August 1, 2022

My Life as a Puer

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Mickey Rooney was one for sure. And I’ve read that Jack Kerouac was one, too. But there’s no doubt that another famous writer, Antoine Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince, everyone’s favorite book, was one. So, according to what I have read, was T. E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia.” And if we go back into history there’s no doubt that the Prince Regent, who would later become George IV once old mad King George had finally died, was a flamboyant one, as I learned after recently reading J. B. Priestley’s history of the Regency, which he entitled The Prince of Pleasure and His Regency.

And although I am hardly a well-known figure like the men I have just referred to, I, too, am one. One what, you ask? The answer: To use the term popularized by C. G. Jung and other Jungians who have written extensively on the subject, I am a Puer Aeternus, an “eternal youth” for which the classic archetypal example, of course, is Peter Pan, who did not want to grow up.

Neither, as you will read, did I.

To start with the most superficial aspect of my life as a puer – and there are many things about a puer that, alas, are superficial – I’ve always looked young, and younger than my years. This was true for most of my life, and, according to my friends, who no doubt want to flatter me or pretend not to notice how old I look now, I still think that is the case. For example, lately I have been watching a series on Netflix with Michael Pollan about recent research on psychedelics. Pollan, whom I admire and respect, is 65. But, I swear, I think I look younger than he does even though I am now approaching 87.

But of course there is more to being a puer than looking youthful. Being a puer means having a certain kind of character and boyish charm, and behaving in ways that seem to belie one’s age. But what actually animates a puer like me? What drives me to act the way I do? I want to explore this next.

Reflecting on my life from the vantage point of my late eighties, it seems to me that it can be understood in terms of two overriding motives that have dominated me – the pursuit of pleasure and the search for passion. Each of these seems to be associated, however, with a different aspect of my character. Let me consider my pleasure-oriented ways first.

Of course, nearly everyone prefers and enjoy pleasures – by definition. But in my case, I think in my childhood and early teenage years I was unusually responsive to its allure and that it was this that kept me fixated in my growth, having remained, as I have said, a child in so many ways even to this day.  

Take my preferences for food as an example. I still love candy, sweets, ice cream, bagels, bread, etc. – the soft, delicious treats of childhood. When I could still walk, I would often sneak off to my local liquor store for a York Mint Patty. I eat like an 8-year-old boy.

The same thing is true about drinking. I have a cousin who is more like a brother to me whose taste in and knowledge about food is very sophisticated and who is also an oenophile. I can drink the occasional glass of wine, but I could never really understand why so many people are gaga about it. I was always a Diet Coke man – and used to enjoy sharing one with one of my girlfriends, a puella herself (puella is the female term for a puer), until I learned that it rots your brain. Also, although everyone in the world, it seems, drinks coffee, I have never cared to do so. I disagree with Woody Allen when he quipped, “Man can’t live on bread alone, he also needs a beverage.” 

Or consider my clothes – I resist wearing “grown-up” clothes – suits and ties. I had to save those for my appearances in the divorce court. I like to wear what is comfortable. For many years, I wore loafers because I remember how much as a kid I liked the way Gene Kelly wore them in the movies. To this day, I always wear white socks because he did. I still dress in many ways I did when I was a teenager, at least when I can. 

Or take my taste in music. Although I love classical music, I resist a lot of twentieth century and contemporary music of the avant garde where music has become a kind of conceptual art, experiments in sound, silences and extreme sonic sensations, which no longer seems like music at all. I still agree with Camille Saint-Saëns, about whom I once wrote a book, when he says that music is meant to give pleasure. I believe my taste in music was formed and has remained pretty much fixated on the music I came to love as a teenager. I do not have the kind of mind and sensibility that is open to novelty and experimentation; I am a musical fuddy-duddy who has never grown up musically, only older.

I still love the pleasures of childhood, and in many ways I have never outgrown them.  

But there is another aspect of my life where the passions of childhood have flowered in such a way as to promote my growth personally, spiritually and intellectually. And that, in a phrase, is the search for ecstatic experience, for a kind of transcendence. Indeed, I would say, looking back on my life now, this has been what has kept me at once growing and young.

My search for ecstasy has taken many forms some of which I have already alluded to. Opera, for example, is still thrilling to me – the sound of the human voice at full volume can move me inexpressibly, as it has many others of course (Walt Whitman wrote eloquently on this subject). Classical music has the same power over me – Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler (especially Mahler’s Second Symphony). It vaunts me into another dimension of life that, as Schopenhauer wrote, provides an intimation of the numinous. Until I was in my late 70s I had enjoyed a sexual life rich in its mystical transports and primal feelings, and have always sought such experiences.  

Likewise, with psychedelic drugs, which I used for a period of some 25 years and which brought me the most ineffably powerful experiences of rapture I have ever known and the complete, if momentary, transcendence of my ego-based self. My first, if inadvertent, LSD experience more than a half century ago was the single most important catalytic experience of my life – the one that caused me both to “wake up” to what life really was and led me from the world of ordinary psychology into the field of transpersonal psychology and shortly afterward to my work on near-death experiences.  

Those experiences, too, thrilled me to my core, as they have many others, and it was my continuing joy to write about them for many years as it was to meet so many of the people who had them and who related them to me. My interest in mystical and religious experiences was likewise another flowering from this same seed. 

In so many ways, these passionate pursuits, fueled by my desire for ecstatic experiences, have dictated the course of my life and caused me to follow wherever they led, almost heedless of the consequences, as if I were compelled by an unshakeable inner compulsion that was at the same time the source of my growth and the key to my destiny.

Actually, I haven’t read that much about motivations of puers, but scanning the Internet in preparation for writing this blog, I did find some confirmation for why my life developed as it did.

For example, one such article states the following:

The puer’s main pursuit in life is ecstasy, many times at the expense of everything else. Today most puers and puellas can be found in ashrams seeking a religious experience or using drugs or alcohol to escape reality. Reading this, I was reminded of what Bertrand Russell, an intellectual hero of mine when I was young, wrote at the beginning of his autobiography.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy … I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined.  

I don’t know if Russell could be regarded as a puer – although everyone seems to have called him “Bertie,” as if he were a character from a P. G. Wodehouse novel – but I have long been struck by the fact that, like me, he had numerous affairs, some of which were quite scandalous, and, again like me, he was married four times.  

Perhaps multiple amatory relationships and marriages are typical for many puers. For example, Mickey Rooney who lived until 93, almost as long as Russell who died three years short of his century, was married eight times! And guess who his first wife was.

Ava Gardner! Can you believe it? At least he started at the top, but it’s not surprising, given that he was a consummate puer, that it didn’t last.

Which brings me by way of these digressions to the dark side of being a puer. It’s time to talk about my relationships with women, a fraught subject.

To begin with, let me quote some sample passages from just one of the articles I read about puers and their difficulty with commitment:

Puers generally have a hard time with commitment. They like to keep their options open and can’t bear to be tied down. They act spontaneously, with little thought of consequences….

Puers and puellas live a provisional life. There is always the fear of being caught in a situation from which it might not be possible to escape.

Puers chafe at boundaries and limits and tend to view any restriction as intolerable. They do not realise that some restrictions are indispensable for growth.

This certainly resonates with me, but I had always ascribed this feeling to my Sagittarian nature. (My astrological chart, if you care, or put any stock in such things, shows me strongly loaded with Sagittarius signs). And what does this say about me? That I love and need freedom, independence, and not to be tied down. That is my cardinal trait. But it’s complicated because for me, according to what I’ve been told by astrologers I trust, I also have a deep need for intimacy. I’ve always known this. But that brings up a conflict – how to balance the need for independence with my need for intimacy. I have never been able to achieve that balance, and that has caused pain to many women as well as to myself.

I remember once meeting an astrologer for the first time. She didn’t know anything about me, and before giving me “a reading,” she simply looked at my chart, and then said this. “You have been married three times.” (Which was true at the time.) “And you have a very hard time with commitment because you have a freedom/intimacy conflict, as shown by your grand square.” Bullseye.  

So whether it is because I am such a strong Sagittarian type or that I am a puer, or both, this has resulted in a great deal of agony in my life and for many of the women I have been with or married to. I eventually find marriages or committed relationships confining, and I bolt, seeking freedom from constraints once more. In that way, I am a typical grief-causing puer.

I am not ugly, and when I was young I wasn’t bad looking, but for whatever reason, I learned by the time I was in my mid-twenties that I was attractive to women. At that time, a beautiful woman who was the cynosure of the psychology department where we were both graduate students, fell in love with me. I was both thrilled and astonished. But because I was married and could not leave my wife, I could not pursue this relationship. This crushed the woman – she shortly thereafter withdrew from graduate school and moved to a foreign country – and I was depressed for a year.  

Over the years, and I don’t mean to brag or turn this blog into a sentimental confession, I have known the love of quite a few beautiful and accomplished women. And I have actually been stalked by other women and accosted by a few more. Why?  

I may not have been a particularly good-looking man, but what I had was a certain winning charm. People, and not just women, were always attracted to me. Many of my students were also. But not just because I could be charming and playful, but, I believe, because of my natural tendency to become deeply interested in most everyone I came to spend time with. 

I remember reading about the playwright, George S. Kaufman, who was not a handsome man, but he always had a way with the ladies. What was the secret of his success? He may have been joking, but he said he always noticed when they changed their hairdo and commented on it.  

In the case of women, I think many of them came to love me because of the quality of my genuine interest in and attention to them. I listened to them attentively and sought to know them, whether or not I was interested to pursue a romantic relationship with them.

But for those I did, it rarely worked out well in the end, and in the end there was pain. The same pattern repeating over and over again.  

I will not go into details here; you don’t need to know any of that. It’s enough that I do, and I have written a great deal about my anguish and regret in some of my books that I have kept private and not shown to many people. My children may want to read them after I am no longer here.

All this is just to make it clear that as much as I have enjoyed my life as a puer, it has not been without the cost of a great deal of suffering to others as well as myself. There is no light without its shadow.

Time to start summing up. So, on balance, what do I conclude about my wayward but often very gratifying life as a puer?

Yes, in many ways I suppose I’m still a child, still a puer and always a puer, despite its costs, but in another way, once childhood pleasures gave way to adult passions, my real life could begin. And it has been, on the whole, a life of adventure and exploration, both intellectually and spiritually. I have taken many voyages and visited many extraordinary realms, both interior, through my psychedelic excursions, and outwardly, through my travels throughout the world. I have known many lovers, who have likewise enriched my life more than words could ever convey and for whom I have had the deepest gratitude for everything they taught me about life and love.

I have had a great variety of intellectual interests that have found expression in my writing – social psychology, altered states of consciousness, the study of near-death experiences, UFO encounters, classical music, the struggle for Palestinian justice, animal cognition, and numerous other topics. In all of this, I have been following my vocation, wherever it led, as a devotee of the passionate life the seeds for which, I am convinced, were already present in the child I once was and to some extent, with the qualifications to come, remain.

But still, I am an old man now, a senex, to use the term favored by Jungians. What is like to be puer in an old man’s body?  

My passions have cooled a bit as my infirmities have taken over my life, and I find at this stage that my desire for freedom and independence is largely a memory. I don’t feel that way any longer, and my physical limitations would preclude that kind of life, anyway. I am now very dependent on others – my caregiver, my neighbors, and, most of all, my beautiful and loving girlfriend, Lauren, who has put up with me for the last seven years and counting. I thank my lucky stars that she has been in my life all these years. She is the perfect person for me at this point in my life, and don’t I know it. I will be a puer to the end, but I think I have mostly outgrown him now. Maybe, finally, I have managed to become an adult.