Descent is an inevitable part of life. We all find ourselves engulfed in the inner flames of our feelings, buried in the bowels of suffering, or entangled in the unconscious corridors of the psyche. Traumas pull downward, insecurities yank off balance, loss plummets into grief, violence shatters, and heartbreak leaves us alone in the dim light.
As the Roman poet Virgil wrote: “Easy is the descent to Avernus: night and day the door of gloomy Dis stands open; but to recall thy steps and pass out to the upper air, this is the task, this is the toil.” Virgil points to a truth that is normally disregarded in Western culture—finding yourself in darkness happens. The task is climbing the path upward.
In Greek mythology, much attention is given to a hero or god’s descent into and time within the underworld, while the ascent is typically described in mere sentences. Orpheus descends to reclaim his beloved Eurydice and is allowed to do so under the condition that he doesn’t look back at her while they ascend. Despite his entire fate resting on how he journeys upward, the only emphasis is that he does not look back. There is no mention of what was tormenting him, what it was like to hope his love and contentment could be restored, or why he couldn’t trust that she followed his music. The details are passed over.
The mighty Hercules willfully bombards his way downward, yet his return with Cerberus is simplified into a fierce wrestling match. During his time in Hades, the Trojan hero Aeneas witnesses the order of the afterlife, encounters lost friends and lovers, and learns the future of his people.
Yet, there is no mention of what it’s like to return to the surface with so much obligation. Persephone’s abduction is elaborated as she wails, tears her hair, and is whisked into the abyss by Hades himself. Yet what happens during her return to the surface each spring is not detailed.
No wonder we, even today, glide past the trials of climbing back up.
Perhaps our reluctance begins with a truth—the ascent is not a simple or quick task. When someone we care for dies, we never overcome their absence; childhood wounds take a lifetime to tend; memories of violence, abandonment, and shame aren’t vignettes we glance at once and then put on the shelf.
As a culture we are overly hygienic regarding the messy underbelly of life. We are impatient with the timeline often needed for healing. We rush our wounds, pity those who linger in anguish, and shame ourselves for not being better. Many of us feel we can’t risk revealing we are still in relationship with our suffering.
Our culture is dominated by upperworld values—order, pleasure, perfection. We look for easy and clean solutions to the problem of the ascent.
This perspective alters the labor of climbing back up—the ascent—into ascendence—rising above the messiness of the human condition to be pure, divine, and transcended. If, ascendent, we can protect ourselves in a castle in the sky, we can repress the challenges of living in a world marred by the underworld.
One place to start properly viewing the ascent is to stop treating the climb as a straight ladder, one where each step brings us higher and higher. In this view, one step down is failure. As a therapist, I’ve come to believe that change and growth take the shape of a serpentine spiral rather than a straight line.
No one wants to suffer the discomfort that change and meaning-making often demand. However, do we really have a choice?
Returning from the depths is like all inner work: It’s an inside job that begins with our attitude towards the experience. What would be made available to us if we respected the process of the ascent as the vitamin of change that it most often is?
We are culturally encouraged to return from darkness like Hercules, to control and be victorious. Yet, that can be a limiting attitude. Perhaps we wish to be creative, vulnerable, move our bodies, write our stories. What if integration looks like praying, asking questions, screaming in anger, or even accepting that we will always be ascending in one way or another? We could mediate, connect with others, heal others, and seek guidance in friendships, literature, or spirituality.
When it comes to ascent, we are limited by tradition and culture in our options, and thus we constrain our capacity to face this necessary human experience. We need more imagination toward how we each, as unique individuals, find the courage and capacity to put one foot in front of the other.
Perhaps if we were more comfortable with the existence of our own ascent journeys, we could have more patience for those of others. Could we abandon our tendency to try to fix what is happening to our friends and family? Could we just let be and allow the challenges of the upward climb?
The personal transformation connected to a descent and ascent journey is a type of initiation. Initiatory experiences ritualize the transition someone makes from one state of being, often less matured, to a fuller and more aware person. Initiation marks the intentional giving up on one part of ourselves and crossing the threshold into a more actualized expression of who we are. If we skip the work of the ascent, we skip an essential ingredient of this process.
We must learn to come up, struggle with what happened in the depths, and confront who we’ve become. Healing is not about popping from depth to height. It is about witnessing, engaging with, being present for, and accepting. The ascent requires its own time, energy, and forms of healing.