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.

snowhite in the woodsWhen people say, “That’s just a fairy tale!” they mean that what the person believes is a naive illusion, a lie told to the self. But this is the opposite of the truth. Fairy tales succeed because they wear the clothing of simplicity and innocence, when they are in actuality deadly serious. Fairy tales are ironic. In many tales there is a character with a name like “Dummling” who turns out to be the hero. The stories themselves wear the guise of such foolishness. They do this because telling the truth can be dangerous. The only member of court who could speak truth to the king was the jester, the fool. As George Bernard Shaw said, if you are going to tell the truth, you better make it a joke.

Rather than being shallow fantasies to entertain the kiddies, fairy tales describe the human process of development in all of its mystery. They tell us the harsh facts of our beginnings, how we come to find ourselves in trouble in our lives, and they provide the only viable way out of life’s dilemmas.

They reveal their message in symbolic form because the conscious mind resists and rejects what it cannot easily incorporate. They speak to what every child knows in his heart, but all are afraid to say. As grown ups, we have all too often forgotten these realities, and we dare not admit them now. We have relegated this knowledge to a hidden place, the place where our heart resides beyond our access.

Fairy tales address our deepest existential challenges. They aim to answer the question of how to have, as philosopher Paul Tillich calls it, the courage to be. How do we live fully in the face of the threat of non-existence, insignificance, and moral failure? As Bruno Bettleheim said in his classic book on fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment,

“The fairy tale takes (our) existential anxieties and dilemmas very seriously and addresses itself directly to them: the need to be loved and the fear that one is thought worthless; the love of life and the fear of death.”

Fairy tales address the problems of human life and relationship. The stories tell us that we are all wounded in the core of our being. The result of this woundedness is that we are all distanced from living out what Aristotle called our entelechy, that which we are meant to be. This is what it means to have a lost heart. The stories tell us how we came to be wounded in the first place and how this has led to a loss of connection to our essential selves. They remind us of what we have lost and how to find our hearts and bring our essential nature back out into the light again.

How have we become so wounded? The psychological pioneers Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung tell us that fairy stories reveal the truth about our inner lives. What these pioneers on the quest for the secrets of human nature could barely admit to themselves was that they also revealed the truth about our outer lives and our most important relationships. They reveal the archetypal patterns of the struggle between generations, between parents and children, that has plagued humanity and been repeated over and over back to the murky recesses of our most distant past.

Freud would have us believe that the story of Oedipus is all about the fantasy of the child wanting to kill the father and bed the mom. But Freud leaves out the essential beginning of the tale. The story starts as all the hero myths do. The father is threatened by the birth of the child, because there is a prophecy that the appearance of the prince means the end of the king. So threatened, the king does all he can to rid himself of the threat by having the boy killed.

The dangerous truth that fairy tales reveal is that our beginnings are fraught with peril and danger, and almost always at the hand of a parent. In Beauty and the Beast, Beauty’s father gives his daughter away to a beast to save his own skin; Hansel and Gretel are sent into the forest to starve; Cat-Skin’s father aims to marry his own daughter; Cinderella lives a life of ignominy and shame at the hand of her stepmother; the examples go on and on.

In contrast to our sentimental beliefs, the relationship between parent and child is not made up exclusively of love. Instead, parents, on a level far below their awareness, and influenced by the depth of their own woundedness, are fundamentally threatened by their children. The prophecy that each oracle reveals in the myths is that the appearance of the child means that the wheel of time is turning. It is only a matter of a few cosmic instants before the parent loses his or her beauty and power and succumbs to death, and the child achieves dominion over the realm. The appearance of the child foretells the parent’s doom.

The tales tell us that this is the natural flow of life. Unfortunately, most grown ups have a hard time accepting this reality. To the extent that we cannot accept this, we are out of harmony with what the Chinese Sage Mencius called the Heavenly Mandate. When we live in harmony with this mandate and accept the natural flow of life, we make way for the next generation wholly and completely and all is right in the world. When we resist against this flow then our hidden aggression against our children comes out in various ways and we cause harm. If we do not accept our own death, then the next generation does not have their turn to advance the human experiment. We hurt our children, and the result is that they lose their hearts.

Part Two will appear tomorrow.

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Yesterday, one of my clients was expressing his regret at the opportunities he missed 20 years ago when he was 17 years old. He said that he wished that he could go back to that time and speak to his teenage self from his perch as the wise 37-year-old. I asked him what he would say.

He said, “Don’t be afraid! Sing! Dance! Kiss the girl!”

I imagine we all have such regrets. As my Dad used to say, “Too soon old, too late shmart.” The adolescent has no way of having any kind of perspective. But with age we begin to experience the epic sweep of life, and we can apply our learning from our past to our present.

So I asked my client, “When you are 57, 20 years from now, and you look back at the 37-year-old, what will you regret then? If that 57-year-old could speak to you now, what wisdom would he offer?”

If you could receive advice from the person you will be in 20 years, what advice would he or she offer you right now?

Disney’s version of Sleeping Beauty begins with the celebration of the birth of the princess to the king and queen. The party is disturbed by the arrival of the evil fairy, perfectly named Maleficent. She expresses chagrin at not having been invited to the party and says that she, too, has a gift for the child. She says that when the girl is 16, she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die.

One good fairy still has a gift to give, and though she cannot fully undo the curse, she modifies it, so that the girl will only fall into an enchanted slumber if she pricks her finger.

In order to protect the young girl, she is hidden away in a small cottage in the middle of the dark forest and her identity is kept secret from her. There she lives with three good fairies. On her 16th birthday, despite all the protections of the good fairies, she pricks her finger and falls into eternal slumber. With her spell, the entire kingdom also becomes frozen.

Like Sleeping Beauty, we are all threatened by malevolent forces growing up, and in order to protect ourselves, we put the best of ourselves into hiding. We do this so successfully, we are not even aware of what we are missing. Like Mencius says,

“When people’s dogs and chicks are lost, they go out and look for them, but when people’s hearts, or original nature, are lost, they do not go out and look for them.”

When we hide the best of ourselves we have a lost heart.

There is a Maleficent within each of us that wants to keep us in this condition of enchantment.

This character who lives in our inner world has been called by many names. The great German writer Goethe called this force the “backside phantom.” The author Rick Carson called him the gremlin. Maleficent is that inner personality who comes in to ruin the party. She undermines our efforts. This inner demon tells us that we are never going to succeed anyway so why bother. Just at the moment that we are about to change Maleficent does something to make sure that we don’t.

I have nothing but awe and admiration for the power and influence of this inner character. More often than not, this force wins the day. It waits for the person to leave my office, and before they get out of the elevator, Maleficent is back in control again.

What is this force? Where does it come from? And what do we do about it? This may be the most difficult problem that people who are trying to find their hearts face.

Some will say that we cannot get rid of it. One possibility is that it is like the giant in the fairy tales. This giant symbolizes the hurt part of ourselves that has gone undeveloped because it has lived so long in hiding. It is like a big baby whose needs were never met and so is acting out of frustration. This view would suggest that we need to love Maleficent so that it can grow and mature. The problem isn’t that this part lives within us; the problem is that we have a poor relationship to it. If we treat Maleficent lovingly, it won’t undermine our plans.

But the fairy tales we read suggest something different. In Sleeping Beauty, the evil fairy needs to be killed. This is the usual solution (What a world! What a world!).

Maybe the answer is both. Maybe we have to love Maleficent and kill her. Then the problem becomes, how do we do this?

I’d love to hear your experiences with Maleficent, your views on where she comes from, and what to do about her.