For the past 100 years or so, we’ve been coming to terms with the idea that the meaning of life, the world we inhabit, and we ourselves are constructs of language. Not long ago we believed that meaning was “out there” to be discovered in external reality, like a hidden treasure buried in the nature of things, perhaps by god himself. Then, as we came to accept our mind’s role in the assignment of meaning, we began to realize that the world we live in – that peculiar arrangement of meaning which provides us with a sense of security, identity, orientation, and significance – is really a complex system of symbols and hence also a mental construct.
Most recently, although this is only true of Western culture, as India and the Orient came to the insight long ago, we are trying to adjust ourselves to the idea that even the separate center of self-conscious personal identity – dignified with the Latin name “ego” – is nothing but an aggregate, a composition in both senses of that word.
It is “made up” of analyzable elements, each of these also a construct, which are together composed into a streaming narrative that is our personal myth. In contemporary Western philosophy and psychology this general epistemology (theory of knowledge) is known as constructivism. In the East it is called Maya: the constructed illusion of meaning, world, and self.
In this post I want to make quick work of personalizing this rather abstract theory by dismantling the box that defines our sense of self. I find it helpful to think of these elements, four of them, as fused together like lines at right angles and forming a rectangle: our box. Our individual box is meant to satisfy our emotional and intellectual needs for security, identity, orientation, and significance, as already mentioned. It provides us with location and perspective, a kind of psychological shelter but also with a lookout on reality.
Visually, and developmentally, at the base of our self construct are the anchors that secured our deepest connection to reality as infants and young children. The maternal (M) and paternal (P) archetypes manifested in degrees of clarity through the forms of our actual mother and father.
Freud built a good deal of his psychoanalytic theory around our relationships with these two principal “taller powers” of early life. But their appreciation as archetypes (literally “first forms”) goes back thousands of years into the ancient art of storytelling.
Sacred myths of every culture are rooted in the maternal and paternal archetypes, representing our most distant memories and primal experiences.
According to archetypal psychology, these two archetypes carry echoes of our first encounters with a maternal figure who enveloped us in her warm love and made us feel safe; and a paternal figure who first encountered us as “Other” and provided for us from outside the boundary of our nascent self.
Father came to us, whereas we came from Mother.
Our development would be a dramatic adventure of gradual separation from Mother and fascination with Father, as we began to take on an identity of our own. Our present capacity for intimacy as adults traces back to those early intimate bonds with Mother and Father.
This is not to say that everyone’s actual father and mother were clear epiphanies of the maternal and paternal archetypes. Some of us grew up without one or the other in our life, in which case our one active parent had to serve as our generative Ground and transcendent Other. Some of us were raised by preoccupied, distracted, neglectful, controlling or abusive parents, which made our quest for intimacy all the more complicated. Nevertheless, and whoever served as anchors in our early life – whether as biological, adoptive, or surrogate parents to us – these elementary figures negotiated the bonds of intimacy that would qualify or compromise all our relationships henceforth.
Unavoidably in contemplating the maternal and paternal archetypes, we will recognize certain stereotypes in the roles our parents might have played during those first years. We’ve already identified the maternal archetype with warmth, love, and safety; and the paternal archetype with a provident otherness that “called us out,” as it were.
The maternal and paternal archetypes are taken up by society and played out by actual mothers and fathers, in different parenting “styles.” I want to focus specifically on interactions we had with our mother or father during more stressful experiences where we were challenged beyond our ability or lost our nerve at the edge of security, and we somehow failed. How each parent acknowledged our failure, and actually talked to us about the experience and our feelings, was in the form of “resolutions” intended to help us recover and move on.
I will identify three stereotypical resolutions with each archetype.
Our mother, manifesting the maternal archetype, characteristically took us in her arms and spoke these three Resolutions of Comfort:
- It’s okay.
- Let it go.
- Just relax.
Essentially she was saying that our failure wasn’t such a big deal, and that our feelings mattered more. Her intention was to ease our pain, take our attention away from the negative experience, and assure us of her unconditional love.
Our father, manifesting the paternal archetype, characteristically approached and called out to us these three Resolutions of Encouragement:
- Brush it off.
- Face your fear.
- Try again.
In a way, he was also telling us that our failure (in effort or of nerve) was not the end of the world. His intention was to rouse our determination, turn our attention again to the challenge, and urge us back for another attempt.
Both comfort and encouragement are “strength” words. Comfort literally means “to come with strength,” as in one who joins us in our suffering and offers support. Encouragement means “to give (or put in) heart,” which is what we most need when we have lost our passion, will, hope or desire (associated in many cultures with the heart). In speaking these Resolutions of Comfort and Encouragement to us, our mother and father were, in different ways, building the foundation of our self construct.
Over time, these same resolutions were gradually internalized by us, so that, in later life experiences of failure and insecurity, we could remember them (i.e., speak them to ourselves) and move past our pain. They became habits that carried us through life, shaped our values and beliefs, and provided inspiration for our roles in relationship with others.
Our box is complete.