Monday, February 8, 2010

The Fisher King: The Nature of the Problem

Knight in Armor
When The Fisher King is mentioned, most people think you're referring to the 1991 film starring Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges. Williams portrays a delusional derelict, tormented by the memory of his wife's death and Bridges is a former disc jockey struggling with guilt over a terrible mistake. Together, they work toward healing. The fairy tale, however, taks us in a different direction, albeit to the same goal. It is a powerful tale of masculine growth, wounding, and the attainment of maturity.

Once upon a time, there was a young prince riding about, doing deeds of knight errantry. One day he stumbled across a camp in the woods where a fire was burning with salmon on a spit. Seeing no one around, he was hungry, the salmon smelled wonderful, so he reached for a piece. It was so hot, it burnt his fingers and he dropped it. Putting his fingers in his mouth, as anyone might do, he got a taste of the salmon. This wounded him so badly that he was in agony the rest of his life, up to his final three days. Eventually, he became king of the realm, but his suffering was so great that he could not govern and the kingdom languished. The only time his pain became bearable was when he went fishing, so that's how he spent his days, fishing in a boat in the castle moat. Hence, the name, Fisher King.

In some way, the young prince was stricken at the point of his masculinity. Other versions of the story have him wounded by an arrow in the testicle or injured in the thigh when the campers return. In any case, his ability to be generative was affected and the wound left him feeling cold throughout the remainder of his life. The German version describes him as too ill to live and yet, unable to die. The King's wound represents impairment in his feeling function. 

Feeling is what gives life meaning, joy, and creates a sense of purpose and fulfillment. When feeling is wounded, it is as though the flavor has gone out of life and no amount of achievement, material success, or extravagance will restore it. Furthermore, a man's "kingdom," i.e. his family, job performance, and overall well-being suffer along with him. His wife may describe him as emotionally unavailable, his children complain dad is never home. Although this kind of wounding affects men at any age, it shows up most often from the mid-30s onwards.

Recent reports suggest men are more satisfied in mid-life than ever before. This makes sense from the perspective that we're generally established in a career, the kids are either in or soon will be in college, and we have new possibilities ahead of us. However, men I know and have known -- doctors, attorneys, corporate officers, teachers, ministers, and blue collar workers -- all admit, when the news media has gone home and we're being completely honest, to an inner sense of emptiness despite all they possess. There just doesn't seem to be enough doing to fill up what's missing. They know they have opportunities or feel they should, and they're mystified over the fact that attaining the American Dream has left them wondering, "Is this all there is?"

We'll get to the cure tomorrow; for now, we have to address symptoms. Just as for the young king, fishing is our treatment of choice, speaking metaphorically. Whatever puts a man in touch with his inner self will do. It may be writing, music, running, or walking the dog. It doesn't matter what form it takes as long as it permits a man to get a feeling for what's going on under the surface of all his activity.

For some men, awareness of the interior self is more accessible by noticing how their bodies feel. It may be a tightness in the gut, persistent muscle aches, disrupted sleep, loss of sex drive, or an ongoing sense that something isn't right. What the mind can't express, the body will. However we approach it, healing the feeling function begins with the knowledge that something is wrong and gain that insight by paying attention to ourselves. Men can be resistant: at times it takes a crisis to get us off the dime, but once we're listening, there's hope.

(Creative Commons image by Jeff Kubina via Flickr)

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