If you’ve taken a glance at my “Currently Reading” shelf on Goodreads, you know that I am currently reading 23 books at present.
I know that’s excessive.
However, if I could recommend just one book to the world, it would be Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D.
Full disclosure: I’m only a little more than halfway done, but that’s because I’ve really taken the time to reflect and learn from it.
On the back of the book, there is a quote by the late Maya Angelou that I think excellently describes the effect that this book has had on me:
I am grateful to Women Who Run With the Wolves and to Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés. The work shows the reader how glorious it is to be daring, to be caring, and to be women. Everyone who can read should read this book. – Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou and I like the same books *squeal*.
Anyway, not wanting to summarizing all of my thoughts on this book that I have been treating recently as a road map to my life, I will spend time only on what I think the greatest lesson I have learned so far has been: how to be honest with myself AND how to live that honesty outside of myself.
The book focuses on using the power of storytelling – admittedly the reason that this ended up being a focus of my novel, The Librarians – specifically the power of folktales. These stories are used to illustrate Jungian archetypes – the wild mother, the captured woman, the predator, the crone, the hag, etc. – and each story can be taken literally or as a stand-in for the more psychic journeys that happen within. If one is to understand these stories in the latter sense, it is helpful to imagine that each character mentioned is not separate, but rather a separate character within one woman’s psyche.
DISCLAIMER: Pinkola Estés tells tales as she has heard them from family members, friends and neighbors, so the ones that you are able to find via the Googles might not be just like the ones I read.
The second chapter uses the tale of Bluebeard, a tale with disputed origins that range from Slavic, to French to German.
Bluebeard allowed me to understand the necessity of looking at one’s self-destructive behavior dead in the face. So often we assume that we couldn’t really do anything harmful to ourselves without knowing it or that the mundane cannot harm us. The truth of this, though, is that I have found that it is so much easier to ignore, ignore, ignore the damage we do to ourselves.
The problem posed in the Bluebeard tale is that rather than empowering the light of the young feminine forces of the psyche, he is instead filled with hatred and desires to kill the lights of the psyche.
She discusses the natural state of naivety that many young women enter into initiation in. Whether the thing we walk into naively is a bad relationship (or many), a bad job (or many) or just a general sense of stagnation, there is a part of our psyche that prefers to look away from the death and destruction that we wreak upon ourselves, but Pinkola Estés stressed that we all have a deep, soul-given urge to put this psychic predator in a place where damage can be monitored and controlled.
The idea that one must see, clearly, the harm one does was a new one for me. Further astonishing was the idea that we must always look upon the evidence of what we do and see it, and stand what we see. I think that I always assumed that knowing the damage would spell the end of one’s ability to be…good, but this is absolutely not the case. Remember, also, that often these things aren’t evil, murderous acts. Sometimes they are simply when our internal desires do not match our external actions.
Throughout the book, Pinkola Estés urges us to ask ourselves questions in order to continue our development. In this chapter, she suggests the following:
What stands behind? What is not as it appears? What do I know deep in my ovarious that I wish I did not know? What of me has been killed, or lays dying?… What stands behind these proscriptions I see in the outer world? What goodness or usefulness of the individual, of the culture, of the earth, of human nature has been killed, or lies dying here?
One of the key barriers to really being honest with ourselves in the way that she describes is laziness. Of course this isn’t necessarily simple, laziness is often a form of self-defense, but nonetheless it is an example of something relatively innocuous causing great destruction.
When a woman’s instinctual nature is strong, she intuitively recognizes the innate predator… In the instinct-injured woman, the predator is upon her before she registers its presence, for her listening, her knowing, and her apprehension are impaired – mainly by introjects which exhort her to be nice, to behave, and especially to be blind to being misused.
In essence, Pinkola Estés suggests a sort of vigilance. A healthy critique of one’s actions, choices, thoughts, etc. The word curiosity is mentioned and I find that that word resonates with most people that I talk about this with. The final step is action.
I once heard a funny riddle (another word for story, eh?)
Once there were three frogs sitting on a lily-pad. One day, one of the frogs decided to jump. How many frogs are left sitting on the lily-pad?
The answer, of course, is all three. Decision, understanding, all the intuition in the world means nothing if one doesn’t act upon it. If we see the death and destruction in the room in the basement, but we shut the door, go up the stairs and forget that we ever saw it, we stunt our own growth and doom ourselves to lifetime of barely living characters in the theater of our minds and the reality of our daily lives.