It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. – Jiddu Krishnamurti
…divide us those in darkness from the ones who walk in light… – Kurt Weill
The price of hating other human beings is loving oneself less. – Eldridge Cleaver
Denial and fear; fear and denial, all electronically mediated. Do you remember the anthrax scare of 2001 – how it targeted only Democratic Senators who opposed the Patriot Act,and how it disappeared as a news item once Congress passed the legislation? Do you remember how the government took this lunacy to its logical extreme with its color-coded alert system, how we all awakened daily to a degree of anxiety that shifted according to government “findings?” Who determined the nature of these “findings?” How – and why?
Recall how this anxiety also diminished once the invasion of Iraq commenced, and how, as in any addiction, the reduction in stress was only temporary, until the next “threat” arose? Do you remember when all three TV networks introduced series about alien invasions? Do you remember the “immanent” Muslim terror attacks that never happened, that six in ten people expected a terrorist attack in 2007, how fifty percent of us were not opposed to torturing suspected terrorists? Be very afraid.
And yet – and this is where Americans really are exceptional – studies showed that most people had the existential experience of nothing being particularly wrong in their personal lives, at least until the economic crash of 2008. It’s falling apart all around us, but we’re OK. It’s all good.
This is critical to understanding our American state of mind, so let’s explore the implications further. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz summarized Google search rates for anxiety since 2008, noting that they have more than doubled since they were first tracked in 2004, and were the highest in 2016, the last year he surveyed. Surprisingly, “terrorism” and “Trump” are not major indicators of anxiety. And the places (Google can do that) where anxiety is highest are overwhelmingly concentrated in less educated, poorer and more religious parts of the country, particularly Appalachia and the South.
He sees two relevant factors. The first is the economy. Areas that were more deeply affected by the recession saw bigger increases in anxiety. The second:
I put “panic attack” in Google Correlate, and one of the highest correlated search queries was “opiate withdrawal.” Panic attacks are a known symptom of opiate withdrawal…The places with high opiate prescription rates — and high search rates for opiate withdrawal — are among the places with the highest search rates for panic attacks…(these) searches…have continued to rise over the past few years, even as opiate prescription rates have finally fallen.
These areas include, once again, the South, precisely the area where Trump’s support is the strongest, where white male identity is most under threat and where Republicans have been mining fear for fifty years (the places, incidentally, that view the most gay porn).
Fear and denial. Psychologists speak of intermittent reinforcement, a conditioning schedule in which a reward doesn’t always follow the desired response. Typically, the behavior lasts longer than with normal, predictable, continuous reinforcement. An example is gambling, when one doesn’t win every time. The intermittent reinforcement of winning causes a euphoric response that can lead to gambling addiction. Another example is how people remain in abusive relationships with narcissistic lovers whose unpredictable behavior encourages them to hope for an unattainable ideal.
The double bind is a dilemma in which someone in authority gives conflicting messages. When a successful response to one message results in a failed response to the other, we are wrong either way. The double bind occurs when we cannot confront or resolve the dilemma. Gregory Bateson proposed that growing up amidst perpetual double binds produces anxiety and confused thinking. In extreme situations (Bateson called them “schizogenetic”), the child experiences it continually and habitually within the family context from infancy on. By the time he is old enough to have identified the situation, it has already been internalized, and she may only be able to confront it by withdrawing into delusion and schizophrenia.
Or consider Marx’s idea of mystification: By representing forms of exploitation as forms of benevolence, the exploiters bemuse the exploited into feeling at one with their exploiters or into feeling evil or mad even to consider rebellion. R. D.Laing extrapolated this idea from politics to the schizogenetic family.
The mystified person is confused but may or may not feel confused. What child hasn’t heard this: “It’s just your imagination,” or “you must have dreamt it.” A deeper form of mystification happens when the authority figure disconfirms the content of the other’s experience and narcissistically replaces it with their own projection. A child is playing noisily in the evening; his exhausted mother needs some rest. A clear and honest statement might be: “I am tired, and I want you to go to bed.” Or, “Go to bed, because it’s your bedtime.” Or even, “Go to bed, because I say so.” But a mystifying statement would be: “I’m sure you feel tired, sweetie, and you want to go to bed now, don’t you?” Perhaps you heard this message from your own parents: “But you can’t be unhappy! Haven’t we given you everything you want? How can you complain after all our sacrifices?”
Are these just silly Jewish mother jokes? I don’t think so. What if you heard them regularly, every single day, throughout your childhood? They are wounds – ungrieved wounds – of the soul, the stuff D.H. Lawrence wrote of. I’m suggesting that most of us did experience those messages, that our loved ones conditioned us, if unconsciously, to become adults who would not perceive the nature of our own willing participation in the simultaneous denial and distrust that I’ve been describing. And those messages landed so deeply in our psyches precisely because of the loving – and mystifying – tones in which they were delivered.
And again, we are talking about the relatively privileged among us. Those born or fallen into poverty, racism, war, misogyny, sickness and/or abuse experience these conditions at much greater extremes.
But all of us spend hours – several hours, every day, even when we are out of the house – gazing at screens, writes Johnstone, that are “full of voices that are always lying to us, and experts wonder why we’re so crazy and miserable all the time.”
The screens tell us, “This is a perfectly normal and sane way of doing things. It is perfectly normal and sane to strip the earth bare and poison the air and the water in an economic system which requires infinite growth on a finite planet…Trust that it is good and proper for the citizens of Nation X to be killed with bombs and bullets,” and then they wonder why people keep snapping and committing mass shootings…The screens tell us, “Of course this is the way things are; it’s the only way things could ever be. Anyone who would try to change any part of this is either mentally ill or a Russian propagandist,” and they wonder why people shut down and numb themselves with opiates…The screens tell us, “Everything is great. Everyone is doing fine. Everyone is happy. Look how happy everyone is on this sitcom. If you aren’t happy like that, it’s not because of the machine, it’s because of you.
The pathology of this condition is that the modern soul is subject to persistent messages that its emotional intelligence – its intuitive knowing of the sheer craziness of modern life – has been completely discounted. This happens every day to almost every one of us, for our entire lives. And it carries an underlying, irresistible lesson: My ways of evaluating reality are failures.
But this is America, and we all carry the legacy of Puritanism, which tells us, if my ways of evaluation are failures, then so am I. And – since failure in America is always moralfailure, then I am also bad – I am a sinner. This, I suspect, is the major source of our massive epidemics of depression and substance abuse and our retreat from political involvement – or the need to bypass politics entirely, through violent actions against the Other.
The scapegoat: what is the deeper meaning of police violence against unarmed people of color? When societies begin to collapse, they turn to human sacrifice. I covered this issue in depth in a previous blog series:
To deny something is to declare it taboo. And “taboo” (“kapu” in Hawaiian) means “too sacred to mention.” The sacred is a secret, and this is the secret: Americans regularly unite in our fear of the evil Other, and enough of us will regularly declare allegiance to a culture whose primary religious ritual is the sacrifice of this Other. He is sacred because for a while he takes our sins away.
But this mode of sacrifice – the “shock” of localized violence – cannot fully re-invigorate the “awe” of denial, because this scapegoat suffers only within the polis. Horrifying to contemplate, the function of racist violence may well be to divert our attention from the deeper madness, the regular sacrifice of the best of our young men to our god of nationalism. As Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle write:
The doctrine that provides the central experience of Christian faith is the sacrifice of an irreplaceable son by an all-powerful father whose will it was that the son should die violently…Sacrifice restores totem authority and reconsolidates the group. This is why we die for the flag and commit our children to do so. To resolve totem crisis, the totem must re-create its exclusive killing authority out of the very flesh of its members. Blood is the group bond. Blood sacrifice at the border, or war, is the holiest ritual of the nation-state…Our deepest secret, the collective group taboo, is the knowledge that society depends on the death of this sacrificial group at the hands of the group itself…But what keeps the group together and makes us feel unified is not the sacrifice of the enemy but the sacrifice of our own.
As more flaws appear in the fabric of our mythic narratives and as the crazy-making conditions of our lives make it more obvious that the old story is dying but no new story has yet arisen to replace it, watch for the next sacrificial ritual.
Watch how your fear of Trump motivates you to vote for the despicable Joe Biden — even in California and the other 40 states that are safely Democratic. Watch, thirty years after the fall of communism, how we fall back on the tired, old red-baiting, even without any reds! Watch how the Democrats can’t stop flogging the latest threat – Russians hacking our elections! Read the Time cover: Faith in the U.S. Election! This is religious language, and the gatekeepers would not be united in their sermons if they weren’t aware of how many of us need to be reminded.
It’s all about the anxiety. And the situation really does demand of us that we stay woke and step back from our need to reflexively parrot the liberal – yes, the liberal – media. Watch your willingness to see them as saviors. Watch their willingness to blame “the Russians” when Trump is re-elected. Watch your need to remain innocent, to be reassured that it’s all good. Watch how much money you’ll be willing to spend to be ceaselessly told that it is. Christmas is coming.
Our American craziness has persisted for centuries. And any answers we might contribute have also been around for a long time. James Hillman offered this one after a well-known shooting:
The shadow is in full view, and we cannot get rid of evil by blaming the Radical Right or the Black Muslims or…communists, or…call evil “psychopathic.” With such sadness and reality, destructive evil strikes. Assassinations, murder – and war, too – begin this way. This revolution is not just outside us in the streets and jails and detention homes and clinics, or in Texas, but is the Shadow in each of us that is trying to come out.
The date? November 1963, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
We have no tradition of shamanism…of journeying into these mental worlds. We are terrified of madness. We fear it because the Western mind is a house of cards, and the people who built that house of cards know that, and they are terrified of madness. – Terrence McKenna
Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through. – Ronald Laing
What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance? – Theodore Roethke
Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness. – Blaise Pascal
They say in the village that an unruly youth is asking in his own way for someone to guide him. – Malidoma Somé
I’m hoping to reframe this business of fear and denial, but I need to mention two themes first:
1 – Soon we will begin the transition to the Dark time of the year, and this will propel us directly into the absolute core of the issue: Boo! Don’t be scared! The roots of Halloween are in the profound depths of Old Europe – Samhain and All Soul’s Day. But for most Americans, it is a festival of innocent consumption, with annual spending of $5 billion.
Or perhaps we should speak of consuming innocence.Every year, millions of children confront the schizogenic double bind that utterly discounts their emotional intelligence. Boo! Scared you! Well, don’t cry, it’s only make believe! Death is everywhere but no one needs to grieve! Perhaps adults enjoy the emotional release of horror films, and yes, I’m a curmudgeon, but this is child abuse on a massive scale. Boo!
2 – As I wrote previously, in the midst of massive denial about a collapsing environment and the real sources of terrorism, Americans are allowed and “encouraged” to fret about issues that the media choose to present.
You want real fear? As my mother used to say, I’ll give you something to cry about! Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the doctrine of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) implied that neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union could instigate nuclear strikes without being destroyed itself. What mad genius invented that acronym! As I wrote in Chapter Eight,
…consider this 1960 statement by General Thomas Power, commander of the Strategic Air Command: “At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win.” Was it the joke of a psychopath or cynical hyperbole deliberately intended to maximize anxiety? Or would only the former do the latter?
Apparently, the U.S. “National Security Community” is no longer afraid of nuclear war, because now they seem to believe – not just Republicans, but Democrats as well – that they can win one. Are we mad to not label these people as mad?
Or is it simply easier to manage our anxiety with Islamophobia than to ponder our own male suicidal fantasies that could destroy us all?
We are all stressed out, to be sure. Vast numbers of us are – or should be – dealing with PTSD. And thousands of the mentally ill really have been saddled with abnormal brain chemistry even before they were born. That leaves many others: the rebels, the inattentive, the under-achievers, the gang members, the white nationalists, the forty-somethings still living with their parents.
“Mad,” after all, has other meanings: angry, rabid. What if we were to think of mental illness as an unconscious attempt by a socially powerless person to unite body and feeling (or if we were to substitute “uninitiated” for “psychotic”)? Then we might see madness as an unconscious, natural (if painful and usually unsuccessful) attempt to heal oneself, to restore balance. And this, according to Malidoma Somé, is precisely the intention of ritual.
As Jung taught, the society that emphasizes extreme Apollonian, rational values and represses the Dionysian sets up a dynamic in which the god can only return in the symptoms. The return of Dionysus can appear as emotional dismemberment. For centuries of modernity, however, such experiences have typically occurred outside of any ritual containers. Schizophrenics enter liminal space alone, without guides, and receive only drugs or incarceration.
John Weir Perry saw schizophrenia as a natural renewal process. Many of his patients described visions consistent with the ancient symbolism of kingship and initiation. Joseph Campbell wrote that such fantasy “perfectly matches that of the mythological hero journey.” From this perspective, madness becomes an inward and backward process, under the dubious guidance of the mad god himself.
But we absolutely need to think mythologically, not literally. James Hillman mentioned that in historical accounts of persons who went mad but also had religious experiences, most took their revelations literally. They experienced death, apocalypse, crucifixion, sexual inversion, fertility and rebirth. A mythologist would identify all these visions as images of initiation. Those who did recover saw past the literal to the metaphoric.
But so many get stuck in what Robert Moore called “chronic liminality,” as illustrated by the myth of Ariadne. Many heroes entered the underground labyrinth, only to be killed by the Minotaur. Theseus defeated it because he had kept in contact with the world above by means of Ariadne’s thread, which enabled him to return to the light (normal consciousness). Those who have no thread of connection to community remain below in that “labyrinth of transformative space,” but only partially transformed. Later, Ariadne herself was rescued by Dionysus and became his wife.
Moore insisted that many pathological states are nothing other than failed initiations in which people could not think metaphorically. One of his clients was lucid enough to admit, “I need to die, before I kill myself.” This man knew intuitively that the most tragic of failed initiations is suicide, the heroic ego’s literal response to the symbolic challenge of transformation, and the inability to move madness into art.
“A shaman,” wrote Terrance McKenna, is someone who swims in the same ocean as the schizophrenic, but the shaman has thousands…of years of sanctioned technique and tradition to draw upon.”
Traditional Africans still perceive mental distress as a call for help. Indeed, madness is a sign that the community (who know nothing of “family systems therapy”) is sick. They perceive crazy people as undergoing crises resulting from the activity of spirit and protect them, hoping that their healing will benefit the community. To them, the spirits of a sick world speak through the most sensitive of us, those with the most fluid boundaries.
Malidoma Somé, an initiated elder of the Dagara people, writes that his people perceive mental disorders as spiritual crises that can potentially signal “the birth of a healer.” So this is “good news from the other world.” Beings from the other side of the veil are drawn to people whose senses have not been anesthetized, whereas modernity
…has consistently ignored the birth of the healer…Consequently, there will be a tendency from the other world to keep trying as many people as possible in an attempt to get somebody’s attention. They have to try harder…The sensitivity is pretty much read as an invitation to come in…(In the West)…it is the overload of the culture they’re in that is just wrecking them.
Through ritual, Dagara communities attempt to help such persons reconcile the energies of both worlds – “the world of the spirit that he or she is merged with, and the village…” Ideally, such persons eventually become able to serve as bridges between the worlds and assist the living as healers.
Somé utilizes spiritual terminology that we might feel a bit uncomfortable with. But in fact, many western psychologists have understood this wisdom for decades, beginning with Jung and later with Hillman’s Archetypal Psychology and Laing and the Anti-Psychiatry movement.
More recently groups such as Mad in America, the Critical Mental Health Nurses’ Network, Mad Pride, Mind Freedom International, and the Network Against Psychiatric Assault emphasize social justice, patient’s rights and political action. This includes questioning the idea of “normalcy” with an alternative: “neurodiversity.”
Yes, it is possible (and necessary) for an enlightened community to enfold troubled individuals, keep them from hurting themselves, identify the sources of their distress as their innate purposes struggling to emerge, and ritually guide and welcome them as initiated members, as in the deepest sense of the word, citizens.
But this evokes deeper questions: Are there any such communities anymore? Can broken people heal others in a broken world? Can uninitiated adults initiate their youth? In a culture of madness and death, can anyone be truly healed unless everyone is? When myths change as gradually as they do, how much time do we have left? What do we do about it? How do we rise above it?
Stop. Go back.
Notice what you took from that last question. Consider that “rising above it” is often a euphemism for denying that problems even exist, or that they really affect me, and that our characteristic American practicality often propels us far too quickly from realization of the truth – and the difficult process of grieving fully – into thoughtless “action,” as I write here.
I am not suggesting that joining with likeminded people to engage in political action is wrong or ineffective. And we certainly need to invite the Other – all Others – back within the pale, both literally and metaphorically, for their good and ours. But it’s worth asking whether the Other would even want to be part of what Greg Palast has called an “armed madhouse.”
What I am suggesting is that we need to consider John Zerzan’s observation: “To assert that we can be whole/ enlightened/healed within the present madness amounts to endorsing the madness.” Or as Hillman put it:
…waking up to the insanity of the way we have structured ourselves rather than doing something in the world to make a change. That’s the old-style American way: Let’s fix it! I’m not talking about fixing it. I’m talking about making a change in the mind that realizes, My God, I’m crazy!
Rather, he says, we have to develop (or re-develop what our ancestors had) an aesthetic response to the world:
Once we waken our aesthetic sense and are not an-aestheticized, as we are, by all the distractions…we would be able to see and appreciate the beauty in the world. Now the moment there’s beauty, you fall in love with beauty…and if you fall in love with something, love the world, not through Christian moralism, about “You must love the world,” or an economic one that says, “Sustainability for our own benefit, therefore we’ll live longer.” That is not it. It’s got to be something much more profound that touches the heart…if you realize that our job on the Earth is to love it, to fall in love with it…and you only fall in love with it if you’re aesthetically alive to it.
Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” May it be so. Bertolt Brecht, however, began a poem with, “He who laughs has not yet heard the terrible tidings.” He insisted that we break through the walls of denial, to comprehend how dreadful our plight actually is, to feel how much we have lost. Yet pessimism can create its own reality. Expecting the worst, we are very likely to find it; then hope can turn into despair. Or we can fall into a polarizing anger that replicates conventional demonization of the Other. Brecht knew this, too. In the same poem, he wrote: Even the hatred of squalor makes the brow grow stern. Even Anger against injustice makes the voice grow harsh.
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 imaginepositive 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 andfor 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