What Can We Do?

“We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.” ― Joseph Campbell

“When Dr. Jung was asked the question “Will we make it?” he always replied, “if enough individuals will do their inner work.” … This is the new heroism.” - Robert A. Johnson

“If you restore balance in your own self, you will be contributing immensely to the healing of the world.” - Deepak Chopra

The war in Ukraine, the pandemic, politics in general, our warming planet…. who isn’t thinking about wanting to find a way to help and to at least, cope? People are overwhelmed by it all. They feel helpless, anxious, frustrated, angry, distraught, frightened…

What to do?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question. I was taken aback a few weeks ago by a comment on one of my social media posts where I share about my work with women and the Heroine’s Journey.

I often use the tale of Dorothy and The Wizard of Oz to illustrate the arc of the Heroine’s Journey. My work is about empowering women to see that their lives are heroic. That they are Heroines on a transformative journey.

My post referred to finding one’s own yellow brick road to happiness and that we deserved happiness.

The commenter’s response to my post was “What about Ukraine? Our “deserved-ness” is a luxury the world cannot afford.”

It stopped me cold and yes, stung a little. Should I not be doing what I’m doing now, teaching this program that walks women through the steps of their own real-life journeys? Is it a “luxury?”

Is Your Journey A Luxury?

After I had regained my equilibrium, I realized I was glad for the question. It was a good one as it made me think. The querent didn’t know I had written elsewhere, in my newsletter, about Ukraine (why would they?) and that I use social media to explain what I’m up to in my work.

I can completely see the point of the commentator: when the world seems to be falling apart in so many ways, how can we think about ourselves, about our road to happiness? How do we even get (deserve) to be happy in such a world?

The invitation, the challenge to me, as I read it, was that we need to think about others, not about ourselves at a time like this. How selfish - they were telling me.

I’ve been pondering this a lot and realize that I do believe that a good option for handling the illnesses of the world is, in fact, to think about ourselves first - or tend to ourselves, first.

More specifically, what can really help the world now is to work on improving ourselves. Self-development, self-growth - raising our inner awareness will help our world.

The more we evolve, individually, the more we help heal the world. And of course, there are other ways to help, while you’re working on yourself, such as making donations and spreading kindness, and harboring a homeless person if you have the room.

Yes, do what you can in your small corner of the world but work on yourself, too - don’t put that on the back burner. Put that front and center.

Robert A. Johnson, the noted Jungian analyst, in his book, The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden, Understanding the Wounded Feeling Function in Masculine and Feminine Psychology discusses two fairytales, that of The Fisher King and the tale of The Handless Maiden to describe what he believes to be the “woundedness” of men and women today, and thereby, the world.

The Journey of a Woman

First published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, here’s a very shortened summary…and yes, it’s pretty grim. The basic story is so pertinent to the growth of a woman, her journey from dependence to independence and self-power; her “interior evolution”:

A miller who grinds grain for his village has been just scraping by. The devil shows up and makes him an offer. He says he’ll improve things for the miller if he gives him something in return. The miller agrees and asks, what’s the fee? “That which stands in the back of the mill.” The miller thinks, no worries, it’s a tree. So, the devil does his part and business is booming. Life is good for the miller and his family.…and then the devil returns seven years later. He’s come for the miller’s part of the bargain, presumably the tree. The miller leads him behind the mill and there’s his daughter - the target of the devil all along.  

The miller is horrified but he must keep his bargain. He gives his daughter to the devil and the devil chops off her hands and carries them away. Yikes!

But the daughter remains (she’s obedient), and her parents take care of her until one day she just must leave. She is depressed and crying and can’t stop. So, she goes alone into the forest and immediately feels at home.

After a while, she happens upon a king’s garden. She’s hungry and eats pears from his tree. He catches her doing it and of course, falls in love with her. They marry. She becomes a queen and has a son. The king has beautiful silver hands made for her and takes care of her every need. Life is good!

But one day she begins to weep and cannot stop her tears. She wants to take care of her baby herself. The king tries to convince her that all can be done by the servants, but she keeps on weeping.

Then, it happens again. How to deal with her depression, the endless tears, her unfulfilled, powerless self? Her feminine wisdom speaks to her. She knows to go, with her son, into the forest. She lives in the woods with her child. She gathers her energy in the solitude of the forest but one-day calamity befalls. Her baby falls into a stream and will drown if no one saves him. Now she wishes for the servants but of course, they aren’t there. She acts on her own. She plunges her useless silver hands into the stream to rescue her son.

When she draws him from the water a miracle has occurred, the baby is safe, and her hands are completely restored to flesh and blood.

Why tell this story? What does the handless maiden story have to do with us wishing we had a solution, something we could do to fix today’s problems?

Fairy Tales, ancient stories, hold much wisdom. Marie Louise von France in her book, The Feminine in Fairytales argues that the story reflects the way women cut off their own hands to live through powerful and creative men. "They need to go into the forest, into nature, to live by themselves, as a way of regaining their own power. The child in the story represents the woman’s creativity that only the woman herself can save.

I share it with you here because I think finding solitude, whether that be going into the woods or finding a place where you can just be is perhaps the first step for any woman to check in with her own inner knowing, her intuition, and see what rises to inform her about how to interact (if at all) with what’s going on externally.

Women Making A Difference

The Jungian analyst and writer, Robert A. Johnson wrote that this old tale tells us two things:

One is that women today are like the handless maiden. Symbolically, as he sees it, we have no hands as we don’t know what to do about the state of things. He calls our “wound” our “inability to do.” He continues, “In a wounded woman her great cry is ‘What can I do? I feel so useless or second-rate and inferior in this world that puts its women on the rubbish heap when they are through with courtship and childbearing.’”

Two, we women have found a way out, he writes, in that, like the handless maiden, we know what to do when we get to a place of desperation. After we stop weeping, (and how many of us have realized in the middle of weeping that something needs to change) we go within. We start listening. We trust our intuition. We pay attention. We hear our call when we get silent and we go, alone, “into the woods,” into solitude – and the answers come.

I resonate with the handless maiden tale because I see my own story in it. So often in my past, I contorted myself to exterior events, accommodating my needs and desires to others, cutting off my own authenticity and vitality (my hands) to please others.  

Can this be the call for women today? Are we all either wishing we could do something or trying to do it without the type of real hands we need - our own? Are we sitting back as the world of men still “takes care” of us? You don’t have to do anything, they tell us. We’re handling it. (Pun intended.) Not very well, we think!

So, What Do You Do?

If you are weeping, if you are wringing your hands and asking, “What can I do?” then, know the answers are within you if you can just find solitude and get quiet.

As Jung said, we will make it if enough of us do our own inner work. That must happen if we want to be at our most effective with the challenge of helping others.

“Go out in the woods, go out. If you don’t go out in the woods, nothing will ever happen, and your life will never begin.” - C.P. Estes