The “Ides of March” in the cycle of growth

Bloom! Copyright © 2013 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved.

“Beware the Ides of March,” says the soothsayer to Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s drama about the leader’s demise. This phrase, which once forewarned Caesar’s assassination, is uttered each spring by mental health professionals. According to folk wisdom, the season coincides with an increase in mental disorders and symptoms of psychological distress. “March Madness” has become a cliché for feeling crazy at this time of the year (and yes, also for the NCAA basketball championships).

Originally, the “Ides of March” indicated the middle (“ides”) of the month on the ancient Roman calendar, and thus is premonitory of spring. April initiates the season, and for Romans, April was also the sacred month of Venus, the goddess of sex, love, and beauty. Like newfound love — and its attendant fears, desires, and longing — springtime can also stir the soul. Love even causes a maddening shift in the body’s neurochemistry, and has the physiologically markings of emotional instability. Maybe the Romans saw how the shift from winter to spring mimics the transformation we feel in our bodies when we begin to fall in love, and so they celebrated Venus.

The movement from the deadness of winter to the rejuvenation of spring also mirrors the human cycle of growth. In their studies of child behavior, Frances Ilg and Louise Bates Ames observed early life stages of development alternating between equilibrium and disequilibrium. Which stage a child was in depended on whether she or he was trying to balance personal needs with the outside world (equilibrium) or whether attention was given more to the internal drive towards individuation (disequilibrium).

Similarly, the Jungian analyst Michael Fordham imagined a metaphorical ‘axis’ between the Self and the ego in which the ego develops in response to interactions with surroundings, whereas the Self is activated by unconscious and symbolic material in the psyche. The process of de-integration and re-integration moves rhythmically between these two poles, whereas conditioned defenses and societal expectations block the natural flow.

Love and strife were once described according to a similar cycle. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy quotes Empedocles’ (ca. 495–435 BCE) on the dynamic between th

Double is the birth of mortal things and double their failing; for one is brought to birth and destroyed by the coming together of all things, the other is nurtured and flies apart as they grow apart again. And these things never cease their continual exchange, now through Love all coming together into one, now again each carried apart by the hatred of Strife.

The transformation — whether between equilibrium and disequilibrium, re-integration and de-integration, or love and strife — can feel like dying into rebirth, or even going crazy. For some, the anguish and anxiety can be overwhelming. When stuck in old wounds, meaningful change can involve letting go not just of defenses, but also the sense of knowing oneself and feeling solid in that knowing (even if you don’t like what you see). The loss of self-knowledge often causes a profound sense of vulnerability, because it means both trusting the unknown and grieving the loss, two experiences most people naturally defend against. And at least in the United States, the tendency is to literalize so much of our psychological distress when a more reflective and measured distance towards one’s mind is needed. Otherwise, periods of unsettling change can become literal attempts at killing off the old self that is only symbolically trying to die into rebirth.

Spring’s bursting energy is infectious, and to catch its fever is to feel the need for greater embodiment, movement, and creative expression (hopefully without judging the efforts). The natural world’s passage from winter to spring — the wet mulch and dead matter literally feeding new life — models how the psyche is meant to turn in periods of deep change.

Mental illness is a state, which need not be understood as chronic, although sometimes it is repetitive in the lessons it tries to teach. Auguste Comte called madness “excess subjectivity,” which I think points to the Western affliction of living too much from the head, while the body and soul cry out for their recognition and integration. And this integration is not a final point to be reached, but like the seasons, is faced again and again, for there is always more to learn, experience, and love.

As the following poem by Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro suggests:

“Life and death,

a twisted vine sharing a single root.

A water bright green

stretching to top a twisted yellow

only to wither itself

as another green unfolds overhead.

One leaf atop another

yet under the next;

a vibrant tapestry of arcs and falls

all in the act of becoming.

Death is the passing of life.

And life

is the stringing together of so many little passings.”

 And love — for self, for others, and from others — is often what gives each passing meaning.

Photo: Fading sunflower.

© 2013 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).