Turn this wall on its side and it becomes a bridge! – Graffiti on the Mexican side of the U.S. border wall
Mythopoetic men’s conferences have evolved effective conflict rituals that encourage men to engage with each other on subjects as frightening as race, power and sex without either leaving or becoming violent. In this context, safety means feeling secure enough within the ritual container to take risks. If men remain in this heat of confrontation long enough, they may get past anger to the underlying grief, to weep together and to cleanse their souls.
Joshua Chamberlain was a Union Army general who recorded the awesome spectacle of Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9th, 1865:
Before us in proud humiliation stood…men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve…thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond…On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer…but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead! …How could we help falling on our knees, all of us together, and praying God to pity and forgive us all!
He knew as few could know that the two armies, ground down by four years of carnage, had suffered together. Despite the hatred – or perhaps because of it – they had erased a little bit of that sense of otherness that drives men to violence. The surrender, of course, didn’t heal the nation’s wounds, but Chamberlain’s vision invites us into the imagination of reconciliation. Reframing can lead to clarification of intention.
I’ve already alluded to the idea that competition means “petitioning the gods together.” The ancient Greeks knew this. Agon (the root of agony) was their term for a contest in athletics, horse racing, music or literature. It also referred to a challenge that was held in connection with religious festivals, especially Tragic Drama, in which the two main characters were the protagonist and the antagonist.
This doesn’t mean that the Greeks were able to transform their greed and their passions into non-violence. Indeed, they were constantly at war with each other. However, almost every four years between 776 BC and 393 AD they called sacred truces. Many scholars see the origin of Olympic competition in earlier funeral games that were held to honor deceased heroes, as described in the Iliad.
So contest can mean “testing together,” or “to bear witness together,” from the Latin testis (plural: testes). Michael Meade claims that “testimony” implied holding one’s hand over one’s testes to prove that he was telling the truth.
So now we can reframe the military metaphor Give me your best shot into “Show me what you’ve got; inspire me to show what I can do,” and then into “Let’s make this boxing match (ball game, breakdance, poetry competition, etc) into the most beautiful thing imaginable!”
Our task is to do more than simply deconstruct outmoded belief systems. They hold us not merely because of generations of indoctrination, but because of their mythic content. They grab us, as all myths do, because they refer to profound truths at the core of things, even if those truths have been corrupted to serve a culture of death. We cannot simply drop them by realizing that they are myths; we must go further into them, by telling the same stories, but reframing them until we discover their essence.
Americans have some advantages here. Our fascination with the new masks our anxiety about the present, our grief at how diminished our lives have become and our fear of being erased in a demythologized future. But it also awakens the archetypal drive to slough off old skin and be reborn into a deeper identity.
As Casey says, “co-operators are standing by.” The other world is offering help, but indigenous protocol insists upon our full participation. We will develop that capacity as we build our willingness to imagine. This is why the renewal of the oral tradition is so important; it enables us to go beyond the literal and think metaphorically. Here are a few ideas from Chapter Twelve of my book:
We can start by reframing capitalism’s basic – and bizarre – superstition that if each person pursues his own narrow interests, then the common good advances. Instead, let’s imagine a society in which individuals enhance both their own wellbeing and the greater good only when they give fully of themselves. This implies an indigenous concept of abundance in which the role of money is to facilitate the transition of value from its source in the Other World to its recipients in this world, and back. Wealth is a warehouse in transit, temporary storage. As in a potlatch, one accumulates it in order to give it away.
Appreciation of interconnectedness reminds us that we both held by and accountable to the larger communities of nature and spirit. Dominion can become stewardship or husbandry, which can free us from our mad obsession with growth. Then we can replace the GDP with a “Gross National Happiness” index.
We can replace development with liberation (from Liber, Dionysus) in both its Buddhist and political senses. Then our obsession with growth will be unmasked as a spell that monotheistic thinking has cast over the indigenous soul. Liberation: breaking the spell, lifting the veil. In America, the shadow of growth (both economic and spiritual) is depression. But in previous depressions we learned to stop buying things we didn’t need. We can do it again, as a simple solution to consumerism and pollution. The opposite of consumption is neither thrift nor poverty but generosity.
Below the pressure to compete lie older assumptions. The vindictive God of the Old Testament never seems to have enough blessing for everyone. Is this why we strive so hard to accumulate things? Let’s reframe scarcity and original sin into infinite fecundity and original blessing.
Scarcity assumptions (if there is not enough to go around, then only the “elect” will have it) lead to Puritanism. Let’s reframe the compulsion to work unceasingly into the drive to remember and deliver our unique gifts. Finding a sense of belonging from what we give rather than from what we get will free us from blaming capitalism’s victims for their own suffering. With less energy invested in success, we’d find less shame in failure. Idleness would transform into the opportunity to do more important things than make money. Self-improvement could become a non-dogmatic, communal spiritual quest. Perhaps addictions stemming from our misguided search for meaning and a true home in the world would simply melt away. Then self-interest and individualism would shift eventually to the needs of the soul and prosperity would not be measured in numbers.
We would reframe Puritanical contempt for the body into an inclusive, humorous eroticism. Heterosexuals would appreciate gay people as gatekeepers. We could shamelessly entertain images of lust and loss of control without needing to project them upon others. The paranoid imagination would lose its suffocating grip on our emotions, as we reframe anxiety itself into the natural curiosity and hospitality of people who know who they are.
Perceiving abundance in spiritual terms, we’d also reframe the predatory imagination. Entertaining the possibility that we are held by non-human powers, we would find no joy in exploiting others. Feeling welcome in the world, we would laugh at primitive ideas like dog eat dog or every man for himself.
The earth needs real heroes like never before, but we will prefer peace heroes to war heroes. As we support ritual containers for the initiation of youth, we will no longer be fascinated by men who risk their lives crushing the Other to restore the peace of denial. We will applaud those who commit to the hard work of relationship with the feminine, men who don’t ride off into the sunset.
Reframing heroism will help us take back what we have projected onto entertainers. We will still admire those who excel in athletics, public service and the arts as models for excellence. But as the images of the pagan divinities return, as we understand them as aspects of our own souls, the cult of celebrity will wither away.
We could drop the patronizing moral superiority that justifies interventions and invasions (both international and interpersonal), transforming them into the desire to encourage (give heart to) the best in people, to see others find their own voices. As patriotism shrivels back into love of the earth – matriotism – racism and witch-hunting would transform into appreciation of diversity. And we could shift from “We are not them” into the positive Mayan greeting, “You are the other me.”
Instead of meaning personal fulfillment unimpeded by government, freedom would imply public commitment made possible by government. We would replace the white bread melting pot with a new metaphor reflecting the diversity of soul and world: a polychromatic mosaic of shining ethnic facets, each reflecting all the others.
The world would still be a “vale of soul-making,” as Keats wrote, but it would no longer be a fallen world. Imagine millions of Americans no longer interpreting Biblical poetry as literal fact. Belief would return to its German roots where it is connected to love and cherish. Dropping the model of a god who sacrifices himself to redeem others, we would happily redeem ourselves. Imagine shifting our paranoid confrontation with the Other to the environmental crisis, a stance in which everyone would be “we,” united in the defense of the Earth, when national borders would dissolve.
Sacrifice would revert to its original meaning: voluntary approach to the underworld for the renewal of self and community. It would imply the intimate connection between death and rebirth that constitutes initiation. What is “made sacred” would once again be the person who endures the terrifying ego death that precedes the birth of a new identity. Jung writes, “What I sacrifice is my own selfish claim, and by doing this I give up myself.”
The sacrifice of Isaac – our most fundamental mythic narrative – would once again symbolize the offering up of Abraham’s own innocence.
Happy to sacrifice what we don’t need, we would reassess consumerism. We would shift from consuming culture (passively ingesting electronic media) to making culture. We would no longer settle for sitting passively while the burdens of our unfulfilled lives get resolved electronically.
Making culture means dropping the need for divertissement (being diverted), performance (to provide completely) and amusement (related to the Muses). We’d create real entertainment (holding together). We would periodically renew ourselves through shared suffering – and shared ecstasy. In return, the art we would make would hold us all together.
Shared ecstasy: a few tastes of the potential of real community would make us realize how little we have been willing to settle for. We would reframe the pursuit of happiness – a deeply constrained vision typical of our narrow emotional range, which is itself the expression of the refusal to grieve – into the pursuit of joy, and of our true natures.
Those who can grieve together can laugh together. Re-acquainting ourselves with the old rituals of grief and closure, we would reframe our characteristic denial of death and come to value the final initiatory transition endured by people who have lived real lives. Death – as a necessary, periodic restructuring of identity – would become our friend, sitting (as Carlos Castaneda wrote) on our right shoulder, reminding us to pay attention to the fleeting beauty of the world. And we could reframe the old question of the generals, What are you willing to die for? into the initiatory challenge, What are you willing to fully live for?
Reframing our reflexive use of military metaphors can help us muse poetically about what is approaching if we could only recognize its song. Time/Kronos vs. Memory/Mnemosyne. From this perspective, we could read our history as a baffling, painful, contraction- and contradiction-filled birth passage in which the literal has always hinted at the symbolic.
If America remembered its song as This Land Is Your Land rather than as Bombs bursting in air, we might understand freedom as willing submission to the soul’s purpose, and liberty as the social conditions that allow that inner, spiritual listening to happen. Diversity and multiculturalism would reflect the vast spaces of the polytheistic soul, and conflict would be about holding the tension of two opposites to create a third thing, something entirely new. We would remember that self-improvement is really intended for service to the communal good, and that individualism points us toward our unique individuality.
Remembering its song, America would remember its body – Mother Earth. Connecting in this sacred manner to the land would naturally lead to rituals of atonement for the way we have treated her, and to a revival of the festivals that celebrate the decline of the old and birth of the new. New Year’s Day could become a national day of atonement – a Yom Kippur – to acknowledge our transgressions and our willingness to start anew. On Independence Day (now Interdependence Day), we would reaffirm that such a start requires the support of the larger community of spirits and ancestors.
Remembering America’s song would allow us to overcome our shameful contempt for our own children and to see them for who they are, rather than as projection screens for adult fantasies of innocence. We could reframe our national narratives with their deadly subtexts of child sacrifice into stories of initiation, renewal and reunion with the Other.
If we saw ourselves in this light – not the direct sunshine of innocence, but the dim glow of an old campfire – we would understand our addiction to violence and those military metaphors as a projection of that initiatory death (that we secretly desire) onto the world, and onto our children. We would withdraw those projections, putting them back where they belong.
We would realize that an appropriate metaphor has already arisen out of this land: the spirit of Jazz improvisation. When Charles Mingus heard a band member play a crowd-pleasing solo, he’d shout, “Don’t do that again!” By this he meant that the sideman needed to keep experimenting, to push himself (and the band) to even deeper soulfulness. And this means not just playing but communicating. Wynton Marsalis explains:
… to play Jazz, you’ve got to listen (to each other). The music forces you at all times to address what other people are thinking, and for you to interact with them with empathy…it gives us a glimpse into what America is going to be when it becomes itself.
We might realize that we have already dropped our fascination with evil. As in the Aramaic, we would view destructive behavior as unripe, as a cry for help, and we would know compassion.
Finally, we could cook innocence itself down to its roots. Our own light would no longer blind us. Innocence, once again, would signify the most basic of all mythic ideas: the new start. Then America could offer the song that the world has always seen in us: not that of a consumer paradise, a destructive adolescent or a wrathful father, but of the ancient story about what makes us human, the rare and lucky opportunity to accomplish what we came here to do.
Richard West, Director of the National Museum of the American Indian, proclaimed at its dedication ceremony, “Welcome to Native America!…The Great Mystery…walks beside your work and touches all the good you attempt.”