James celebrates his 90th birthday today. To mark the event we’re posting this additional reflection. Happy Birthday, James!
On November 11th I reach my ninetieth year. I find it hard to believe as there is still so much yet to be discovered. As I look back over my life, I am aware of a long avenue of people who have appeared, often at crucial moments, to point a way forward, or deflect me from some action that could have been harmful. And, importantly, there have been those who have not hesitated to hold up a mirror so that I might see clearly my mistakes and faults – one is indeed blessed if one has friends who are not afraid to speak the truth. I also marvel at how many of these encounters seem almost planned, as though part of an intended pattern.
I recall how, at the age of twenty-one, when I was in state close to a breakdown, I happened to be passing a Catholic church in Ogle Street in London, a church I had never before visited, and I chose to go in and make my Confession. The priest suggested I make contact with a psychotherapist in Gloucester Place. And so began many years of Jungian analysis. It was Dr Franz Elkisch who helped assemble the bits of my jig-saw so that I could discover the person I was meant to be. Time and again such meetings and encounters have happened. As Joseph Campbell expressed it so memorably, ‘One has only to know and trust and the ageless guardians will appear.’
Lest I seem complacent, all this needs to be set against a background of financial insecurity, some successes, some failures, betrayals, disappointments, doors slamming in one’s face … That also is part of the journey for each of us – how we deal with setbacks, pain and difficulty.
I have been re-reading Cicero on Old Age. At one point he says, ‘As I approach nearer to death I seem as it were to be coming to port at last after a long voyage.’ His words remind me of a painting by Margaret Neve, entitled Home-Coming. In the foreground are five robed figures, their backs to us, waiting. In the sky is an enormous full moon, its circle reflected on the surface of the sea, and in the centre of that circle of moonlight is a ship with many sails is approaching land, coming in to harbour. Is this Ulysses returning from his many voyages, or is it each of us returning home when our time comes?
Cicero followed no religion for he was a Stoic, but he seems aware of deeper possibilities beyond death when he writes,
The soul, in fact, is of heavenly origin, forced down from its home in the highest and, so to speak, buried in earth. I used to be told that Pythagoras and almost all natives of our old country, never doubted that we had souls drafted from the Universal Divine Intelligence. I used, besides, to have pointed out to me the discourse delivered by Socrates on the last day of his life, upon the immortality of the soul – Socrates who was pronounced by the oracle at Delphi to be the wisest of men. I need say no more!
For myself, however many more years I have to live on this earth, I have no fear of dying. How is this, you may ask? Many decades ago, in a dream, I was shown a boat that looked like a curled leaf. I was told that this was the vessel in which I had come to earth and that in it I would find a return ticket. I knew then that when the time comes I shall return to the place from whence I came. It was on telling this dream to Dr Elkisch that he declared, ‘Your analysis is now ended.’
Interestingly, some decades later, I experienced a variation of this dream. In it I was show oval-shaped boats, fragile as leaves, and I was invited to lie down in one. Then I was removed to a great distance and shown the whole earth, which appeared like a circle made of leaves – a complete mandala made up of the essence of all beings, inter-leaved and inter-woven. There was nothing solemn or portentous about the dream: everything in it appeared wholly natural and simple.
Joseph Campbell writes, ‘What is unknown is the fulfilment of your own unique life, the like of which has never existed on earth. And you are the only one to do it.’ Elsewhere he also writes, ‘Move, move, move into the Transcendent! Get rid of the life you have planned in order to have the life that is waiting to be yours.’
I am aware at this age of how far I have travelled; but I am also aware of journeys yet to go, for, as T.S. Eliot tells us in The Four Quartets, ‘ Old men should be explorers still.’