The Tree is my Totem

The tree is my totem
Standing tall and true
Comfortable in its great age

It doesn’t speculate whether life is
Analog or digital,
Continuous or discrete

It abides with its fellow beings
On the hilltop, at the lake’s side
Or in the meadow

One has need of ritual
Mine is to behold a great tree
Wherever, whenever I may find one

To pause, to regard and recall
When the tree was but a seed
Not yet fallen from its parent,

Thence to travel over the decades
And centuries with it
Until it becomes the present tree

That’s all

There are no words
For how one travels
With a tree through time

“Man cannot stand a meaningless life”

This is the answer the renown and revered psychologist Carl Gustav Jung gave to the final question posed to him by the British interviewer, John Freeman, in 1959.

I offer here my transcript of the final nine minutes of the Youtube video of the interview. I have added a few [clarifying words] and have indicated where the audio was unclear.

Carl Gustav Jung

Jung: … [regarding current dreams of war] We are so full of apprehensions, fears, that one doesn’t know exactly to what it [the dreams] points. One thing is sure: a great change of our psychological attitude is imminent. That is certain.

Freeman:  But why?

Jung: … because we need more understanding of human nature because the only real danger that exists is man himself. He is the great danger and we are pitifully unaware of it. We know nothing of man, far too little. His psyche should be studied because we are the origin of all coming evil.

Freeman: well, does man, do you think, need to have the concept of good and evil to live with; is it part of our nature?

Jung: Well, obviously.

Freeman: … and of a redeemer? Does man, do you think, need to have the concept of sin and evil to live with, is this part of our nature?

Jung: That is an inevitable consequence.

Freeman: This is not a concept which will disappear as we become more rational, it’s something…

Jung: Well, I don’t believe that man ever will deviate from the original pattern of his being. There will always be such ideas. For instance, if you do not directly believe is a personal redeemer, as it was in the case with Hitler, or the hero worship in Russia, then it is an idea, it is a symbolic idea.Freeman: You have written… sentences which have surprised me a little bit about death. In particular, I remember you said that death is psychologically just as important as birth, like it’s an integral part of life, but surely it can’t be like it’s an end.

Jung: Yes, if it’s an end, and there we are not quite certain about this and because, you know, there are these peculiar faculties of the psyche that, it isn’t entirely confined to space and time. You can have dreams or visions of the future; you can see around corners; and, such things only ignorance in denies these facts. You know, it’s quite evident that they do exist and have existed always. Now, these facts show that the psyche, in part at least, is not dependent upon these confinements. And then what? When the psyche is not under that obligation to live in time and space alone, and obviously it doesn’t, then to that extent the psyche is not separated to (sic) those walls and that means a practical continuation of life, of a sort of psychical existence beyond time and space.

Freeman: Do you, yourself, believe that death is probably the end, or do you believe…

Jung: (Interrupts, thinks out loud, briefly, for the right response) … well I, you can’t say… you see the word ‘belief’ is a difficult, difficult, thing for me. I don’t believe; I must have a reason for certain hypotheses. Either I know a thing and then I know it; I don’t need to believe it. If I… I don’t allow myself, for instance, to believe a thing a thing just for the sake of believing it. I can’t believe it! But, when there are sufficient reasons to form a certain hypothesis, I shall accept. [unclear] issues naturally, as you say, we have to reckon with the possibility of so-and-so, you know.

Freeman: You told us that we should regard death as being a [unclear] illusion, that the [unclear] away from it is to evade life (Jung: yes) what advice would you give to people in their later life to do this when most of them must, in fact, believe that death is the end of their movie?

Jung: Well. You see, I have treated many old people and it’s quite interesting to watch what the unconscious is doing with the fact that it is apparently threatened with a complete end. It disregards it!  Life behaves as if it was going on. And so, I think it is better for old people to live on, to look forward to the next day as if he had to spend centuries. And then he lives properly. But when he is afraid, when he doesn’t look forward, or that he looks back he petrifies, he gets stiffened, he dies before his time. But when he is living on, looking forward to the great adventure that is ahead, then he lives. And that is what the unconscious is intending to do, Of course, it’s quite obvious that we are all going to die and this is the sad finale of everything, but nevertheless there is something in us that doesn’t believe it, apparently, but this is merely a factor as I (struggles for a phrase) does it mean to me that it proves something? It is simply so. For instance, I may not know why we need salt, but we prefer to eat salt because you feel better. And so, when you think in a certain way you may feel considerably better. And if, I think, you think along the lines of nature then you think properly.

Freeman: And this leads me to the last question that I want to ask you. As the world become more technically efficient it seems increasingly necessary for people to behave communally and collectively. Now do you think it’s possible that the highest development of man may be to submerge his own individuality in a kind of collective consciousness?

Jung: That’s hardly possible. I think there will be a reaction. The reaction will setting (sic) against this communal dissociation. You know, man doesn’t stand forever his nullification. (At some time) there will be a reaction and I see it setting in. You know, when I think of my patients, they all seek their own existence, and to assure their existence against that complete atomization into nothingness or into meaninglessness. Man cannot stand a meaningless life.

I recommend the reading of Jung’s autobiography: Memories, Dreams, Reflections


“Youth and Old Age are Two Separate Kingdoms”

Richard Zimler

The quote is from the bottom of page 71 of “The Gospel According to Lazarus,” by Richard Zimler.

This statement struck me with enough power to make me stop reading. Why? I can only use more words.

I am in my 83rd year on earth. I am old, but I have been young. In the last few decades I have learned that an old person cannot teach a younger person except, possibly, by example—assuming the younger one is actively watching at all.

I certainly do learn, or rather re-learn, by watching even the youngest of us, currently my wife’s first grandchild. By observing him I am reminded of the vital forces contained in everyone; it is invigorating to engage with a new, whole, completely unrestrained human being who happens to be much smaller and temporarily physically dependent.

But this palaver delays my expressing the immediate perception I had upon reading the phrase: yes, we are in separate kingdoms, each with its desires and objectives.

Those younger than I cannot know what I have learned and value, if they have not yet had similar experiences. Memo to self: avoid negative feelings if the young are  inattentive, even dismissive of my offerings. Corollary: don’t offer unless asked.

Conversely, I know what it is to be young, if I have not allowed myself to forget, and, therefore, should be understanding and, if necessary, forgiving, even generous. My father had a saying which I heard often: “youth will be served.”

In the event that younger people may have read this far, I offer more words, to show an important aspect of being old. This is from another novel, “Death Comes to the Archbishop, by Willa Cather:”

Sometimes, when Magdalena or Bernard came in and asked him a question, it took him several seconds to bring himself back to the present.  He could see they thought his mind was failing; but it was only extraordinarily active in some other part of the great picture of his life–some part of which they knew nothing.

Time with a Cat (a haibun)

I was yielding to the insidious tendency to dwell on my advancing age, as it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the reminders of my deteriorating appearance and function. The inevitable end was quite clear, only the timing and manner remained hidden. It was tedious to “count one’s blessings” rotely, as a palliative to this recurrent ennui. There was only one thing to do: take a walk.

Not a long walk on a short pier, as I heard the saying in Brooklyn so many years ago, but a walk in the fresh air along an arm of Stockholm’s big lake Mälaren, despite the day being overcast and somewhat windy.

There was no new life to celebrate: the grasses, bushes and trees had spent their flowers, the birds were well over the nesting period and the lake’s edges were cluttered with the detritus of careless humans and the decay of the lake’s biota. I had no direction to go in, so I sat on a bench facing the lake.

I brought no book or writing material. I needed to be intellectually naked, to be open to the fates, unprepared for evaluating and rationalizing.

One of the neighborhood cats wandered by, the sleek gray one. It looked briefly at me, sniffed at a few nearby plants, and then gracefully jumped onto the bench. It sat near me and gave itself a few licks and scratches as it faced the sun with me. I remained passive but observant.

It stretched a wonderful cat stretch, walked the few steps between us, slowly and confidently, then sat in my lap. I am no stranger to cats; I immediately assumed the role required of me. I petted and stroked and scratched the cat exactly where and how he or she needed, and we were bonded for a short but timeless period.

The warmth and the feel of the cat were familiar to me. Visions of my youth, when I lived with cats, flowed over and through me. I remembered my parents and sister, especially, and then my children and a former mate. These memories morphed into others, just as a dream progresses. I felt as if I carried a great museum of memories inside me, but it didn’t seem as burdensome as it sometimes does. Perhaps I dozed a bit.

The cat eventually had enough of what I was offering, unwound itself from my lap, walked over the bench a short way and dropped to the ground without a backward glance. The communion was over. I went to the supermarket to buy groceries, and then back home to perform household chores.

the weight of the world
grows heavy with time
but not with a cat

Definition of Haibun