Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them. – Albert Einstein
These days there is much talk about de-colonizing our minds – interrogating ourselves about the unconscious biases, racist opinions, classist ideas, colonialist language (and, I would add, outmoded mythologies) that we take for granted and that no longer serve us, if they ever did. To this list we need to add de-militarizing our minds. And this requires learning to reframe our metaphors, especially around health and illness.
The Queen of reframing, astrologer Caroline Casey teaches that our military metaphors subtly determine and undermine the metaphysics of our relationships and our work in the world. We’d see both our childhood traumas and our medical crises in very different lights if we viewed them as “our beautiful, dangerous assignments.” Indeed, in discussing her own cancer diagnosis, she speaks of having “inappropriately exuberant cells” that have “no respect for boundaries” and “can’t stop growing.”
Reframing is not necessarily about positive thinking, only adding a poetic mind that may prevent us from feeding the problem. Barbara Ehrenreich writes that separating her cancer, “an evil predator,” and the body in which it resides seems to stand at odds with the nature of the disease. She calls the cancer cells in her body “the fanatics of Barbaraness, the rebel cells that…carry the genetic essence of me.” The cancer then becomes not an enemy, but a part of her, that which is the most fanatical; not a predator but an overzealous fan.
Again, metaphors are the language of poetry, but they don’t have to be so damned serious. Earlier, I quoted Jack London: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” Another master of reframing, Rob Brezsny, comments:
That sounds too violent to me, though I agree in principle that aggressiveness is the best policy in one’s relationship with inspiration. Try this: Don’t wait for inspiration. Go after it with a butterfly net, lasso, sweet treats, fishing rod, court orders, beguiling smells, and sincere flattery.
They key word as we move on is “relationship.” Casey teaches that whatever we fight against grows stronger because we give it more energy than it originally had. She suggests reframing that phrase to “what we dance with.”
Some of the Asian “martial” arts understand this. Aikido practitioners learn to use their opponent’s own aggressive energy to defeat them, or, ideally, to guide them into a higher state of awareness in which physical violence is not an option. They perceive failure as a point when one succumbs to the temptation of literal violence. Similarly, in other contexts such as couple’s counseling, one attempts to help another person reframe and formulate the question he really wants to ask, to help him get past his own anger or unconscious motives, to not, in poet William Stafford’s words, “follow the wrong god home.”
Sumo wrestling referees wait to signal the start of a match until it is clear that both competitors are conspiring (breathing in unison.) This reminds us to go back to etymology for reframing help. Diabolic (“to throw across”) comes from the same root as ballet. The root of “compete” is “petitioning the gods together.” We see this when top athletes sincerely, even lovingly, hug each other after fiercely “engaging” with each other (double meaning intended).
As I’ve shown, so many of the military metaphors in American English are rooted in the New Testament. Some scholars claim that The Book of Revelation is the most popular Bible section among Evangelicals. But etymology is very helpful here too. Apocalypse doesn’t mean “destruction” or “end times,” but rather “to lift the veil.” It was written at the end of the Pagan age, and now the age of monotheism is falling into such literalistic thinking that we can see its own conclusion approaching. At the end of this age we have the opportunity to see truths that have been veiled behind outdated myths.
We need to use sacred language, in the subjunctive mode: pretend, perhaps, suppose, maybe, make believe, may it be so, what if – and play. This “willing suspension of disbelief” is what Coleridge called “poetic faith.” Then, says Lorca, the artist stops dreaming and begins to desire. Love moves from imagination to inspiration, which invents the “poetic fact,” where new life comes not from us but through us.
Jung said that myth offers us two gifts: a story to live by, and the opportunity to disengage or “dis-identify” from outmoded patterns and thus re-engage in a different way with the archetypal energies from which our stories arise. In the tribal world, art (as ritual) serves to balance the worlds of the living and the unseen. Healing comes through memory, both in purging grief and guilt and in creatively re-framing one’s story – what Hillman called “healing fictions.”
It was Memory herself, Mnemosyne, who mated with Zeus and birthed the Muses. Reconnection to memory through art reverses the work of Kronos and counters Time’s linear progress with her cyclic imagination. Ultimately, we heal by re-membering what we came here to do.
It is said that the Muses collected the scattered limbs of dismembered bodies; it was they – art – who reassemble what our military metaphors rip apart.
If we absolutely have to use military metaphors, let’s remember poet Dianne Di Prima: “The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.” How do we reframe “conflict?” There is plenty of evidence that tribal people once believed that conflict existed not only to eliminate alternative voices, but to bring people together. We see vestiges of this in the Gaelic language. One cannot say, “I am angry at you,” but only, “There is anger between us.” I’ve mentioned competition and engagement. Animosity, with its connections to animal, animate, animation and anima, derives from the Latin for “breath of life.” If we follow animosity to its archetypal source, we may find the one breath we all share.
Greek myth provides a surprising image in the war god, Ares, the “killer of men.” Zeus calls him “…most hateful to me.” But beyond the Iliad, he appears in few fully elaborated myths. Instead, wrote Hillman, “He presents himself in action rather than in telling…The god does not stand above or behind the scene directing what happens. He is what happens.”
Like all inhabitants of the polytheistic imagination, Ares is more complicated than he seems. He is an image of the divine, and thus of the psyche. This tells us first that Greek culture understood that martial values are fundamentally human. Second, some say that Ares was taught to dance before he was taught the arts of war.
Third, no monk, he was Aphrodite’s lover. This most masculine god and this most feminine goddess birthed a daughter, Harmonia. Love and war beget harmony, as Psyche and Eros beget Voluptos, or voluptuousness.
Soldiers entering battle invoked Ares, asking for strength and courage. But they also called upon him to prevent conflict from degenerating into uncontrollable violence, as in this ancient hymn:
Hear me, helper of mankind, dispenser of youth’s sweet courage, beam down…your gentle light on our lives…diminish that deceptive rush of my spirit, and restrain that shrill voice in my heart that provokes me to enter the chilling din of battle…let me linger in the safe laws of peace…
This poetry invites us to imagine a consciousness that loves conflict as a form of relationship, seeking restoration of harmony rather than domination. “Who would have imagined,” wrote Hillman, “that restraint is what Ares offers?” And Aphrodite’s sensual fury is hardly different from that of Aries. Their union is one of sames rather than of opposites, and thus passionate aesthetic engagement can restrain violence. Long-term discipline of an art tames hasty emotional expression but not its passion. Violence is beyond reason; what counters it must be equally unreasonable: “Imagine a civilization whose first line of defense is each citizen’s aesthetic investment in some cultural form.”
If the archetypal warrior is forced into combat, he goes sadly. If he survives and returns, he grieves for all the dead, because he knows that his enemy was a part of himself. In serving the Divine King of the psyche, he is charged with protecting boundaries, with determining which outside elements to welcome and which are dangerous. Invoking him, we reframe “armoring” into “respect for proper boundaries.” In Irish myth the Fianna warriors guarded the borders of the realm and questioned all strangers, “Would you like a poem or a sword?” Let’s imagine shifting the role of the police from controlling and punishing Black people to – artfully – protecting the borders of the realm. The purpose of the entire military could be nothing more than that of the Coast Guard.
An example from biology is the immune system. The skin and lining of the small intestine are semi-permeable membranes that know what to allow in (air and nutrients) and what to keep out (microbes and toxins). In an infection, certain white blood cells sound the alarm, others neutralize the invaders and still others curtail the immune response when the danger is over. Then the body creates antibodies to remember – memorialize – the event and protect against future ones.
Our military metaphors may point to a certain wisdom about our demythologized world. Why, in the most competitive society in history, do “proper,” middle-class people tend to avoid actual confrontation, restricting it to spectator sports? Perhaps we intuitively know that normal social interactions cannot contain conflict and prevent it from turning into literal violence; it simply isn’t safe. Our myth of redemption through violence polarizes us into one of the two most easily assumed stances: the path of denial and/or retreat, or the path of extermination. We inevitably resort to either fight or flight.
Ritual provides a third alternative: staying in relationship without being violent. It requires, however, that participants acknowledge the reality of the Other. In West Africa, traditional Dagara married couples engage in conflict rituals every five days. Agreeing that there will be no violence, each person simultaneously vents all accumulated emotions. The entire village may witness them. Long experience has shown them that conflict causes damage to the entire community only if it is removed from ritual and brought out into the profane openness of daily life.
African American culture abounds in the ritualized conversion of aggression into creativity. Examples include break dancing, poetry slams and “the dozens,” verbal jousting in which antagonists poetically insult each other’s mothers. Mythologist Lewis Hyde writes that the loser is “the player who breaks the form and starts a physical fight…who chooses a single side of the contradiction” between attachment and non-attachment to mother. The winner artfully holds the tension of the opposites.
Characteristically, Rob Brezsny suggests that even this ritual can be reframed:
I invite you to rebel against any impulse in you that resonates with the spirit of “Playing the Dozens.” Instead, try a new game, “Paying the Tributes.” Choose worthy targets and ransack your imagination to come up with smart, true, and amusing praise about them…here are some prototypes: “You’re so far-seeing, you can probably catch a glimpse of the back of your own head.” “You’re so ingenious, you could use your nightmares to get rich and famous.” “Your mastery of pronoia is so artful, you could convince me to love my worst enemy.”
In Part Four, we’ll go deeper into the challenges and rewards of reframing. Perhaps we can open a “reframing shop.”