"THE OLD WOMAN IN THE CAVE:"
HOW TROUBLE BECOMES TRANSFORMATION
HOW TROUBLE BECOMES TRANSFORMATION
"Suffering is the ego's experience of the soul's attempt to manifest." -Barry Williams
This is an old Native American story about an ancient woman who lives in a cave that, GPS notwithstanding, can’t be reached by road or path. Though everyone knows she’s there, no one has ever seen her. With an old black dog as her only company, she sits at a primitive loom, weaving a huge and beautiful garment. She works tirelessly, never leaving her work except to stir the great kettle of stew simmering in the back of the cave. When she does that, she rises, looks at the old black dog, and then moves to the kettle slowly and stiffly because of her great age. This gives the black dog, who’s ancient too, time to get up, go to the loom, take the ends of the threads in his mouth, and unravel the garment to its starting point. When the old woman returns and sees what her companion has done, she sighs, and then sits down to begin her work all over again.
The story says this has been going on forever. It also says that if the black dog ever fails to unravel the garment, and the old woman ever actually finishes it, the world will end.
This is a creation story with a twist. It suggests that the world was not simply created once and then allowed to run according the laws of God or chance from then on. Rather, the process of the world is a cycle in which it’s constantly being created and then unraveling while its nourishment, the stew, is being tended.
We can see ourselves as being currently in the stage of unraveling in conflict. The black dog is up to his mischief. The economy seems to be unraveling, putting our lifestyles and homes at risk. Violent random (motiveless) crime is up. Divorce has been flat at about fifty percent of first marriages for several years. Homelessness is rising. Drug and alcohol use is down overall but up among high-risk groups. Ten-year olds beat five-year olds to death. High school and college students gun down their classmates and teachers. "Diversity" in America has become polarization, as differences become increasingly acrimonious between democrat and republican, conservative and liberal, young and old, male and female, black and white and Hispanic. We’re anxious at home, worried about biochemical and explosive attacks by terrorists. We’re at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and creating a generation of returned veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. We're losing friends in the world, which seems fragmented into warring factions all over the globe.
The good news, according to the story, is that this has happened to the world before. Clearly the Old Woman knows what will happen when she leaves the loom to stir the stew, knows that she’ll have to begin her task anew when she returns. Always the world has recovered from its unraveling.
The striking thing in the story is the role of the black dog, which implies that unraveling is part of creation. Pain and loss, even death, are part of the process of the renewal of life. We resent this, of course, and when tragedy, loss, failure, or pain strikes we feel cheated. We get into a dysfunctional bargaining process – lawsuits, the blame game, scapegoating, addictions – looking for ways to nullify the laws and pretend it can’t happen again. We don’t buy the black dog’s importance to life, preferring that the Old Woman finish the garment so we can wear it in comfort.
But what if our American pursuit of comfort, safety, and happiness dooms us to disappointment? What if life is like birth, bought only at the price of pain? What if our wars in the Middle East have deadened us to life here at home by truncating our walk through the pain of September 11? What if the only way to peace is to seek it at the edges of conflict? What if we must individually approach the edges of our own trouble and pain to find a peace that is by nature only temporary, until the Old Woman leaves the loom and the black dog undoes her work?
Pretend for the moment that you agree with all of that. Then you must ask: How did we forget the truth of the black dog’s role?
Yoda should be insisting that we remember it, but he is silent.
Yoda, Star Wars character: wizened and leathery, ancient and wise, veteran of many wars and many losses, closer to the paradox of The Force than anyone in Lucas’ faraway universe, Elder to the Jedi Knights who guard against the Dark Side of The Force. The Elder, in Star Wars and in many cultures – most clearly in indigenous ones – serves a critical function. Elders knit a culture together by carrying the weight of its accumulated experience of joy and grief, love and violence, tragedy and triumph. When they transform it and return it to their people as shared wisdom, this weight becomes the culture’s spiritual ballast, holding steady the ground on which young people stand as they begin their dance through life. From thirteen to sixty, we look to old people to show us our future, what life means when you’re old, and how to live with your own death.
Americans don’t like the view. Young and old alike see aging as little more than decay and purposelessness, and the old as an emotional and financial burden. We segregate and marginalize them so we don’t have to look our own fate in the eye. We spend $40 billion a year trying to delay or disguise our own bodies’ progress through life. But the outer denial of aging signals an inner unwillingness to live into one’s own future, so we also block the emergence of character and wisdom that comes only with age.
It’s a huge mistake. Yoda and the Old Woman in the cave know that the appropriate experience of pain gives it meaning, which denies ascendancy to the Dark Side. In denying aging, we betray the Elder of our own personal and collective future. The weight that should become our spiritual ballast, steadying us so we can discover the meaning embedded in pain, accept the fullness of the life/death/rebirth cycle, falls down through the generations onto the shoulders of youth, who are least equipped to carry it. The thread connecting the generations unravels. The transgenerational story breaks into three disconnected tragedies: lost true youth, youth-obsessed Baby Boomers in denial of their fate, and the irrelevant elderly.
As Alice Roosevelt Longworth, maven of the Washington political scene until her death in the mid 1980s, said at the age of 89, "The secret of eternal youth is arrested development." The cost of arresting the development of our cultural psyche has been high. It leaves "a bunch of troubled youngsters"* – people in late midlife, the Baby Boomers – running the economic, political, and cultural show without benefit of those older and wiser heads. Our fear of aging and death is cheating us of the wisdom of the Grandmothers and Grandfathers. We’ll need increasing amounts of Prozac and alcohol to bear the disintegration that follows the withering of Elder spirit.
If we let Yoda and the Old Woman of the Cave die, the Dark Side wins. How can they be re-animated?
Therapists know what Yoda and the Old Woman of the Cave know. We know that new life lies on the other side of pain, that the healing lies hard by the wound itself. We know that all of us will encounter pain often in our lives, and that though it can be changed by moving through it, it cannot be denied; it will have its day. Perhaps you, our clients, who come to us in pain, come for relief of it only at the conscious level. Could you know unconsciously that you need to spend time with someone who can stand it? That you need to feel the spiritual ballast that someone who chooses to embrace and contain others’ pain must have?
Psychotherapy serves a larger function than the obvious ones of relief of pain for our clients and making a living for us. It serves the reweaving part of the creative cycle of unraveling/reweaving in the lives of individuals and families. It serves the transformative purpose initiated by the encounter with pain, loss, and unhappiness.
It serves you in your need to find the meaning embedded in your own suffering, to discover what the "labor pains" of your own psychic potential can "birth."
*This quote is by another Old One, Joseph Campbell, world-famous mythologist and archaeologist. At the age of 83, a few months before his death in 1986, he suggested in an interview by Bill Moyers that it was wise to question authority. "The older I get," he said, "the more I realize that 'the authorities' are just a bunch of troubled youngsters."