I have frequently seen people become neurotic when they content themselves with inadequate or wrong answers to the questions of life. They seek position, marriage, reputation, outward success or money, and remain unhappy and neurotic even when they have attained what they were seeking. Such people are usually confined within too narrow a spiritual horizon. Their life has not sufficient content, sufficient meaning. If they are enabled to develop into more spacious personalities, the neurosis generally disappears.
― C.G. Jung
Clients often come into therapy when they are in crisis, feeling that if they can just fix the crisis life will get back to the way it was before. Some of the most common crises are relationship conflict, lack of meaning in life, grief and loss, depression, and a compounding frustration that life is not as it should be. Most of us are happy to see the crisis fade and life resume, but there us another perspective here, one where the crisis can be seen as a call to re-align your life with a deeper sense of meaning and purpose.
The Arthurian legend of the Fisher King illustrates how a crisis can have deeper meaning. In one version of the legend, a king is wounded in the thigh in a joist. The wound is extremely painful and prevents the king from doing his duties; all he can do is fish. The wound will not heal although many learned healers are sent for over the years. The result is that the king suffers greatly, as does the whole kingdom. The king’s wound sparks a quest among the knights of his and other kingdoms to find the Holy Grail, a magical cup which can heal him. Many quests are begun but none end in any success. After many years, a young knight, Percival, arrives at the king’s court. Recognizing that the king is thirsty, he hands him a cup of water—the Holy Grail. “How did you know what I needed,” the king asks Percival as he revives. “I noticed you were thirsty,” the knight replies. The king recovers and becomes a wise ruler of the land, with Percival at his court as a trusted knight, friend, and advisor.
In psychological terms, the king represents that part of each of us at times of crisis—when we have a deep wound that feels like it will not heal. While a crisis is certainly not enjoyable, and I am not suggesting that we should begin one in order to make life changes, as renaissance people believed, we can make meaning from them—a perspective of amor fati, or “love of fate,” allows us to make meaning from difficult life events, weaving them into the fabric of our being. The wound, or psychological crisis, sparks a discovery of what we truly need at this time in our lives. The problem for the Fisher King was in trying to cure himself literally, when it was a psychological solution he needed. His perspective when he was wounded was not in line with his position as ruler of the land and the wound was symbolic of how his worldview was not working for him. I am not suggesting here that emotional or physical pain is justifiable—that we deserve it. Rather, we can find some meaning in it and then connect to life purpose.
With an emotional crisis, by listening to what the wound is asking of us—how we need to reorganize life—we are like Percival, attentive to what the king truly needs. And, once we find the way forward (the drink that quenches our thirst), we can use the crisis, the wound, as a reminder to be attentive day-today, moment-to-moment, of what life is asking of us. We are then able to make small adjustments in order to stay on course.