Can the temporary withdrawal of my animating attention from a friend or lover justly be compared to ‘pushing’ them away? From the subjective point of view, there is merely the sense of stepping back, or momentarily suspending my active engagement with the other person. If he or she repeatedly interprets my stepping back as an act of rejection after I have attempted to explain what I’m doing, what might this tell me about the person? What prompts them to interpret my provisional withdrawal (from personal involvement) as rejection? For me, momentarily stepping back from cozy, personal intimacy and attachment to a cool ‘arm’s length’ is quite a different matter than pushing the other person away, even if I can easily appreciate how he or she might misconstrue my intentions.
Without intending here to reduce personal engagement to mere make-believe or posturing, there is nevertheless more than a faint resemblance between such engaged participation, on the one hand, and a serious actor’s imaginative, passionate investment in his theatrical role, on the other. When I am being (or acting as) an affectionate and caring lover or loyal friend, I often have the sense that I inhabit that role in an authentic or sincere manner. I am invested in the role—and because my friend perceives and trusts in the sincerity of my investment, he, in turn, is encouraged to remain invested. It is an arrangement based upon good faith. Because I play a variety of very different roles for a number of persons (and with a sincere investment of myself, I might add), I have gradually learned to recognize subtle distinctions between myself in those roles and out of them. Speaking in terms of Jungian psychology, these are distinctions between my personae and my individuality, which is ‘situated’ at a somewhat deeper level.
When I momentarily step back or consciously withdraw from my roles, what am I doing and why am I doing it? The sum of these actively played roles constitutes the ‘theater of operations’ of my social and interpersonal life. To withdraw—as I do from time to time—from all of them is, in effect, to strike the set of the big play that I am normally involved in at a personal level. At the very least, it is like hitting ‘pause’ on a movie I’m watching—a movie I also happen to be in—so that I can assess things like a film director or a playwright. I may be assessing my own or another character’s performance. Or, I might be pausing to reflect upon the ensemble effect of all the performances. Or, I might be attempting to anticipate where everything is headed in the present scene, act, or in the entire comedy itself. Or is it a tragedy? A tragi-comedy? A picaresque novel? A farce? A mystery play? A myth-in-progress? Can I, by stepping back in this way, significantly alter or improve my own performance or those of others, by giving them new questions and challenges to work with? Can I redirect the course of scenes or alter the trajectory or interpretation of the whole production? Can I change its very form (from tragedy to comedy) or its accent and mood?
Without attempting here to address these very intriguing questions, I will simply observe that when I am sincerely invested in my roles, my ‘hands are tied’ rather more snugly and tightly than when I have stepped offstage and into the audience, or into the director’s chair, or the playwright’s garret.
It doesn’t require a whole lot of effort for me to recognize the ‘observer’ within myself that is always hiding somewhere in the mix—simply looking on from an uninvolved stance in the background. Whenever I ‘step back’ it is always in the direction of this detached observer. While the observer, itself, does not judge the persons, situations, and events that fill the stage of my personal and cultural experience, it nevertheless provides the necessary psychological perspective from which I can optimally evaluate and reflect upon these persons and events. The ‘observer’ is simply my label for that standpoint from which Life’s characters and events readily reveal their ‘fictional’ or metaphorical basis. It is the clear cold light that pierces through the fleshy surface of phenomena into the skeletal structure that lends them shape and support. It seems that without this skeletal structure to prop it up, life would collapse like an unbaked cake. Our experience would quickly be reduced to something like gelatinous protoplasm. This skeletal system that lends organic form, symmetry, and supporting infrastructure to the animated surface of human experience is just another metaphor for the archetypal dimension. By itself, the archetypal scheme is little more than an elusive or invisible provider of structure—but when it works in concert with the spatio-temporal particulars that contribute body and appearance to the mix, we begin to have Life as we typically experience it. When I move out from the observer standpoint in the center, I am moving towards Life…towards immersion in experience, into a felt and involved connection with other persons, creatures, things. When my consciousness recedes or withdraws from surface events and persons, I am withdrawing into the detached observer, from which standpoint Life is viewed as something like a coagulated dream—a dream, that is, which the observer knows full well to be a dream, and populated with figures that the observer knows to be momentary, mortal manifestations of psychic factors—psychic images and seeds.
All of us, whether we are aware of the fact or not, have access to this perspective of the observer —considered here as the detached standpoint from which life’s absorbing and enchanting surface is exposed for what it truly is: a kind of magical theater which appears not only to be plainly and factually present, but also ineffable and impenetrably opaque, at the same time. Utterly ordinary and magical, perfectly familiar and spellbinding, stubbornly lawful and boundlessly open-ended, possessable and erotically elusive, intelligible and baffling: it is all of these at once. From the observer perspective we are momentarily enabled to see through these seeming paradoxes, unriddling the complex psychic processes behind them. Cold, detached spirit is subtler than soul and can therefore ‘see through’ psyche. Psyche is subtler than ego (the ‘freezer’ into literal forms) and is therefore able to manipulate and shape it into various forms, as the sculptor shapes clay.
If many of us instinctively dread an encounter with the observer within us, certainly it is because it functions as the sobering unmasker of Life’s enchanting allure. If this alluring dream is all that a man has to sustain his enthusiasm for existence—if it is all that he has to bolster his will to plod onward with his life—then a stark unmasking will certainly be traumatic and devastating, will it not? It initiates this vastation simply by seeing through the surface of Life, first into its hidden structural and organizing factors (archetypes) and then into the spontaneously creative and self-regulating activity of the psyche itself. Spontaneous fantasy activity overflows into established channels that are carved out by the primordial archetypal dominants. This generates the enthralling (or, as the case may be, dull and unpromising) story into which we are mysteriously inserted as we exit the birth canal. We may become key players and conspicuous participants while we are here or we may remain modest bystanders, depending on a variety of factors, only some of which we have a measure of control over.
When those to whom we have opened up our minds, hearts (and other private organs) cut off all communication with us, and we don’t feel we deserve such mistreatment, it is easy—very tempting—to feel bitterness towards our rejecter. Their rejection—because we have been so open and generous towards them with our love, our trust, and our time—can feel like a damning indictment against our essential selves. Such wounding and life-scarring rejections can come from anyone who really matters to us—parents, siblings, friends, teachers, lovers, mates, students, children—and the more the person matters to us, the more torturous and tormenting the wound. If we are not careful we will allow the bitterness we feel towards our rejecters to turn into hatred for them. This hatred that is spawned from our hurt and embitterment will then cast a hostile, black shadow over the offender. We will come up with dozens of reasons why they were unworthy of our time, love, and attention before. We will focus only upon their weaknesses and defects—real or imaginary—and exaggerate them so that our rejecter is, in effect, demonized. Clearly these negative, mentally suffocating effects of rejection and counter-rejection should be dealt with and overcome at all costs.
The principal difference between ‘pulling back’ a bit (or a lot) in order to get some perspective—and rejecting someone—should now be easier to see. The person who simply pulls back also eventually comes back to renewed participation while the rejecter does not, perhaps cannot. As long as one or both persons in a relationship continue merely to pull back from time to time, the connection between them is allowed to breathe and thereby to be preserved. If one of them goes so far as to reject the other, the actual relationship is severed. If we have been rejected, we are unable to advance or repair things with our rejecter, for there is no longer a bridge between us. The other person will no longer accept our entreaties. We are compelled by circumstances to wait until our rejecter has a realization that it is preferable to work through the problem (that led to severed relations) rather than to ignore or abandon the problem. It is my responsibility, I feel, to follow through with those processes of growth and transformation that occur in any serious, long-term relationship—between parents and children, friends, husbands and wives, and so forth. But I can only do my half of that work. The other person must carry his or her half.