Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” – James Baldwin
You cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. – Audre Lorde
If our religion is based on salvation, our chief emotions will be fear and trembling. If our religion is based on wonder, our chief emotion will be gratitude. – C.G. Jung
Die before you die. – Rumi
En-lakesh (You are the other me) – Mayan Indian chant
There are no others. – Ramana Maharshi
We are now in a 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 our values are in a wild state of transition that actually mirrors the initiatory liminality experienced – or longed for – by adolescents everywhere.
And what about our day-to-day emotional rollercoaster? Unfortunately for many, to wake up from our dream of innocence and separation is to fall back upon the other side of the simple polarity of “reality/unreality,” to fall into despair and hopelessness (“despair” is literally the opposite of the French word for “hope,” espoir).
The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth. ― Niels Bohr
Optimistic denial or pessimistic realism? Such opposites live in a world of twos. Myths live in a world of threes, where clashing truths may propel us into a new awareness. Only 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. Or Marc Nepo:
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.
This post-modern world constantly throws us into double binds. But we can also imagine positive double binds, such as the koan in Zen Buddhism. Koans are deliberately 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 need to be, aware that the old stories are dead, yet with no consensus about new ones.
Myths grab us for a reason. It’s not simply that they are untrue, that we have bought a lie. They describe us, in both our shadowy reality and in our potential. They are, for better and for worse, deep in our bones.
Joseph Campbell spoke of participating joyfully in the joys and sorrows of the world. To look more deeply into joys and sorrows, we need to see them as narratives that are being played out in the world, to realize that there are only a few basic narrative themes, and they are all quite old. And to do that, we need to step back and learn to think mythologically (See Chapter One of my book). This is how indigenous people used to consider stories, and how mythopoetic men’s groups, learning from them, have been doing for the past forty years. But now, in addition to working with fairy tales and Greek myths, we need to consider world events in the same way.
Looking at Trump, or any celebrity or public figure, we need to interrogate ourselves, to ask, for example, how does this person doing these things enact or embody a story about me that I still identify with? How does my emotional reaction or judgement, positive or negative, reveal my own place in this myth, this story we tell about him? How does my participation in this story affect my ability to act as a citizen? And in our American story, the ultimate questions are about our own innocence.
As far as definitions, we can now dump the DSM manual entirely and take a common sense, moral view of madness. Doing so, we can ask simple diagnostic questions such as these: Is what this person is saying or doing hurting themselves only, or are they impacting the community? Does their need for power and control affect us all? Do they act with the greater good in mind or make corporate profits their first priority? Would they advocate for non-violence except in self-defense?
What is madness? What is normalcy? In a sense, we’re back to square one, with Freud (“Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness”). Sydney J. Harris adds, “Freud’s prescription for personal happiness as consisting of work and love must be taken with the proviso that the work has to be loved, and the love has to be worked at.” We’re back to Malidoma Some´, who would ask, Is this person in touch with their purpose in life? Is he/she part of a loving community that can remind them of why they came here?
The way out is not to simply dis-believe (even if we could), 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. Sophocles admitted 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.
Affairs are now soul-size; the enterprise is exploration into God. – Christopher Frey, Sleep of Prisoners
Where some send their “thoughts and prayers,” I suppose we could hope and pray for a world of peace and oneness. But wouldn’t such a world be simply the opposite of what we have now, equally one-dimensional and unreflective of our complex archetypal realities? Wouldn’t that be simply another way of casting our darkness down into the otherworld, where it would fester and demand that we find yet another Other/scapegoat to hold it for us?
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.” 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.
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, The Twins
What if psychology were focused on finding a way to welcome and incorporate the Shadow and invite a third thing in? To acknowledge rather than deny our violent potentials – and then re-imagine cultural forms that could hold and eventually transform them, especially in our young men as they come of age? Of course, I’m talking about initiation, and I recommend that you read Chapter Five of my book, especially on the East African notion of litima:
Litima is the violent emotion peculiar to the masculine…source of quarrels, ruthless competition, possessiveness…and brutality, and that is also the source of independence, courage…and meaningful ideals…the willful emotional force that fuels the process of becoming an individual…source of the…aggression necessary to undergo radical change. But Litima is ambiguous…both the capacity to erupt in violence and the capacity to defend others, both the aggression that breaks things and the force that builds and protects.
Indigenous cultures with intact ritual traditions still understand the critical importance of welcoming the dark realities of the psyche and then channeling them into values and behaviors that can serve the greater good, rather than tear down society itself.
Again: Can broken people heal others in this broken world? Can uninitiated adults initiate their own youth? In a culture of madness and death, can anyone be truly healed unless everyone is? All I can tell you is that there are plenty of people and groups working to do just that, in countless ways, and this is the sole source of any optimism I can muster.
For me, the work is to welcome back the indigenous imagination with more of two things: poetry and ritual. The old knowledge has never completely left us, but, as Caroline Casey says, 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. Do you recall the two groups of women in The Bacchae? The first group followed Dionysus wherever he went, choosing to enact his wild, cathartic rituals. Others who opposed him were struck with – possessed – by the return of the repressed. The first group engaged in ritual madness to avoid literal madness, losing their minds to become sane. Nor Hall writes of the second group: “Had they joined the Dionysian company willingly, they would have enacted this state of wild abandon within a protective circle.”
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.
Then, says Martin Prechtel, grief becomes a form of praise. This year (2019) our annual Day of the Dead grief ritual will be on Saturday, November 2nd.
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, Call Me by My True Names