Facing Life’s Ambiguities

ambiguityAccording 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?

Figure 1 Assagioli and Palombi

Roberto Assagioli and Ida Palombi

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.


Front page of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera on 11 November 1938 when the fascist regime approved the Italian Racial Laws.

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.

Figure 2 Cat Watercolor CALombard

Unsigned watercolor hanging in Palombi’s bedroom at Casa Assagioli in Florence.

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.


Assagioli’s Favorite Exercise Routine

J.P._MüllerJorgen Peter Muller (1866-1939) had a reputation for being everything from pornographic to a world famous hygienist and physical fitness guru. The Danish sportsman was, in fact, all-round champion athlete, Danish Knight of the Order of the Dannebrog, and author of the international best seller My System, published in 1904.

My System is a complete step-by-step guide to 18 daily exercises that nearly anyone can complete in 15-minutes. The book sold 2 million copies and was translated into 25 languages. Muller became famous for traveling around Europe and demonstrating his exercises while wearing only a loincloth and displaying his tanned, toned body. Shocking by all Victorian standards!

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Heavenly and Earthly Desires


The Journey of the Three Magi. Postcard from Assagioli’s Archives (ID# 010305)

Desire, in all its dimensions, is beautifully woven into the Christmas story. This word desire can evoke so many different images and feelings. Assagioli saw desire as an integral part of ourselves and subject to both our personal will and the will of the Higher Self.

In fact, the word desire fundamentally holds this idea of a higher or transpersonal will.  I was amazed to learn that the word comes from the Latin roots dē, which means to “come from” and sīdus which means “heavenly body.” In other words, our longings literally “come from the heavens.” This idea may have originated from astrology, which attempts to understand how the heavenly bodies – stars and planets alike – can define who we are and what we want to become. Continue reading

An Ordinary Extraordinary Christmas

breakfastThe day started out normal enough. Breakfast of homemade bread and jams, creamy sheep cheese from Sardinia, ricotta, and peanut butter from a large jar brought long ago from the Netherlands, all swallowed down with cappuccinos in our usual breakfast cups. That morning we were just a bit more rushed, hurrying out by 8 am to attend the morning mass at the Monastery of St. Luca in Fabriano.

Benedictine nuns in the sober habits sang the psalms in clear – sometimes wavering – voices accompanied by one of the sisters playing the dulcimer. A monk priest said the mass. Afterwards we stood around the 16th century pews listening to Don Ephrem tell stories of when he was first ordained as a priest in Syria. Barely speaking Arabic, he was sent off to a high mountain village to say the Christmas mass.

But first he had to hear confession. The problem was nobody spoke Arabic, they all spoke a mountain dialect. Behind the confessional screen, he begged for mercy, asking the elderly women penitents to recount their sins in a language he might understand. French, Italian, Greek, Hebrew, slowly spoken simple Arabic? No, none of those. Only mountain dialect, a slowing dying blend of indecipherable Arabic and language once carried on the wind.

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Talking to Strangers

Internet AddictionI spend last Saturday talking to strangers. As a volunteer for the charity Caritas, I spent two hours in front of a local supermarket asking people to donate food to the Italian National Food Bank. This experience meant that I wore a plastic yellow bib (which declared my legitimacy) while dangling plastic yellow bags in front of passing strangers.

Those who were interested in helping, took the bag and filled it with rice, pasta, tomato sauce, olive oil (this is Italy after all!), baby food or canned vegetables. The donated goods were then collected, boxed and sent off to the local food bank.

I startled most of the shoppers that day with my distinct American accent. “Buon giorno!” I called out cheerily. “Would you like to participate in our food collection for the poor?” I asked this at least 100 times that morning and, as you can imagine, the reactions varied. Some simply said ‘No.’ Some said they had already donated at another supermarket. One man said that he could actually use the yellow plastic bag, thank you very much. Continue reading

School Bells for Joy

This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.
(Psalm 34:6)

Joy at School

Joy at nursery school.

Ten months ago, I wrote a blog about a Nigerian refugee family living in Italy who I and my husband are trying to help through the Catholic charity Caritas. In January, Samuel and Rose (not their real names), at the advice of their lawyer, were hoping to marry in order to strengthen their case. With gratitude, we were able to raise the money they needed to obtain the necessary documents and they were happily married on 15 March.

But like most immigrant stories, their lives continue to be difficult.

Samuel has not been able to find work, partly from pride, partly from discrimination, mostly because he doesn’t speak a word of Italian despite living in the country for five years. We have done our best. Kees accompanied him to an interview at the diocese in Assisi that had 30 job placements for immigrants. But afterwards they told the Director of the local Caritas to not send any more applicants who have zero Italian language skills. Continue reading

Rocky’s Prayer

Day of the DeadThis weekend, many Italians are traveling to village cemeteries to pay homage to their ancestors. The Catholic feast of All Saints Day on November 1st is a national holiday followed by All Soul’s Day. It is a time for the living to ritually remember the dead – both saint and sinner alike. In preparation, the (mostly older) women are scrubbing tombstones clean and buying votive candles and pots of chrysanthemums to decorate the graves of loved ones. Coinciding with the beginning of darker days and longer nights, this time allows us to pause and consider our own life and death.


Fava bean flowers

The two days devoted to honoring the dead correspond agriculturally to when Umbrian farmers seed their fields. They are also busy burying onion bulbs and garlic cloves with the hope of enjoying sweet shoots in the spring. There is a local saying among our neighbors that All Saint’s Day marks the planting of fava beans. In fact, eating fava beans was once thought to be a way to be in communion with the dead. The bean flower is white with black markings that take the form of the Greek letter thet or θ, which is the first letter of thanatos, meaning ‘death’. Continue reading