Maybe it is about you, too.
It’s probably about Hasidic Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, who said: Be sure to have two pockets sewn into your clothing. In each pocket carry a note, to read as needed. In the right-hand pocket: “I am but dust and ashes.” In the left-hand one: “For my sake, the world was created.”
Eight weeks had passed since my last meeting with my spiritual director. A quick update on my inner life was in order. But there was no quick update; I had spent time in dark and light places, with and without company, at home and away, with emotions both mild and extreme.
I decided to share two dreams that mark the extremities.
An eighteen year old young man, someone I know well, gets permission to take a reduced load in school. His teacher and fellow students think there is something wrong with his genes. But really he has lots of cankerworms (small moth caterpillars) crawling on him. When he comes near, some fall on me. I am sure his problem comes from the worms, and wonder why no one does anything about them.
While I am leading Shabbat morning services at the synagogue, an art teacher has been at my home leading the synagogue youth in an art project. They have made journals with ornate fantasy art covers. At the synagogue, the blank journals are stacked against a wall. I am delighted to see them, and delighted to learn that behind them sit pages and pages of gilded stickers with other fantasy motifs. I had not known those stickers were at the synagogue — and I’d been there so many years!
I am dust and ashes. I am the young man. Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I think I’ll go eat some worms. No one sees me; they see their theories of me. Maybe I get what I need, but I don’t get well.
For my sake, the world was created. A world just like the journals: stimulating my imagination, waiting for creative words, shining with golden beauty. My next delightful discovery is just behind the current one; wonder and amazement will never end.
For many years, I’ve been holding tightly to the left hand note: for my sake, delight, discovery, and wonder never end. I held this so tightly, I’d forgotten to look at the other note.
This year, the right hand note has a mind of its own. Leaping out of my pocket, dancing in front of my face, reproducing itself a hundredfold and lodging in my brain. This year, it takes so little to trigger the thought: I am dust and ashes.
It’s not just a thought; it’s a full-on swirl of mantras and feelings and physical pain with a motor all its own. It’s what C.G. Jung calls a “complex,” a set of “feeling-toned” associations. It is so tightly packed with affective energy, so volatile, so hot to handle, that my ego has not effectively integrated it. Sometimes, it seems to function autonomously, filtering data and constructing its own responses to the environment.
What would it look like to integrate the two notes?
Maybe the dreams hold some clues. I know this young man who appeared in my dream; in real life, he does have health problems. Yet his friends hold him so steadfastly, so passionately, that sometimes, and right now, he flourishes. And those cankerworms: I know them well. For years, we battled them in North Carolina. We fought for possession of ancient oak trees, which the worms hoped would feed them and we hoped would shade us. Patient community effort, coordinated in our garage, prevented their reproduction, reduced their numbers, and saved our trees.
The dream teaches that I can’t integrate alone. This is not a matter of untangling threads through introspection. Someone besides me must hold me, right pocket and left. If others fail to acknowledge the self-doubting side of me, I can’t acknowledge it either. I have to lock it away, too, so that I might be loved.
Hidden in its closet, this part of me becomes what Jung calls a “shadow,” a personality made up of all the traits my conscious mind rejects. Of course it bangs on the closet door. I hear it shout to me through the swirling grip of my dust and ashes complex.
Again, the dreams hold clues. The art teacher stacks the children’s journals against the wall, hiding surprises behind them. My shadow hides behind something I created in childhood, a delightful persona to soothe grieving parents. But now I have no parents, and I can reclaim the doubt and sorrow that has secretly stalked me for a lifetime. As an adult I know I did not have to suppress it for my excellent parents to love me; but I made a childish judgment call and lived by my choice.
You know, the situation might not be horrible. Behind my childish creation might be a world just waiting for my imagination. I’ll take those sticky raw materials and make something beautiful of them.
Now that I see I am but dust and ashes, for my sake, a world of possibilities has been created.
Image: Ghost of Dust and Ashes, by AbelPhee, deviantart.com