FAIRY TALES AND THE INNER MALEFICENT

nielsen-scheherazadeIn the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty, at the party that celebrates the birth of the new princess, an evil witch named Maleficent shows up and ruins the whole event. She puts a curse on the infant that destines her to a painful existence. Who is this nefarious character that makes an appearance in many different guises in endless stories?

The truth is, there is a Maleficent who lives in each of us. All of the explorers of the human condition have recognized that we are not a unity. We are not simply the singular “I” that we imagine ourselves to be. We possess multiple sub-personalities. There have been countless names and descriptions for these inner part-selves and how they work. Freud divided us into three, id, ego and super-ego. John Bradshaw named the “inner-child.”  Jung named these parts complexes and archetypes. Fritz Perls described the relationship between the parts by calling it the topdog/underdog game. Eric Berne, in transactional analysis, named three interacting parts, the parent, the adult, and the child. The purveyors of the object-relations school split what they call internal representations into at least four parts, the good and bad self and the good and bad object. Watkins describes ego-states, a family of coherent sub-personalities that live and compete within us. Historically, it has been known as the cosmic battle between good and evil. In cartoons, we see an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Whatever name we give it, it is apparent that we are a multiplicity within a singularity, we are many within the one. Our search is for that oneness within our many-ness: like our money says, e pluribus unum, within the many, one.

Freud’s profoundly disturbing discovery is that we are not masters in our own house. Strange as it may seem, these part-selves, sub-personalities, or ego-states, though they exist generally outside of our awareness, have a tremendous influence over our thoughts, feelings, imaginings and behaviors. That person that we think of as “I,” who we believe is in control of our lives, is actually oftentimes not in command of what we do. Despite the fact that this has been well known for well over 2500 years, having been described by Plato, we still have a hard time grasping this fact and accepting it. But the truth is told by fairy tales. Maleficent, the troublemaking fairy, lives inside of us. We know this because we set an intention, but all too often don’t live it through. How many times my clients have said, “I know what I want to do and what I should do, why don’t I do it?”

Some fear when they hear that we have hidden personalities that this means we are crazy and have multiple personality disorder. What we now understand is that this syndrome is merely one extreme end of a long continuum. Only the most wounded of us risk such a complete shattering of personality.

The extreme can illuminate what most of us experience in a far more subtle and integrated way. A schizophrenic may hear disembodied voices that tell the person they are worthless and should die. This does not happen for most of us, but all too many of us, when we dig deep within, discover that there are parts of ourselves that undermine our good intentions by telling us we are worthless and that nothing will work out for us anyway.

These parts of ourselves that sometimes can act against our own apparent self-interest are not evil, or necessarily intend harm. Rather, they serve a protective function. The ways that they protect us may be far outdated and no longer help us, but those parts still think they are aiding us. In this sense, there are no irrational acts. If we can understand the motivation behind the act, we can see the rationality in it, even if they are operating out of wholly false premises. For example, whenever one particular client of mine makes any kind of mistake, he punches himself in the head. Now this is what his father did. His father believed that this was the best way to teach his son not to make mistakes. He did not recognize that what he was doing was completely harmful. He thought he was doing the right thing. Now this client does not want to do this to himself, but feels compelled to. This internalized father behaves autonomously, outside of my client’s control, and he continues to do what he believes is the right thing, even though one day it might kill him.

Very often these parts of ourselves are our own unrealized potentials. Hiding our potential selves is one way of describing what it means to have a lost heart. These unrealized potential aspects not only remain in an unmatured state within us, they corrupt, putrefy or distort through a long period of non-acknowledgment, lack of support and lack of conscious use. They become vitiated. They corrupt because they have gone so long uncultivated. That is what makes their influence negative. They may be enraged, and are protective in the sense that they are seeking revenge on our behalf for a lifetime of neglect and hurt.

The tales reveal this as well. In one fairy tale, a fisherman frees a genie from a lamp. The genie says to the fisherman that he will grant him one wish and that is to choose the method of his death. The fisherman says that is not the way the story is supposed to go. Genies are supposed to give those that free them three wishes of anything they would like. The genie says he would have done that had he not been trapped in the lamp for 10,000 years. After being in there so long, he was too enraged to do anything but destroy.

Oftentimes we battle against these inner demons with our conscious will, but we often lose the battle, because the part of us that we fight with is not invested with sufficient energy to win the battle. We identify with the part that fights, but that is not really our source of greatest strength. All too often, the ogre rules the kingdom.

Fairy tales speak to this outer battle which has become an inner battle. It speaks to those undeveloped parts within ourselves that are hurt and afraid. It speaks to all the lost children within us who feel so all alone. It speaks to those children within grown up bodies who don’t want to come out and grow up, because of the fear that the pain will be too overwhelming if they get abandoned again.

180px-Gustave_Doré_-_Dante_Alighieri_-_Inferno_-_Plate_7_(Beatrice)FAIRY TALES INTRODUCE US TO THE WISE ONE WITHIN

There are also parts of us that are wiser and stronger than we are aware of. In order to counter the power of Maleficent, we need to call on these good powers within us.

One of the most significant collections of tales is the ancient book, “The 1001 Nights.” In this cycle, the Sultan is so troubled by being betrayed by his wife that he plans to marry and then kill a new woman each day. Scheherazade comes up with a plan to save the women of this realm, but in order to do so she needs to put herself into the ultimate peril. She herself will marry the Sultan. She convinces him to let her live each day by telling him a different story for each of 1001 nights.  By telling him these tales, the Sultan becomes cured of his condition. He finds his heart, falls in love with Scheherazade, and eliminates his decree to marry and kill a woman a day. The cycle tells us that in this first recorded course of psychotherapy, the cure was fairy tales.

Scheherazade was an extraordinary woman. She had studied the wisdom of the ancients. She had followed the travels of past pilgrims of the heart. She was a fine poet. She had mastered science and philosophy. She was verse in stories and folk tales. In other words, she had lived the life of self-cultivation that is necessary for finding the lost heart. This gave her true courage in the sense that Paul Tillich described in The Courage to Be.  She did not avoid her destiny, even though she risked death. She was willing to risk all for authentic being.

Scheherazade is what Jung would call an anima figure. This is that great source of wisdom and power that lives deep within each of us. If we can get past the limitations imposed on us by our own woundedness, we will find her, and the great riches she offers. She is our Beatrice, our guide out of hell and into paradise. We need this wisdom figure if we are to counter Maleficent. In the tale “The Sparrow with the Slit Tongue,” after the man journeys in a dark forest, he comes upon a garden. In the garden is a beautiful house. In the house is a magical princess. This house in the garden in the center of the wood is our heart. This is the home of the divine within. As The Upanishads tells us, the heart is the home of Atman, the great source of all.

The stories tell us that if we are to overcome impossible obstacles we need supernatural help. In order to access our “inner Scheherazade,” we need to do what she did. We need to live a life of self-cultivation. We must study the world’s wisdom, be creative, become knowledgable, and immerse ourselves in tales. By taking this outer journey of studying the collective wisdom of human kind in its multifarious variations, we call on the power of the magical princess. With her aid we can overcome our shame, and render our demons powerless.

The life of self-cultivation described by the stories combines this outward journey with the inward one. We need to feed ourselves with everything we can from the outside to awaken our inner guide, and then we turn inward and hope for communication. The way to discover the answer to our problems is to enter ourselves the way we enter the story. We look inside, and with patience we wait. If we listen carefully, something eventually bubbles up to the surface. This is the way to find a pathway to our heart. The stories tell us that the inner guide will give us all we need, if we are willing to do the work of finding her. She is the guide to our innermost being, where the world and our nature are one.

To understand ourselves is to understand everything.

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