Myths and legends have been around since we humans stood up on two legs and reached for the stars.
In every culture, in every corner of the earth, story has been the way humans make sense of the world and themselves. Story has been how we have kept our young folk safe from what lurks outside the periphery of the tribal boundary. How we teach morals, ethics, experiences we don’t want others to repeat.
Storytelling is more than entertainment. It’s about the good of the tribe, about survival. about thriving.
Lately I’ve noticed a theme popping up with clients: Compassion fatigue. Many clients have shown up burned out, unwell, depressed, lost, confused and overworked. And utterly perplexed as to how they got here.
Twenty years ago, I was that person and sought counsel from a wise Jungian therapist who told me that burn out is often about boundaries and boundaries are about something called mature compassion. I blinked then, as my clients do now.
‘In short,’ she said, empathy means you feel the feelings of those around you. Compassion overarches this – it’s about doing something for those people. But without boundaries we have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. I’ll fix it, you say, wading in where you may or may not be wanted.
She then told me a story I have never forgotten (for why would I? Stories have a way of seeping into our brains and remaining there) about a tiny section inside the Greek myth about Psyche and Aphrodite, and it involves a skeleton and the river of death.
Essentially, Psyche has been given four tasks by the jealous goddess of beauty; four impossible tasks (think Rumpelstiltskin, think Baba Yaga, think aspects of Cinderella), one of which is to locate the path into the underworld (difficult) and ask Proserpina for a portion of her beauty balm (also challenging).
Skip a few chapters and Psyche, understanding the impossibility of the task, is filled with despair. She takes herself to a tower to throw herself from the top. The tower takes pity on her and offers this advice,
‘When you cross the river Styx, a skeleton will ask you to save it, ‘the tower says. ‘You have your own task to complete. Do not help the skeleton.’
Cut to the moment Psyche crosses the river that divides living world to the underworld where the dead dwell- the river Styx – where, sure enough, floating in the current comes a skeleton. He cries out for help and seeing Psyche, starts to beg her for help, ‘It’s so easy, he says. ‘Just reach down into the river and lift me up.’
He cajoles, he begs, and then he grows angry and then he threatens her, ‘You are weak, selfish, cruel,’ he yells.
Psyche wrestles with herself for she is none of these things. She almost caves in. Indeed it is that easy to plunge her arms into that river and do as he says. But the words of the tower come back to her.
‘Not right now,’ she tells the skeleton who floats away berating her. And her journey continues.
The clients with whom I share this story, all say the same thing I did way back when: Isn’t it cruel to not save that poor creature? If she were really kind, she would save those needier than herself?
But – and here’s the lesson – mature compassion is being able to discern who will help themselves and who will drag us under the surface into the river of death with them. [Caveat: This is NOT who is worth saving, not at all. Instead, it is about us understanding that those who wade in, will be dragged down] If we get the tools to be present with others, then they will learn how to help themselves. It’s a double will to be able to protect ourselves whilst watching others make the choice to climb out. And even better when we watch them do in turn, and help others themselves.
This is mature empathy and compassion. And it is about presence, action and boundaries.
To be fair, to begin with this is daunting: when others expect the world of us, and historically we have given this, it is not easy to say no (or even to say, not right now). But think of it this way: what happens to you when you drop everything all the time? Burn out? Not achieving the task? Bitterness? Tick, tick and tick.
Another tale, from another therapist (yes it took a while for me to learn this lesson). When asked how I don’t burn out with friends and clients who I felt expected more than I could give, he told me this story.
There is a garden. In the garden is a park bench. It is winter. A man sits on the bench in the snow. He’s in chains. You see him from your window, from your warm house. You watch him day in and day out. His plays with something in the snow. It is gold but all you see is that he is hungry, cold, shivering, crying. So, you take two cups of steaming tea. You sit beside him, share your tea, offer food. You listen. Then when you get cold you go back inside. And you return as long as you feel you are helping.
But he’ll die, I wailed.
Yes, he may,’ said the therapist, ‘but he may not, too. And importantly, you won’t. Also, hone in on the gold thing in the snow. It’s a key and it is not up to you to free him from his chains. That is his job, his journey if you will. But by being beside him as you are able, you may help him get that key into the lock in his chains. ‘
There may be so many reasons we need to learn mature compassion. Perhaps we entered a relationship thinking we’ll fix our partner- we’ll save them as no one else could-only to have that relationship suck the life out of us (nod to the reams of research on commonalities of how some can find themselves in domestic violence and coercive controlling relationships). Perhaps we suddenly have to learn how to say no in order to climb out of addiction? Or to be in the best position to fight an illness? Or, perhaps we need to go focus on ourselves more as we enter the underworld journey of menopause?
This tiny segment from a much larger myth is a vital piece for many clients in understanding that boundaries are there, not to lock others out, but to free us in order to hold onto our gifts, our energy, our resources and our resilience so that we may help many others (or perhaps just ourselves).
It’s not easy.
It pisses people off for they have seen the version of us that are there 24-7. It takes time and practice. But once we begin the work something always crops up for all of us: namely, those who start to act like that skeleton are already in the river and on their journey. And perhaps our choice to say not right now, was the right one.