First on Four Legs

The oldest artifacts of human endeavor – cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamira, tools in the Blombos caves, Venus figurines so fantastically old we hardly recognize ourselves – are works of art. Creativity is the imprint of humanity, from the outline of a hand painted with ochre on a cave wall, to the mandalas and sacred paintings of the medieval traditions, to the films and music and poetry of today. Throughout all of human history, creativity has been the means by which we understand the inner and the outer worlds, the crucible in which we store our collected wisdom and our fears. The function of all creative traditions – the arts and the sciences, religion and philosophy, politics and war – is to explore the extent to which we can know ourselves.

In that exploration, which is fraught with conflicts and dead-ends and transformations, we’re always coming back to one question: it’s an old one, old even to the Greeks from whom Freud borrowed it, already old when the Egyptians fashioned a great monument to symbolize it. It is perhaps the oldest riddle of humanity, certainly the favorite riddle of psychology, and it is this: “What goes first on four legs, then on two legs, then on three?” The simple answer, which is widely known, is human beings (first we crawl on four legs, then we walk on two, then we use a cane – three legs – in old age). But this riddle, asked by a magical animal that is part hunting lion, part thinking woman, is actually about the contradictions of human experience. The sphinx asks about the essence hidden within our diversities; its question is about the soul. In the clinical counselling and psychology programs of today we’re not taught to use such terms as “soul”; but that’s what the word psychology means, the study of the soul.

These days, we have new ways of asking the riddle of the sphinx, and in the drive of the psychological professions to be more scientific and medical, our responses to the riddle have become more complex; but they are no more precise. The answer, after all, is unfathomable. We’re still putting our hands up to the cave wall and inscribing around them with ochre. Only now, our tools are slightly different: computers, research modalities, clinical skills. Our approaches to the riddle are possibly more robust than those of our ancestors, but they are probably more fragile as well. What has not changed, in a hundred thousand years of human psychology, is the fundamental creative impulse to understand ourselves and our world.

This is why we possess myths and stories, why we cherish works of art, why counsellors return (often grudgingly, as though creative approaches diminish us) to the holistic and creative modalities that have proved reliable for millennia. We like the new, we like to demonstrate that we’re making progress, that we’ve discovered fresh and important truths. And possibly we have. But one of the truths we continue to rediscover is that human psychology is consistent, for good and for ill, and that it sometimes requires the simple symbols and stories embedded within its history. The creativity of those stories connects us to something inside ourselves that is strong and strange and elemental; a kind of empowerment, to use a term from modern psychology. This empowerment, which extends beyond the individual, is the reason for the Taliban banning music. It’s the reason that the cellist Vedran Smilovic played in the street during the war in Sarajevo, while snipers fired upon him. It’s the reason that clients return, again and again, to the stories and images that comprise their identity. When nothing else is left, when the world’s ruthlessness has stripped us of our carefully constructed modernism or intellectualism or rationalism, it’s often to creativity that we turn for our deepest solace.

Perhaps the ancients were right: the arts and sciences beckon the gods, beseech them to intervene in the struggle between humanity and its own nature. Now, as always, that struggle preoccupies us: in Iraq, in Liberia, in Israel; and in our jobs, along the streets of our neighborhoods, in our minds as we lie awake late into the night. We used to tell stories in the night, around fires and under the stars that travelers at sea looked to for direction. We used to find order there, and constancy, and a sense of harmony beyond the world’s duress. We no longer tell those kinds of stories, and we can’t return to a belief in them. Now we find order in the genome, constancy in biochemistry, harmony in the vast array of clinical skills available to the psychological practitioner.

But sometimes the stories we know are insufficient to the task of making sense of a world that is routinely nonsensical. Our genome and our biochemistry do not explain why we continue to war against each other, or why we struggle with poverty and environmental degradation. It’s easy, as a citizen of such a world, to become cynical, or to feel helpless, or desperate. Most of us can no longer believe in the old gods, and the new ones seem indifferent.

Creativity is perhaps the only means of resolving this conundrum. It creates a path where none exists. Right now, because people sense this, we’re seeing a tremendous resurgence in the creative spirit. This is the natural response to trauma and insecurity. We make new stories, we challenge the way things are, by means of visions of the way things could be. This is neither denial nor wishful thinking. It is the soul’s affirmation that our world is what we make it; that even as we limp along on three legs, tired and haggard and threadbare, something or someone comes to our aid. All the old tales speak of this.

There are many stories of the crossroads. Monsters and unexpected guides tend to show up there, as do talismans and visions and magic. The gates of the city where Oedipus faced the sphinx are at the crossroads. And the challenge of the crossroads is ever the same: to answer the sphinx’s riddle who are we? This is our territory, those of us in the psychological professions. As we find our work increasingly subsumed into medicine and genetics, as we struggle to preserve the integrity of our approaches in an environment of shrinking budgets and quick fixes, we tend to forget that the sphinx’s riddle is the essence of what we’re about. We stand at the crossroads – with our clients and our families and our communities – looking the beast in the eye, trying not to be the first one to blink.

A great many people are at the crossroads these days, looking out at the horizon to see which way the road goes. We’re at the crossroads, too: one of our paths, the one we’re now on, leads away from the philosophy of our origins and toward psychology as simply a branch of medicine. On this road, we study the mind, but not the soul. The other road, which is indistinct, hazy, which seems not to run straight but instead wanders across the plain, is the soul’s road. It embodies our heritage, as storytellers and witnesses, and the promise of our continuance. It’s the road that our clients increasingly wish to be upon. They want to sit around the fire of their stories, and ours, to speak and listen and dream, so that the night sounds from the forest don’t seem so baleful and lonely. It’s an archaic, simple, creative urge, easy to dismiss amid the complexities of today. But it’s how we answer the riddle.