According to Roberto Assagioli, the first stage of any decision is to ascertain the purpose driving us toward our desired goal. During all the subsequent stages of an act of will — deliberation, affirmation, choice, planning and execution – we can often gain energy by returning to reflect on our initial purpose.
However, there may be times when we find ourselves in a difficult situation and unable to understand exactly what we are doing or why. We may feel stuck in a particularly uncomfortable situation. Or we may have to interact with challenging (sub)personalities, who only trigger our own unresolved issues! Nothing around us seems to feel right anymore. Nothing seems to fit with our ideals or desired aims.
We might be asking ourselves: Whatever are we doing here? Whatever could our purpose be?
Eighty years ago, Ida Palombi (1905-1981) posed this exact question to Roberto Assagioli. Having graduated from the University of Rome, in 1939 she found herself working as a social worker and translator for the Ministry of the Interior of Rome under the fascist regime. At the same time, she was regularly attending lessons Assagioli was offering at his home on the Aventine.
During the evening classes, she often noticed young, well-dressed men hanging around outside Assagioli’s house, looking through the window into the meeting room. Ida was puzzled by their behavior, as they appeared to want to listen in on the meetings, and could have just as easily walked in and participated. When she asked Assagioli about this curiosity, he responded “Are you really so naïve? Can’t you tell that they are all government agents?”
Despite the fact that his lessons were under surveillance and even being recorded by the government, Assagioli continued without anxiety. Describing Assagioli as an eternal optimist, Palombi herself was meanwhile struggling with her own position in the government, especially after Mussolini introduced the Manifesto of Race in mid-1938. The Manifesto was closely modeled on the Nazi Nuremberg Laws and stripped Jews of their Italian citizenship and any position in the government or professions.
In particular, Palombi didn’t understand how she could possibly keep her position in the Ministry of the Interior when the government officials knew she frequented the home of “the Jewish Doctor Assagioli”. In addition, she had never hidden the fact that she was a pacifist and had never been a member of the fascist party. When she related her concerns to Assagioli, he said, “You are probably there for a reason that we don’t understand, for some higher reason.”
Despite his reassurance, Palombi continued to grow more uncomfortable. After a few months, things suddenly became even worse when she was promoted to an important position with greater responsibility. Once again, she expressed her anxiety to Assagioli and once again he replied, “I keep thinking that maybe there’s a reason that we don’t know about. In any case, it could be useful that you are there.” And so, Palombi unwillingly accepted to continue working for the fascist state.
Months passed and then the situation became truly problematic. On August 22, 1940, Assagioli was arrested in his villa outside of Florence. When she heard the shocking news, Palombi instantly remembered his words. By that time, her position in the ministry was to translate many sensitive documents from English into Italian. Soon afterwards, she was called into her supervisor’s office and told not to take on any other tasks that day as there was something of high importance to translate – the letters in English to the United States written by Dr. Assagioli!
Once more the words of Assagioli echoed in Palombi’s ears: “It can happen that one day you can be greatly useful!” And so, taking into account that any translation comes with some interpretation on the part of the translator, she tried to make Assagioli’s words as innocuous as possible.
For me, her story is a beautiful example of how sometimes our lives seem to be ruled by a higher purpose far beyond what we can foresee or even imagine. In 1938, Palombi wrote the following when reflecting on what humanity needed during those days during a difficult time in her life and her nation’s history:
“In life, every day, one needs to try to understand the positive and negative sides of every person and generate good will, so that the positive side might be used by each one of us in a collaborative effort that consists of every single contribution of the best part of ourselves for the benefit of humanity.”
Ultimately, when faced with similar dilemma in our own personal lives, we also cannot predict what difference our actions might make, but we can choose for the higher good. We can trust that our kindness and decency, our love and will, might be used for a higher purpose, without our ever discovering when, for whom or how. To conclude, Assagioli wrote the following about the spiritual manifestation of purpose:
“We need to broaden our field of consciousness and recognize life’s meaning and purpose, of a Will and of an intelligent, wise and loving Power, which is the source of the universe and directs and guides evolution to a glorious goal.”
Next time we are in a perplexing or frightening situation through which we seem to see only darkness, like Palombi and Assagioli, we might also attempt to trust this “wise and loving Power and intelligent Will”, as it directs us through our own evolution and glorious growth toward wholeness
Author’s Note: You can read a more detailed account of this story by clicking here. This account of what happened between Palombi and Assagioli comes from her recorded interview with Eugene Smith in 1974. An excerpt of the Palombi/Smith interview was transcribed, edited and translated into Italian by Laura Ferrea, and published in: Roberto Assagioli, Libertà in prigione. A cura di Catherine Ann Lombard, Firenze, Italia: Istituto di Psicosintesi, 2018, pp. 83-87. I wish to thank Laura Ferrea for her time in clarifying some details with me. All translations from Italian into English are mine.