, it’s important to remember that the best stories are often told by a writer to himorherself.  Real stories aren’t accolades or accomplishments.  They are the results of the drawn-out process of Self-explanation; a clarification and a framing of raw experience that allows us to understand or move on or…even heal.

Every story, every conversation is a fluid process of self-definition.  Most of the time, we don’t know what we want to say until we say it.  Or write it.  Or dance it.  And if our identities are contained in the nebulous potentia of words swirling through our skulls, we also don’t know who we are until we tell our story.

Words.  Symbols:  Condensed energy meticulously crafted to create a coagulate of meaning.  For the time being.  Just something to get us through the years, post language-acquisition; a blessed explanation for the cursed predicament of sentience.

But don’t worry–that’s just the set up.  A reminder mostly to myself that this blog, along with the tattoo pictured above are symbols; place holders for the meaning I’m attempting to conjure from the objective data of my life.  If nobody reads this, it’s okay.  By the end, I’ll have a story that I can tell myself, that exists somewhere, that can remind me of my possibilities for doing something subjectively worthwhile.

I have diarrhea as I write this.  It must be important.

Onward?  Onward.

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The bare shoulder above is mine.  The tattoo (No, it’s not henna–sorry mom and dad) is a drawing by Carl Jung, done in his private journal which has been published as The Red Book.

Here it is as it was drawn:

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The tattoo artist did a damn good job, no?

I don’t know what it’s called, or even if it has a title.  That doesn’t matter to me.  My obsession with Jung aside, I’ve been fascinated with this drawing in particular since I first saw it.  And as with most things Jungian/subconscious/aesthetically resonant,  I have no idea why.  It just captured me.

Good symbols do this.  They get inside us and leap alive and the words that we call reality come and we explain to ourselves the feeling the symbol evokes.  So here’s some words.  Or some reality.  Or a blog post.

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Notice the snake.  The snake…so much in that alone.  It’s possibly the oldest symbol.  Both dangerous and fascinating, the snake shows up in art from every continent, from every period (Here’s to the hope that no trained anthropologists read this).

It represents the Bite.  The Bite of lost innocence, lost love, lost friends, lost life.  The snake is the sharp and irrevocable sting of mortality and its slithering adumbration.  The venom seeping in slow motion through our veins with every thoughtless heartbeat.  It’s the truth that’s always wrapped around our leg, the fangs that will never let go, the relentless strangulation of ONE. FINITE. LIFE.

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To meet the snake, eventually, is a certainty.  But to notice it when the noticing really matters is the rarest of happenings.  Entire societies–to say nothing of individual personalities–are constructed with the primary goal of ignoring the snake, denying through sheer willpower the truth of ever-present Death.  Entropy.  Decay.

It makes sense.  I say fuck snakes.  But I met him-her-it anyway.  Here’s how:

I get up, I have to get up.  I wander to the back of a truck, grab some chips, and continue wandering.  Before I’m out of earshot, I hear them, a bunch of trippers restarted by the disappearance of the psychic logjam.

“Who was that kid?”

“We hate him.”

“I hate to say it, but I saw this coming.”

Partying ensues.

The words pierce my skull like an air piston, sending reverberations through my whole body, breath short and shallow.  I’m sliding irreversibly down down down into unknown depths.  I’m a kid, immature and unready for a demonic lashing from my own subconscious.  I continue walking and collapse into a ditch where I will spend the rest of the night curled in the fetal position, quietly begging for an end to the torment.  People will come and go, impatiently asking if I want to come back to the fire, asking if I’m ok.  But it doesn’t matter, not in the fury of an acid party.  I’m left to face the labyrinth alone.

As I’m coming to realize, sanity and self-image are dictated by the thoughts we choose–consciously or not–to believe.  That night, deep in the tender layers of my undefended mind, I believed everything.  All the negative comments from the others, all of my own self-judgement, all the horror of my own projections feeding upon my vulnerable attention. I believed it, and then I sobered up.

The layers piled back on, the rationalization began, all the “let’s move past this” credos I could muster.

A hallowed version of myself returned to life the next day.  I even went to work after shedding a few stunted tears.  I was deeply broken that night, but through sheer resistance, I refused the complete break.  I still do.

Numbness became the new normal and I found myself in a Stockholmesque limbo of deep hatred of the very people whose approval and acceptance I now craved more than ever.  Of course, I didn’t realize any of this.  I was very much at the unconscious whims of unconsidered energy.

There was a vague sense of inhabiting a darker and more malevolent universe but that was all.  The world is unkind to the casualties of whimsical risk. There was no time for “healing,” or “integration.”  I had lawns to mow.

The MOMENT.  The moment your innocence is torn away and replaced with frigid truth that you may or may not accept.  That is the snake too.  And once you look down and see it attached to your calf–or your heart–you can’t un-see it.

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The man.  Falling backwards, arms splayed open, stuck between two very real threats.  Obviously the snake is behind him.  But do you notice the spear..piercing his heart?

Look again:

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More on that later.  For now, it will suffice to say that the man, the red and black layers of paint and mind, is arching backwards against his will.  Or, at the very least, out of necessity.

His symbolism is more obvious.  He is me.  The layers, the folds, the look of surprise corresponding to my growing awareness of the (un)reality of my situation, the reality of Life and the difficulty of balancing on ground that really does resemble a turbulent ocean.

Could we call the scene depicted above a labyrinth?  Maybe.  How about labyrinthine.  A fitting adjective.

So there’s the man (me) propelled backwards by…is that another figure?  A soldier?  Take a peek.  It’s a soldier enmeshed in the labyrinth, hidden in plain sight, wielding a spear of light that just so happens to pierce the man (me) in the heart against my will.

Starting to get it?

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On both my tattoo and the actual drawing, the most important and most delicate detail is the spear.  The spear of light.  Right to the heart.

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The spear is the reverse of entropy; the snake’s opposite.  It’s the force of Life or Awareness or Truth or Love that finds us whether we volunteer or not.  Hence the falling and the shock.  And just as I’ve had paralyzed moments with the snake, I’ve also been utterly and spontaneously pierced by the spear.

The spear represents the moments of compassion that flood past the banks of my river into the world around me.  The walks along busy roadways, staring into the face of each frowning stranger and realizing, really realizing, that they too have a story.  That they want to love and be loved and frequently have trouble bringing either one about.  That they are also carrying the snake, whether they know it or not, and in our mortality we are inseparable.

The spear cleans me and empties me, bringing the clear certainty that there is nothing to be done EXCEPT to love.  The spear is Life’s insistence that everything is fine, that it can’t be otherwise, and that to resist this power, this truth, is futile.

And I put it on my body forever as a reminder.  The compassion and all the rest, the “spear,” it has entered my life, but infrequently.  Usually it arrives in some pharmacological state of bliss, or after 10 days of silence, or rarely, for no reason that I can discern.

I have a hunch that the spear is ever present, but the snake makes us forget.  To live in  that place requires dedication and perseverance, and a reminder after every shower can’t hurt.

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This tattoo adorns my left shoulder for a reason.  Just as Jung was concerned with the unconscious, the hidden, the “dark side,” of human nature, I am concerned with the weakest parts–or in this case–side of myself.  I put it on the left shoulder because I want it to be a reminder to look to the other half, to the under-utilized resources hidden in my being.

And that’s all.  That’s the story.  This tattoo represents history and hope.  But more than that, it represents acceptance that however reluctant we might be, life must be lived despite the pain.  We must allow…ahem…I must allow myself to be opened, pushed backward, pushed open as I’m am simultaneously bitten, paralyzed, eaten and destroyed by the Eternal Vacuum.  I must accept the pain and the drama and the insults and the careless words and the ignorant opinions and the condemnation and I must do more than accept them.  I must embrace them as integral parts of myself.

I never thought I would get a tattoo.  I was always scared.

“It’ll look so bad when you’re old!”

“Tattoos are for degenerates!”

“Etc..”

Well guess what?  I’m going to look like shit when I’m old too!  A little paint that reminds me of my heart is well worth the cost of a slight dis-figuration for the nurse to see as heorshe wipes my ass with a washcloth.

Oh, I did make one unspoken compromise with the hypothetical (or not 🙂 ) naysayers and that was putting it in a place where it can be easily covered.  You know, in case I have to get a job or something.