Learning to make sense of our lives and fully embrace who we are is a life-long journey. I’ll be 73 years old in December and have been spending time recently reflecting on my life. In his book, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, James Hillman says that we must answer two related question about our lives:
1. How do I put together the pieces of my life into a coherent image?
2. How do I find the basic plot of my story?
I took another step in answering these questions when I spent time with philosopher Pierre Grimes, author of Philosophical Midwifery: A New Paradigm for Understanding Human Problems. In my article, “A Little in Love with Death: My Healing Encounter with Pierre Grimes,” I describe my upbringing and my mother’s preoccupation with death and dying.
Soon after my birth, my mother was convinced she would die before I was out of high school and bought a life insurance policy she couldn’t afford so I’d have money after she was gone. (In face, she lived until she was 80). She also got a life insurance policy for me when I turned five, insisting you can never start too soon to take care of your family after you’re gone. When I started nursery school she was already preparing for my life after she was dead and for the life of my wife and family after I died.
My mother married my father on the rebound when the man she truly loved was sent to Europe on assignment as a writer for the New York Times. I don’t think their marriage was a happy one and I don’t think my father ever felt truly loved. He suffered from depression and bipolar disorder. We now view depression as a “brain disease” and treat it with drugs, but that may not be the best way to look at these problems.
Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, has a more nuanced and expanded view of depression. “Depression is the flaw in love,” he says. “To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair. When it comes, it degrades one’s self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection.”
I’ve had to deal with what we call depression and bipolar disorder most of my life. I was prescribed medications for the manic symptoms, which included racing thoughts, grandiose plans, irritability, anger, and sleeplessness. I also was prescribed an antidepressant for symptoms that included feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, loneliness, and sadness. Although the medications were useful, I found it much more helpful to work therapeutically with my doctor to address issues in my relationship, my sense of self, and the way I viewed the world.
I no longer need medications, but I continue to explore ways to improve my relationship with my wife, to better understand my unique life journey, and to find ways to make a meaningful contribution to creating a world that works for all.
James Hillman believes we come into the world with a certain destiny and many key experiences in our lives, even ones we might view as traumatic, are in the service of that destiny or calling. “For centuries,” he says, “we have searched for the right term for this call.” He lists the most well-known:
- The Romans named it your genius
- The Greeks, your daimon
- The Christians your guardian angel.
- For some it is Lady Luck or Fortuna
- Plato called it paradeigma, a basic form encompassing your entire destiny.
One of the ways our genius or daimon makes itself known to us is through our names or nicknames. The story in our family was that when I was born my parents were sure I was going to be a girl and when I emerged they were at a loss for names. My father decided that I should be named after his deceased nephew, Elliott. My mother didn’t like the name and cried for three days until he agreed to go with her choice of John, after her dead father. My official name became John Elliott Diamond.
Growing up, I didn’t like the name. I was called Johnny, which didn’t seem to fit me well. When I went to college I changed my name to Jed. It felt short and sweet, strong and powerful, distinctive and a little mysterious. I’ve been Jed ever since. For most of my life I was angry at my parents for thinking I would be a girl and naming me after dead relatives.
Upon reflection, I realize that the whole process was in the service of my unique destiny and calling and guided by my unique daimon. I do, in fact, have a lot of feminine energy. My wife and I joke about it. I’m very intuitive, cry easily, am emotionally aroused to extreme highs and crashing lows, and easily empathize with others. These qualities have helped me excel as a therapist. My name Elliott unites me with my ancestry though my father’s line and John connects me with my mother’s heritage. My chosen name, Jed, expresses my own unique sense of self.
Another aspect of my family history that falls into place when looked at through the lens of destiny is my early experiences with my father’s depression. When I was five years old, he was hospitalized and sent to Camarillo State Mental Hospital, a hundred miles north of our home in Los Angeles. Every Sunday it was my duty to accompany my uncle to visit my father. I hated going, but my family said my father needed me and I complied.
The state mental hospitals at the time, were horrible places to be for anyone. My father was heavily drugged and given shock treatments. He got worse, rather than better, and after one year I refused to go. I had always seen this as a traumatic time of my life and I hated my family for making me go.
However, from the point of view of the daimon, I was preparing for my future profession. For more than 40 years, I have been helping men and the women who love them, to live long and well. Even at the age of five I was getting my chance to see what really goes on inside a mental hospital, to reflect on why men have “nervous breakdowns,” and how it all impacts families. Even my own bouts with depression and mania can be viewed as “on the job training” for my life’s calling, rather than simply a product of genetics or upbringing.
Looking back on my childhood as early indicators of a calling that has been guided by a loving presence, my daimon or guardian angel, helps me feel better about my parents and more accepting of all my life experiences. It helps me put together the puzzle pieces of my life and to embrace the plot of my unique story. At this time of thanks giving, I thank all those who have contributed to this blessed life, including the unseen forces of destiny.
I look forward to your comments and your own reflections on your life’s calling and destiny.
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