A Jungian psychoanalyst and self-named cantadora, or keeper of stories, Clarissa Pinkola Estés here collects myths, fairy tales, fables, and many other stories old and new about the inner and outer lives of women. I will admit some trepidation in approaching this book, with its nineties New Age-vibes and the whiff of gender essentialism in the title. But I was pleasantly surprised to find a much more timeless reading of women archetypes, one that privileges creativity, sovereignty, and solitude, and which leaves the definition of “woman” up to the reader. Our culture is so saturated with mythic tales of men that it can be easy to belie that a similarly rich storytelling tradition exists outside of the patriarchy—no matter how much that system tries to rewrite those stories or bury them underground. If this book has relevance thirty years after its first publication (and I think it does), its in bringing light to those neglected tales, and reminding us that stories are often the greatest medium we have for sharing wisdom.
One of the recurring themes in Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ Women Who Run With the Wolves is the idea of a home that a woman (or, I’d argue, someone of any gender) must regularly return to. “Home,” here, isn’t a place so much as a state of being, what you might call connecting with your soul, or feeling centered or rooted, or being in alignment with yourself or your deepest needs. Most of us, most of the time, are routinely pulled away from home, whether by family or work or media or simply the mundane needs of everyday life. But in Estés’ formulation, you can’t stay away forever:
When a woman is too long gone from home, she is less and less able to propel herself forward in life. Instead of pulling in the harness of her choice, she’s dangling from one. She’s so cross-eyed with tiredness she trudges right on past the place of help and comfort. [She feels drained by] ideas, chores, and demands that don’t work, have no life, and bring no life to her. Such a woman becomes pale yet contentious, more and more uncompromising, yet scattered. Her fuse burns shorter and shorter. Popular culture calls this “burnout”—but it’s more than that, it’s hambre del alma, the starving soul. Then, there is only one recourse, finally the woman knows she has to—not might, maybe, sort of, but must—return to home.Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves, page 279
Whether or not you believe in a soul, I think there’s something here about the shallowness of much of the prevalent discussion about burnout. It’s often talked of as if it is primarily a matter of overwork or undercompensation, a byproduct of economic precarity (or, perhaps the intention of it, inasmuch as burnout serves corporate means by creating a populace too exhausted to advocate for change). And while too much work and too few social systems are obvious underpinnings for burnout, I tend to think they are useful but inadequate descriptors. There’s something especially crushing about the feeling of burnout that can’t be explained by economics and labor relations, and can’t be solved by unions and four-day workweeks (though those would help a great many things). I don’t know that I can fully get behind Estés’ spiritual framework, but I am prepared to say that until or if the discourse around burnout evolves to consider the meaning of work and not only the conditions of it, we will continue to drift among the ashes.