When I was in Hawaii a few weeks ago I began reading James Hollis’s book, The Eden Project – In Search of the Magical Other. I don’t run across a lot of people reading Hollis, though last year’s Ted Lasso season featured a camera pan of the cover of The Middle Passage, more than a bit of a nod to the book’s influence on the writers. My favorite Hollis book is Swamplands of the Soul. Most of life is lived in the swamplands, so a map of the terrain seems like a very good idea.
The Eden Project brilliantly explains why we mess up every romantic relationship we ever have. We cannot avoid wanting the Other to take us back to the earliest stage of longing for the omnipotent, omniscient mother. Until we find that within, we will never truly be the romantic partner our lover deserves. John O’Donohue, in his book Eternal Echoes, writes about doing the work of becoming yourself:
There are no manuals for the construction of the individual you would like to become. You are the only one who can decide this and take up the lifetime of work that it demands. This is a wonderful privilege and such an exciting adventure. To grow into the person that your deepest longing desires is a great blessing. If you can find a creative harmony between your soul and your life, you will have found something infinitely precious. You may not be able to do much about the great problems of the world or to change the situation you are in, but if you can awaken the eternal beauty and light of your soul, you will bring light wherever you go. The gift of life is given to us for ourselves and also to bring peace, courage, and compassion to others.
“A great harmony between your soul and your life.” Yes, that is something precious. Hollis says once we have done the work O’Donohue has so beautifully described, we can finally become a worthy partner to our lover.
Joseph Campbell said marriage has nothing to do with being happy. It has to do with being transformed. The original projection onto the Other offers the fantasy of happiness, but reality cannot sustain that promise. Once the beloved is revealed as really Other, not just the carrier of our projections, the troubles begin. Hollis says transformation is about enlargement and enlargement comes only through suffering.
Discovering the otherness of the Other can lead to the kind of loving energy which comes through caring for the other as Other, valuing and celebrating their otherness. For those fortunate enough to achieve that kind of love, the relationship is transformative. They allow the beloved to be who they are, even as they struggle to live authentically as they are.
Marriage has never been two halves becoming a whole. It is two wholes creating a third entity, the relationship, that must be nurtured as children are nurtured. It is the only entity created by the couple that stays in the house throughout their lives. Children are gone within a couple of decades. The relationship remains.
I am grateful for the marriage Cathy and I had. We still have a good relationship, though it is very different than it once was. It took us a long time to realize that if you are not committed to your own growth, you cannot truly appreciate the unique otherness of your partner. I wish it had not taken us so long to learn that lesson.
The core wound we all experience, that there is something about us that makes us unworthy of deep human connection, affects all of our relationships. Much of the reason is because our ego expends all of its energy trying to avoid the core wound. The ego believes acquiring power and safety are the only way to deal it. The ego blocks the soul from following its own path. The soul knows it is worthy of deep human connection, so it desires a richer journey. The soul is searching for meaning. It is, of necessity a solo search. You cannot appropriate the meaning your spouse has discovered, or postpone your own search in deference to theirs.
A healthy relationship is a base camp, with each person climbing his or her own mountain looking for the resonance, depth, and awe that indicates great meaning is nearby. You come back to the base camp at the end of the day, exhausted, exhilarated or discouraged. Whatever the case, you return ready to engage the Other on their equally fascinating quest.
You figure out all this good stuff when you’re old and have learned to suffer. We humans are not quick studies or willing sojourners. We have to be forced onto the road less traveled by, the easier road having been blocked by circumstances, leaving us no choice but to traverse the road filled with fallen branches and stones.
I finished The Eden Project and immediately started it again. It feels like one of those books you have to ponder. I might be able to eventually gain the wisdom of James Hollis or John O’Donohue. All I have to do is live another hundred years or so, and then I might be able to fully embody that kind of wisdom. Yep, that’s all I have to do.
And so it goes.