Tag Archives: Ages of life

The Supreme Paradox

Supreme ParadoxI’ve written before on what I call the Matrix of Meaning, referring to a deep code of primary concerns and narrative motifs that generates the very fabric of our worldview. A sense of self and reality is the central construct in our personal myth, orienting us on the pressing challenges and emerging opportunities in our journey through life. The Matrix is deceptively simple in design, but the patterns of meaning it can produce are beyond number. Your life story and personal worldview are very different from mine, but the same Matrix of concerns and motifs is behind them both.

My first-time reader needs to know that I am a constructivist and employ the term ‘myth’ in its more technical (rather than popular) sense, as a narrative plot that holds the body of a story together and drives its action. Although we may have authorial liberties regarding the style and idiosyncratic features of our personal myth, the deeper structure is determined by what the ancient Greeks personified in the goddess Ananke, or Necessity. In other words, how you respond to adversity, hardship, pain and loss is unique to you as an individual, but the inevitability of suffering is universal for human beings. This was the Buddha’s First Noble Truth.

My diagram depicts the Four Ages of individual development, and these, too, are universal archetypes in mythology: the Child, the Youth, the Adult, and the Elder. I’ve indicated the average years over a lifetime when we transition from one to the next, but these shouldn’t be taken as hard predictors. The developmental challenge of a given Age might not be successfully negotiated, in which case our neurotic hangups around its primary concern will be carried into the next challenge, compounding our difficulty in making it through. Indeed, the fact that none of us gets out of childhood without some insecurity throws light on the question of why the human journey can be so damned complicated.

Northup Frye’s four literary types are also included in my diagram, each one corresponding to an Age and its driving concern. Comedy is the up-swing to ‘happily ever after’. Romance follows the heroic quest for an ideal. Tragedy descends the plunge-line of misfortune. Irony provides a double-vision between what is said at the surface and what is meant underneath. Our personal myth will predictably move through these distinct narrative frames, forcing us to adapt our construction of meaning to the shifting focus of our life in time. Although many have tried, any attempt to impose a frame of comedy over the reality of suffering only ends up forfeiting a potentially life-changing insight behind a veil of denial and make-believe. Needless to say, otherworldly religion is especially good at this.

The multicolored arc across my diagram represents the progression of consciousness through an ‘animistic’ body-centered stage (color-coded black), through a ‘theistic’ ego-centered stage (orange), and farther into a ‘post-theistic’ soul-centered mode of life (purple). Only a small minority are willing, or even able, to release personal identity (ego) for a deeper mystical realization and larger ethical vision. The rest of us fall in line with the status quo, take refuge inside our convictions, and succumb to the consensus trance. This is when theism can become pathological and our god starts looking like a glorified version of ourselves – a moody, judgmental, and self-righteous bigot.

My purpose in touring through the diagram in such detail is to lift into view the paradoxes in play throughout. The security of early childhood is in polar tension with the suffering that comes on as we mature. Much of suffering has to do with the loss of attachments that anchor identity and meaning for us, but which also represent for us a reality that is safe and supportive. Security and suffering, as primary concerns coded into the Matrix of Meaning, are paradoxically related. It’s not security or suffering, but the tension between security and suffering that drives our construction of meaning. Similarly, freedom and fate are polar opposites, making the interplay of our control in life and the conditions outside our control a second creative opposition. Freedom and fate only seem to exclude each other, while real wisdom involves learning to live inside and with their polarity.

This consideration of the paradoxes inherent to the Matrix of Meaning, and how these concerns compel us to make meaning that is at once relevant to our situation in life and capable of orienting us successfully throughout our journey, brings me to what I’ll call the supreme paradox. I refer my reader back to the diagram, specifically to that arrow arcing across from left to right. This represents the arc of our lifespan, tracking through the Four Ages (if we live long enough) from birth to death.

Especially during the first half of life, and most critically in those early years, we experience the uplifting support of reality in our growing body, a nurturing family system, and a wide world of opportunity. Such a conspiracy of virtuous forces instills in us a deep assurance of reality as the ground of our existence. We are the living manifestations of a 14 billion year-old process, a flower of consciousness emerged from this magnificent universe, the cosmos contemplating itself in wonder. Surely this is the root inspiration of true religion: the ineffable sense of being sustained by a provident reality, coming to be and living our days under the watchful intention of a mystery we cannot fully comprehend. All the mythological gods who provide us with nourishment, protection, guidance, and solace are metaphorical personifications of this provident ground of existence.

There are other gods as well, who begin peeking in as our exposure to reality becomes more complicated and challenging. These are dark forces – tricksters, shadowy forms, and unseen solvents that slowly erode the foundations of our neat and tidy worlds. Yes, reality is the provident ground of existence, but it is also the inescapable abyss of extinction. Coming-to-be and passing-away are the paradoxical reality of our life in time. We may want only a reality that supports and promotes our rise into identity, safekeeping our existence forever and ever, but that’s not how it is.

As Carl Jung pointed out many times and Lao Tzu made the central insight of his reflections on the way (Tao), light and dark are not absolutely exclusive of each other. Rather, they swirl together, pulling and pushing, blending and separating in the dance of reality, generating the ten thousand things and dissolving them simultaneously into the ineffable secret of the Tao which cannot be named.


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Telling Stories, Coming True

As a constructivist I regard meaning as something human beings create (construct) rather than search for and find in reality. While this has often come across as a radical and dangerous opinion, the idea that meaning might not be fixed and absolute is evident in our daily experience. The very same event or occasion can support numerous and even contradictory interpretations of what it means.

We used to think that uncovering the bald facts underneath all these competing perspectives would give us “the truth” – its actual, essential, and eternal meaning. When we dug our way to this shining core of meaning – this supposed absolute, universal, and timeless truth – what we found was something that didn’t make sense without an explanation. In other words, we learned that language, words, and narrative are what we use to make something meaningful; without this human projection, reality is quite literally meaningless.

To get at what’s behind this engine of meaning, this creative imagination that compels human beings to spin patterns of causality, identity, and significance, I’ve offered the notion of a “matrix of meaning” – something like a great loom upon which our minds compose the meaning of existence and construct the worlds we live in. My concept of the matrix incorporates the work of Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces), Northrup Frye (Anatomy of Criticism), Erik Erikson (psychosocial stages of development), and James Joyce (specifically his idea of a “monomyth,” the single underlying plot that structures and informs all stories, or at least those worth telling).

I’ve integrated the theories and insights of these authors into a framework of Four Ages of a human being, as carried in the perennial philosophy, which is a persistent and cross-cultural wisdom tradition that has seeded world religions and spiritual revolutions for thousands of years. Instead of promoting an orthodox “theory of everything,” the perennial philosophy encourages us to engage the present mystery of reality at our location in the evolutionary stream. Not male versus female, young versus old, insider versus outsider, or modern versus something else, but as an individual human being, right where we are.

monomythThe diagram above illustrates this unitive theory of human nature and development according to the perennial philosophy, again with some clarifying insights from modern-day theorists. Let’s take a walk through the model and consider how it all fits together.

The Monomyth

At the center is a reminder from the work of James Joyce regarding what he called the “monomyth” at the heart of all great stories. It is the “one plot” worth telling and writing about; everything else in story supports and serves the integrity and advancement of this plot. Joseph Campbell named it The Hero’s Journey. Instead of seeing it as a kind of abstraction from the granular details of many individual stories, the monomyth is better appreciated as the structuring principle of narrative consciousness itself.

I want to use Joyce’s term to name the “one plot” every human being is busy composing, with help from his or her family, community, and larger culture. It’s not something we sit down and write, like a screenplay of our lives, but is rather the shape of life – or the shapes life takes on – as we move through the major phases of our development as individuals.

We all start from home and depart on a journey that inevitably takes us into initiations where our character is authenticated and disillusioned. In our search for deeper meaning and higher purpose we arrive at a point where security and control (if we still have these) must be sacrificed – given up but not thrown aside – for the sake of creativity, communion, and fulfillment. Upon our return we find that the business at home invites a double vision, allowing us to perceive a precious and eternal reality in the passing little things of life.

This monomyth is like a hologram of fractal geometry, where the larger holistic pattern (the circuit just summarized) is replicated at more refined levels which play out in distinct narrative modes – what Frye named comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony. These modes correspond to the primary concerns that preoccupy human beings at the different stages (the Four Ages) of life: security in childhood (birth to age 10), freedom in youth (years 10 to 30), suffering in adulthood (years 30 to 60), and fate in later life (age 60+).


Comedy turns the monomyth around a focus on security, usually where some higher (taller: adult) power is in charge, everything is in its place, and life is just boring enough to arouse curiosity in the protagonist (most often a child) about what’s outside the door, over the wall, or down the rabbit hole. True to the mytho-logic of the monomyth, the comfortable security of home will typically be thrown into jeopardy as the youngster loses his or her way, or gets captured by some wicked thing. The nature of comedy, however, ensures that a successful escape will be made and the frightened hero or heroine returns safely home again.


Youth is the Age when the palace grounds seem limiting and oppressive: It’s time for adventure! The narrative mode of romance is not only about the lure of perfect (and even more irresistible, forbidden) love, but how the protagonist – and let’s not forget that we’re talking about ourselves – longs to explore (and transgress) the boundaries on freedom. He or she goes out in search of something, encountering obstacles and opponents along the way. The resolution to getting cornered or captured is not about making it safely back home, but rather overcoming the evil force and taking destiny in hand. Romance is the narrative mode most associated with heroes in popular culture.


Our thirties are the favored time for stepping into careers and starting families: We are Adults at last. But with this transition we are also crossing into a landscape of deepening shadows. Responsibilities put limits on our time and energy, and our passion for life gets tethered to mundane commitments and deadlines. At some point – what I call the midlife reset (around age 45) – we can become positively overwhelmed by feelings of emptiness and disorientation. A decline in fitness and creeping challenges to our health, not to mention an increased frequency in our confrontation with death (older relatives, parents, and even close friends), force us to set aside many of our youthful dreams and ambitions. Suffering simply cannot be escaped, bravely ignored, or permanently medicated out of awareness.


The crossover into the Age of Elder might see us becoming gnarled, bitter, and cynical. Or else, if we can follow the lifeline of our monomyth, a spiritual wisdom might ascend within us, even as our animal vigor is ebbing away. For so much of our life we had reached for light and run from shadow, held on to life as if death was the enemy, chased Utopias (“no place”) in future deals, better opportunities, greener grass, brighter lands, and otherworldly paradises. Now we understand – or are understanding more keenly – that light and shadow, life and death, good and evil, joy and grief, passing time and timeless eternity are many aspects of a single, profound, and ineffable mystery.

The narrative mode of irony provides a way of contemplating existence at two levels (or more), where we no longer have a need to split reality into opposites and flatten out its paradoxes. A spirit (or the stomach) for not only tolerating such a communion of opposites but even celebrating it as the Golden Way (gospel, dharma, tao) into life in its fullness requires that we be at a place psychologically where the orthodoxies of Flatland no longer constrain us.

When we are ready we will see that the Cross of dereliction is also the Bodhi tree of enlightenment; the hemlock in our cup is also the wine of new life. Death and rebirth (or resurrection) are misunderstood if we insist on arranging them in temporal sequence, as life after death. The dark principle, Lucifer, whom we frantically try to push behind us and out of our life, holds the light (Lucifer means “light bearer”) we’ve been too afraid to accept as our own.

Across this matrix of meaning stand the great paradoxes of the wisdom teachings: security in suffering, freedom in fate. Grasped as a higher pattern, the monomyth offers us guidance as we construct meaning and compose our personal story. The truth of our story lies not in the facts, but in its power to carry a vision of what is still to come.


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