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Saturn and the Authority Complex

“In the nineteenth century the problem was that God is dead. In the twentieth century the problem is that man is dead.” — Fromm

By Christine Farber

In the 21st century we may be at risk of losing faith, completely.

Story one: A man my sister had been seeing broke off the relationship last week. She was devastated, suicidal. My mother was worried, but also angry because this same man has “broke off” their relationship six times prior. It’s rumored within my family that he is both physically and emotionally abusive to her; she maintains that they have consensual rough sex and that she goes into the relationship knowing he will leave her at some point.

Enthroned Authority, by Constantino Brumili, fresco, 1875.

Enthroned Authority, by Constantino Brumidi, fresco, 1875.

So, this happens again and my mother calls me, seemingly to ask how she should handle it. She asks me: “Why did you go out to lunch with them recently, sanctifying that abusive relationship?” I answer: “Because Kath is a grown adult and can make her own decisions. It’s not my place to ‘sanctify’ her relationships.” My mom didn’t get it.

Story two: I was out with two friends on Sunday, both moms of small children. They were talking lovingly about their sons, and both expressed some concern that the boys might be getting overly confident in a way that could put others off (they are about 3 years old!). The words narcissism and/or conceit may have been used.

I gently advised them to support their sons in loving themselves, and shared my observation that insecurity is the root of problems, not self-acceptance and self-love.

Story three: I went to my GI doctor a few months ago to discuss a possible celiac diagnosis. I ‘accidentally’ discovered that my body and perhaps psyche had been responding unfavorably to gluten. By the time I saw him I had been on a gluten-free diet for six to eight weeks, albeit with some accidents. He shared that he thought celiac was pretty rare, but he would order a blood test. I shared my understanding that if I had been off gluten for as long as I had, the test wouldn’t be accurate. He replied that gluten is in everything, even foods you don’t expect, and offered ice cream as an example.

“But I really haven’t been eating foods with gluten; and I don’t eat ice cream.” I thought this, but never said it out loud. I shut down in the face of this expert who overtly doubted that I had celiac or any other condition related to gluten. I’ve been taking pictures of my abdomen during both my gluten-clean periods and accidental ingestions of the substance in order to validate my own belief that gluten is messing me up.

This is my view of what happens developmentally such that an inability to access, let alone trust, our own inner authority results. Parents think it’s their job to tell/show us what is best for us. And, as you point out, often what they deem best for us is what is best for them. In addition, we are socialized away from self-love and confidence and independent thinking because it is threatening — threatening to our peers and threatening to parents if they need us to be in some way dependent on or caring for them. We then ‘grow up’ trusting authorities over our own bodies! As you say, we remain children. This is one permutation anyway. The general dynamic is pervasive.

Erich Fromm states that, “The mother-child relationship is paradoxical and, in a sense, tragic. It requires the most intense love on the mother’s side, yet this very love must help the child grow away from the mother, and to become fully independent.” Sadly, not many moms, or dads, are equipped to do this. And so the cycle begins; or continues.

I might say it this way: we need tools — Self-tools — in order to build, and then to be able to trust, something like an inner authority…an inner wisdom, or knowing. From a developmental perspective, adequate attachment experiences help us develop such tools (says Bowlby). The capacity for inner authority begins in the context of relationship — a relationship which, ideally, fosters trust of one’s own bodily knowing and which helps us to develop something like a self, in the sense of a center or a basic sense of feeling grounded in the world. This center helps us to tolerate anxiety, including the kind of existential anxiety with which a person is confronted when she is living from a place of internal authority.

Again, from Fromm, “The task we must set for ourselves is not to feel secure, but to be able to tolerate insecurity.”

Here, the humanistic and existential thinkers are relevant. Self-determination and self-actualization are two of the basic principles or values of humanistic therapies. The assumption is that there is something to actualize, the seed of particular potentials, and if given a supportive environment (one of unconditional regard, a la Rogers, for example), human beings will move toward actualization. Maslow contributed the idea that basic needs, such as the need for security, must be met first. One way in which this is true is that it is the fulfillment of those more basic needs that contributes to a person’s ability to develop a strong center from which to act.

I would say that a person needs a firm grounding, a center, those Self-tools that enable us to tolerate anxiety, tools to manage our strong feelings while staying grounded (Pearlman et al), as a prerequisite to both forming and consulting inner authority; and therefore, to do anything like actualize. Self-actualization, assuming there is such a thing, or simply flourishing as a human being, entails making choices based in an inner wisdom — choices which will sometimes be unpopular. Humanistic and existential psychologies are deeply concerned with issues of choice, freedom and responsibility.

Kierkegaard reminds us that “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” This is why we need strong centers, Self-tools, a trusted inner authority: so that we can stand firm in the face of that dizziness. Anxiety can be heard as a call to authenticity — a call toward inner authority — if we can tolerate it.

In other words, having and trusting an inner authority requires the capacity to tolerate anxiety. And with a lack of adequate attachment experiences being so pervasive, many adults cannot do this. They are left with an absence or emptiness rather than a center to consult.  (RD Laing writes persuasively about “ontological insecurity” in The Divided Self, and although he is describing a state of psychosis or something close to it, it seems a relevant description of the struggle that many face today, albeit more subtly perhaps.) Without the ability to tolerate anxiety, individuals are left to look for authority externally; they conform and accept their place as children. Or they embody some position that makes them feel “authoritative” even though a more authentic sense of empowerment is inaccessible.

There is a connection among finitude/mortality, our awareness of such, choice, responsibility, and something like actualization or flourishing or authenticity. Freedom seems to open up within the container of finitude. Within the limitations and givens of life (may be most especially death), we glimpse the urgency for freedom and choice and the responsibility that comes with it (12th house themes of freedom and confinement, I think). This is my life; I am ultimately responsible for it; now what do I do with that? No wonder some people wish to escape from freedom. It’s scary stuff, especially when we’re ill-equipped to manage it.

I think this is one of Fromm’s points too. From Man For Himself (1947): “The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.” Uncertainty, anxiety…we need to tolerate both in order to “unfold our power.” And Otto Rank and Erich Fromm both talked about the importance of will. According to Rank, pathology is the state of not being able to will constructively.

You mentioned that “Many people were conned out of their dreams and don’t feel like they can get anywhere or make any decision that matters; they are not running on their own energy…There are vast reserves of power we don’t access, or barely access.” We have blocks in our subtle bodies. The works of Lowen, Brennan and others provide evidence for this.

I believe that there is, in fact, an inability to access certain potentials or options that seem — on one level — clearly available to us, but they are not yet. I think this is true on the individual as well as societal and species levels. In my clinical work I witness individuals getting to that place where a new possibility opens up for the first time. For example, their inner authority wants them to say yes, and they are even aware of this perhaps, but they are not yet able. On an energetic or psychological level, they are not yet able. And then one day the yes becomes available. I want to emphasize this: The yes was not available before; and then it is. I think this is Saturn’s work.

I’m moving away from human potential theorists and the human potential movement now and into archetypal psychology. In The Soul’s Code, James Hillman elaborates on Plato’s idea that each soul is born with a daimon who carries our destiny for us, reminding us of this call through anxiety and synchronicities and illness, for example. If we wish to think about inner authority as our daimon’s intelligence, then Hillman becomes another relevant thinker in this discussion. Referring to the daimon, he says this: “It has much to do with feelings of uniqueness, of grandeur and with the restlessness of the heart, its impatience, its dissatisfaction, its yearning. It needs its share of beauty. It wants to be seen, witnessed, accorded recognition, particularly by the person who is its caretaker. It is slow to anchor and quick to fly. It can’t shed its own supernal calling…” (p.40). (Of course, the daimon is related to the Latin genius, and all of it begins to sound a bit Uranian to me, linked to Saturn via Aquarius, but I digress.)

What I like about Hillman’s work in this context is that he offers a way out. One of the chapters is titled “Growing Down,” and it contains some wisdom about your observation that we need to grow up. It’s about growing roots in this world and accepting our place and giving back, all according to our soul’s code. The next chapter is titled “The Parental Fallacy,” which is where he exposes the myth that our parents determine our destinies and states that it is largely dependent “on this fantasy of one-way vertical causality, from larger to smaller, from older to younger, from experienced to inexperienced” (p. 74). Evolving in accord with our daimons requires disloyalty to such beliefs, he suggests, at a time when “… the idea of parenting and parents is more hardened than ever in the minds of moral reformers and psychotherapists” (p.63). He also suggests that it is parents’ responsibility to live in accord with their own destiny so that they do not grow to resent their children.

So, maybe our anxiety can save us. Perhaps our existential anxiety can be heard as a reminder for why we are here. Perhaps we will respond by stepping closer to that inner authority and maybe we can support each other in managing the anxiety. Planet Waves provides a forum for this support. And you remind us of the responsibility and possibilities…there have been times I’ve cursed you for this. There, I confess.

3 Responses to “Saturn and the Authority Complex”

  1. Suzette says:

    Are you familiar with the description of Daimons in
    Philip Bullman`s trilogy His Dark Materials (one of them being the Golden Compass)?
    Your comments made me want to reread James Hillman.

  2. Gabi says:

    Hi Christine,
    I am quite knocked out by this post! You have articulated what I would have struggled to put words to. For me, there is much that resonates with the recently released film Precious, that describes so perfectly the moment of the availability of ‘yes’. It is a very powerful moment. When Precious is told about the extent of her abuse at the hands of both her father and her mother, it is only clear in that moment that the yes is available. And it is the yes that moves things on in her life, for once and for all, because before that moment, there is nagging concern (even dread) that she would somehow fall back into an abusive and unrealised life with her mother. In the film, Precious finds her way to yes, through a reading and writing group and genuine connection with others. So, I wonder if the yes is ever available when we are disconnected, when we have isolated ourselves, knowingly or unknowingly? And therefore when we want that ‘yes’ above all things! I ask the question because from my own experience, of unconsciously disconnecting from almost everything, and then slowly finding my way back, it hasn’t been possible until now.

  3. MJ says:

    Some very impressive stuff on the nature of anxiety. More than possibly any other emotion with the exception of shame, anxiety is truly tough to tolerate and as you point out, impossible for some. Even with transcendent awareness as an antidote to the sense of separation that makes anxiety completely unbearable, tolerating anxiety is one of the advanced stages of self-actualization, probably the unbridgeable gap for many. Rilke said, “and those who leave the town wander a long way off and many perhaps die on the road.” It’s the anxiety that gets them every time. And somehow facing it, holding it in the container along with the transcendent knowing, allows us to keep to the path.

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