This scripture [“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” Amos 5:24] is the prophet’s message from God to a people and a nation who have become too comfortable with other people’s death.
– Rev. William Barber, sermon at National Cathedral, 6/14/20
“Whoever authors your story authorizes your actions.”
– Sam Keen
Only Myth Can Replace Myth
The myths that have fed and energized the American project for five centuries are falling, quite literally, as monuments to those public figures who’ve exemplified the inherent racism and exploitativeness that are intrinsically, grievously part of America’s greatness, tumble before the righteous anger of the BLM protests and the truth-telling of the 1619 project. The long-adhered-to “fake” creation story of America, including the selective telling of Columbus’s discovery, Founding Fathers whose greatness and wealth were premised in toleration for slavery, the heroic wresting of the land by settlers from the Indians in a process now understood as genocide, is at last being swept away! Surely this is a kind of opportunity for a rebirth into a new story, more just and more justly a source a humbler national identity that understands itself as “one among many” and not supreme over all others.
Such a rebirth is unlikely, however, if liberal Americans cannot shake their dogmatic resistance to acknowledging the real ‘power of myth,’ even as they continue to be held unconsciously in its sway. As they await Democratic saviors to rescue us at the polls, they continue to serve an all-powerful unseen oligarchy that holds the reigns of omnipotent power in the U.S. (speaking to them through the top-down voice of NPR and MSNBC news), and, like good Christian soldiers, “gatekeep” for bourgeois liberal privilege against the real opposition. The inadequacy of defensively rationalist liberalism to move in the direction called for at this historical moment of myth-toppling is plain to see. Unless minds and lifeways are radically changed, the new regime can differ only in details from the old. Only from the depths of mythic imagination can come the energy and will needed for revitalization, the “rebirth” to which our nation is called. Only an alternative myth that transmits the soul-deep truth of connection can provide a basis for such sweeping change, allowing the old myth, with its justifications for cruelty, exploitation and ceaseless war-making, to wither away.
Without such profound change in imagination, the disastrous direction we’re in will be only marginally slowed, if at all, by a Biden victory. If Americans are ever to unify around the common good without wars to rally them, it must be through appeal to hearts, and not only fears. There must be purpose so clearly not about being superior and right, so genuinely and humbly serving the objectives of peace, unity and justice, so authentically willing to sacrifice privilege so all may receive the available abundance, that it will find response in the hearts of frightened Americans. Such a change cannot be looked for from sold-out leadership, skilled in the art of policy-making and compromise that has resulted in the corporate oligarchy America now serves. It can come only bottom up, from people willing to put their lives upon a different basis. It will come from people who learn once more to see each other as potential neighbors rather than as potential enemies, a tendency that can be subverted only through face-to-face, day-to-day proximity and mutuality, in the real, lived interdependence that strengthens individuals and binds communities.
In the context of the current political insanity, such a goal is understandably scorned by the pragmatists who deem it unrealistic and time consuming. But they, who win most such arguments from utopianists like me, must see that the long overdue “rebirth” of the nation is unlikely to come even after BLM’s triumph of truth. On one hand, the objective darkness around us – from pandemic, climate change-caused wildfires and hurricanes, rising fascism – is very deep. But more so, the “surplus” hopelessness I’m feeling comes not just from the objective realities, but from the weight of truth still unspoken. In the words of German revolutionary playwright Ernst Toller: “The politician’s worst crime is silence. He must speak the truth, however unpalatable; the truth alone can spur on strength and will and reason.” Such top-down silence, the failure to speak the evil of corporate capitalism keeps Americans in frustration and divisiveness. With social media fanning the flames, Americans seem committed to never reconciling, preferring civil war to any possible peace-making alternative!
The refusal to bury hatchets is based in fear of the radical voice of truth that “rolls down like a mighty stream,” bringing change in its wake. Our corporate liberal media and our liberal leadership fear more that the BLM protests will be used to help Trump to victory in November than that America will continue to adhere to our “fake” creation myth, its tolerance for barbarism and its refusal of the truth of interdependence.
We’re in a moment, then, for seeing the lie of America’s powerful and successful creation myth next to the prophetic truth of Amos. Moreover, we can see that lie next to the holistic truth of the myths upheld by the losers in history, the indigenous people and cultures that understand themselves as living interdependently and inclusively with each other, with all creatures, and with the land.
But we’re in a quandary. Even though at last many of us perceive the indigenous, holistic truth as Truth, just because it looks better to us now as we face seemingly unpreventable collapse and extinctions, we have no idea how that myth can inform us. Our western minds, if not smarter or more “advanced” than what we used to call “primitive,” cannot return to archaism by rational assent. Rather, accustomed as progressives are to deconstructing civilization, its ‘dead white men’ a bane upon the earth and people, our chance to restore the myth-deep indigenous truth of interdependence lies in our civilization’s legacy of freedom of the individual. That individuality, inside which we’re fatally isolated in capitalist society is, at least potentially, our access to “the story” powerful enough to confirm the truth of our connection. Followed through all the way, our individualities can find the courage to move with the rolling waters of justice, instead of continuing the violence and cruelty used for centuries to hold them back.
Social movements cannot address the fear of people who do not know they are connected in their humanity. Without a deeper, more imaginative ground upon which to stand, liberals can only settle, at “best,” for lesser evilism. ( And lesser evilism, we now can see, in for example the resistance of liberal historians to the 1619 Project, is acceptance of America’s older, false creation myth, complete with its inherent exclusivity.) A collective social ideal, in its “highness” cannot substitute for the story (i.e., myth) that, from deep within my nature, tells me who I am, and animates my being with a sense of my personal inclusion in Being. Such individual realization brings with it the strength and will to serve both the “high” cause of unity and the “low” cause of diversity that begins in the consciousness of one’s own individuality. It is up to individuals, not movements, to find the story – this time the true story of “all things connecting”- that will revitalize consciousness. Without the story , we will be forever stuck inside our “heads,” and inside that wheel of history that overthrows oppression and replaces it with more oppression.
I have found two reliable “provocations” for the process of going “down” into mythic consciousness: (1) psychic/emotional pain, and (2) the experience of perfect at-oneness captured in the word “bliss.” Many people, fearing their pain, will never experience the inner well-being, balance, equanimity, serenity – the bliss – which, according to my unschooled understanding, is reliable clue that I am in the realm of mythic reality, of wholeness and connectedness. The importance of bliss, for we who are not yogis, is as subjective clue for a process that must be subjective. It is a way-sign provided by the soul, that lets me know whether or not I am contained in the one true story of “all things bound together, all things connecting.”
For the skeptical reader, of whom I assume there are many, I’m talking here not about something outside the bounds of ordinary human experience, even in exoteric western history. People who’ve connected themselves to “the story” have different ways of maintaining its supremely peace-bestowing, joy-infused, unifying reality. Besides the daily practices taught in religions, there are others. Recovering alcoholics attend meetings. The artist creates, and in so creating affirms again and again that her own nature contains her truth: It is one’s right to know one is whole and “blessed;” anxiety, guilt, worry, self-condemnation, resentments and bitternesses, though real, are signs of having fallen out of the story that one must at all cost return to.
To thus be contained in one’s own story, to be a knower, requires no institution, only subjective authorization. Alongside hegemonic Judeo-Christianity, western history contains this mystical, “romantic” thread. It has long been misunderstood and avoided by the vast majority of believers in history, an error with terrible consequences. Could those who’ve yearned for peace have found an imaginative, poetic basis for spiritual truth, the bloodshed from countless religious wars could have been avoided. The error continues today in the ignorance of liberals who assert wars and enmities can be eliminated by atheism – yet another imposition of liberal supremacy upon others! Today, deep in crisis, its clear that liberalism’s dogmatic faith in rationalist scientism cannot help us. Might we now, with long overdue humility, seize the opportunity to follow the lead given in our own nature, by which we can let go of the false myth that denies connection, and learn inclusivity instead?
Inclusivity, which is a demand voiced in BLM protests, will never be attained through top-down “cancel culture” correctness, but only through bottom-up recovery of relatedness. Containment in the story (of our connectedness), is a process of integration. Beginning in the individual, it moves outward in the direction of all “othernesses,” i.e., all relationships that feel antipathetical to one’s bliss and equanimity, beginning with the closest and most difficult. After centuries of learning to move onward, upward and away from disagreeable realities – limitations – in the reach for the transcendence of promised material success, this “coming down” into the story calls for an unaccustomed, ongoing effort of reconciliation, or inclusivity. In my case, having committed to in-place living among family and local community in a beaten-down rustbelt city, I’m daily assailed by objectionable up-close realities threatening my ever-fragile sense of being “in the story.” However, inasmuch as my meager understanding allows, such struggle with the things I cannot accept, that it seems to me I ought not to have to accept, is the story, for it is in ourselves, in living within limitations, that “spirit and matter” can be reconciled, indigenously.
Inclusivity and selfishness
One of the things we loved about our coffeeshop from its inception 18 years ago was the freedom from coercion that a small local business (sans advertising) is. Risky as it was, Orin and I loved the idea that people would come to our shop drawn solely by attraction, in contrast to non-profits which must perpetually be leaning on their members (or granting sources) for financial support. We were elated by the independence we gained in thus depending upon customers coming to buy their coffee purely from desire. Even our next-door non-profit arts space, though often reaching out for help, has largely stayed away from the administrative overhead that turns the work into a job, the loss of freedom to do and say what we want according to conscience, by having no paid staff. Now, during the pandemic, I see many non-profits forced to seek support from that reliable liberal spirit of “doing good.” Why else would you pay money to sit in your living room and watch a performance virtually that needs to be experienced live? I am not arguing against supporting artists! I am arguing for trusting (to a point) the artist’s eros-driven selfishness more than the self-effacing do-gooderism that most nonprofits and arts venues depend on for their survival. Although we need both, because affirmation of joy is so absent in liberal society, I instinctively trust the inclusiveness of people drawn together by their “selfish” wanting more than by selfless altruism.
This kind of selfishness is inherent in containing one’s life imaginatively in “the story.” Bliss, after all, is a selfish attainment! Because my story is essential to my conscious being I must keep its “magic cloak” about me. This would not make me strange in the eyes of indigenous people, who must have a story – a cosmology – that includes them in it, and provides them, as mine does me, a legitimate wall against the terrors of existential non-being. Inside my “cloak of myth,” I am included in Being; saved. But note! The truth contained in the myth-deep story is not selfish; it is unitive and connective. Paradoxically, my selfish need to know I am included and welcomed in my being – confirmed subjectively in the practice of my art – connects me with the humanity I share with all others. It may be that to be able to be inclusive of others who are different from me, I must first know I am included in the great interconnected family of being. If this is so, the greatest obstacle to finding one’s way imaginatively to the true, connective myth that could allow us to work with rather than against the radical stream of righteousness, may be liberal refusal of “selfish” desire in favor of selfless goodness.
White liberals who proclaim Black Lives Matter but who cannot prize their own whole beings such that their struggle for justice includes their human right to joy, and those who consider themselves to be inside the Christian narrative but do not understand the story demands inclusion of all creation, are tragically alike in their dread of inclusivity. The inhumanity displayed at both ends of the political spectrum reflects fear of radical change, no matter how desperately it’s needed, that cannot be allayed by force or reason. Only individuals who’ll face the truth that creative participation in the work of spirit is wanted of them can vanquish the perverse and highly conditioned fear of joy that has us in its death grip.