PASSING THE TEST: embracing the refiner’s fire

Mar 2, 2023

A man without clothes painted in red and gold is at the center of a ring of fire.

We are all familiar with the purpose of tests, from the schoolroom to the workplace, but do we fully grasp their significance in our personal lives?

Tests are a fundamental part of the human experience, marking our rites of passage and shaping our journey toward personal growth and transformation. The word test originally referred to an earthenware vessel in which metals were smelted to separate ore from dross. Like ancient vessels holding the heat of the refining fire, our task is to contain the tension of the test. Tests smelt fantasy from the ore of reality and force us to adapt.

When we are confronted with a test, we have a choice. We can view it as a challenge to be overcome, or we can succumb to feelings of inadequacy, limitation, or shame. If a test feels arbitrary or unfair, we may be failing to dissolve the dross within ourselves. Tests require us to develop the ego strength to put our courage, morals, and perseverance on the line—and withstand the ego wounding of failure. Ultimately, ego itself is put to the test. As Carl Jung says, “Only if we know that the thing which truly matters is the infinite can we avoid fixing our interest upon futilities, and upon all kinds of goals which are not of real importance.”

This is where the archetype of refinement comes in. At its core, refinement is the process of growth through adversity, where the fire of the test separates the valuable from the worthless. It is about taking control of your journey, rising to the occasion, and understanding growth needs. The process of refinement can be uncomfortable and even painful, but it is necessary for true personal growth.

Eustress, a positive form of stress, is key to optimal frustration, a state where we are stretched to our limits but not beyond them. In this state, we experience the energy and motivation necessary to tackle challenges and overcome resistance. Through the process of refinement, we outgrow problems and build a better self, transforming from the inside out.

Suffering and transformation are inextricably linked. We must be willing to face our pain and embrace the unconscious conflict resolution that comes with the process of refinement. As we grow beyond our limits, we discover that growth and acceptance are not mutually exclusive. We can accept our flaws and weaknesses while also striving to be better.

Time and growth are also intimately connected. We must be patient and allow the process of refinement to unfold at its own pace. It is not something that can be rushed or forced, but rather something that develops gradually over time.

As we undergo the inner transformation process of refinement, we are able to see ourselves in a new light. We develop the capacity to look upon our affect as an object, rather than becoming identical with it. Through this higher consciousness, we can say, “I know that I suffer,” while also recognizing our potential for growth and transformation.

Ultimately, the archetype of refinement through tests is about becoming the best version of ourselves. It is about embracing inner and outer change and recognizing that growth is a lifelong process. It is about outgrowing our limitations and tapping into our unknown potentialities to transform our lives in profound ways.

So, the next time you are faced with a test, remember the archetype of refinement. Embrace the fire of the test, and let it smelt away the dross within you. Trust in the process of growth through adversity and allow yourself to become the best version of yourself.

~ Joseph R. Lee


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  1. Thomas Dean

    I love your podcast and all three of you! I listen every week and am working my way backward through episodes from before I started listening. I wish I could sit down with all three of you for some analysis! I say this to let you know up front that I’m a big fan, and I’ve learned a lot! I’m puzzled and/or troubled by something Lisa said in this week’s episode on tests, though. At one point Lisa said, “People remember things better that they’ve been tested on. They just do.” That seemed to me an awfully blanket statement that raised my hackles some. First, there are many kinds of tests (obviously), so I think that statement would need to be qualified by what type of test Lisa was talking about. This statement was made in the context of talking about academic learning, and there are clearly different types of tests even in school/academia. I would strongly disagree that people “just do” remember things they’ve been tested on if we’re talking about so-called “objective” tests–the classic multiple choice/true-false/matching etc. tasks that, frankly, I believe serve no purpose. As a long-time college teacher, I don’t believe for a minute that taking that kind of test causes almost anyone to remember anything. And that kind of testing has come under fire for decades. This is the kind of test people talk about when discussions of “teaching to the test” in high-stakes public school testing arise, and any teacher I know would say that it does nothing in terms of education, and that type of testing has been long discredited in all kinds of educational circles. I do come from a humanities background, and I acknowledge that a test that challenges students to use critical thinking skills–such as writing an essay test, where evaluation, integration, and organization of ideas to support an argument are demonstrated–may help students to remember information and content. (I even stopped giving those kinds of tests as well, though, since I think the same skills can be much more effectively demonstrated–and subject matter learned–by writing a paper.) A demonstration of APPLICATION of knowledge–such as the bat mitvah example Lisa gave, which was excellent–is a kind of test that certainly would, I believe, help people remember. But that’s nothing like a traditional pen and paper multiple-choice test. For context, I, like Lisa, have also been a good test-taker–and I’ve never enjoyed taking tests. And I’ve never felt I’ve actually LEARNED anything (let alone remembered anything) from taking the test itself. I’ve never felt the “rising” feeling Lisa mentions, never felt any excitement or desire to “meet the challenge” of a traditional academic test. It just seemed to me Lisa may have been projecting her own individual enjoyment of such tests universally, which I know is not at all universal. At some point in the podcast, in reaffirming her “People remember things better that they’ve been tested on; they just do ” claim, I believe Lisa said there was neuroscientific research to support/prove this (I couldn’t find exactly what she said just by clicking through the podcast, sorry). If that’s the case, I would be interested to know what that research is and where it’s been published–and to know what kind of testing such research was studying–and, again, if Lisa thinks that the traditional academic “objective” test “just does” help people remember what they’ve learned. Well, I know this sounds like I’m picking on Lisa, but I’m not really–it’s just one specific thing that has stuck in my craw a bit, the first time that’s happened in listening to dozens of your podcasts now! Thanks for all you do.

  2. Mamie Allegretti

    Hello Joseph, Deb and Lisa,
    Hi Thomas,
    I’m a teacher and I agree with what you say about most of the testing that goes on in schools now. On another point you make…don’t be upset about something our hosts say that gets “stuck in your craw!” This has happened many times to me (and my husband!) but it’s often there that we think, learn, discuss and grapple with ourselves the most! Thanks for another great episode!


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