As children, we lose ourselves in play and the toys or games that give the play structure: a skipping rope, chalk to mark out a court, balls to kick and control… perhaps, now, a computer to enter a virtual world. As adults we inhabit a different world, and the entanglements of our earlier years may pay us a return visit…
(1400 words; a ten minute read)
The big red ball was heavy. It was a toy for a large dog, and we didn’t have one, so I felt justified in what I was about to do. When you held it, there was strangeness to its mass, as though the density came from ‘another place’… Alien.
The only pet we had was a mangy old tom cat that my mum had rescued from an icy death one winter. I knew nothing of the world of dogs – my repeated requests for a collie falling on dad’s deaf ears… Looking back, I don’t blame him. I know, now, how much exercise those lovely creatures need… but it’s worth it.
Conceiving of the big red project had taken a while. The Norse legends, made modern in the context of an excellent book set in the sci-fantasy genre, had captivated me. I took the large meat skewer and set into into the middle of the glowing embers of the garden fire I’d been nurturing for the past hour. My personal ‘furnace’….
Both my parents were out… of course.
I watched the skewer glow red, then, slipping my dad’s ‘fix the underneath of the car’ gloves on, I picked up its curly end and approached the sold red rubber ball locked fast in its makeshift wooden cradle on the top of mum’s rockery.
There was an appalling hiss as the red-hot metal melted its way through the first two inches of dense, composite rubber. I had the good sense to avoid the life-diminishing fumes given off, and continued pushing. It soon became apparent that creating a passage through the exact centre of the giant dog ball was going to take several return visits to the fire… but, eventually, it was done, and I held it up to the sun in triumph, aligning the dark tunnel like a telescope.
I’d already constructed the rest of the kit. The new rope, bought from the local hardware shop as a scrap piece, was too large to fit through the hole, but perfect for the strength I would need. To get around that I had wound and tied a piece of string to its end so I could thread the smaller line through then pull the thicker length along the red ball’s axle tunnel.
The wooden handle, to attach to the two feet of rope, was a masterpiece. Carved by hand from a tree branch with my large penknife, then formed into a finer shape with a borrowed hemispherical file from dad’s toolbox. I had finished it off with hours of sanding, using a borrowed sheet of fine grade paper.
When I closed my hand around it, each of my clenched fingers slid into place with perfection. I threaded the end of the rope through the hole in the middle of the handle and tied the newly-learned knot, pulling the rope back into the upper part of the shaped hole so that it would not stand proud and interfere with the grip… and the all-important swing.
I took the mighty red ball in one hand and let it drop to the length of the rope. The impact jolted the handle, but I was ready. I still remember the smile as I swung the great weight round and round in the air over my head, so fast it began to swish and hum. Unexpectedly, my scorched tunnel had given my red beast a voice!
Nearly there… now I had to test it.
Raymond Barlow lived in a much older part of Ainsworth than we did, yet was a neighbour ‘over the back’ so to speak. The stone cottages were on the main road, but set back, and with huge rear gardens, most of which we allotments. At the far end of one of these, Raymond’s grandfather had made two wooden outbuildings with a tiny alley between and around the back of each. In a far corner, a solid wooden post was set into the ground, looking like it had stood there for millennia. My best friend and I used it for stone-throwing practice.
“Go on then, get it out!” he said, exasperated, when I arrived through the hole in the hedge that marked the terminus of the excellent secret path we had forged between the two houses – very painfully, for it was full of trees and shrubs with thorns and others pointed spikes.
I straightened my back and reached into the largest pocket of my anorak, pulling out the handle and letting the coiled structure reveal itself.
It was the first time I had ever seen him speechless. “Bloody hell,” he whispered.
Imitating what I hoped was a strong but silent Norse god, I took a step towards the post, leaving perhaps ten feet of throwing distance. There, I began to whirl the red ball of destruction around at great speed. In a practiced end-move, I snapped the handle down and towards its target, feeling the impossibly dense projectile whistle closely past my head on its descending curve.
It hit the post so hard it snapped the wood clean in two… I tried not to show my utter surprise… as delight filled me from the toes upwards.
“Bloody hell!’ Raymond shouted louder. We gazed at the severed spar. I stood and saluted.
“Let those who advance on Asgard beware!”
There was a new god in town. His name was Thor and he had a hammer that would shake your world… A far-away, but close in heart kingdom could sleep a little safer that night.
It’s all completely true, yet here’s a story with a deeper meaning. This is the most powerful memory I can muster to illustrate the principle of identification. Identification is a process that affects and forms most of our lives. The young Stephen knew he wasn’t Thor, of course; but then no-one was. The difference between what young Stephen was doing then, and what he had done, before, was that his new hero (and many identifications are with heroes) was a figure with profound values. The Norse Gods were good. They represented different aspects of us, though that was felt rather than understood at the time. In many ways, that fearful red ‘hammer’ was a ritual instrument, a thing forged and made, with the power of transformation gifted to of its worthy bearer…
The process of identification is one of the key areas where psychology and spirituality meet in entire agreement. What I identify with will change with time and circumstance. The more carefree stages of childhood – if we are lucky enough to have a stable family background – will see identification fixed on positive things, even if they are fantasy. As we pass from being looked after to looking after ourselves, to looking after others, the identifications can become more responsible and accepting, or more negative – descending even to anxiety and illness. Much depends on that first decade of encounter with reality.
In each case, the identification is a process of becoming fixed upon something, and that something is a projected image from ourselves. The thing identified with becomes us, the ‘me’. Its source may be unconscious, but it’s at the heart of who we are…
Much of the work done by psychologists involves gaining the trust of those they treat so that they can take them on an internal journey where the ‘light’ of adult understanding can be thrown on the less mature objects of fixation. The process is complete when the power is returned to the newly-balanced self, which, balanced, is free to grow, again.
A modern mystery school’s focus is not treatment, but exploration. The mystery school will create magical journeys in a landscape of the mind and the emotions in a way that is safe, mentored and discussed. Group meetings will examine, often with roles being played, how the self is built from such images, and their component identifications.
Identification can be a bad or a good thing. It passes us from stage to stage of our self, as we mature from fantasy to (hopefully) reality. The young Thor becomes the student, who becomes the junior in an office, where he or she has to redefine his very existence before becoming proficient in their chosen adult role.
Only at the end of this, at a stage of maturity in our lives, do we come to question the entire process of identification. We notice that despite all the power being with us, the objects of our identification can be limited and fixed. What happens if we refuse to have an identity which is external to this now-powerful sense of self that I know is mine?
In the next part we will go deeper into where this quest leads, and to the help that may lie a short way along that path.
Other parts in this series:
©Stephen Tanham, 2021.
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, A journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.