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BACP Senior Accredited Counsellor

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Counselling, Floods and Pandora’s Box

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During the recent bad weather even the most robust of personalities may have had a challenge maintaining a sense of wellbeing. There is something about continual grey skies and rain which can threaten the most optimistic spirit.

Perhaps the one thing about the weather to raise a smile has been the apocalyptic descriptions of the downpours ranging from localised tsunami to biblical flood. The wry comments about IKEA marketing a self-assembly Ark kit have also raised a few irreverent chuckles.  Those biblical references to the flood can also encourage slightly more cheerful thoughts around rainbows and the expression of hope that the appearance of that first rainbows was intended to bring to a rather bedraggled Noah and his clan.

References to hope remind me of some recent reading on the Greek myths.  Incidentally, an important warning note. Psychotherapists and counsellors have a thing about myths.  Primeval forces, stereotypes, archetypical examples – we find all these and more in myths and legends. The suggestion beloved of therapy workshops is that these stories can highlight aspects of the human condition which often appear in the counselling room through client narratives.  

The reality behind the prevalence of these workshops may of course just be that there is much more fun to be had in considering the antics of Zeus, Hera and Apollo rather than focussing on the slightly more ponderous works of psychotherapy thinkers such as Freud, Erikson and Klein. Given some of the more fanciful theories found in psychotherapy I also suspect that there may sometimes be more substance to be found on Mount Olympus. 

The Greek myths certainly contain some interesting ideas to consider and perhaps return to in future blogs.  For now I would like to stay with one particular myth concerning hope. This is a story which has given rise to a phrase which has entered everyday speech.

Within the therapy room when the client is considering facing a particularly challenging issue, we often talk of opening Pandora’s Box.  Whatever the context, we use that description to acknowledge the sense of inevitability that the individual’s story will need to be told but with some trepidation about the outcome.

Pandora’s box is a much used phrase or expression. Yet the reduction of that story to the bare bones of a mischievous spirit opening up a box which should have been left shut tends to leave untold what may be the more important part of the myth.  The main image from the story is of course the opening of the box in spite of warnings to leave well alone but the legend has some deeper ideas.   

A quick resume of the story – and I should add that this is my preferred version although as with most myths, there are many different nuances given to the tale. 

Pandora was created by Hephaestus on the orders of Zeus. She was to be the centre point of revenge by Zeus reacting to mankind receiving the gift of fire via the defiant act of Prometheus.  She was sent as a gift but was intended to be a disastrous gift.  Although Promethueus was the object of Zeus’s anger he was unlikely to be easily seduced and hence Epimetheus was nominated as the fall guy.  

Enticed and aroused by Pandora, Epimetheus takes her into his house and leaves her to roam around. She then comes across a box (or rather a jar although presumably ‘opening Pandora’s jar’ just does not have the same ring to it!) that some say had been brought with her. Pandora has been told not to open it but with what seems rather like a human curiosity she wonders about the content, ignores the health warnings, reaches for the lid and the rest as they say is history – or rather myth!

The lid is opened and out comes all the troubles of the world. Stinging, biting, vindictive creatures, carrying all the troubles of the world, from illness to anger and from envy to despair, fly out. They take wing and disperse across the world and humankind is left dealing with the aftermath for evermore.  Except that is not quite all. 

The story has a final beguiling twist. When Pandora (who was no doubt by now consumed by personal guilt which she presumably took to her own Hellenic psychotherapist) looked again at the empty box, she noticed a small beautiful gossamer winger creature which had been caught under the lid. Now released, this elegant being was able to gently slip away into the air – and the name of the freed creature was hope.  Hope for mankind.

And hope has remained the antidote to despair.

Whatever despair is contained in their personal  Pandora’s box, that slight glimmer of hope can for many people be easily overlooked particularly as the world closes in when things go wrong. Yet that sense of hope can point the way to the speck of light at the end of what may sometimes seem a very dark tunnel.

Of course hope is not a panacea or a magic wand.  It does not alter what has been done - and cannot replace what has been lost - and we know that Pandora’s box (or jar?) stayed empty. It does though allow us an opportunity to not just look forward but to also start to acknowledge some small sense of control over our own destiny. 

The apparent harshness of some existential philosophy may not always sit well with the humanity of some Greek myths but hope is an emotion which can bridge that divide. The phrase ‘where there’s life there’s hope’ captures the optimistic essence of this existential concept.  Hope tells us that there will be be an opportunity to decide how to react to unfavourable circumstances and how to be in the face of adversity. Hope will invite us to choose how to go forward from here, even if ‘here’ is currently a dark and melancholy place.

The regret which came from that inadvertent opening of Pandora’s Box was ameliorated by the release and acknowledgment of hope. If we allow daylight to come in perhaps we can also see a different way of dealing with that which troubles us.

I am not certain what eventually happened to Pandora and if anyone knows the outcome I would very much like to know her story.  As the myth goes Pandora appears to have received a very critical press and perhaps some of that harsh criticism is unwarranted.

We should recognise that hope has a vitality and energy which can outshine despair just so long as we can find a way to release it. And perhaps the counselling room is a good place to begin that process.

We may think that the rain is going to go on forever but it will eventually stop. The rainbow will arc across the sky, the sun will shine and we will find a reason to smile. Hope springs eternal – we just need to remember to look for it!





Geoff Boutle

added on 1st March 2014

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