COVID-19 and the Art of Suffering

John Singer Sargent – The Hermit

“No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.” ― Carl Jung

Introvert, Empath, HSP, INFJ. Ten years ago I had no clear idea of what any of that was. I’d come to think of myself as a tormented artist, “complicated” or, for lack of anything specific, fucked up beyond redemption. Suffering became an art form, a spiritual practice, a Dark Ages approach people sometimes adopt to give meaning to their lives, if not redemption. After way too many years of this, I decided the suffering-is-holy thing is crap. Spin. Like believing that sinking (or floating) in water proves you’re a witch — until the erudite town elder tells you to stop being a moron.

There is nothing especially holy about suffering. There is no backup, no rescue. Suffering is life, consciousness, and as such meant to be fully experienced. We have to go through to come out; we have to release old things to give new things a place to grow. Nature understands this (I rarely do, until I’m buried in shit). Like a virus, chaos runs its course with or without us and when we emerge, we’ve changed. Or something like that.

Enter the 21st century. Energy sensitivity no longer falls into that nebulous gray area between psychology and airy fairy woo woo. Those aforementioned enigmatic terms are all over the place now. We have books, articles, studies, and Facebook pages full of platitudes and self-identification mantras. “I’m an empath. I see this and feel that. Be nice to me, I’m sensitive. Watch out, I’m reading your shallow ass.” The INFJ ones are even worse. My inner curmudgeon is easily irritated by and properly skeptical of that nonsense. In true INFJ fashion, I scowl thinking that splattering those claims out there insults and defies the very thing. Don’t mess with my shadows. Leave my scar collection alone. Get off my lawn.

Having said that, I also have an intimate, if not compassionate appreciation for that basic human need to be seen and understood. Well, sometimes. On my terms. Ok never mind, you get the idea.

What I do have reverence for — and to be fair, the memes have a place in this — is information and understanding. Science. Research. Clinical studies. Open-mindedness. Awareness. Everything is energy; everything is connected; we are all part of the whole. No matter where on the radio dial you are, we all know the natural terror of feeling we’re at the mercy of something we don’t understand, and I think the terror comes because everything is connected, and not the other way around. How would you know there is a bigger picture unless something seemingly “out there” came along and sucker punched you out of your comfort zone? Interconnection isn’t a theory anymore. Those 10,000 year old shamans had this figured out, and science is catching up.

Enter COVID-19. When this broke open and fear swept over the planet, I started having panic attacks. I was abysmally depressed, physically weakened, freaked out, spun up for no reason, bursting into tears, my whole body fighting a deluge. Then I realized that while getting information and trying to make sense out of things, I had opened all my circuits and got fried. Finally, I remembered what I had learned in my extensive travels through hell. High-pass filter: ON.

Like many of my kind, I no more worried about social distancing than a fish would worry about being banned to water. Just another day in my weird universe. But then this other thing happened. Scanning my social networking threads, I began to feel a deep connection to people. Normally, I swing like a pendulum between this brilliant sensation of oneness with humanity — and a full-on belief that people are shit and a Deathstar would the best fucking thing that ever happened to this forsaken planet.

Ahh, but this breakthrough put those extremes into balance, didn’t it? Suddenly, my ridiculous and often crippling sensitivity became a vehicle, a bridge joining humanity in all its glory: fear, malcontent, anger, insecurity, suffering, abandonment; but also love, empathy, compassion, cooperation, appreciation and humor.

Ergo, I feel less alone than I ever have.

Stay safe, and hang in there. We’ll get through this.

© F.T. McKinstry 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Demons at the Bar

Swamped

“The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.” – C.G. Jung

My life is falling apart.

Sounds charming, put like that. Imagine if you will some poor bastard, drunk at a bar, ordering that fifth whiskey while he drags his fingers through his hair as if to pull it out. The bartender is shaking his head with a faint smile. He’s heard it all before.

A better image would be of a sand castle being slowly sapped and dissolved by the waves of an uncaring sea. Cruel, silent, inexorable, years of it, career issues, health issues and the ever-strengthening shadows of my fucked up youth. I sit up here in the woods and write stories, talk to myself and the gods and the houseplants, and crank metal until my ears bleed. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I don’t want to do yoga. I’m sick of eating healthy. If I see one more sanctimonious, inspirational meme on Facebook I’m going put my fist through the screen. I sit outside, and my cats come around and sit with me, looking this way and that, alert, or sleeping with one eye open, as if they’re guarding me. They have a big responsibility. The veil between my mind and the boundless waters of the unconscious has grown thin and my demons won’t leave me alone.

Goblins

There are some interesting names for this process: life transition, Neptune/Chiron transits, clinical depression, dark night of the soul, desensitization and reprocessing, alchemical dissolution, and shamanic initiation, to name a few.

Let’s go with that last one. I’ve read quite a few books on these sorts of things. I want answers. I was attracted to the idea of shamanism, particularly the Northern European variety, and I looked into it. But it wasn’t until things got nasty that I went back and looked at it again, particularly the dark parts concerning initiation. This rugged ordeal involves long-term isolation, debilitating illness, dismemberment, being devoured and spit out into a steaming pile of cat puke by your demons (ok, I added that last part, except for the demons).

So after I shook off the chill, I thought, Yeah right. Shamanic initiation. I’m just inventing something romantic to deal with my crumbling life. But there’s nothing romantic about this. It’s a suckfest wielding one nasty punch after another, a testament to humans’ amazing ability to invent false bottoms. It goes something like this: “I have to be at the bottom, now! This can’t possibly get any worse!” Uh-huh, nice try. Go directly to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. Feel free to imagine me laughing hysterically.

My man left me, just recently. Ah, the peaceful sound of another false bottom washing away into the sea. He moved in with another woman and they’re dancing and laughing in some sunny meadow of romantic fulfillment, or so it seems to me, sitting in my cave, staring into the void, issuing concert tickets to a never-ending flood of demons arriving from the shadows of my past. It’s like this dream I once had. I’m standing in the dark on the forest’s edge, gazing at a warm campfire in the distance, when something invisible comes up behind me, put its hand over my mouth and drags me into the night. Just like that.

Scary WolfI’m between the worlds. I shapeshift between fearing the wolf and becoming the wolf.

At the end of the day, I am a creative sort, and if there’s anything that will not be ignored, it’s that. This is a good thing. So I’m working on my next book, The Wolf Lords. I never sat down and decided to write a story about all this. It doesn’t work that way. I just wrote a story. But, ironically, it’s full of demons and the sorcerers who love them, all kinds of surly, implacable characters wreaking havoc on things because they can.

The experts say, “Write what you know.” Writer blogs are full of platitudes like that, stale little cookies we devour to fill the void because facing the void means dealing with our demons. Fortunately, when it comes to that, I’m not inclined to take prisoners. So I’m taking the aforementioned platitude to heart.

We’ll see how many of my characters survive it.

© F.T. McKinstry 2017. All Rights Reserved.