There is a story in David Tacey’s latest book, Gods and Diseases, which captures in a neat set of images the sense of what the author is trying to say. In ancient Greece, he tells us, people wanting relief from ailments of one kind or another would come to the temple of the god of medicine, Asclepius, and be led into a “dream chamber”. They would be asked to sleep for a while and their dreams then analysed by the priests of the temple to form the basis for their remedy.
This picture is emblematic of Tacey’s outlook in the book. Physical and mental wellbeing, he says, has a hidden, psychological-spiritual component. There are stories and meanings behind why we feel unwell and these must be understood to help us properly face our situation.
Tacey is a professor in Humanities at Latrobe University in Melbourne and a Jungian thinker/social critic. For him modern Western society’s materialist outlook, lacking a sense of the sacred, of depth and meaning, contributes to a multitude of common problems including depression, suicide, alcoholism and other addictions.
He follows and extends Jung’s analysis of the modern condition. In his essay The State of Psychotherapy Today, Jung said: “For thousands of years the mind of man has worried about the sick soul, perhaps even earlier than it did about the sick body.” For Jung, the gods of ancient religions were personifications of aspects of the human psyche that affected for good or ill the health of the soul and body. The modern Western world, abandoning the primacy of religion, has consigned the gods to the old days of pre-scientific superstition and illusion. Yet the timeless forces they represented have not gone away. In fact, Jung argues, those forces are now to our detriment internalised in the unconscious. Without the help of religion to externalise, make sense of and build a relationship to the fundamental psychic energies that move us, we are disconnected and risk our physical and mental wellbeing. The gods become diseases.
Tacey picks up this view: “We may think of gods as metaphors for forces that move through our lives, energising us, animating us, or injuring and afflicting us.” He is an advocate for “archetypal medicine”, which tries to find the metaphor or story in a person’s illness to bring them into closer alignment with their deeper selves.
A theme that runs through Tacey’s analysis is that of spiritual rebirth. All of us, he says, yearn to be “reborn” at stages of our lives to reflect the call of the soul for greater purpose and depth. However in a society that does not understand, let alone nurture the inner voice, we can easily become stuck and unable to move from one life phase to another. The child who is ready to become an adult may lack guidance to respond to the call of the gods within. The adult whose mid-life crisis presents an opportunity of reinvention can avoid and deny the difficult need of the soul. When the yearning is blocked, the gods eventually turn nasty. Low self-esteem, depression, addiction, self-harm, and even suicide can result.
Tacey rejects the kind of crude and callous approach that some religious and New Age adherents espouse that lays blame on a person for the illness they experience. His remedy is not prescriptive or literal – it is up to each person to find the metaphor in the illness, and it may be complex, elusive and shrouded in mystery. Inevitably, though, the metaphor relates in some way to an individual’s own path of inner fulfilment.
To talk about the “purpose” in an illness is fraught indeed. For people without wisdom and those seeking simple solutions, such thinking can easily lead to moral panic and blame, such as the fundamentalist Christian response to AIDS. Yet without adopting a fundamentalist perspective, Tacey’s view is convincing.
The rise of ecological awareness has allowed us to see how interconnected life is on the planet, and there is no reason why this interconnectedness cannot extend to areas where scientific rationalism will not venture. Indeed it is possible through such methods as active imagination, pioneered by Jung, and dream analysis to get in touch with the metaphors that shade and colour surface material reality. It requires a fundamental switch of perspective, an investment in the imagination, a return of the sacred, a relationship with the gods.
Tacey concludes: “Our task is to hold onto our humanity while we welcome the gods back into our lives – our sanity and that of civilisation depends on this subtle balancing act.”
Gods and Diseases: Making sense of our physical and mental wellbeing is published by Harper Collins.