Cut loose from the earth’s soul, they insisted on purchase of its soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable. It was their destiny to chew up the world and spit out a horribleness that would destroy all primary peoples. – Toni Morrison
I have lived on the lip of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens. I’ve been knocking from the inside. – Rumi
Warning: I’ll be roaming shamelessly between psychology, history, sociology, religion, ritual and poetry to try and grasp this enormous and critical issue, which I address in much greater depth in my book, Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence. To me, the only framework that can encompass it all is mythology, and our guide must be the mad god himself, Dionysus, whose presence outside the walls serves to mirror the madness inside. And I’ll make some broad, generalized statements. If they provoke you, then I’m doing my job.
We exist within a broad framework of stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. It encompasses the entirety of modern culture, indeed, all of Western history. Despite much evidence to the contrary, we still choose to think of ourselves as proactive citizens, making rational choices to further our ability to achieve happiness. Seen, however, from the perspectives of the Earth’s remaining tribal cultures, almost all modern people are so alienated from the natural world, from our ancestral roots, from our bodies and emotions, from our “indigenous souls,” from what makes us essentially human, as to be helpless against, indeed complicit in the imminent destruction of that same natural world. The situation is crazy-making, and all of us who are part of it are mad as hatters.
From those perspectives, such as the African Dagara people (in the writings of Malidoma Some´), or the Guatemalan Tzutzil Maya people, (in the writings of Martín Prechtel), we all come into the world with great expectations. We expect to be welcomed by a loving community that lives within a mythically alive universe, that will recognize our uniqueness and the gifts we bring it and will later encourage the expression of those gifts in initiation rituals. We expect to learn to know who we are and why we are here. In the absence of such full welcoming and the lack of a mythic container, we – all modern people – stagger through life with the constant anxiety of not being comfortable in our bodies or in the thin identities we have constructed. We simply don’t know who we are.
I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections. And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.
I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self
and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance
long, difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake
which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.
– D.H. Lawrence, “Healing”
So we fill the holes in our souls with grand meta-narratives, stories of who we think we are, stories that society, rather than recognizing something in us, determines for us. These “isms” are what Caroline Casey calls the “toxic mimics” of authentic identity: fundamentalism, nationalism, alcoholism, racism, consumerism, narcissism, workaholism, conspiracism, celebrity worship and the envy that merges into the hatred of others who appear to be comfortable in their own bodies.
As the environmentalist Paul Shepard wrote,
The grief and sense of loss that we often attribute to a failure in our personality is actually an emptiness where a beautiful and strange otherness should have been encountered.
It was clear to him in 1992 – long before Trump – that the American national psyche has been uniquely unstable, uniquely anxious about identity and uniquely willing to use violence to re-affirm that identity. The life-long, unconscious, daily struggle to convince ourselves that we are essentially good, well-intentioned, heroic, original, active, deserving, achieving, forward-thinking, inclusive, helpful and compassionate – while simultaneously enduring work and schools that we hate amid the rat race of competitive lifestyles, demonizing people of color, poisoning our bodies, passively supporting an empire of death, and, yes, sacrificing our own children – all this, so as to hold to a state of innocence, has been making us crazy for a very long time.
Shepard also wrote that we all experience an “epidemic of the psychopathic mutilation of ontogeny.” In simple terms, we don’t grow up the way nature intended anymore. Lacking initiation into true adulthood, we are, by indigenous standards, children.
Within those same daily and hourly time spans, we have been regularly consuming, and teaching, expectations of progress, of infinite growth in both self-awareness and financial success, despite Edward Abbey’s 1991 insight, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
Our three-hundred-year mythology of the “self-made man” has always contained a dark shadow. Doing research for my book prior to 2010, I learned that six out of seven of us, regardless of our financial status, believe that people fail because of their own shortcomings, not because of social conditions. This is more than a commentary on capitalism; it’s as concise a statement of the myth of American innocence as any other I could find or invent, and a necessary way of understanding madness.
In this story, we are subjected to three relentless and simultaneous messages:
1 – As Americans, we are free, capable, willing – and expected – to act as individuals to achieve our highest dreams, and in the process, to at least look cheerful.
2 – Because so few of us can even identify those dreams, let alone achieve them, we learn that failure is no one’s fault but our own, that unhappiness is an indication of our own deeply flawed natures, not of social conditions.
3 – Paradoxically, other people with little money, privilege or opportunity cause our problems. And, always, “the threat has never been greater than right now.”
Our indigenous souls enter the world expecting to be held in a container of myth, ritual and community. Instead, we encounter the alienating nature of capitalism. It is our unquestioned assumptions about this quite unnatural way of living that give it its own mythic quality. George Monbiot describes neo-liberalism (another way of saying “capitalism”):
Imagine if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of communism. The ideology that dominates our lives has, for most of us, no name…Its anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power. It has played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises…But we respond to these crises as if they emerge in isolation, apparently unaware that they have all been either catalyzed or exacerbated by the same coherent philosophy; a philosophy that has – or had – a name. What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly? So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognize it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law…
This ideology (I call it a mythic narrative), writes Rod Tweedy, is
…rooted in a fundamentally flawed, naive, and old-fashioned seventeenth-century model of who we are – it tries to make us think that we’re isolated, autonomous, disengaged, competitive, decontextualized – an ultimately rather ruthless and dissociated entity. The harm that this view of the self has done to us, and our children, is incalculable.
It really is more than enough to drive you crazy, and very, very angry. For background context, here are some other essays of mine that deal with these issues:
– Dionysus Looks at Mental Illness
– The Con Man: An American Archetype
– The Innocent American is The Violent American
– The Mythic Sources of White Rage
– What if We Allowed that to Happen?
Before we venture into deeper analysis, let’s begin with some statistics, almost all of which come from studies done before Trump, some of them even before the economic crash of 2008:
– Guns kill 40,000 Americans per year, over 100 per day.
– There are 20,000 homicides and 50,000 suicides (28,000 by guns) annually.
– Suicide is more prevalent than homicide, and current suicide rates are the highest since World War II.
– Police kill 1,100 Americans per year, mostly people of color.
– For the past several years there have been mass shootings (defined as four or more people shot in one incident) nine out of every 10 days.
– American adults own 260 million legal and 25 million illegal firearms.
– A quarter of Americans believe that “it is acceptable to use violence to get what we want,” while a third would support nuclear war on North Korea, even if we killed a million people.
– By age eighteen, an American will have seen 18,000 virtual murders on electronic devices.
– One in five adults experiences some form of mental illness each year; 7% have at least one major depressive episode; 18% experience anxiety disorders; and 20 million experience substance use disorders.
– At some point in their lives, 46% of Americans meet the criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association for at least one mental illness.
– A third of college students seek treatment for mental health problems.
– 1 in 5 children have been diagnosed with a mental health problem.
– One in six American men and one in four women take antidepressants or other psychiatric drugs. The highest use of anti-depressants is in the most religious states.
– In 2010, one in six U.S. armed service members were taking at least one psychiatric drug.
– Over 8 million American children up to age 17 take psychiatric drugs, including over a million under six years old and 275,000 toddlers under one year. Eleven percent of them have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and are drugged accordingly, as opposed to 0.5% in France.
– Sales of psychiatric drugs in the U.S. exceeded $70 billion in 2010.
– American doctors are five times more likely than British doctors to prescribe antidepressants to minors.
– 88,000 Americans suffer alcohol-related deaths each year.
– 60 to 70,000 die yearly of opioid overdoses, 130 per day, over 400,000 since 1999, over half of them from prescription medications. This represents 70% of all drug overdose deaths.
– In 2018, reflecting this epidemic, U.S. Life expectancy dropped for the third year in a row.
– A year after Trump took office, 40% of Americans claimed to feel more anxious than they had a year before.
– 69% of the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) task force members admit having ties to the pharmaceutical industry.
In Part Two, we’ll start to look at the issues behind these statistics.
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Barry, here is more evidence from a neuroscience perspective: western culture has obsessed on a narrow focus, competitive worldview. Whereas indigenous cultures see holistically, relationally. McGilchrist in this video describes some of the brain correlates of these two forms of attention. We need BOTH, but have exiled the wisdom source within. https://www.ted.com/talks/iain_mcgilchrist_the_divided_brain
I agree we are at a critical juncture. And find some encouragement in wide range of grounded spiritual perspectives that are surfacing. http://www.wisdom2summit.com/
Thanks, Bill. How is life in Shasta?
Barry, thanks. It’s been a good summer here. Enjoying all the proximity to various nature areas. Still doing some technical consulting with internet contacts. You’ve got a good situation there in the East Bay, much cultural diversity. Cheers,
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