The One Deep Question to Ask Yourself Before the Pandemic is Over

May 29, 2020 / The Twelve Mysteries / Joseph Campbell

surreal man cutting a portal through wall. metaphor for deep questions to ask yourself about life meaning and confronting your jung shadow
The Portal. cyanotype on paper, 2020. Two print sizes. © Jonah Calinawan

Like you, I long for the days before February.

“I just want to return to normal.”

“But would you want to return to normal?” one Facebook friend asked.

I thought about this for days afterward. 

I don’t have it all figured out, but I would like to share a story of how I arrived at an answer through the writings of three wise people.

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés: “Stand Up and Show Your Soul”

I attended a Zoom lecture by Susan Tiberghien entitled, “Rekindling the Soul, Imagining a New Tomorrow,” from the Jung Society of Washington DC. I took courses from them before, and the title of the lecture was interesting, so I signed up.

During that lecture, Tiberghien quoted someone whose words electrified me:

Do not lose heart.  We were made for these times…

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts — adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take “everyone on Earth” to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up…

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. A soul on deck shines like gold in dark times.

The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of the soul in shadowy times like these — to be fierce and to show mercy toward others, both — are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Letter to a Young Activist in Troubled Times

These passages bring so much comfort to me right now.

Estés is an American poet, psychoanalyst, and post-trauma specialist. A quick google search brought up the complete essay. It was written before the pandemic, but how it speaks to the troubled times right now!

What struck me were the words: “stand up and show your soul.”

I have no idea what the soul is, and really, nobody else does either. How do you act on this advice?

So, I turned to another wise person, Joseph Campbell.

Joseph Campbell: “The influence of a vital person vitalizes”

If you regularly read my blog, you know that if I’m not talking about art, then I’m talking about mythology and Joseph Campbell.

Campbell was an American professor of literature who worked in comparative mythology and comparative religion. He demonstrated that many of the world’s greatest mythological stories share one story pattern, referred to as the Hero’s Journey. Campbell also originated the phrase “Follow Your Bliss” on how to live a purposeful life. I quit my job to pursue art because of this advice. Needless to say, I’m a fan of his work!

In 1988, the American journalist Bill Moyers interviewed Joseph Campbell on what would become The Power of Myths—the most popular TV series in the history of public television:

BILL MOYERS: Unlike the classical heroes, we’re not going on our journey to save the world, but to save ourselves.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And in doing that, you save the world. I mean, you do. The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there’s no doubt about it. The world is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting it around and changing the rules and so forth. No, any world is a living world if it’s alive, and the thing is to bring it to life. And the way to bring it to life is to find in your own case where your life is, and be alive yourself, it seems to me.

Arundhati Roy: “Pandemic is a Portal”

I promised three wise people, didn’t I?

I’ll quote Indian author Arundhati Roy in her essay, “Pandemic is a Portal,” from the Financial Times article published April 3, 2020 :

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Arandhati Roy, London Financial Times, April 3, 2020

How do we fight for this new world as one person in our own small way?

The One Deep Question to Ask Yourself About Life

The answer lies in answering the most important question:

When Are You Most Alive?

“Show your soul,”  Estés suggests. “Find … where your life is,” Campbell adds.

These two quotes share striking parallels:

  • It is not our job to save the world.
  • Instead, focus on saving yourself by showing your soul or finding where your life is.
  • Paradoxically, by saving yourself, you contribute to a tipping point that saves the world.

Estés is harder to translate into literal terms since no one knows what the soul is. One question that is also hard to translate is “What is my life’s purpose?” It’s too nebulous. I suggest one instead of many deep questions to ask yourself because inevitably your answer will be different every day. You’ll know when you hit upon the “right” answer for you.  Campbell’s is easier to answer.

I Asked Myself This Deep Question

When do I feel most alive? I feel alive when I’m with my partner and family, when I’m creating new things, and when I’m reading a book. I don’t have it all figured out, I ask myself what I’m doing during the pandemic:

  • staying home and not becoming part of the problem,
  • supporting my partner as he looks after COVID patients at the hospital, and
  • creating new things: cyanotype photographs, blog posts, and piano videos that hopefully help, uplift, and inspire.

There are people who are able to do much greater things. Maybe you’re one of them. I support you. But for people like me, by saving myself, I’m contributing in an unforeseen way to saving the world.

When Are You Most Alive?

Your answer to this one deep question will be different from someone else’s. Ask yourself this question every day until you arrive at an answer that rings true. Maybe it means taking care of yourself more–eating better and exercising more. Maybe it’s in following a calling or rekindling relationships with family, friends, and colleagues.

What can you do before the pandemic is over?

By saving yourself, you save the entire world.

About the Cyanotype Print

Thank you for reading. The first version of The Portal image illustrating this post was shot nine years ago on September 14, 2011. You could say this image was developing since then. The instant I read Arundhati Roy’s essay, this forgotten image popped up in my mind. Subscribe and access the first version of this image plus a short writeup.


Follow Your Bliss

Influence of a Vital person Vitalizes [the World]

How to Be More Spiritual
Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life by James Hollis (Part 2)
Journaling Ideas to Finding Bliss

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