Be joyful even though you’ve considered all the facts. – Wendell Berry
I’m trying to get to the part where we talk about reframing this business of fear and denial, but I need to mention two themes first:
1 – This time of year will (or should) propel us directly into the absolute core of the issue: Don’t be scared! The roots of Halloween are in the profound depths of Old Europe – Samhain and All Soul’s Day. But for most Americans, it is a festival of innocent consumption, with its ubiquitous theme parks and annual spending of $5 billion.
Or perhaps we should speak of of consuming innocence. Every year, millions of children encounter – are victimized by – further socialization into the mad, schizogenic double bind that utterly discounts their own emotional intelligence. Boo! Scared you, didn’t we? Well, don’t worry, it’s only make believe! Once again, they enter the space where death reigns triumphant but no one ever has to grieve.
Perhaps adults enjoy the emotional release of horror films, but this is child abuse on a massive scale. Boo! (Still, though I may be a curmudgeon, I’m no fool — I’ll be walking with my granddaughters in the Halloween parade tomorrow.)
2 – As I wrote previously, in the midst of massive denial about a collapsing environment and the real sources of terrorism, Americans fret about issues that the media choose to present. You want real fear? As my mother used to say, I’ll give you something to cry about! Apparently, the U.S. “security” establishment has no fear of nuclear war, because they believe that they can win one.
Both our American myth and our American identity are constructed from equal parts fear and denial. So what do we do about it? How do we rise above it? Stop. Go back. Notice what you took from that question. Consider that “rising above it” is often a euphemism for denying that the problem even exists.
Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” May it be so. Bertolt Brecht, however, began a poem with, “He who laughs has not yet heard the terrible tidings.” He insisted that we break through the walls of denial, to comprehend how dreadful our plight actually is, to feel how much we have lost. Yet pessimism can create its own reality. Expecting the worst, we are very likely to find it; then hope can turn into despair. Or we can fall into a polarizing anger that replicates conventional demonization of the Other. Brecht knew this, too. In the same poem, he wrote:
Even the hatred of squalor
Makes the brow grow stern.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow harsh.
Optimistic denial or pessimistic realism – the two poles of the dilemma cry out for a third position. The creative imagination allows us to both acknowledge the truth and also to picture what we want to regain. Perhaps, as Theodore Roethke wrote, it is only “in a dark time” that the eye begins to see with a new kind of innocence
And what about our day-to-day emotional rollercoaster? Unfortunately for many, to wake up from our dream of innocence is to fall back upon the other side of the simple polarity of “reality/unreality,” to fall into despair and hopelessness.
We constantly find ourselves in double binds. But we can also imagine positive double binds, such as the koan in Zen Buddhism. Koans are those crazy-making questions (What is the sound of one hand clapping?) designed to pull us out of our rational minds. They throw us into paradox, into liminal, transitional space – which is exactly where we are now as a nation.
But this is the only space where we can reframe a critical aspect of the American myth (Anything is possible), where anything – such as a sustainable world – really is possible. And this is one of those rare moments in world history when dominant values are in a wild state of transition that actually mirrors the initiatory liminality experienced – or longed for – by adolescents everywhere.
Myths grab us for a reason. It’s not simply that they are untrue, that we have bought a lie. They describe us, both in our shadowy reality as well as in our potential. They are, for better and for worse, deep in our bones.
And the solution is not to simply dis-believe, to replace one superficial level of identity with another. The way out is to go deeper in, to dwell at length in the possibilities of a new imagination that recasts our national and personal stories, to re-tell them in terms of both the real and the possible. The great playwright Sophocles said that he portrayed people as they ought to be, while Euripides showed them as they actually were. We need them both, the imaginative and the tragic, with equal weight.
Joseph Campbell wrote, “The life of mythology springs from the metaphoric vigor of its symbols, which bring together and reconcile two contraries into a greater whole.” For me the challenge is to live with those contraries, to hold the tension of the opposites, to invite the mystery to reveal itself, to remember the beauty of the world not in spite of its daily horrors, but equally together, because together they describe its – and our – fullness.
We need to welcome back the indigenous imagination with more of two things: poetry and ritual. The old knowledge has never completely left us, but the spirits need to know that we are interested. Ritual clarifies our intentions. It conjures (“with the law”), invoking aid from the other world, and invites us into unpredictable, chaotic, creative space, into communitas. Here is where new images, insights and metaphors are born, just as adults are born in initiation. Liminality, wrote Victor Turner, is “pure potency, where anything can happen.”
Perhaps only what the Greeks called “ritual madness” can keep us from being so freaking crazy. Then, says Martin Prechtel, grief becomes a form of praise. This year our annual Day of the Dead grief ritual will be on Saturday, November 5th.
Poet Dianne Di Prima writes, “The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.” Another poet, Frances Ponge, says that genuine hope lies in “…a poetry through which the world so invades the spirit of man that he becomes almost speechless and later reinvents a language.” We are required to collapse so deeply into the mournful realization of how much we have lost that we become speechless. Only from that position can new forms of speech arise to break the spell of our crazy amnesia. Here are some poems that describe the whole picture:
Good and bad are in my heart,
But I cannot tell to you
— For they never are apart —
Which is better of the two.
I am this! I am the other!
And the devil is my brother!
But my father He is God!
And my mother is the Sod!
I am safe enough, you see,
Owing to my pedigree.
So I shelter love and hate
Like twin brothers in a nest;
Lest I find, when it’s too late,
That the other was the best.
— James Stevens
Call Me by My True Names
Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile, learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower, to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond, and I am also the grass snake who,
approaching in silence, feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open, the door of compassion.
— Tich Nhat Hanh
Everything is beautiful and I am so sad.
This is how the heart makes a duet of wonder and grief.
The light spraying through the lace of the fern
is as delicate as the fibers of memory forming their web
around the knot in my throat.
The breeze makes the birds move from branch to branch
as this ache makes me look for those I’ve lost in the next room,
in the next song, in the laugh of the next stranger.
In the very center, under it all,
what we have that no one can take away
and all that we’ve lost face each other.
It is there that I’m adrift,
feeling punctured by a holiness that exists inside everything.
I am so sad and everything is beautiful.
— Mark Nepo
A Brief For The Defense
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere.
If babies are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not be made so fine.
The Bengal tiger would not be fashioned so miraculously well.
The poor women at the fountain are laughing together
Between the suffering they have known and the awfulness in their future,
Smiling and laughing while somebody in the village is very sick.
There is laughter every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
And the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
We lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight.
We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment.
We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.
To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down, we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship anchored late at night in the tiny port
Looking over to the sleeping island:
The waterfront is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat comes slowly out and then goes back
Is truly worth all the years of sorrow that are to come.
— Jack Gilbert