All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Extract from “Journey of the Magi”
The extract above is from T.S.Eliot’s poem “Journey of the Magi”. I first heard it when I was at college and it has stayed with me. He captures the struggle of the Magi to make their journey. These are not triumphant warriors coming home. These are men who are tired. For whom the journey is uncertain. “Were we led all that way for Birth or Death?” That is a question that arises so often in therapy. “What am I doing here? I thought counselling was supposed to make me feel better. I feel like shit.”
The Magi responded to a sign which they saw as significant. They were unsure what it signified, but they understood it to be important. The same is often true of my patients. They see a sign. A difficult marriage or relationship. Tensions at work. Perhaps feelings of depression and anxiety. These are read as signs. Signs that need to be attended to and understood. We only know that the Magi came from the East following a star. Bethlehem was an unknown destination. The parallels to clinical work are obvious. We start from a different place. Frequently the place of our beginnings. Our place of birth. Those earliest moments of conception, pregnancy and birth which seem so far from our current places. Yet each time I see a patient we end up back at their beginning. The men whose fathers leave months after their birth. The men whose mothers abandon them. The women who feel overwhelmed by their father’s expectations of them. This is where the journey has begun. This is what has shaped their life to date. The woman who has had six children with six different men. And each of her children taken into “care”. The successful business man who always has a lover whom visits regularly. Whose wife pretends not to know and not to mind. These journeys are more like death than birth.
The biblical account of the Wise Men is only found in Matthew’s gospel. He places this visit at the end of his genealogies “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham…” (Matt. 1:1) Matthew is telling his readers their history. As counsellors we don’t share your histories but nonetheless draw on them in our work. (Unlike Athena who emerged fully armed from the skull of Zeus we have learned our histories the hard way with journeys that seem to have made the Magi’s travels look easy!) We share our patient’s journeys in many ways.We, to, have slept badly at times and have wondered where our journey will take us. To birth or to death?
My aim is to write more about Journeyings. Meanwhile I shall end with some Advent music. Enjoy, as they say!