Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: August 2008.
I have to confess that I find life very painful sometimes, and perhaps you do too. It helps me to think about this in the light of C. J. Jung’s analytical psychology, which posits an archetypal world of instinct and symbol acquired by humans since we began as a species, and probably having roots before that even. How does knowing about something as abstract as archetypes actually help? To answer that, I need to tell you a little more about them.
Archetypes are a reliable, wired-in source of knowledge of how to handle certain situations. The archetypes contain the wisdom gathered through long ages about how to be a good mother, for example, or a good father, and how to deal best with the Bad Mother or witch, or the Bad Father, or tyrant. The archetype of the hero tells us how to recognize or be the courageous hero and also how to bring the inflated hero down a notch. Other archetypal knowledge gives us our ability to sense what is sacred, beautiful, lovable, or dangerous. For example, innate responses guide us when we encounter Snake or Lion, or when we meet our ideal romantic partner.
The archetypes arouse intense emotions–they get our attention and drive us to act in a particular way. But generally they shape human thoughts and feelings without people being very aware of their influence, except perhaps when they are truly surprised to be crying at a wedding or funeral, terrified by a “silly little spider,” or otherwise find themselves “out of control” or “not themselves.” You could say that archetypes work like a magnet under a piece of paper that has iron filings on top: The iron filings are arranged in a just-so way, while the magnet itself stays unseen.
It seems that the archetypal world can shape the lives of HSPs even more than others. Perhaps the paper between us and the magnet is more transparent for us, so that we sense more the enormity of what is beneath our individual conscious mind. Or perhaps there is a door to that world that for us swings open with the slightest breeze. For whatever reason, we are more easily struck by the full impact of a birth or the threat of death. When a mother behaves badly we feel her as more than that–as the archetypal bad Mother with all her devouring and destructive energy. When we have a chance to do good, we feel the thrill of the heroic as we step in to do our share. When we see lightning strike close by; stand near a river overflowing its banks; hear a child crying in despair; or watch two large, angry male animals fighting for dominance; we are moved to our very roots, every sense alert and every nerve alive.
By nature, and also fortunately for us, every archetype has two aspects–for example, good and bad, or gentle and overwhelming. We are distressed by the negative pole, and that is the one which brings home to us our archetypal vulnerability. We are “too” affected by bad news. As the archetype of inhumanity strikes, we cannot bear to hear about suffering caused by pure cruelty. We can be left listless for weeks after hearing that a friend has a terminal illness. But we are also deeply moved by the compassion and courage that utter strangers can offer those who suffer unjustly, or the depth of closeness that comes with our archetypally informed inclination to try to share the burden of something as unfathomable as the approach of the body’s annihilation.
Given these two poles, our archetypal vulnerability might be best called something more neutral, an availability. “Availability” definitely does not mean we make ourselves available to live out an archetype such as the Great Hero, All-giving Mother, or Shamanic Healer. When we think we have actually become one of those, in the long run that is bad for all involved. No, we must remain grounded in the reality of our humble humanness. Actually, I am not sure what this availability means, even for me and certainly not for you. I hope it means we are able to provide some extra wisdom or simply to live it–not through arrogant pronouncements, but perhaps simply by our irrepressible reactions. Sometimes I call this “emotional leadership.” If we cry first, protest most vocally, or can’t help rejoicing, it often helps others do the same.
There is also the presence of the eternal in the archetypes, or so Plato would say. At their center we find the ultimate archetype, often called God. By that I do not mean God is “only” an archetype, but rather that we turn to God as a sunflower turns to the sun, naturally. Within our selves, the representative of that ultimate is our highest Self. HSPs are more available to Self as well, and to the yearning, the endless seeking, and the potential for bliss, comfort, and disappointment that comes with anything ultimate.
In short, it is not always pleasant to be thus available. It makes life more passionate, in a sense, but one definition of passion is sacrifice willingly undertaken, and we had no choice about this sacrifice. We are simply stuck with who we are. Like those who are compelled to climb high peaks or to explore deep caverns or dive to the ocean floor, we simply go. We are helplessly available to the mountain, the cavern, or the ocean when it wishes to be known.