Jungian Psychotherapy Symbol Book: A Personal Journey
The other night I watched the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou?” again. It’s one of my great favourites, for any number of reasons: it’s the directors, the Coen Brothers, at their finest; I think it’s as funny as can be; the music is wonderful; the cast is as talented as it gets; and, it’s — loosely — based on one of the greatest works of the human poetic imagination, Homer’s Odyssey. But the number one reason I appreciate this movie is that it’s based upon the symbol and myth of the journey, which is one of the greatest of all human archetypal patterns, and one that is of great importance for case studies.
The Journey Symbol
Artistic and religious symbolism worldwide reflects the archetype of the journey. It’s one of the most universal expressions of the human condition and development of the course of human life. It is central to the Hebrew Bible (Exodus), the Christian Bible (journeys of St. Paul), Islam (the Haj) and countless other religious traditions. A vast amount of literature, poety and art reflects this theme. Jung himself, when he sought to characterize the two great movements in human life, referred to them, by using this symbol, as “the hero journey” and “the night sea journey”.
The whole point of a journey is that it has a destination. In both the Odyssey and O Brother, Where Art Thou? , the whole process may seem chaotic, but the process is actually moving somewhere, toward a specific end — imaged as the journey home. That is what the journey symbol conveys to us: if life is imaged as a journey, it is going somewhere. It has a specific end. Our lives are capable of having a meaningful direction, even if the present circumstances are completely disorienting. This is a constant theme in human myth, and it embodies a psychological truth. There is something in us that knows the way, even when our conscious ego does not.
This can be a very important thing to know in therapy, and in human life in general. But it must be something other than a glib platitude. Vague assurances that “it’s going to be OK” will acheive very little for suffering, struggling people. What people need is assurance, as they struggle, often with very deep, dark things that may have surfaced in their lives. They need to know that, out of real chaos, something meaningful and healing can emerge. The real therapist is someone who can go with the client on her or his journey, who can be right with the client, because the therapist knows, in some way that is deeper than merely intellectual, that this process has an inner meaning in the end.
Just for fun, here’s the official trailer from O Brother, Where Art Thou?:
What About Your Journey?
Do you ever think about your life in terms of it being a journey? Are there times when you’ve been particularly aware that it is a journey? Have there been times when it really feels as if you’ve lost the way? If you have, or you are, I would welcome hearing from you via a comment or through a confidential email.
Brian Collinson, Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst
TRAILER CREDIT: © 2000 Touchstone Pictures and Universal Studios. This trailer is the property of Touchstone Pictures and Universal Studios and is used here in the fair use context of critical discussion.