Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 27, 2009

Jacob, Mraz, Pooh & Me: The REAL Wrestlers

Part 4 in a 7-part series on Spirituality, Self Image and World Religions

     When the man saw that he could not overpower Jacob, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
      But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

 27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”
      “Jacob,” he answered.

 28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, [e] because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”

 29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
      But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, [f] saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”  [Genesis 32:25-30)

*  *  *  *  *

“Say my name! Say my name!” – boxer Muhammad Ali, while standing over the recently-vanquished Sonny Liston, who had continued to call him Cassius Clay in the media.

Most men are wrestlers. Not unlike Mickey Rourke… the tortured, addictive, complicated American actor, and to a lesser extent the character he played last year in the film The Wrestler. We’re a clump of contradictions: confused adolescent and cranky old veteran, sensitive artist and brutish manipulator.

Like old Mickey, or his most direct antecedent, Sylvester Stallone/Rocky, we have our scars and our passions, our victories and defeats. We often feel like losers on the inside, and therefore feel driven to grasp for prestige or success in some external arena.

Yet as we become workaholics, or swagger after our latest financial or sexual success, we are often unsatisfied by these successes. We thought there would be “more” somehow. We thought we would be more, or feel differently, than we do after the latest victory. Thus, still unsatisfied and grasping, wrestling, we continue in our alternately graceful and clumsy way of dealing with our inner problems, and with human relationships.

It is the rare man who always deals with his “opponents” in this life cooperatively and lovingly — instead of competitively, like a wrestler. Yet it is possible to be both a person of peace and a sacred warrior.

In the Bible, Jacob was the original wrestler. He wrestled with an angel, and also within some pretty tricky relationship problems …with his father, his brother Esau, his father-in-law Laban, his wives, and his kids. And as he was wounded in the above angel wrestling match, he was also wounded, and wounded others, each time he tried to wrestle his problems to the ground and simply overpower them on his own. But, for example, by submitting to his estranged and wronged brother Esau, in confessing his fault (years later, unfortunately), Jacob was finally released into a new and blessed relationship with his family.

In other words, Jacob was a Beautiful Mess… which is also the title of a really cool song by blue-eyed soul/pop singer Jason Mraz. It’s about the payoff of accepting his own wounded soul, and that of his girlfriend –the way he wrestles with and even surrenders to their broken places, allowing himself to be changed, as he honors the moments of grace they have, and loves more deeply. [Note: Mraz is a sort of spiritual “journeyman” by now. So the above song is not a one-time phenomenon, but part of a body of work that playfully explores a relationship with God and the Ultimate Reality that has been developing over many years… his song Halfway Home is another example of Jason dealing with his inner mess.]

Within modern men (and women as well, but from a different angle), we wrestle with a similar lovely but shadowy inner angel (click for lyrics to another song, by Augustana, that works with this angel-wrestling image) . Psychologists sometimes call him/her our “inner child”. Clergy tend to call it one’s “spirit”, that complicated mix of nature and nurture that we walk through life trying to love, re-define, and keep on the right path. Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who built many bridges between Christianity and Buddhism, called it the search for the True Self and False Self.

In the beginning, this “angel” often has a tyrannical, me-first, toddler-like immaturity. The False Self tends to want to dominate, overcome and control. It is driven by impatience, and a fear of the “wounding” work involved (be it emotional, intellectual or physical) in dealing with those things s/he would prefer to deny or avoid. It is a creature of appetites, and not much more.

In classic psychological terms, Freud called that inner opponent, these lifelong wrestling partners, the Id and the Ego. But there are still other ways to characterize them, as well. A recent, very Jungian dream that I wrote about  on this blog brought another model to my conscious mind that involves my “inner lion”, as a symbol of my own power and God’s grace, and the way to nurture them.

My inner partner/opponent is also, quite frequently, a sort of inner “She”: a creative, interactive, emotional woman who needs to be integrated with the rest of my character, as both teacher and learner, in relationship with the other parts of my character and my spirit.

We can even feel free to develop purely personal icons and totems (And here’s where it gets strange and subjective, a true gift from God, but also a bit tricky.) For instance, I often call these “better angels of my nature” by the names of some of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh characters:

I must recognize and learn to love my inner Christopher Robin (security, stability, leadership and gently-wielded power), my Pooh (un-self-consciousness, creativity and childlike wonder), my Piglet (friendliness, love, intelligence, humility, caution and fear), my Rabbit (efficiency, productivity, organization, drive, judgment), my Eeyore (humility, service, embracing of the “wound”, melancholy), my Owl (intellectual striving, pride, protectiveness, generosity), my Kanga (compassion, parental watchfulness, calm, seriousness), my Roo (curiosity, vulnerability, capacity for joy), and my Tigger (energy, flakiness, ease, humor, courage and openness to life).

This Pooh and Friends model is just a tool, a way of understanding myself, other people, and the world. It is not a flawless model, but then again I don’t need a flawless model to describe and honor my flawed but beautiful spirit. What matters is only that it is a useful model.

In whatever form, the more these inner “angels” are integrated and honored, the closer they are brought to my center, and the more at peace I will be. From that safe space, then, the more I will generate peace and productivity in relation to others.

Paradoxically, the Jesus & Buddha way to achieve the best result in these internal wrestling matches is to surrender to the angel, to let God do what He wishes without wishing it were something other. I accept the coming new reality, and do not try to re-create it in my own image of what it should be, or in the image of myself. I seek a Will beyond my own.

Yet instead of cooperating with these angels, we compete, don’t we? In making our own self-involved plans, or in being manipulated by the plans and hopes of other people and our desire to please them, we choose a more difficult path.

Instead of giving, we take. Or we hide, like Adam and Eve in the garden, after God’s Plan A fell apart. Or else we trade. We buy and sell our selves to the highest bidder. Especially men. We make alliances. We put on a brave face. We “get tough”. We try to avoid being wounded or manipulated, instead of  vulnerably and wisely admitting up-front that it’s going to happen anyway– that our inner angel is going to win –and it’s going to hurt, at least a little bit. It’s supposed to. That’s why it works.

So suit up and get in the ring with your angel. We each have our own Rumble in the Jungle to go through, our own Mickey Rourke comeback to make, our own battle for wholeness to embrace and endure.


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