He, by Robert A. Johnson, is a fascinating exploration into the psychological development of a man as told through the story of Parsifal (also known as Perceval, a knight of King Arthur’s court) and the Grail Legend. I found the stages of maturation documented by Johnson insightful and remarkably aligned with my own. Though my journey seems to be continually pulled back into what Johnson labels the “imperfection of middle life”.
According to tradition, there are potentially three stages of psychological development for a man. The archetypal pattern is that one goes from the unconscious perfection of childhood, to the conscious imperfection of middle life, to conscious perfection of old age. One moves from an innocent wholeness, in which the inner world and the outer world are united, to a separation and differentiation between the inner and outer worlds with an accompanying sense of life’s duality, and then, at last, to enlightenment—a conscious reconciliation of the inner and outer in harmonious wholeness.
Robert A. Johnson is a Jungian analyst, noted lecturer, and the author of several books including He, She, We, and Owning Your Own Shadow. He studied at the University of Oregon, Stanford University, and later at the C. G. Jung Institute in Switzerland. In the early 1960s he spent some time as a member of St. Gregory’s Abbey, in Michigan.
I’m not a scholar of mythology, but one needn’t be to understand the themes and masculine arcs of development Johnson is conveying while retelling The Legend of the Grail. The Grail Legend, as with any myth, is storytelling that allows us to better grasp ideas. Johnson dissects the big ideas surrounding Parsifal’s journey in his short book. One of the big ideas Johnson puts forward is embracing a life of contentment. Our highs lead to our lows, and the quest of the enlightened life finds the centerline and becomes resilient to euphoria and depression by dropping modern man’s quest for happiness by replacing with an acceptance of contentment.
Fate spends much time bringing a man up from his depression or down from his inflation. It is this ground level which the ancient Chinese called the tao, the middle way. It is here that the Grail exists and happiness worthy of the name can be found.
The middle stage of development, the conscious imperfection of middle life, is spent chasing the desires of the ego. We tend to pursue what we aren’t necessarily aware of yet. We typically feel a strong pull toward something of significance but often spend our energy on conquests and accumulation of worldy things to satiate our hunger. Johnson views this as the misguided Grail hunger.
If one thinks that something or somebody will fill the Grail hunger in him, no cost is too high. Much of the motivation of late adolescence—the derring-do, the ninety-miles-an-hour down the highway, the drugs—this is Grail hunger.
Eventually, in the third stage, we awaken to that which will satiate us with the contentment effect, the quest for meaning directed by an inner guide. The second stage seems a prerequisite to realizing the final stage. We must live our own legends to reach our personal Grails.
One would guess that accomplishment would be the surest protection against meaninglessness, but this is not so. It is the accomplished man who is most capable of asking unanswerable questions about his worth and the meaning of his life.
This is a fascinating book that I’m certain I’m not doing justice. The legendary tale told then interpreted as it relates to man’s development had me glued to the pages. Following are a few additional excerpts from Johnson’s book that caused me to pause and think about my own journey and development.
All psychological suffering (or happiness, taken in its usual sense) is a matter of comparison. When one accepts the solitariness of his journey there is no comparison possible and he is in that existential world where things simply “are.” In this realm there is no happiness or unhappiness in the usual sense but only that state of being that is correctly called Ecstasy.
Parsifal spends many years, most of the legends say twenty, on his knightly adventures. He grows more bitter, more disillusioned; he grows farther away from his beloved Blanche Fleur; he forgets why he wields his sword in his knight’s journey. He functions with less and less understanding and joy. These are the dry years of a man’s middle age. He knows less and less why he is functioning and is apt to give an evasive answer when asked about the meaning of his life.
The hermit is the highly introverted part of one’s nature that has been waiting and storing energy in a far off corner waiting for this very moment. Extroversion is the usual dominant of the first half of one’s life and that is correct. But when one’s extroversion has run its race and taken one on that very valuable part of life journey—then one must consult the hermit deep inside for the next step. We do this very badly in our culture and few people know how to draw upon the genius of their introvert nature for the next step. It frequently happens to a modern person that he is forced into his introversion by an illness or accident or paralyzing symptom of some other kind.
These few people, born hermits (highly introverted souls), must remain in the forest (symbolically speaking) in solitude, storing up energy so that they may serve mankind when their quality is crucial and of the highest value. There are few Red Knight victories for these persons and they know little of the laurel leaves of victory. Such people receive very little encouragement or reinforcement these days and they often have a lonely and solitary life to lead. But a day comes when their genius is absolutely necessary to make a transition to another stage of life—for themselves or for someone in their environment.
The book carries a poignant message for those of us dealing with issues of anxiety and depression as we’re caught up in our culture’s relentless pursuit of happiness. It’s a similar message found throughout David Brooks book, The Road To Character. Mainly, get outside yourself — serve something greater. Happiness is a byproduct of a meaningful journey, not the objective. Johnson succinctly sums up the message of the Grail Legend, and thus the meaning of one’s life, in the following passages.
The object of life is not happiness, but to serve God or the Grail. All of the Grail quests are to serve God. If one understands this and drops his idiotic notion that the meaning of life is personal happiness, then one will find that elusive quality immediately at hand.
If he will proceed with the human task of life, the relocation of the center of gravity of the personality to something greater outside itself, happiness will be the outcome.
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