Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them. – Albert Einstein
What is now proved was once imagined. – William Blake
The situation is so dire that we can’t afford the luxury of realism. – Caroline Casey
My book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence first appeared in 2010. Since then I’ve taught several college-level courses, and I’ve done dozens of book talks and radio interviews. The two most common questions that people ask me – and usually quite early in the discussion – are, what will the new myths be? and when and how will we create them?
These terribly important questions imply the common understanding that the stories we have been telling ourselves about ourselves no longer feed us, no longer provide us with a sense of identity or meaning in this rapidly changing world. The more privileged among us may understand this on an abstract level. But younger, feminist, non-white and non-gender conforming people speak of how we all need to be “woke” to the urgency of our condition and how all our significant issues are related to each other. Often, if I discuss my book or simply mention “American innocence,” they respond with a knowing interest. They get it.
But those same questions – when, how – also carry with them a characteristic American impatience with “being” in favor of “doing.” We have always preferred to think of ourselves as practical, “can-do” people who value the heights and achievements of spirit over the depths and laments of soul. We’d rather act than think things out fully, or as poet Greg Kimura wrote, to “…sit with the pain in your heart.”
The impulse to leap quickly toward solutions, to “fix” things, to “heal” our wounds, or even to address the nation’s historic crimes may also reveal something else: an unwillingness to take enough time to truly acknowledge the suffering in our midst, the diminishment of our imagination, the darkness that surrounds us, the massive grief that lies just below the surface of our “have a nice day” greetings and New Age affirmations.
So I suggest: Stop. Slow down. Consider (“to be with the stars”) just how rough our predicament really is; sit quietly, listen to the soul’s lament. Be, in Theodore Roethke’s words, “…a lord of nature weeping to a tree.” Otherwise, how different are we from Trump supporters who, correctly perceiving that their world of white, male supremacy is collapsing all around them, can only respond by trying to fix their condition and make America great again?
When we can actually feel the grief of what we have lost, it becomes clear that long-term sustainability requires changes in consciousness as fundamental as those that occurred in the long transition from the indigenous world to the modern. This is both bad news and good. Such changes took millennia in the First World to be completed, but only a few generations in the colonized Third World. Perhaps these more recent transitions can be altered in a relatively short time. The challenge is for Americans to take the initiative and create a sustainable world in this generation, before two billion Chinese and Indians become as hopelessly addicted to materialism as we are. We cannot ask the Third World to control its growth if we will not reverse ours.
Perhaps the proper response to a great ending – of a myth, of hopes for the future, of a national dream, of the deaths of species, of the collapse of the environment – is to enter into rituals of mourning, even as we continue to agitate for renewal. Then, new language may arise, and new visions may come not from us but through us. The paradox grows deeper when we consider Wendell Berry’s words: “Be joyful even though you’ve considered all the facts.” The King – or the Wicked Witch – is dead. Long live the new story, if we can figure out what it is.
But myths – the pre-modern, pre-patriarchal narratives that provided meaning to our ancient ancestors – grew out of the indigenous Earth and the indigenous Soul. These stories were all inconceivably old, and no one person created them. They existed as the collective dreams of entire societies long before people like Homer first wrote them down.
Still, we have to confront the questions that began this essay, and here is our paradox. We desperately need new stories, yet, as Joseph Campbell said, we can’t predict what the new myths will be any more than we can know what we’ll dream tonight.
We can imagine, however, what the new myths won’t be. They won’t express what Jeremy Lent has termed our modern metaphors that have helped to form our collective reality: nature as a machine, dominion over nature, or God as the stern, divine lawgiver. They won’t be local or tribal.
If we survive, our stories will not fit into any of the three major patterns that crushed the older stories and have dominated our thinking for centuries since. First, they will not be stories of original sin, patriarchy, dualism, monotheism, sacrifice of the children, disconnection from the Earth, or any other simplistic, all-purpose fundamentalism. Secondly, they will not consist of the movement of dead matter from the Big Bang through billions of arbitrary combinations of elements into a life that lacks any sense of purpose. And they will not express the third alternative, the cynical view that “it’s always been like this, it’s human nature.” So it follows that they will reject capitalism’s origin myths of individualism, ruthless competition and social Darwinism.
Campbell did predict that the only myths worth talking about would have to express change, the metamorphoses of the Earth and all living beings. They would construct a mesocosm that connects all individuals to each other and to the universal macrocosm of spirit, which will be living, interdependent Nature. We can take this idea as a jumping-off point and imagine that they would characterize human beings more through our relations with others and less as separate entities. They would speak of fluid boundaries rather than the rigid walls of the ego, the corporation or the nation-state. They would emphasize diversity rather than uniformity. Power would necessarily exist in these stories, but it would bring people together and actualize their essential gifts, rather than create hierarchies of domination. The macrocosm would exist in dynamic tension with a decentralized sense of place.
Like the Hindu deities, the actors in the new myths will be aware of existing within a story. They will ask not for belief, but to be entertained. Knowing their own darkness, they will be motivated not by self-restraint, but by what they love. Aesthetics – knowing something because we love it – will become important once again. “Aesthetic passion restrains war,” writes James Hillman in A Terrible Love of War.
Heroes will, once again, emerge from community, find a blessing in the darkness and return with it, rather than restoring innocence to Eden and disappearing into the sunset. Our concepts of gender will change when storytellers teach that the male and female principles exist in everyone in varying degrees. Stories will still contain conflict, but listeners will know that it reflects the inner dynamics of the psyche. Tellers will learn that the most important stories will be best told in certain places, at certain times, to certain people.
It’s already happening. For fifty years, images of the Whole Earth have begun to focus this story for us. Scientific ideas such as the Gaia Hypothesis suggest that the planet’s natural systems reveal long-term self-regulation, like “the behavior of a single organism, even a living creature,” as biologist James Lovelock writes.
Another metaphor and set of images, the Web of Life, describes the interconnectedness of any living ecosystem or social grouping. When one strand is broken, the web starts to unravel. What affects one part of an ecosystem affects the whole in some way. Such thinking brings us back to old notions such as the Ubuntu philosophy of Southern Africa – “I am because we are” – or the anima mundi – the soul of the world – which speaks to us through the unconscious images of dreams and art.
Sometimes healing comes through memory, in the creative re-framing of one’s story. The ancient Greeks told of how memory herself, Mnemosyne, mated with Zeus and birthed the Muses, those nine goddesses who reverse the work of Father Time, Kronos, the god who eats his children.