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Finding Meaning by Living a Symbolic Life

These days, Westerners find themselves, li.ke Alice in “Through the Looking Glass”,
running faster and faster only to stand still. We spend our first quarter of life preparing to
live, our second quarter of life attempting to build “the good life”, the third quarter of life
wondering how the good life became a nightmare, and the fourth quarter wondering what
we did wrong and, perhaps retreating from the world.
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In the press of that second quarter of earning our living, making a family, raising
quarrelsome kids, and struggling to keep a good face on, we don’t have the time or the
energy to reflect on what is going wrong. When things go wrong, we try harder; if that
doesn’t work, we believe that we just aren’t enough…not tough enough, not smart
enough, not wise enough, not loving enough, not unselfish enough…to overcome such a
hostile world.
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When we first begin our young adulthoods, we assume that if we do what everyone else
is doing, we’ll be fine. We do what our parents did. Work hard. Speak the truth. Give an
honest days work for our pay. Be honest. Keep your word. It isn’t until mid-life, usually,
that we discover that we’ve been following the wrong rules and that something is wrong
with the assumptions we made about how life worked. But we don’t stop until we are
forced to, until our body breaks down, we become ill, or until our mind stops thinking
because we’ve burnt out, or until our spouse walks out on us.
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Sometime around mid-life for a lot of us, we realize our life has become a prison and that
we are held in place working like a fly in a spider’s web. We find we’re working harder
and harder just to keep what we have, to keep the house maintained, the lawn mowed, the
children busy, the spouse happy, the job secure. But we think in our private momentes
that our life has become a trap, and we can‘t step out of it without the whole house of
cards coming down around us.
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Too often, our marriages have become loveless and exhausted. Our children hate us and
run away blaming us for their troubles. We face each day on the job with a sense of
fatigue or dread. One more day with that tyrannical boss. One more day trying to do both
your own job and all the housework and meet the kids needs without support from your
husband. One more day working yourself to death for low wages. One more day of trying
to hold everything together without a spouse to help you deal with the world or help you
fight the loneliness and impersonality of our lives.
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Through the ages, many people have experienced this same issue and, in the midst of
their daily lives, sought for ways to live their lives in a more meaningful way. Religions,
especially, have served the purpose of helping people to raise their eyes higher, to see a
purpose in the world and in their lives, to accept suffering as a part of life and to find
courage and meaning in even the simplest things here on earth. But over the centuries,
our churches have become…in too many cases…empty of meaning as well.
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Robert A. Johnson, in his book Living Your Unlived Life, asserts this:
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When a religious institution no longer contains satisfactory answers, then we are forced
to go on “the quest” utilizing symbols that arise from our own unconscious.
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This is the “turn within” that mystics and scholars have written about for aeons. When the
rules and beliefs one has followed all ones life cease to have meaning or to work for you,
you realize that looking without for answers isn’t going to solve your problem. There is
only one thing to do, and that is to begin watching ones dreams and daydreams for insight
into what needs to change. This “quest” is not a search without for information or
wisdom…that never works; it is a search within ones self for answers to the problem of
how to live and how to resolve this issue of meaningfulness in life!
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Johnson continues, The quest involves listening to your interior intelligence, taking it
seriously, staying true to it, and approaching it with a religious attitude. In Jungian
psychology, this quest is known as “individuation”--discovering the uniqueness of
ourselves, finding your purpose and meaning. It relates to wholeness, not some
indiscriminate wholeness, but rather your particular relationship to everything else.
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Before the Age of Christ, there was a long period when poets and mystics taught their
students to live a life with symbolic meaning: serve in one’s life something greater than
ones self, respect the gods and see your life as personifying some great principle of Life
itself. This was called “living the symbolic life.” In the old days, myth spelled out the
themes of human life in the lives of “the gods”. In the ancient art of theatre and poetry of
Homer, in the myths of the gods Zeus, Apollo, Demeter, Kore, Aphrodite, Mars, Kronos,
Gaia and others, the reasons for the “way things are” were given, and the meaning of
tragedy, chaos, loss and gain were deeply explored. Man’s place in the Universe was
explained. The laws under which life was expressed and expanded were sounded. And
everyman and woman could see in his or her own life the ways in which these themes
resounded on a personal or individual level. Each man could see that he lived his own
myth, his own “great story”. Each woman could find in her own personal experience the
themes embodied by her gods or goddess. He or she could see that, in the ordinary details
of life, the great themes of Life resounded and took form. They could see their lives on
more than a literal level. They could find significance for their lives on a metaphorical or
symbolic level.
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Johnson relates:
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When we learn to live our lives symbolically rather than literally, new vistas open to us.
This world, the world of ordinary life, once again becomes ensouled, mysteriously
interconnected, meaningful and fascinating.
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Only the symbolic life can express the need of the soul…And because people have no
such thing, they can never step out of this awful, grinding, banal life in which they are
‘nothing but.’
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One of the tragedies in the history of Western Religious history was when the early
Catholic Church began to insist that its followers believe in the literal historic truth in its
sacred texts and discount the mythic nature of spiritual teachings. The early Church made
it a test of belief and salvation that its followers accept the teachings as literally true
rather than metaphorically true, not accepting that That Which Cannot be Described was
contained in its historical descriptions of the history of Jesus and ethical rules.
Subsequently, followers of Christianity began increasingly trapped in literal descriptions
of historic events rather than reaching beyond themselves towards the non-physical
realms or towards personal spiritual experience.
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One way to step out of literalness is to relearn to live a symbolic life, to view your life
from a poetic or symbolc perspective.If you are interested in learning to live in a new
way, consider these references as a beginning to your search:
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Robert A Johnson Living Your Unlived Life

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