Into the Woods

SOME SEASONS AGO there was a delightful musical on Broadway called "Into the Woods." It was based on three favorite fairy tales - "Little Red Riding Hood," "Cinderella," and "Jack and the Beanstalk" - and a fourth one about a baker and his wife. In the first act everything happened as it should and everyone lived happily ever after - but only for the duration of the intermission. During the second act, things began to go wrong and the audience found out what happens after "happily ever after."

Into the Woods

The Bridge to Wholeness: A Feminine Alternative to the Hero's Myth Chapter 10

SOME SEASONS AGO there was a delightful musical on Broadway called "Into the Woods." It was based on three favorite fairy tales - "Little Red Riding Hood," "Cinderella," and "Jack and the Beanstalk" - and a fourth one about a baker and his wife. In the first act everything happened as it should and everyone lived happily ever after - but only for the duration of the intermission. During the second act, things began to go wrong and the audience found out what happens after "happily ever after."

For example, the giant's wife came to the village to seek retribution for the death of her husband. Jack and the villagers ran into the woods to hide, but several innocent people were killed all because of Jack's heroic deed. And Prince Charming, feeling trapped in marital bliss, started leaving Cinderella and their baby alone at the castle while he went into the woods looking for adventure. What he found was the baker's wife, with whom he had an affair . Similarly, Charming's brother, who had rescued and married Rapunzel, also went into the woods where he rescued (and romanced) first Sleeping Beauty and then Snow White.

All those who had done what they thought they were supposed to do in the first part of their lives - and who therefore assumed they would be safe and happy forever - suddenly found themselves having to deal with dark and unexpected urges, needs, and consequences. They had to go "into the woods."

Even though this Broadway comedy pictures the "call to the woods" in the extreme, for many of us there does come a time when we are called by a strange new force, like a mysterious Golden Bear, to leave the safe and familiar and enter the woods. This usually occurs during midlife, and it signals the end of the time when we need to submit to authority and adapt ourselves to society's expectations. Although it is painful and frightening, this call to the woods is a sign that we have acquired enough confidence and strength to separate ourselves from the old, outmoded ways and begin our initiation into a new, more mature, more authentic phase of life. If we have the strength to answer the call, we will eventually emerge as happier, more fulfilled people. If we refuse the call, we will simply be called again and again, as we go further along the road. The longer we delay our journey into the woods, the more urgent the call becomes and the mote destructive the consequences are apt to be.

The call of the Golden Bear can be experienced in many ways.

It usually begins while we are still safe in the castle. It may start with a vague yearning for something indescribable that seems to be missing from our lives. Gradually this becomes a growing awareness that we are unhappy with ourselves, our jobs, or our relationships. Or we may be confronted with a problem that we can no longer solve in the same old ways. Or the call may be a temptation to do something we never dared do before, a need that can no longer be ignored.

Sometimes we experience an exterior crisis over which we have no control-like the sudden appearance of an alien giant who, by invading our lives and killing our spouse or putting our company out of business, leaves us without a mate or a job. Although the exterior crisis may be nothing more than a cruel, senseless accident and not an inner call from a benevolent force beyond ourselves, its overall effect can nevertheless be beneficial if it forces us to grow - to question many of the assumptions about life that we have taken for granted, and to change our behaviors in positive ways or take on new roles we might never have considered before. The adjustment can be very difficult, but if we are able to persevere in facing and understanding what is before us, the ultimate results of this kind of devastating experience can be positive and life-enhancing.

At other times the call comes less dramatically from within.

Our tiny inklings of unhappiness and dissatisfaction simply grow and grow until they reach such gigantic proportions that we begin to see the person, role, job, belief system, or institution we thought would save us or give our lives meaning as a villain or tyrant. Thus, Cinderella feels bored and unfulfilled, and thinks it is the fault of the prince and their child. Prince Charming feels trapped by his marriage. Red Riding Hood thinks her parents are uptight and repressive. The baker hates his job and the unjust economic system that forces him to stay in it. The baker's wife is mad at the church and the priest because they did not help her enough in her time of need. In other words, we convince ourselves that what we once thought was so good is now so bad that we need to leave it. This can take the form of an outward separation or an inner, mental change of attitude.

Reaching this discomfort or dissatisfaction is a crisis point, a time when we must choose either to continue to respond to an uncomfortable situation or condition in the same way we always have, or to take charge of our lives and do something different and unexpected - something that feels like stepping out alone into the woods and exploring who we are on our own terms. If we do not leave our "villains" behind, we will continue our resentful, dependent status and never achieve an authentic relationship with our villains or our true Self. Usually we can make this separation, or change of relationship, mentally, but for some a physical break is necessary.

Although our journey into the woods almost always at first appears to be a cruel accident or a dangerous and foolish mistake, it can be the bravest and best thing most of us ever do. In fact, making the journey to follow the Golden Bear through the wilderness to find our authentic Self is the only real hope we have of living "happily ever after." 

Dr. Jean Raffa is an author, speaker, and leader of workshops, dream groups, and study groups. She maintains a blog called "Matrignosis: A Blog About Inner Wisdom." Her job history includes teacher, television producer, college professor, and instructor at the Disney Institute in Orlando and The Jung Center in Winter Park, FL. She is the author of three books, a workbook, a chapter in a college text, numerous articles in professional journals, and a series of meditations and short stories for Augsburg Fortress Publisher.

Her book The Bridge to Wholeness: A Feminine Alternative to the Hero Myth (LuraMedia, 1992) was nominated for the Benjamin Franklin Award for best psychology book of 1992.

Reviewed in several journals and featured on the reading lists of university courses, it was also picked by the Isabella catalogue as a must-read for seeking women. Dream Theatres of the Soul: Empowering the Feminine Through Jungian Dreamwork (Innisfree Press, Inc., 1994) has been used in dreamwork courses throughout the country and is included in Amazon.com’s list of the Top 100 Best Selling Dream Books, and TCM’s book list of Human Resources for Organizational Development.

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