Get it out or it will eat you away.
Remember the movie Billy Jack starring Tom Laughlin? The film and its sequels have long since decamped to cable, but Tom Laughlin is still very much around. In addition to his movie work, he’s a lecturer and author and a Jungian-schooled psychologist whose specialty is working with people who have been diagnosed with cancer. Tom Laughlin teaches and leads workshops; here’s a paraphrase of something I heard him say:
The moment a person learns he’s got terminal cancer, a profound shift takes place in his psyche. At one stroke in the doctor’s office he becomes aware of what really matters to him. Things that sixty seconds earlier had seemed all-important suddenly appear meaningless, while people and concerns that he had till then dismissed at once take on supreme importance.
Maybe, he realizes, working this weekend on that big deal at the office isn’t all that vital. Maybe it’s more important to fly cross-country for his grandson’s graduation. Maybe it isn’t so crucial that he have the last word in the fight with his wife. Maybe instead he should tell her how much she means to him and how deeply he has always loved her.
Other thoughts occur to the patient diagnosed as terminal. What about that gift he had for music? What became of the passion he once felt to work with the sick and the homeless? Why do these unlived lives return now with such power and poignancy?
Faced with our imminent extinction, Tom Laughlin believes, all assumptions are called into question. What does our life mean? Have we lived it right? Are there vital acts we’ve left unperformed, crucial words unspoken? Is it too late?
The Ego, Jung tells us, is that part of the psyche that we think of as “I.” Our conscious intelligence. Our everyday brain that thinks, plans and runs the show of our day-to-day life.
The Self, as Jung defined it, is a greater entity, which includes the Ego but also incorporates the Personal and Collective Unconscious. Dreams and intuitions come from the Self. The archetypes of the unconscious dwell there. It is, Jung believed, the sphere of the soul.
What happens in that instant when we learn we may soon die, Tom Laughlin contends, is that the seat of our consciousness shifts. It moves from the Ego to the Self.
The world is entirely new, viewed from the Self. At once we discern what’s really important. Superficial concerns fall away, replaced by a deeper, more profoundly-grounded perspective.
This is how Tom Laughlin’s foundation battles cancer. He counsels his clients not just to make that shift mentally but to live it out in their lives. He supports the housewife in resuming her career in social work, urges the businessman to return to the violin, assists the Vietnam vet to write his novel.
Miraculously, cancers go into remission. People recover. Is it possible, Tom Laughlin asks, that the disease itself evolved as a consequence of actions taken (or not taken) in our lives? Could our unlived lives have exacted their vengeance upon us in the form of cancer? And if they did, can we cure ourselves, now, by living these lives out?
From “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield