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Odysseus and the Sirens

Odysseus resisting the song of the sirens symbolizes ego’s struggle with unconscious contents. (Image Wikimedia)

The source of personal wisdom and effective guidance in the psyche is the self, which comprises the emotionally important ideas that form our authentic character and worldview. However, human beings are a social species and must work together in various kinds of complex groups in order to survive. This means we need consciousness and the communication tool we call language. In turn, this means ego, the source of consciousness and language, must supervise the psyche. However, like a construction-site supervisor, the ego is not responsible for deciding what to build; it is not in charge of overall governing and course setting. Those more general functions are the purview of the self. Ego’s proper role is to be aware of the self and the genuine will that emerges from there. The old aphorism, “know thyself” is very apropos.

The ego can get itself into serious difficulties if it does not supervise wisely and courageously. The most common mistake ego makes is thinking that it is indeed in charge of running the whole show.

Psychological problems begin when a fearful or vain ego adopts a policy of extensive repression of distressing memories, desires, and ideas. The longer it is lodged in the unconscious, the more powerful repressed material becomes. Eventually, ego finds it can no longer keep the lid on the increasingly potent material, yet remains unwilling to stop trying precisely because the stuff seems so threatening. A self-induced Mexican standoff ensues with the ego beset and bedevilled by the very things it fears the most and vehemently refuses to accept. If the situation becomes severe, total paralysis sets in rendering the ego incapable of doing its job. Pressed hard enough, the ego abdicates altogether (Jung’s famous “letting go,” C. S. Lewis’ “melting like a snowman”) leaving the formerly repressed impulses, memories, and ideas to erupt and dominate the psyche!

Once the ego is paralysed, or has abdicated completely, symptoms such as excessive sleeping, chronic depression, insomnia, and relentless anxiety take hold. Behaviour becomes erratic and purposeless. Desperate for a cure, the ego becomes preoccupied with all that it formerly sought to repress. In some cases, we see a religious conversion, in others a period of emotional and psychological turmoil. In extreme cases, a nervous breakdown may ensue.

Mythology is rife with warnings of the dangers that accompany ego’s abdication of its proper role and subsequent engagement with formerly repressed material. Consider the Nordic myth of Huldra, a lovely maiden who entices lonely woodsmen far from their appointed tasks, then heartlessly turns her back on them and vanishes, leaving them to perish alone and lost deep in the forest. Then there is the German legend of the Lorelei, a great rock on the Rhine said to be the home of a seductive siren that lured unwary boatmen to their destruction. Odysseus and his men faced a similar threat as they made their slow journey home from vanquished Troy.

All these cautionary tales illuminate the hazards of being overrun by those enticing, seductive, or abusive voices that burst forth when ego has supervised badly and then become entranced by what it has formerly repressed. Recall that from the abode of Aeolus, god of winds, Odysseus and his men could have reached home in only nine days – if they had not released the tempestuous winds from the bag in which the helpful god had imprisoned them! Wind has always been a metaphor for the emotions, those unruly passions that spring unbidden from the nether regions of the human psyche. Emotions are always there, must always be contended with, and thus make a perfect metaphor for what happens on a broader scale when ego is no longer in a position to do its job.

Do we have to make the mistake of repressing what we do not like about ourselves? Consciousness provides a powerful illusion of total control, and when this joins forces with the desire to construct a socially attractive false persona, the habit of repressing less desirable character traits, ideas, and emotions begins. The trouble is that we humans are vain, greedy, and fearful creatures by nature. If you object to such a characterization, recall that those of us who do not accept our faults are the ones most likely to be guilty of repression. Avoiding the error of repression may be impossible for many of us.

We must ask what we can gain, beyond ending repression, by a prolonged encounter with formerly repressed material. Can one – in spite of myth’s dire warnings of destruction – profit from listening to the sirens? Jung claimed that all manner of valuable things lie buried in the unconscious, and that the inner journey he called “individuation” is necessary to raise those precious unconscious contents into conscious awareness. For most of us, the emotionally important ideas that comprise the self are largely unconscious. We are partly unaware of who we really are, what we truly believe, and what we genuinely want. In other words, we must make a personal odyssey in order to find out who we really are, what our natural worldview is, and what we really want from life. Like Odysseus’ long journey home to Ithaca, the voyage is painful and fraught with peril, but necessary if we are to find and integrate our missing parts, if we are to become whole.

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