Trauma, Death, and the Archetype of Hope
by Paul DeBlassie III

brain-mind-trauma-hopeIn a depth psychological treatment of a psyche ravaged by trauma, American pioneer in psychology and spirituality, William James (1985) offers inspiration and insight regarding the healing virtue of hope, a sustained will to live. Trauma, as defined by Kalsched (1996), refers to “any experience that causes the child unbearable pain. (p. 1).

Therapeutic movement, in this context, energizes healing momentum for patients trapped in malevolent dynamics resulting from trauma. In particular, the numinosity of the Self’s defensive system can become toxic. Kalsched (1996) describes the development in childhood trauma of a dominant archetypal figure—simultaneously protecting and persecuting the individual in a “self-care system [turned] diabolical” (p. 45). Depth therapy necessitates facilitating the liberation of an imprisoned and despairing psyche via the nurturance of a psychic state of hopefulness.

A Jamesian perspective integrates the transformative luminosity of hope within the therapeutic dialogue. This process of integration of the luminosity of hope within the depth treatment of destructive numinosity can be understood through the symbolism of Hermes. As a messenger of the Gods, Hermes carries a staff entwined by the twin serpents of poison and antidote, and appears in dream images during therapy.

Jung (as cited in Dourley, 2010) believed that through numinous experience archetypal forces were carried into consciousness and “that only the experience of the numinous was really capable of effecting a healing transformation” (pp. 232-233). While numinous contact with autonomous, supraordinate representations of the Self can effect healing, it can also carry intrapsychic persecution.

Wilfred Bion (1962), spoke of the “ego-destructive superego” as well as the “bizarre object” when describing intrapsychic malevolence that traumatizes the already traumatized psyche (p. 115). Harry Guntrip’s (1969) internal saboteur within the intrapsychic world of traumatized patients speaks to the same phenomenon of the malevolent aspect of the Self. Ogden’s (1982, 1986) hate-filled projective identification and trauma-based tyrannizing transferences (1992) can be understood to reflect what Kalsched (1996) depicted as the dark aspect of the Self precipitated by a traumatized personal spirit.

As trauma ravaged souls seek therapeutic intervention, the containment of both the Jamesian luminosity of hope and the dark numinosity of the Self’s archetypal defenses nourishes the potential for a transformative healing process. When entered therapeutically, the dark, chthonic realm of demonic energies swirling to maleficent rhythms that prohibit psychic integration can constellate its opposite, positive pole—the luminous archetypal force of hope.

Archetypal hope, held within the psychotherapeutic vessel together with mind-shattering traumas and dissociative defenses, offers the prospect of stabilization and integration for the soul tormented by trauma.

Hope and Disintegration

The experience, during intense crisis or trauma, of the soul leaving the body, observing from above the tragedy or horror, is not uncommon, especially when associated with what psychoanalytic trauma theorists have termed disintegration anxiety (cf. Kohut, 1977). Often experienced as a type of psychic dying and death, so terrifying is this disintegration anxiety that Kohut (1984) noted, “The attempt to describe disintegration anxiety is the attempt to describe the indescribable” (p. 16). Such disintegration and soul loss can be experienced as a death of facets of self if trauma is of sufficient duration and intensity. Despair and emptiness often accompany such dissociative soul loss. Overwhelming perceptions that the mind is not and never will be well come into sharp focus.

In the presence of unbearable psychic anxiety caused by childhood trauma, Kalsched (1996) described the psyche as developing a self-care system to defend and preserve the most intimate core of the traumatized self. He noted,

Once the trauma defense is organized, all relations with the outer world are ‘screened’ by the self-care system. What was intended to be a defense against further trauma becomes a major resistance to all unguarded spontaneous expression of self in the world. The person survives but cannot live creatively. Psychotherapy becomes necessary. (p. 4)

Psychoanalyst and trauma theorist, Michael Eigen (2009), asserted that the depth psychological process of healing the traumatized soul is a sacrament, “a visible sign of an inward grace” (p. 9). This sacrament —experienced as symbolic contact with the potentially generative instinctual force of the Self—invokes the hope that is essential in addressing trauma and its associated malevolent self-defense system that functions autonomously, beyond the grasp of ego resources. Within the context of depth-oriented trauma therapy, hope—the belief that healing is possible—is a vital force can be posited as a vital facet in the healing of traumatized souls. In keeping with the crucial need for a sign of, or contact with the Self’s potential and instinct for growth and wholeness, William James (1985), wrote of hope being as essential as oxygen to how we engage with and experience life: “let . . . hope be the atmosphere which man breathes in . . . and his days pass by with zest” (p. 120).

In over thirty years of clinical practice in depth psychotherapy treating traumatized patients, I have listened to patients’ pain as childhood memories surfaced: times of trauma and rage within the family of origin, or hatred taken out on a vulnerable child, or abuse committed within the church. Childhood is a time of openness and vulnerability to the best and the worst, a time of necessary yielding. A child is needy and at the mercy of caretakers, those who, optimally, provide necessary provisions of caring and nurturing, and do not inflict emotional or physical neglect or abuse that maim psychic growth and healthy ego development.

When trauma occurs and the necessary psychic provisions are not available, disintegrative anxiety spurs the development of a malevolent self-care system—the individual may be seen as having been bitten by one of the serpents on the staff of Hermes, leaving them in a one-sided and poisoned state of hopelessness. In coming to therapy, the human psyche, the soul, yearns for hope and healing, to be touched again by the staff of Hermes.

The caduceus, with its twin serpents of poison and antidote, symbolizes the potential for psychological disintegration in the presence of experience too venomous to consciously embrace, and the hope of one’s potential for growth and wholeness. The entwining serpents represent the healing aspect of holding this dual awareness: the integration of pain and potential acts as psychic medicine (Jung, 1955/1963). Kerenyi (1976) described this as the “Herald’s staff around which intertwine two antagonistic-loving serpents, a symbol of mediation” (p. 96).

Rafael Lopez Pedraza (1977) noted that Hermes, trickster extraordinaire, performs an unblocking of the conscious ego, a blowing out of narrow perspectives including, we might surmise, one possessed by and identified with trauma and disintegration. Kerenyi (1976) shed light on Hermes as he who “conjures up the new creation. To him belong the soul-conjuring wand of the wizard and necromancer” (p. 96).

Decades of clinical psychotherapeutic experience have impressed on me the reality of the emergence of numinous movements of energy mediated in the symbol of Hermes, the archetype of transitions, the messenger between the conscious world and the realm of the unconscious. Inevitably, this spiritual messenger brings not only passageway across the turbulent lake of psychological crisis but also inspiration for the journey. Therapeutically, hermetic inspiration is experienced as hope. Thus, Hermes, the archetype of hope, generates spiritual healing potential for the traumatized and despairing soul open to immediate luminousness and practical transformation. For, ultimately, as Rafael López-Pedraza (1989) stated, “Hermes is a god of transformation . . . a protector and helper in the difficult adventure of modern psychotherapy (pp. 8,18).

As Jung (1955/1963) noted, toxicity, within the present context of disintegrative trauma, becomes medicine as the patient comes to terms with both pain and potential inherent in being touched by the Hermetic staff. Where there was the threat of disintegration, in being twice touched by the Hermetic staff, hope, the vital air that we breathe, the sustained will to live, returns. The soul avails itself of transformative energy, often arriving into consciousness through an image that brings with it a sacrament from the Self.

William James (1985) advocated the notion that we turn in time of need, and within the context of trauma, to what most serves us in life. In his words, experiences that are filled with an “immediate luminousness . . . philosophical reasonableness . . . and moral helpfulness” (p. 23) most truly aid us in life. When injured via chronic trauma in adulthood or childhood, soul can become trapped in an intimate, chronic state of violation. “As much as he or she wants to change, as hard as he or she tries to improve life or relationships, something more powerful than the ego continually undermines progress and destroys hope” (Kalsched, 1996, p. 5). Such a state carries with it a dark numinosity, an affectively charged experience of being impacted by an awesome force beyond the grasp of the ego. For a counterbalancing energy to help us spring the trap of the malevolent numinous, we are then in need of luminous psychic help via depth encounters with intimate, sacramental soulful happenings.

Sarah, a 36-year-old woman on the verge of divorce, self-esteem negligible, related a dream in which she discovered a tarnished silver coin in the midst of a rubbish heap. “I hadn’t seen it there before. All I saw was the mess, junk, nothing of any value. And then I saw the coin.” When I responded that she had been given a gift—a sense of value, she replied, “and hope.” As she explored the value and hope she found in her discovery of the archetypal silver coin, a palpable silence entered the room. I sensed within the psychotherapeutic space the presence of the god of surprises and hope, Hermes, the trickster god who inhabits the realm of the invisible and appears unexpectedly at times of trauma and threatened disintegration.

Clinically, I regularly witness such emergence of numinous movements of energy mediated in the symbol and presence of Hermes, the archetype of transitions, the messenger between the conscious world and the realm of the unconscious, he whom Walter F. Otto (1979) termed “the friendliest of gods” (p. 104). Inevitably, this spiritual messenger brings with him not only passageway across the turbulent lake of psychological crisis but also inspiration for the journey. This influx of psychic energy balances his pre-therapy disintegrative antics that have propelled many a patient prior to treatment to claim that they feared their life was falling apart or that they were losing their mind. Thus, Hermes, archetype of hope, generates spiritual healing potential for the traumatized soul terrorized by the danger of disintegration.

Trauma, Disintegration, Death

Psychopomp of both the devilish and divine, the destructive and creative, Hermes enacts psychic realities of trauma, disintegration (dying) and death, symbolically in dreams and within crisis situations in daily life. Here, as Eigen (1998) noted, the psyche becomes what he refers to as a “catastrophe machine” (p. 99). Buried trauma is reenacted via constant crises.

Hermes calls us to look within, toward the meaning of the insufferable. Within sleep he disables rigid defenses by conjuring nightmares related to that which has been secreted away. Jung (1977) wrote, “You meet the ‘dragon,’ the chthonic spirit, the ‘devil’ or, as the alchemists called it, the ‘blackness,’ the nigredo, and this encounter produces suffering” (p. 228f).

Elsewhere Jung (1954) suggested, “Behind a neurosis there is so often concealed all the natural and necessary suffering the patient has been unwilling to bear” (p. 81). Suffering may then beget a sacred urge to venture into enigmatic waters long navigated by seers, sages, and gods and goddesses of the netherworld. It is as though we intuitively know that we are meant to travel into these trauma laden dark regions of the soul, these psychic birth canals in which resistance to pain and disintegration compete with yearning for wholeness and re-membering what has been split-off.

Repeatedly, due to the hermetic catastrophe machine of the psyche, we are offered the chance to be psychologically borne, psychically reincarnated, after having suffered enormous and often repeated pain and trauma. The Spandakarika (2004) or “Song of the Sacred Tremor,” a classic text of Kashmiri Shaivism, noted,

Free of desire and attachment of extreme (views),
Like a single light dispelling the darkness,
You realize at once the teaching of Sutra, Tantra
And all other scriptures. . . .
Supreme fruition is without hope and fear….
Supreme fruition is beyond all extremes. (pp. 58, 59)

In suffering the tension of opposites between the potential for wholeness, experienced as hope, and the fear of disintegration, felt as despair, the Jamesian emphasis on hope and luminosity, and Jungian insights into the nature of the unconscious and the archetypal Self converge as guides for the descent into depths of trauma. Trauma is held and processed therapeutically, guided and illuminated by the light of hope shone upon darkness. When the therapist holds the presence of both hope and despair, the therapeutic relationship enters into the realm Ogden (2005) referred to as “the unconscious third” (p. 6), emerging from what Jung (1971) described as the transcendent function:

When there is full parity of the opposites, attested by the ego’s absolute participation in both, this necessarily leads to a suspension of the will, for the will can no longer operate when every motive has an equally strong countermotive. . . The tension of opposites produces a new, uniting function that transcends them. This function arises quite naturally from the regression of libido caused by the blockage. (p. 479)

In the blockage created between hope for wholeness that beckons movement toward integration, and hopelessness that warns of disintegration, psychic energy regresses to archetypal layers of the unconscious. There it encounters Hermes in his transformative role. He pivots within the balance between disintegration and hope engendered and nourished by a containing and empathic therapy relationship.

In some cases, severe trauma may precipitate death for facets of self, life coming to an end for realms of psychic experience. Winnicott (1960) took this a step further and wrote of suicide as the destruction of the total self in order to prohibit the annihilation of the true self. Yet, trauma may also birth a hope-laden emotional reaching out, a yielding to an adaptive and transformative attitude that circumvents both unnecessary loss, death of facets of self experience, and literal suicide. Trauma then potentiates an end and a beginning, life transforming itself, consciousness in the process of transmutation.

Metamorphosis of such lasting value is inevitably fraught with swirling spirits dancing to their own numinous rhythms that leave us stunned, frightened of what we are undergoing and, most unsettling, terrified of what has become of us. Lost within its labyrinthine plight, caught in a maelstrom of deep mind, a sojourn in and through a shadowy and dismal underworld emerges for the sufferer of trauma. Ghosts and demons aplenty, in the form of repressed, destructive parental introjects (harmful experiences with parents absorbed during childhood) and archetypal energies run amuck, inflict their hauntings and tauntings. Bion (1962) referred to “the greedy vagina-like ‘breast’ that strips of its goodness all that the infant receives” (p. 115), a malevolent intrapsychic force wreaking wanton damage for the pre-oedipally traumatized psyche. Thus, the sufferer of trauma can feel adrift amidst toxic introjects from the personal unconscious and in the tumultuous waters of the psychic netherworld where gods and goddesses for centuries have had their way with humankind without caring a whit for what the particular human being has to think or say about the matter.

Depth healing ushers the soul through and beyond the netherworld of swirling archetypal opposites into a realm that is both light and dark. Within this psychic conundrum, hope provides a visceral sense of meaning for ostensibly insufferable pain. Articulating the vital role of his encounter with Hermes, one patient, a survivor of childhood abuse six years into twice weekly depth therapy, remarked, “If it wouldn’t have been for the dream image when I began my work—the man who came on the boat over the dark lake and offered me passage—I may not have made it. I would have given into despair. Years later I realized that there is no making it, getting over it, once and for all; but, I am on the way, my own way. This is enough for me.” Hermes, with the deftness of trickster protector and guide, morphed life’s desperate situation into watchful passage over treacherous psychic waters of crisis and trauma.

Hermes, Hope, and the Story

When suffering serious psychic damage, the soul is in need of the caring and solace of Hermes, a seasoned guide who, having been humanized within the therapeutic container, befriends us, touching us again with his caduceus and its serpent of hope. As Kalsched (1996) wrote, “In healthy psychological development, everything depends upon a gradual humanization and integration of the archetypal opposites inherent in the Self” (p. 19). As therapist and patient hold the tension of hope and despair, consciously engaging the traumatized self and its defenses, Hermes is no longer reliant on nightmare awakenings and is free to be encountered more humanely. The trickster god morphs from an underworld demon terrorizing unconscious souls with nightmares, waking hypervigilance, and free floating anxieties into one who, once acknowledged and entered into relationship with, assists us along the journey, enters the storm-tossed boat, assuring us that this way has been traveled before, and that there is—as we call it in our plainest and most succinct language—hope.

Rafael Lopez-Pedraza (1989) noted,

Psychic movement is essential to a hermetic psychotherapy. . . . psychotherapy as devoted to moving, hermetically, that part of the psyche that has been paralyzed by the person’s history or experience. . . . Now this is a view of psychotherapy in which Hermes, as the archetype of the unconscious, is the guide; most of the time, the only guide. (p. 7)

As an archetypal motif, Hermes symbolizes the structural and transpersonal aspect of the human psyche that travels between unconscious and conscious aspects of Self. Breaking ego boundaries in carrying nightmarish images to the dreamer, Hermes brings us an encounter with the dark numinous —the presence of autonomous, invisible forces within the Self determined to disturb the ego’s denial and paralysis. As a boundary-crossing guide who relates us to the Self as the totality of the psyche, Hermes is able to provide us with what we need most, at the time we are most in need.

William James (2006) referred to this crisis of need as calling for “possibilities that take our breath away, of another kind of happiness and power, based on giving up our own will and letting something higher work for us” (p. 138). Here, we encounter in Hermes, as depicted in the dream image of the boatman crossing troubled waters, a luminous, hopeful psychic presence. Trauma becomes not only a state of terrible privation and anguish but also one in which the resources of the transpersonal Self may emerge.

Unfortunately, not all who seek find that which they sought. A woman, a middle-aged educator, entered therapy with me for “healing from horrid nightmares” and intrusive daytime memories of early childhood sexual abuse. She reported feeling anxious and troubled as though she were on the brink of death, though she was not suicidal. Years of psychological flight, hypomanic escape from genuine feeling ushered in by Hermes, had left her at death’s door psychologically. Diagnosed as suffering from a borderline personality disorder with bipolar features, her symptoms were a portent, a warning, of impending psychic death; Hermes appearing as disease, echoing Jung’s (1968) assertion that having rejected the gods, the “gods have become our diseases” (p. 37).

During her first session she stated, “I know I’m dying inside and I want help and healing.” I remarked “There are no guarantees, but if we work steadfastly I feel that you may be able to find the healing you are seeking.” Ten weeks later she fled from therapeutic care. Her final words were, “To stay any longer would mean going where I do not want to go. I guess you can say I want relief, but not healing, because that would mean going into the basement, the place of the nightmares, and I refuse. I simply refuse!” This woman was painfully honest, her decision, although tragic to hear, was one that I respected since no one should enter into the “basement, the place of the nightmares” unless they are willing to see into darkness and put the heretofore unspeakable into words.

Jung (1963) stated,

In many cases in psychiatry the patient who comes to us has a story that is not told, and which as a rule no one knows of. To my mind, therapy only really begins after the investigation of that wholly personal story. It is the patient’s secret, the rock against which he is shattered. (p. 117)

Jung (1967) further elucidated what it is that lends hope to a hopeless situation, “The patient’s libido fastens on the person of the analyst in the form of expectation, hope, interest, friendship, and love” (p. 286). Hermes enters within the context of hope fastened to the person of the therapist so that secreted away trauma may be allowed to gradually weave a story of horror and dreaded disintegration. On this journey through the rocky waters of the unconscious, the patient is held safe in the therapeutic vessel piloted by Hermes.

The psychological stage is set for the emergence of historical characters, psychological introjects, and transcendent energies emerging from the wellspring of the personal and collective unconscious. What has been stored can then be released and integrated as therapist and patient hear and endure the telling of that which is often a life-shattering story. If this does not take place, due to either bolting by the patient or the therapist’s inability to sufficiently contain and process the affect, then toxic introjects and archetypes gone awry return to unconscious realms. Hermes reverts to an archetypally aggressive energy that subverts one’s relational and creative life.

People complain of losing their minds, their life falling apart, everything going to hell, symptoms of a flailing psyche. The woman who fled from her depths ended up divorcing her third husband only to finally disintegrate into a life of chronic alcoholism. Traumatic complexes, left untreated, can become an increasingly destructive, diabolical force, introjects and archetypal energies playing out their malignancy in worsening life dramas.

Harry Guntrip (1969) poignantly wrote concerning both the need and resistance of the patient to the process of healing trauma, “He comes to fear and hate his own weakness and neediness; and now he faces the task of growing up with an intolerance of his immaturity” (p. 187). When patients hate the telling of their story and resist traversing into therapeutic deep waters, the therapist helps hold the relationship steady so the energy of Hermes—ongoing hopefulness and potential for wholeness in the face of despair and disintegration—remains present and nourished. In the midst of intimately knowing trauma, the therapist empathically sits with the patient during this time of letting go into what is often an abyss of despair. It is in the act of letting go into realms of trust gone bad and consequent madness that the therapeutic relationship, based on caring and consistent presence, rows across the troubled waters of the deep unconscious mind.

Numinous Descent and the Great Reservoir

Luis, a middle-aged Hispanic man suffering from an adolescence of chronic physical and sexual abuse at the hands of a priest stated, “Even now, thirty years later, the part of me that felt and witnessed my abuse is dead. He is a teenager lying in an open coffin. I mourn him. I will always mourn him. He is a part of me, and he is dead.” Silence enveloped the consultation office as Luis uttered these words. In my mind’s eye, I too saw the boy in the coffin, and wept inwardly.

Luis continued in depth therapy for many years. During this time he witnessed the emergence of facets of his personality that had not died but had gone into hiding. These facets of self were afraid that the abuser would once again strike, afraid that no one would understand just as his tightly webbed Hispanic family refused to comprehend that trauma had been inflicted by one who represented God and therefore “could do no wrong.”

The family and the Church stated that it was Luis who had done the unforgivable by suggesting and speaking that wrong had been done to him and done to him by one who could do no wrong. God himself was implicated and Luis stood no chance of matching a fragile sense of self against such an omnipotent and pervasive societal and cultural denial. In his words, “I was once again fucked.” The declaration suggested that he was discovering his voice, an enigmatic facet of a sequestered away self.

After seven years of working together multiple times per week, Luis confided that he feared I would tire of him, thinking that he was not progressing quickly enough. That night he dreamt of himself at the bottom of a ladder that was positioned against an adobe hut, a Native American kiva. Luis was a native New Mexican mestizo, a mixed blood of Mexican, Indian, and distant European ancestry. In the dream, as he made his way up each rung of the ladder, he looked up and noticed a man standing at the top, near the entrance of the kiva, a Hermetic place of transition. The man told Luis that he had been there for the past seven years and that it was within the confines of the kiva that he would see that which seven years of travail had produced.

As Luis made his descent past the guardian to the entrance of the kiva, down and into the sacred realm, he saw a garden in which tender, young plants were peeking through the ground. He awoke and knew he must bring this dream into therapy. We processed this dream and understood it to mean that the recesses of his personality were coming to life, and required therapeutic care as a gardener would tend a garden, fertilizing, watering, and sheltering. “This is what we do together,” he earnestly shared. The emphasis was on together—the palpable knowing of a therapeutic relationship that opened the way for “the man who was standing at the entrance to the kiva.” Without a doubt, the trickster god, Hermes, remained within the invisible realm of spirits and then made his presence known when encouragement was most needed.

William James (2006) explicated that there is:

a great reservoir in which the memories of earth’s inhabitants are pooled and preserved, and from which, when the threshold lowers or the valve opens, information ordinarily shut out leaks into the mind of exceptional individuals among us. (p. 136)

Luis was such an exceptional individual, one who chose to make the descent into trauma with the harbinger of hope, Hermes, as overseer. As Kerényi (1976) observed regarding Hermes,

He is most likely the same dark depth of being from which we all originate. Perhaps for this reason Hermes can so convincingly hover before us, lead us on our way, show us golden treasures in everyone through the split-second timing, which is the spirit of finding and thieving—all of this because he creates his reality out of us, or more properly through us, just as one fetches water not so much out of a well as through the well from the much deeper regions of the earth. (p. 12)

Via the mystic Jamesian and Jungian perspectives, we are opened to numinous realms that are ordinarily shut out from the conscious mind. In the reality of those suffering from trauma, the awe inspiring pools of archetypal phenomenon, the numinous messenger of hope, Hermes, the tender of the Kiva, invisible trickster god, appears when needed. For souls afflicted by traumatic suffering, Hermes proffers both the dread of disintegration and hope for transformation.




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Paul DeBlassie III, Ph.D., is a clinical depth psychologist and writer living and practicing in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is a member of the Depth Psychology Alliance, the International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, and the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociative Disorders. His latest book, The Unholy (Sunstone Press), dramatizes the inner workings of trauma within the dark side of religion.



One comment

  1. Really amazing article…so much here I will have to read it several more times. The story of the archetypal silver coin brought me to tears. I have been working with my dreams for a number of years and have received the visible signs of inward grace, the sacrament, through many dream moments. Dreams offer such a wonderful opportunity to discover possibility, potential, hope. They bring the truly hard stuff relating to trauma too.

    My partner and I are working with a couple who do a form of couples therapy using dreams. Today I really could see through the embodiment of my partner’s dream how I have this diabolical self care system that you describe. It is painful to feel how quickly it boomerangs onto me. I have done much work on this and have come to realize that the suffering is in the avoidance of the pain that is wrapped up in trauma.

    The workings of nihilism or self hate is how the circuit remains closed. The self care defensiveness goes out in the form of projection/reaction and then it comes home to roost in the form of hopelessness.

    It is gyroscopic defense mechanism which requires the chaos of alchemy to knock it askew and the introduction of a moment of grace to break the inertia. The axis around which the gyroscopic action oscillates is the trauma. There is so much movement that it’s hard to understand that you are actually standing still.

    Anyway…I appreciate the article and will be digesting it slowly.

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