Like Gord Downie: Spirituality and Meaning in Crisis & Transition
Spirituality and meaning can seem fluffy and otherworldly, until we see how these things apply concretely to someone’s real, down-to-earth life.
Canadians have had a real, very public opportunity to do this through witnessing the last period of the life of singer Gord Downie, who was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2016, and who died on October 17, 2017 at the age of 53. Downie was the leader of Canadian alt-rock band The Tragically Hip, whose music has succeeded in becoming a fundamental part of the national fabric of Canada.
Downie identified himself with key social causes and commitments, and especially stood in solidarity with Canada’s First Nations, as in his participation in the Great Moon Gathering of the Cree people. Later, after his diagnosis, he became even more focused and passionate in his commitments, including founding The Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund to support reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and to promote healing for First Nations people around the immense damage done by residential schools in Canada.
Not that Downie wasn’t clear in his priorities and commitments prior to that. Yet, when he knew that his time in this life was limited, he chose to intensify his efforts around the commitments and connections to people that he found particularly meaningful. Why do people do that?
Meaning and Permanence
Depth case studiess are aware that, in situations of crisis and transition, and, often, when confronted with their own mortality, people will seek to connect with some over-arching value, commitment or meaning.
Such values may be explicitly, conventionally religious. Religious tradition and symbolism do promise connection to a stable, and lasting reality in life. When those symbols work in a positive way, people are given a sense of grounding and belonging in the universe, which is essential when we are confronting truly major, life-changing transitions — including the awareness of our own impermanence and mortality.
Yet, it’s important to realize that there are other symbols and traditions that may give such a sense of connection and rooting to something unchangeable for the individual. These can revolve around key commitments to specific people whom we love, who may or may not be biological or conjugal family, key groups or causes we connect with, the natural world — a huge range of things.
Spirituality and Meaning: Put Away The Stained Glasses
This word “spirituality” is a strange creature. It includes conventional religiosity, but in fact the word is much broader than that. Some would include yoga, meditation practice or T’ai Chi, but it’s much broader than even that. The word spirituality concerns transcendence, by which we mean something with the capacity to take the isolated individual human being and to connect him or her with a significance and meaning that is far greater than the individual ego.
When we reflect on this, we find ourselves in some places that are perhaps far from conventional western religiosity. It’s important that we stay open, to what may be beckoning us to connect. It may be time to put away our stained glasses, so that we can see better, and have awareness of how what Jungians refer to as the transcendent function, which is continually trying to bring the different aspects of our being into connection with each other, is working in our own real lives.
Spirituality and Meaning, and the Process of Depth Psychotherapy
As we examine the life journey of Gord Downie, from a /a-midlife-transition perspective, we have that strong sense of a life that moves towards a pattern of connection with spirituality and meaning in this broader sense. It is the life of an artist who finds vitality and connection in — admittedly unconventional — symbols that connect the ego to the higher self. In Downie’s case, the symbols he explores in his art and in his commitment to people and causes resonated at a deep level with the lives of many of us.
Yet, each of us carries within us a profound yearning for the type of personal symbols and meaning that Gord Downie ultimately found. As Jungian Andrew Samuels tells us, the transcendent function does not operate without aim or purpose. Often, in the second half of life, or in the midst of major life transitions, it can become a matter of great importance to connect to this reality of spirituality and meaning.
The goal of depth psychology is to enable not only artists and public figures, but all people, to connect to this vital realm of symbolic reality, and thus to our own personal depths, and to a sense of connection with the depths of the collective unconscious, and the broader, deeper Self.
Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Psychoanalyst