Your Archetypes Want a Word With You
You’ve got some old beliefs and thought patterns that need shifting.
I recently wrote that I’d decided to read all 72 books from a vintage collection of story and philosophy books that my grandfather left me. I started this endeavor after a breakup, hoping that the books would help me sort out my feelings and heal.
I guess I’ve had this idea in my head that Grandpa’s got a plan from the beyond, that the books will come to me precisely when I need them, in the order I need them to. So I’m steadily going from one book to the next, letting the conversations between my own lived experiences and the authors’ percolate as I go about new routines, examine my beliefs, and navigate myself out of depression.
I’m also turning 30 soon so I’m getting the very first baby glimpses of my own mortality, and there’s a fun new voice in my head that keeps scream-whispering, “Purpose. Purpose. What’s your goddamn purpose?!”
To put it lightly, I’m uncomfortable in my skin right now. But my discomfort is your gain because I’m finding some helpful tools.
Finding Meaning After a Breakup — Through Literature
The place before you’ve found the point.
Years ago, I’d stolen a deck of tarot cards from my parents, who are the type of parents that have tarot decks lying around — along with crystal singing bowls and didgeridoos and books their friends wrote on how to have meaningful sex.
The deck was based on Carl Jung’s archetypes (the hero, the joker, the innocent, etc.).
I always found this deck, and the archetypes themselves, endlessly fascinating. I was enraptured with the idea that these same characters/concepts could be found in myth and literature throughout history, were part of a collective unconscious, and could help me to better understand my world.
Whenever I watched television or read a book, I’d flip through the cards and try to determine which characters in an ensemble matched with which archetypes or whether they were shifting from one archetype to another over the course of their character arc.
What? You didn’t do that too?
I still have that deck. As I was digging through my bookshelf for a bookmark for the first of Grandpa’s 72 books, Alice in Wonderland, I stumbled across these old archetype cards and had an idea…
What if I facilitated active reading by invoking the archetypes?
“If you know your archetypes — and not just yours, if you know how to perceive the world in archetypes, through archetypes — everything changes. Everything. Because you have two things: you can see through one eye which is impersonal, and through the other, which is personal. That’s the way the game is written down here.”
What if, for each book I read, I pulled an archetype card and used that card as my bookmark, keeping the archetype in mind as I read? The archetype on the card would, of course, have special significance in relation to the book and what I was meant to glean from it.
To my absolute delight, I discovered that there were 72 archetypes in the deck (the total deck is 80 cards, but 6 were purposefully blank and two were mysteriously missing) Seventy-two was the exact number of books in my grandfather’s collection! That had to be a sign, right?
“If you don’t know where you are going any road can take you there.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
I shuffled the deck, gave it a stern “don’t fuck this up” look, and picked a card.
The archetype I chose for Alice in Wonderland was “The Rescuer.”
Rescuer Light Aspects: Provides strength and support to others in crisis. Acts out of love with no expectation of reward.
Rescuer Shadow Aspects: Assumes that the rescued will reciprocate. Keeps the rescued one needy.
I spent the whole 2-book Alice series ruminating on this archetype, looking for it in the text itself and considering my own relationship to it. At first, I found myself pretty frustrated. I had been hoping that this whole project would rescue me from my depression and the pain of my recent breakup, but I couldn’t find a single character within Alice in Wonderland that qualified as a “rescuer”… unless you counted the White Knight.
At the very end of the second book, Through the Looking Glass, the Red Knight and the White Knight showed up out of the blue to fight over who got to escort Alice the last few yards to the end of her journey across a giant chessboard. The White Knight won the fight (barely), so Alice decided to humor him and let him escort her, even though he fell off his horse every few steps and ultimately slowed her down. He turned out to be a bit of a sap too, singing her a song and making himself cry before riding off to let her go the rest of the way on her own. I ended up enjoying this character a lot, but he was no true “rescuer”.
Alice didn’t need a rescuer. She just floated along from situation to situation. Sometimes she had a choice about where she went and what she did and sometimes she didn’t. If danger ever presented itself, it usually turned out to be pretty toothless. Alice was perfectly capable of handling herself.
This turned out to be only half of my revelation, though, because, when I finished the book and put the Rescuer card back into the deck, a card slipped from the bottom of the deck to the ground. I bent to pick it up.
It was the Mentor card.
And I realized something — I’d always (unconsciously, of course) believed that “rescuer” and “mentor” were one and the same. Call it the Mr. Feeny Effect. I’d spent my whole life waiting for that one person who could make all this nonsense and chaos here in Wonderland make sense. But the proof was in my hands. The two archetypes were entirely separate.
Finally, the New Perspective file finished downloading into my Consciousness folder and I opened it up to read:
Stop waiting for a rescuer. Stop expecting mentors to rescue you.
These books aren’t going to rescue you. Grandpa’s not going to rescue you. No one mentor or guide or epiphany is going to rescue you. Only you can rescue you — slowly, methodically, patiently — by experimenting and failing and honing and remaining open and moving on, like Alice somehow does.
Be patient when you’re in the woods or out to sea. Heed advice and make friends but don’t expect anyone or anything to have all the answers. And don’t let anyone pull you out before you’ve learned the way yourself. That’s not a real rescue. That’s not what you need right now.
I suddenly felt empowered. And a little scared. Like I was letting go of a beloved security blanket.
But I think it’s the right mindset to start a journey with.
An insight the size of a mustard seed is powerful enough to bring down a mountain-sized illusion that may be holding our lives together. Truth strikes without mercy. We fear our intuitions because we fear the transformational power within our revelations.”
― Caroline Myss
What’s great about this exercise is that you might have gotten an entirely different message than what I got, even if you were reading the exact same book and had pulled the exact same card. Our relationship with the archetypes is super personal.
A note on playing favorites:
I’ve found that the way we tend to use archetypes is to choose our favorites and carry them around with us like magical tokens. These key archetypes remind us of who we are and they make us feel safely anchored to our personalities. And this is perfectly legitimate. I’ve got a few favorites myself.
But what we don’t often do is give each archetype the consideration it deserves. There are some that you may not have an instant connection with and some you barely pay any attention to at all, but that just makes it even more likely that this is an archetype that’s got something to say to you. Something you’ve been refusing to listen to.
For example, the second book on my list was Andersen’s Fairy Tales and the archetype I pulled for it was “The Athlete”.
I rolled my eyes real hard when I pulled this card.
Never mind that the book and the card don’t seem related at all. I am not, nor have I ever been, physically gifted. My friend group in high school, the queer choir geeks, might as well have been on the opposite end of the social spectrum from the jocks. I’m not into sports, I don’t go to the gym, and (most painfully) my ex used to wish that I would go running with him and I never did. My gentle refusal (“It keeps you healthy, but at what cost?”) definitely wasn’t what broke us up, but it was a jagged little piece of the puzzle.
Now that I’m forced to consider my relationship to this archetype, I’m begrudgingly realizing that there are aspects of The Athlete that would be helpful for me to cultivate right now. For one thing, it takes discipline to get through Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Those stories are Messed. Up. Did you know the original Little Mermaid had her tongue cut out by the sea witch, never succeeded at seducing the prince, and then danced herself to death at his wedding??
Anyway, I’ve also started practicing yoga. And I can’t not go to classes every week now because I’ve paid for membership to the studio through December, so there better be a tiny little athlete hidden away under all these undefined muscles, or she’s out some cash. I’m also finding ways to practice my Spanish with more discipline and patience — the way an athlete might.
I encourage you to check out this archetype deck by Caroline Myss, author of several Oprah-approved books on discovering the self. You can buy it online from a bunch of different sources (It’s usually around $18-$20), but I’m not going to provide any direct links because it’s not my place to say whether you should buy from Amazon or from a smaller company that’s being bullied out of business by Amazon…
If you’re not sure, consult your archetypes.