If you don’t know the kind of person I am and I don’t know the kind of person you are a pattern that others made may prevail in the world and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
~Excerpt from the poem, “A Ritual To Be Read To Each Other,” by William Stafford~
During the past five years I have provided life coaching for a host of men and women around the world who have been deeply troubled by disparate perspectives between themselves and their spouses or partners regarding the future. Earlier in my life as a psychotherapist in private practice for seventeen years, I had come to believe that in the majority of cases, women were more motivated toward introspection and personal growth than men. After all, that was my experience in working with hundreds of female clients and a wide range of couples. In those days I had no understanding of the collapse of industrial civilization and probably would have considered it a bizarre notion conjured in the mind of some plucky Hollywood science fiction writer. It felt as far from my reality as anything could be.
Today, after more than a decade of researching collapse and talking with countless individuals about it, I have come to believe that one of its most wrenching aspects may be a situation in which one partner in a relationship is well aware of collapse and actively preparing for it while the other partner is resistant to the notion of any future that is not brimming with optimism and infinite opportunities for a rich, fulfilling life. The disparity does not appear to adhere to gender stereotypes. In other words, sometimes women are collapse-aware and actively preparing while their male partner is resistant to their efforts. In other cases, male partners have been researching collapse thoroughly and are at their wits end in their attempts to convince a female partner to join them in preparing. In either case, the divergence of perspectives is agonizing for both individuals.
In the next chapter I will address talking to children about collapse, but I note at this juncture that when children are involved in a relationship between partners who have diverse views of collapse, the pain is intensified, and the stakes are higher. One partner says, “But we must prepare the kids for dealing with a daunting future,” while the other insists that “If you talk to the kids about this, you’ll terrify them, and I won’t permit that.”
The resistant or reluctant partner may accuse the other of “going through a phase,” or “over-reacting,” or even being crazy. Both partners may dig in more stubbornly, or they may begin doubting their own perspective or they may become laden with sorrow and begin feeling victimized.
A plethora of responses are possible in such a divergent perspective between partners, but one thing is constant: It hurts.
First, I want to emphasize that all relationships have issues. Bring together two people who grew up in industrial civilization, and you will have a relationship with a variety of issues, some more challenging than others. We should not naively believe that our relationship issues began with differing views about collapse, and we should also understand that whatever issues were already present in the relationship will be triggered and exacerbated by that conflict. In many cases, if couples weren’t in conflict about collapse, they would be in conflict about other issues—and often are. In other situations, the topic of collapse is such a hot button that it resurrects what were deemed to be long-deceased ghosts in the relationship and teases them up to the surface.
Today, the issue is collapse, but it is laden with residue from previous or ongoing issues. The so-called “terrifying talk” of a collapse-aware partner may trigger in the reluctant partner a constellation of feelings and memories regarding other painful issues in the relationship that are unresolved or only partially resolved. Just when one partner believes he has forgiven the other for an old wound, the issue of collapse may ignite not only a chasm between the two related to that issue, but also stir the troubled waters of any prior hurt.
For this reason, I have created a specific workshop for partners and families on “Relationships In The Long Emergency.” When working with partners in workshops or by phone, I like to have a sense of what some of the underlying issues in the relationship are, entirely separate from collapse, so I invite people to share those with me. Without exception, I find that those issues are at play on some level in the conflict about collapse. I often ask people to go back in time to the first mention of collapse and notice what happened between them and if possible, recall the feelings each experienced. Probably, the same emotions have continued and intensified since the first mention, and those may have triggered still other emotions. I then like to explore how the conflict has affected the relationship and whether or not other family members are involved such as children, in-laws, and siblings. Very importantly, I want to know what other situations in the relationship might have triggered similar feelings, and I might ask each partner to remember another situation when they felt something like this with their partner.
The next curiosity I have is the degree of fear that exists within both partners. I want to know from the prepping partner what they are afraid will happen if the non-prepping partner does not get on board. Likewise, I want to ask the non-prepping partner they fear will happen if the prepping partner continues on their current path. Exploring these fears is enormously important and invariably will lead to other fault lines in the relationship.
A common response from the concerned, reluctant partner is that they feel jealous of the time and attention that are being given to collapse by the prepping partner. It is not uncommon to hear the non-prepping partner say that they feel as if their partner is having an affair and that they is being excluded. The prepping partner may already sense this and feel somewhat guilty as if they are “sneaking around” and reading books, watching documentaries, or having conversations with other preppers “behind the back” of their partner—a kind of indulging in “collapse porn” if you will.
Another common response is that one feels as if one’s partner is mentally ill or has “lost it” in relation to collapse. For the reluctant partner, this can be terrifying, and for the prepping partner, the sense that one’s significant other believes they are going crazy is exceedingly painful. For both individuals, a profound loneliness ensues. Both partners feel that they cannot discuss and share the things that are most important to them with the other. In this situation, it is extremely important for the prepping partner to have other people to talk with about preparation so that the immediate family is not the only place for doing so. In most cases, it is more likely that the prepping partner will have venues for doing this than the non-prepping partner who usually feels embarrassed about telling anyone about the preparations that their partner is making. One woman told me that she was exceedingly concerned about friends and neighbors discovering the passion with which her husband was storing food and water and acquiring medical supplies in preparation for collapse. She knew that her husband wasn’t crazy, but she was certain that people outside the family would believe he was.
Navigating this delicate walk on eggshells is inherently challenging, but more so if one or the other partner or both are actively hurling hostile barbs to the other. Responses like, “Are you fucking crazy?” or “I’m seriously worried about your mental health,” or “If you’re so worried about the future of your kids, why are you discussing this with them?” are absolutely not helpful. Nor are facial expressions and body language that communicate hostility or scorn.
When I work with couples in this situation, from the non-prepping partner, I want to learn what is most challenging about entertaining the notion of collapse. I notice if this person’s well being or livelihood is highly invested in the status quo. What would they lose by awakening to collapse? What changes in their life would they have to make in order to sleep well at night and keep their conscience clean, and what would that cost them on a variety of levels? How have they been personally wounded by this topic? How has the topic brought to the surface other painful experiences from their past? What personal collapse within themselves might they be warding off? In summary, how does the whole notion of the end of life as they have known it strike terror into their hearts and threaten their relationship with their partner and their entire family?
From the prepping partner, I might want to know if there’s anything familiar about their situation—being the loner who sees what’s really going on and maybe trying to tell someone, only to be ignored, shamed, or scorned. Have they experienced other situations where they saw beneath the surface presentation of things to a deeper reality? If there is a replication, that does not suggest any pathology on the part of the prepping partner, but being able to notice the repetition of a pattern may prove useful at some point.
In no way would I pathologize the non-prepping partner. They are a vulnerable, wounded human being as we all are, who for whatever reasons, is profoundly threatened by the topic of collapse and what it could mean for their well being and the for well being of relationships held most dear. Everyone is clueless about collapse at some point. Everyone’s journey is unique and should be respected, even if we don’t happen to agree with it.
Many partners of non-preppers erroneously believe that if they can just amass enough “proof” of collapse, then their partner will be compelled to see the wisdom of their preparation. “If he just watches this documentary, he’ll get it,” or “If she reads this superbly-researched article, I’m sure she’ll finally understand.” What both need to grasp is that the conflict is almost never an intellectual one. Rather, it is an emotional can of worms evoked by one person adopting a different world view from the other.
In a 2010 article “Dealing With A Reluctant Partner,” Becca Martenson, partner of financial advisor and blogger, Chris Martenson, shares their experience as a couple coming to terms with collapse from 2002 going forward:
The movie “The Matrix” had just come out, providing perfect metaphors that made him [Chris] sound pretty darn crazy to me: He talked about having taken the red pill, and that he didn’t want to be a battery for the machine anymore. I figured this was some kind of mid-life crisis in the works. It was an emotional squall; I just had to wait it out, and Chris would be back to his usual self in a few months. But the squall didn’t pass – instead, it picked up energy and became a real storm. The harder the storm raged, the more I shut down to what Chris was trying to tell me. He was growing increasingly distrustful of the system and fearful about the impact on his family, but I couldn’t open up and listen to what he was saying at all. No one else I knew was talking about this stuff. What was the matter with my husband?
After a while, Chris changed tactics, and rather than attempting to force me to his position or expressing his fear, he altered the tone of his voice. He cooled down, came to me one evening (I remember it well) and said, “I need to talk to you about something really important. Everything I have been reading and researching is changing my impression of what the future looks like. I’m looking at the future through a new lens, and what I see has huge implications for our family; I need you to learn what I have learned; to look through the same lens and see if you come to the same conclusions.”
This change in approach helped me shift my own stance. My earlier perception that Chris was coming at me strongly from a place of fear and anger led me to put up walls to protect myself from the intensity of his emotions. When he shifted and came to me calmly, I was able to put down those walls and listen to what he was saying. I began my own journey of learning about the economy (we were only looking at one “E” at that point), and quickly drew the same conclusions as Chris. It was clear that our energy-dependent lifestyle and super-sized home were not in alignment with our new perspective on the future.
And while fear of “what might go wrong” provided the initial energy I needed to sell our house and move, it was the calling of a better way of life for my family that sustained me throughout the process. I did not want to live in fear, but rather joy. I could tell that the life we were visioning together was a better life – more connected to the land and natural cycles, more connected to our community and our children. While Chris was primarily motivated by a desire to provide for and protect his family, I was primarily motivated by a vision of a healthier life for my children.[
This excerpt from Becca’s article is not intended as a stellar example of how to converse with a reluctant partner about collapse, but one particular phrase leapt out at me when I first read it. Chris states, “I need to talk to you about something that is really important,” then says, “I need you to learn what I have learned.” Both statements are not primarily rational, logical sentences. They are essentially emotional utterances based on the need of one partner.
Whenever we state what we need from a person with whom we have an intimate relationship, we put ourselves in a vulnerable position. As long as we are trying to convince a partner about what they should know or believe or do, we are attempting to be in control. The moment we say, “I need,” we let go of control and take an emotional risk. (Please see the Appendix section of this book for guidelines on “Deep Listening and Deep Truth-Telling.)
The turbulent aspect of the conflict is that it is painful, unsettling, disruptive, and terrifying. The transformative aspect of it is that if either or both partners are willing to engage in the emotional and spiritual work on themselves that the conflict is urgently clamoring for them to attend to, they will be forever altered by it. As a result, they may become more whole, empowered, resilient, and compassionate human beings, whether or not they do so in a relationship with each other. Will people get hurt? Yes, indeed. But they are already getting hurt. Might the family fracture and fall apart? Perhaps. But it might have fallen apart anyway over some other issue(s). On the other hand, the relationship might not end, and in fact, it may become more robust than ever as a result of having weathered the storm.
What is most needed is not “case-building” but deep, honest, verbalizations of tender emotions. In “Relationships In The Long Emergency” workshops, I find that having each partner retire by themselves into solitude and write a letter to the other is a crucial exercise.
For the partner who is preparing for collapse, the letter should contain the following:
- Feelings must be named. For example, “When you refuse to talk about the future, I feel ____(sad, abandoned, frustrated, scared) because_______.”
- Very clear statements must be made about what they want from their partner. These requests may never be fulfilled, but that is not the point of the exercise. In stating exactly what the prepping partner wants from the non-prepping partner, they stop being a “professor” who is determined to “teach” the other about collapse, and become a vulnerable ally who speaks from the heart about what they most long for from the other.
For the non-prepping partner, the letter should contain:
- Feelings they experience when the other speaks about collapse or when they see their partner investing time, energy, and money into preparation. For example, “When I see you spending so much time on this, I feel _____because_______.”
- They must make very clear statements about what they want from their partner. In stating what they want, they stop being a “rebellious student” who won’t listen to the “professor” and accept their world view. The reluctant, non-prepping partner must speak from the heart and state what they want from the other, allowing for feelings of vulnerability, frustration, irritation, resentment, and loss.
At a later time, I invite the partners to exchange their letters and read them silently in a private space, after which they journal about what they experienced in reading the letter. Then the partners come back together and share what it was like for each to write their letter and what it was like to receive the letter from the other.
I coach them in how to do this authentically and from their bodies. Body language is extremely important as they communicate with each other. Open body posture, direct eye contact, and attention to sensations within one’s body are crucial factors. The goal is not the communication of thoughts and rebuttals, but rather, deep, heartfelt emotion.
The end result of this process is impossible to predict. It may lead to much deeper intimacy, or it may reveal that the situation is untenable for one or both partners. Suffice it to say that partners in conflict over collapse are sitting on the cutting edge of both tragedy and transformation—or something in between that they might find a way to live with.
As Becca Martin advises, it is fine to agree to disagree. It is also fine to ask for the other partner’s blessing to continue on the path of preparation, even though they are not on board. The pivotal issue is not so much whether the reluctant partner joins the other in preparation, but that they not attempt to impede the other.
While a conflict over the reality of collapse and the need to prepare for it or not may be similar to other issues between relationship partners, and while it may evoke issues that other relationship conflicts frequently evoke, I believe that this particular conflict runs deeper in the human psyche than many others. Why?
Because to understand and prepare for collapse is to grasp the magnitude of the changes that our future holds and to literally stare death in the face. First, if we understand the severity of the collapse of industrial civilization, we implicitly understand that we may not survive physically. In sharing our knowledge of collapse with another person, especially a life partner, we are literally asking them to come along with us on a journey which may end our lives and theirs. Furthermore, if we sense, as I do, that all of humanity knows in its collective psyche that we are well into collapse, then by naming it as such, we agree to stand up in a sea of humans in denial and beg them to also name what they already know and are determined to ignore or minimize. This is the path of so many philosophical and ethical giants in history such as Socrates, Jesus, the Gnostics, countless heretics burned at the stake in the Middle Ages, Galileo, Sophie Scholl of Nazi Germany’s White Rose Society, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
No one should be judged because they cannot go there, nor should anyone be declared a saint because they can. Perhaps Theodore Roethke said it best in “The Waking”:
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. I feel my fate in what I cannot fear. I learn by going where I have to go.
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know. What falls away is always. And is near. I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. I learn by going where I have to go.
In a perfect world, the exercises suggested above could lead to dramatic healing and harmony between partners. In a not-so perfect world, they could facilitate two people with wildly different perspectives on collapse finding ways to co-exist, cooperate, and on really good days, commit to loving each other anyway.
I do not wish to imply that there is always a way to resolve this dilemma. I have worked with many couples who simply cannot abide with the disparity of perspective between themselves and their partner, and they find it absolutely necessary to exit the relationship. I have also worked with many who are willing to make compromises and return repeatedly to the love they still share with each other as their ultimate navigation system. However, it should be emphasized that contrary to the delusion perpetuated by this culture, love does not conquer all. Many people love each other deeply but simply cannot reconcile their differences. A very painful reality indeed, but such is the human condition.
As I have written in detail elsewhere, the ending of a marriage or a committed relationship is one of a plethora of initiations or rites of passage that we mortals repeatedly encounter as we inhabit a physical body. Divorce, terminal illness, loss of a career, a bankruptcy, a severe injury—all are crises naturally encountered in the course of the human experience, but on a deeper level, invitations from the soul to explore our own depths. Thus, an initiation is more than an ordeal; it is a spiritual journey to the deeper self in each one of us. Every initiation requires that we have:
- A willingness to find meaning in it and that we are open to the lessons therein
- A support system of trusted others who may not grasp that we are enduring a rite of passage, but will be present to support us in our ordeal
- A welcoming “home” or celebration of our ordeal at pivotal moments in the journey
- A desire during and beyond the ordeal to become spiritual elders. That is to say that if we are willing to find meaning in the journey, we will invariably acquire wisdom that could not be gained elsewhere. Part of the completion of the journey then, is a commitment to utilizing our wisdom to nurture our fellow earthlings of all ages and pay forward the fruits of our experience.
I have noticed in working with many couples that the most effective means of communicating one’s perspective with one’s partner is by doing so emotionally, not intellectually. We respect our partners, and we wouldn’t be with them if they weren’t intelligent human beings. Thus, it is very tempting to assume that if they could just comprehend all of the facts of collapse, they would finally awaken to its validity and enthusiastically join us in preparation. In reality, the absolute opposite is true.
As we can infer from Becca Martenson’s article above on the impact of collapse in her relationship with Chris, people do not reject the reality of collapse because they do not have enough information. They reject it because some part of them already knows that it is happening, and they are absolutely terrified when anyone, especially their partner, begins discussing it. Therefore, asking a partner to read one more book or watch one more documentary on collapse is probably going to be a waste of energy. Attending together a workshop or speaking event presented by a famous collapse personality may be a bit more productive, but again, this is still an intellectual exercise in which the emphasis is on gaining more information.
Instead, I encourage the partner who is preparing for collapse to schedule a time with his/her reluctant partner and make sure that they will not be interrupted. This time should be viewed as very precious, and indeed it is because it may be the riskiest, most frightening thing the prepping partner has ever done in their life or at least, in the relationship. They must be completely willing to be emotionally vulnerable.
It is good to sit across from each other with no table or other furniture in between. Face each other sitting perhaps four or five feet away. The prepping partner states that they have asked for this time with the other person because letting the other person know exactly what they feel about the “collapse conflict” in the relationship (adjust the words according to what feels most appropriate) is extremely important to them.
For example, the conversation could begin this way:
We’ve been in conflict recently about our differing views of the future. From my perspective what I see happening is___________, and it seems like from your perspective you see_________. Am I hearing you correctly? Do you not see the same things I’m seeing? I know that I may have sometimes been pushy about convincing you that my perspective is correct, and I apologize for that, but I no longer want to be. You have every right to believe what you want to believe about the future, but what I want you to hear today is____________.
The intention here is to communicate one’s deepest feelings to the other person. So the next statement may be something like: “I want you to hear how deeply sad I am that we don’t share this perspective. I’m also terribly scared because I want us to be as prepared as possible for the future, and I’m very frightened that we won’t be.” The most important piece of this communication is not whether or not the correct words are used, but whether or not you, the prepping partner, allow yourself to express your authentic feelings. If you are sad, do not try to “make” yourself cry, but if tears come, let them. Absolutely essential in this communication is that you speak from your heart, not your head. It is also important to let your partner know that you feel very lonely knowing what you know but not being able to share it with him/her.
At this point, you also invite your partner, with words, body language, and eye contact, to tell you how they feel about the conflict. Without judgment, you simply listen as they tell you how it is for them and as they tell you perhaps many things you’d rather not hear. The purpose of this sacred appointment time with each other is not simply to share your feelings, but it also allows your partner to share theirs.
Fully expect that this kind of honest communication is going to open the door to other issues in the relationship. When you make yourself vulnerable, you are letting the other person know that they too have permission to speak honestly, so other issues may come up that seem to have nothing to do with collapse. (I’ve been asking you for months to fix the garage door. OR…You really don’t need to be a stay-at-home mom anymore. It would really help all of us if you would go out and get a job.)
These “incidental” issues are not at all irrelevant because they are tendrils in a root system that leads back to the trunk of the relationship tree. The other person simply needs to be heard. In fact, if possible, reflect back to them some, but not all, of what they reveal. You can say things like, “I want to make sure I’m hearing you correctly, you’re saying that you feel_________?”
Making and keeping this kind of appointment with your partner is not a magic bullet. There are no guarantees of results. In fact, it may open even more cans of worms. Nevertheless, it allows both partners to come down out of their heads and enter the vulnerable, risky domain of the heart and become extremely authentic with each other. Moreover, it makes a safe place for the love that brought both partners together and that has solidified the relationship for some time, perhaps many years, to resurface and even be rekindled.
The letter-writing and journaling exercises explained above are exceedingly powerful. By the time they are completed, the couple begins to have a sense of whether their differences can be negotiated or whether they are entirely untenable and cannot be resolved. If the latter situation appears to be the case, then it would be very good for each person to spend another 20 minutes on these 3 questions:
- What if you are not able to get what you want from this person?
- Complete this sentence: I’m afraid that if this disagreement continues__________.
- What is worth staying in the game for?
After this journaling piece, the couple should come together and share their answers to these questions. But please note: This should not and cannot be an intellectual exercise in which one or both partners are trying to provide “right” answers. It is guaranteed to be a highly emotional conversation in which authentic feelings of sadness, fear, anger, and frustration must be allowed. Naturally, yelling, screaming, fist-pounding, and intimidation are not OK, but feelings must be communicated clearly and without intent to harm the other person physically or emotionally.
This can also be a time of exploring options and negotiating possibilities for staying together even as the couple holds their disparate views of the future. If one or both partners insist that separation is necessary, then they need to move into that conversation at this point or at a later time.
Those who are familiar with my work know that I am not likely to leave the reader with logistical suggestions only. My years of experience in depth and archetypal psychology compel me to move to the mythic level and stir that pot next. To do so, I would like to share a story from the Far East that, like a poem, may bring more to consciousness on the topic of relationships and draw the reader into deeper waters.
I invite you to read the story, not with your head, but with your heart.
The Wife and The Tiger’s Whisker
Once upon a time, a young wife named Yun Ok was at her wit’s end. Her husband had always been a tender and loving soulmate before he had left for the wars, but ever since he returned home he was cross, angry, and unpredictable. She was almost afraid to live with her own husband. Only in glancing moments did she catch a shadow of the husband she used to know and love. When one ailment or another bothered people in her village, they would often rush for a cure to a hermit who lived deep in the mountains. Not Yun Ok. She always prided herself that she could heal her own troubles. But this time was different. She was desperate. As Yun Ok approached the hermit’s hut, she saw the door was open. The old man said without turning around, “I hear you. What’s your problem?” She explained the situation. His back still to her, he said, “Ah yes, it’s often that way when soldiers return from the war. What do you expect me to do about it?” “Make me a potion!” cried the young wife. “Or an amulet, a drink, whatever it takes to get my husband back the way he used to be.” The old man turned around. “Young woman, your request doesn’t exactly fall into the same category as a broken bone or ear infection.” “I know,” said she. “It will take three days before I can even look into it. Come back then.”
Three days later, Yun Ok returned to the hermit’s hut. “Yun Ok,” he greeted her with a smile, “I have good news. There is a potion that will restore your husband to the way he used to be, but you should know that it requires an unusual ingredient. You must bring me a whisker from a live tiger.”
“What?” she gasped. “Such a thing is impossible!” “I cannot make the potion without it!” he shouted, startling her. He turned his back. “There is nothing more to say. As you can see, I’m very busy.” That night Yun Ok tossed and turned. How could she get a whisker from a live tiger? The next day before dawn, she crept out of the house with a bowl of rice covered with meat sauce. She went to a cave on the mountainside where a tiger was known to live. She clicked her tongue very softly as she crept up, her heart pounding, and carefully set the bowl on the grass. Then, trying to make as little noise as she could, she backed away. The next day before dawn, she took another bowl of rice covered with meat sauce to the cave. She approached the same spot, clicking softly with her tongue. She saw that the bowl was empty, replaced the empty one with a fresh one, and again left, clicking softly and trying not to break twigs or rustle leaves, or do anything else to startle and unsettle the wild beast.
So it went, day after day, for several months. She never saw the tiger (thank goodness for that! she thought) though she knew from footprints on the ground that the tiger—and not a smaller mountain creature—had been eating her food. Then one day as she approached, she noticed the tiger’s head poking out of its cave. Glancing downward, she stepped very carefully to the same spot and with as little noise as she could, set down the fresh bowl and, her heart pounding, picked up the one that was empty.
After a few weeks, she noticed the tiger would come out of its cave as it heard her footsteps, though it stayed a distance away (again, thank goodness! she thought, though she knew that someday, in order to get the whisker, she’d have to come closer to it).
Another month went by. Then the tiger would wait by the empty food bowl as it heard her approaching. As she picked up the old bowl and replaced it with a fresh one, she could smell its scent, as it could surely smell hers. “Actually,” she thought, remembering its almost kittenish look as she set down a fresh bowl, “it is a rather friendly creature, when you get to know it.” The next time she visited, she glanced up at the tiger briefly and noticed what a lovely downturn of reddish fur it had from over one of its eyebrows to the next. Not a week later, the tiger allowed her to gently rub its head, and it purred and stretched like a house cat. Then she knew the time had come. The next morning, very early, she brought with her the best survival knife. After she set down the fresh bowl and the tiger allowed her to pet its head she said in a low voice, “Oh, my tiger, may I please have just one of your whiskers?” While petting the tiger with one hand, she held one whisker at its base, and with the other hand, in one quick stroke, she carved the whisker off. She stood up, speaking softly her thanks, and left, for the last time. The next morning seemed endless. At last her husband left for the rice fields. She ran to the hermit’s hut, clutching the precious whisker in her fist. Bursting in, she cried to the hermit, “I have it! I have the tiger’s whisker!” “You don’t say?” he said, turning around. “From a live tiger?” “Yes!” she said. “Tell me,” said the hermit, interested. “How did you do it?” Yun Ok told the hermit how, for the last six months, she had earned the trust of the creature and it had finally permitted her to cut off one of its whiskers. With pride she handed him the whisker. The hermit examined it, satisfied himself that it was indeed a whisker from a live tiger, then flicked it into the fire where it sizzled and burned in an instant. “What have you done?” Yun Ok cried, horrified. “Yun Ok,” the hermit said softly, “you no longer need the whisker. Tell me, is a man more vicious than a tiger? If a dangerous wild beast will respond to your gradual and patient care, do you think a man will respond any less willingly?” Yun Ok stood speechless. Then she turned and stepped down the trail, turning over in her mind images of the tiger and of her husband, back and forth. She knew what she could do.
All relationship conflicts invite us to turn and face the tiger within and develop a relationship with the shadow. The shadow, of course, is comprised of all those characteristics that we say are “not me.” Carl Jung noted that eighty percent of it is pure gold because of the treasures within it that wait to be mined by us. It contains not only so-called “negative” qualities, but positive as well, and when we are willing to confront our terror of it, we may discover capacities of which we had been totally ignorant.
This story must be understood from a mythological, symbolic perspective. To literalize it is to miss its deeper meaning. Our “civilized,” linear mindset can sidetrack us into things like, “Didn’t the woman understand that her husband had PTSD?” Or “Wasn’t she just manipulating the tiger and actually exploiting him for her own purposes?” I suggest reading the story again silently and noticing what it evokes emotionally and in the body. Those are clues about the deeper meaning of the story for you.
Nor is this a story of “love conquering all” but of a woman transformed by going to any lengths to heal her beloved, including facing death, and as a result, being profoundly empowered. We have no idea what happened with her and her partner as a result of her interactions with the tiger or the hermit. What we do know is that she was no longer the same woman who paid a visit to the hermit on the first occasion of doing so.
In other words, what matters in the story of our human relationships is not whether they lead to “happily ever after” but who and what they make of us. All relationships are our teachers, and this is especially so in a time of societal unraveling.
Carolyn Baker, Ph.D. is the author of Love In The Age of Ecological Apocalypse: Cultivating The Relationships We Need To Thrive (2015) Collapsing Consciously: Transformative Truths for Turbulent Times (2013), Navigating The Coming Chaos: A Handbook For Inner Transition (2011), Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse (2009)