It’s Elemental

Of the various sets of archetypes I’ve encountered in the past year, the one that has proven to be the most helpful for me in conceptualizing the world has been the traditional western elemental archetypes of fire (creative spark, zest, and passion), air (intellect, argument, judgment and discernment), water (emotions and the subconscious), and earth (manifesting, working, grounding).

These four archetypes are found in both western Astrology (where three signs of the zodiac are assigned to each element) and Tarot (where each suit represents one of the elements). As I’ve explored these ideas in the past year, I’ve found these elements to be a helpful shorthand in talking about the world. In this post I’d like to share two examples of this and then share a few further thoughts about their application.

As a creative person, thinking in terms of these four energies has helped me to better understand the creative process. There’s the initial creative spark of fire, the mad jumble of ideas of air, the deep emotional world of water, and the actual doing-the-work of earth. All are important for real creative expression to take place. There are a lot of self-identified creatives who don’t actually do much creating because they’re all fire and air and no earth: all inspiration and ideas, but no doing. (This is probably why so many podcasts for creative people have ‘earthy’ taglines, like “Do the work” and “Keep your butt in the chair.”) At the same time, without the air energies, creative expression ends up being perfunctory, and without the deep soul-searching of water, soulless. All four are needed.

Thinking in this way has helped me better diagnose creative blocks. What’s the actual problem I’m experiencing? Am I feeling uninspired? Am I struggling to wrestle my ideas into submission? Am I unhappy with my output because I’m staying too superficial or am feeling disconnected from what I’m producing? Or, am I just struggling to do the work, not setting the time aside for it or allowing myself to be distracted by my phone or social media? These are helpful questions because the different diagnoses have different solutions.

This framework has also provided me with a better way of thinking about how I bump up against the dating world. Most of the ways I struggle with dating boil down to the fact that I feel at crossed purposes with the way contemporary dating culture insists dating works. It’s never felt quite right to frame this simply in terms of attitudes towards sex, because a) my libido is no more or less a part of my dating life than anyone else’s and b) both anecdotal and social-scientific data suggest that, despite how sex-saturated our culture is right now, people are actually having less sex and with fewer partners than they have in several generations.

What I think is far fairer to say is that contemporary dating culture is all about fire: It values fireworks, the first spark of instant connection, “swipe right,” novelty, and performativity. Ideas and feelings hardly play a role at all in this, let alone the earthy values of hearth and home, mutual enrichment, authenticity, and commitment that make my heart beat faster. Talking about it in terms of this imbalance towards one of four kinds of energy strikes me as a far more apt and helpful criticism of dating culture than anything else I’ve encountered. It’s not that the fiery energy is bad — it’s awesome and there’s a good reason why it’s important in relationships — but that the other three are just as important yet barely figure at all in the contemporary ‘dating game.’

As is the case with most of what I’m discussing in these posts on my year of magical thinking, there are different ways these energies can manifest. This is also helpful in expanding how we think about them and how they interact in our lives. If we associate water with our emotions, how might we think differently about our emotional world if we think of a gentle rain, a stagnant pool, a fast-moving river, steam, a flood, or an ocean? Each of these visceral images offers a unique way of looking at the broad area of life we’re talking about. (With respect to my dating example, as I like to say, a hearth is just as fiery as fireworks — it just keeps the fire burning a lot longer!)

There is of course nothing special about these four traditional elements of western culture. They don’t match up with anything in the world: Science currently knows of 118 actual elements; Chinese astrology used 5: fire, earth, water, wood, and metal; and so on. There are a lot of ways we can divide up not only the world but also human experience. This framework is only one way, and, like most of them, it is to some extent arbitrary. But that doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful or helpful. And I’ve been grateful for it this year.

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