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A Chance for Democracy

After the National Democratic Convention was over, Donald Trump called it “horrible” and “depressing,” that it was the most depressing thing he’d ever seen. By now, Trump is well known for his hyperbole, which is one of the outstanding and most obvious symptoms of his binary mindset, lacking an ability to intellectually entertain complexity and paradox in the nature of things – which arguably is the nature of things.

I would call him a “limbic thinker,” one whose reasoning is driven by emotion (processed in the more primitive limbic system of our brain), whose worldview is charged by dualism, conflict, and division.

Soon after Trump took the Whitehouse I made the declaration that capitalism had won a decisive victory over democracy – the twin seedbed traditions wrapped around each other in the double-helix of American DNA. Since its beginnings, the American experiment has been this Yang of individual prosperity, private property, and self-interest, pulling against the Yin of communal wellbeing, equal rights, and engaged altruism – capitalism versus democracy, an economic ideology against a political one. For most of our history their dynamic balance has shifted to one side or the other of center.

But with Trump’s election, capitalism and its associated values wrested executive control from this delicate balance of powers.

If we were to regard America as a corporate individual, then the “What’s in it for me?” of our emotional Inner Child took control from our adult Higher Self which honors the obvious fact that “We are all in this together.” If this self-interested impulse had earlier been managed by the ideals and responsibilities of shared governance, under a president whose Inner Child is in charge the tense yet creative balance of these very different ideologies finally snapped.

America itself collapsed from a more cerebral capacity for holding the paradox of alternative visions, to a limbic intolerance for compromise and an apocalyptic urgency to push “the other” out of the circle.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the consequences. Life in adult community requires mutual respect, dialogue, deep listening, cooperation, and working for solutions that benefit both sides and have the wellbeing of everyone in mind. And when these more mature commitments are put offline, what should we expect? Nested ecosystems that thrive only by virtue of their diversity have been steadily undermined and hijacked by primitive (and childish) cravings for a simpler and presumably safer world of one kind, one color, one creed.

To Trump, Joe Biden’s dream of light, hope, and love is nothing but a nightmare. It’s like putting a child in a room of adults who are sharing different perspectives, challenging each other’s views, digging for common ground, and reaching beyond their respective beliefs for a bigger vision that includes everyone. The child’s this-or-that, either-or, all-or-nothing emotional (limbic) processor would be quickly overwhelmed, prompting either his retreat into private fantasy or a disruptive outburst that might hope to break the unbearable tension and resolve his anxiety.

The long debate between American democracy and American capitalism is a lot like that room of adults where the values of communal life and individual freedom, the greater good and personal happiness, a transgenerational longview and the more nearsighted aspirations of a single lifetime are exchanged over biscuits and tea or glasses of wine. Each side has its convictions and misunderstandings, but their shared responsibility to a peaceful coexistence keeps them open to each other and searching for a balance they can not only live with but also live for.

If there’s a secret to American democracy, it’s that our leaders have been mature enough (with exceptions) to hold as sacred the ideals of a perfect union and the unalienable rights of the individual, of our need for community and our obsessions with identity. These are obviously not just saying the same thing in two different ways, but are rather saying two very different things that can be complementary despite pulling in opposite directions.

American democracy is our commitment to the work of managing their balance.

Instead of conceptualizing democracy and capitalism in absolute terms, as entering the arena (or courtroom) from opposite and independent sides, we should better see them as conceptual abstractions from a shared continuum of interdependence.

The fact is, they don’t – and can’t – work without each other, and their respective visions of life are unrealizable apart from the counterbalance each carries in the conversation. Communal wellbeing and individual properity are the inextricably deep principles whose opposition is the matrix of every ecosystem, in both cultural and natural realms.

Take away the individual’s drive for self-improvement and competitive success, and you will cut the fuse of healthy community. Equally, yet oppositely, if you remove the social constraints and transpersonal ideals of community, those very standards of improvement and success will cease to matter, and the “victorious” individual will sink into a despairing isolation.

It is possible to stand out so far above the rest that you are all alone, just as you can hide inside a relationship and never find your true self.

If there’s a chance for democracy this November, it won’t be by casting aside self-interest – and casting Donald Trump out of the Whitehouse – but by redrawing the boundary that defines our sense of self. When Trump and our Inner Child feel threatened by the otherness of others (i.e., what we don’t identify with and can’t understand), we tend to push them away and put up a wall.

If you happen to be rich and can afford a wall, then good for you. Just know that it won’t be good for you for very long.

As we’ve been challenged to do over and over again in the history of our nation, we also have a more adult option, one that involves expanding our horizon of identity and definition of self so as to include the other – even the otherness of others. We’re not just Americans: Democrats or Republicans, capitalists or communitarians, white, black or brown. We are human beings and siblings of one family. We share this planet in a web of life with countless cousins, suspended together for a brief interval of time between a common ancestor and our own imagined descendents.

So we gave it a shot. For four long years we stepped aside as adults and let the Inner Child take over. Now it’s time to get back in the game, straighten up the place, and restart the dialogue.

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2020 in Timely and Random

 

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A Closer Look at Growing Up

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

22 Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— 23 therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

Michelangelo’s scene in the Sistine Chapel of the temptation and expulsion of the First Couple from Eden follows the mythic narrative of Genesis 3 fairly closely – except perhaps for their depiction as meaty white Europeans. But we can forgive the artist for creating in his own likeness, as we all tend to do that.

Myths of creation and of how we humans found ourselves in, or brought about, our present predicament are widespread among the world cultures. Typically things start off in a paradisaical state and then some act of ignorance, stupidity, or disobedience breaks the spell and we find ourselves on the outs. The orthodox Christian interpretation has long taken this as historical, which soon enough ran up against the findings of anthropology and evolutionary science.

The Church authorities made the mistake of insisting on the literal-historical meaning of this and other biblical myths, making it today impossible for an orthodox Christian to also be a well-informed and reality-oriented world citizen. If the Bible isn’t telling the literal truth, they worry, then nothing in it can be trusted. If the story of our expulsion from the garden didn’t really happen, then why do we need to be saved? Finally, if the Bible is the “word of God” but turns out to be more myth than history, then what the hell … and heaven, for that matter?!

There is a way to understand this Bible story without having to reject science, logic, and common sense. But it requires that we loosen up on our insistence that truth can only be literal. It can also be metaphorical, referring to the way a word, scene, or entire story reveals a mystery that can only be experienced, not explained. When you read or hear such a story not as an explanation of prehistorical facts but rather as a veil drawn aside on your own human experience, that is truth in another sense.

So how does the Genesis story show us what’s really going on, about what’s true of our human experience? Let’s take a closer look.

Serpents make appearances in many world myths and their metaphorical meaning will be different depending on the cultural and historical context. They might represent the principle of time, in the way they slither in lines and shed their skin to be reborn. There’s probably an acquired reflex deep in our hominid genes that jumps at snakes but reveres their lethal power.

To observe a slithering serpent as a “traveling esophagus” (Joseph Campbell) is to identify it with the most elementary of survival drives. We know from science that our body is not a spontaneous and unique expression of biology, but instead has genetic roots deep in life’s adventure on Earth. Over many millions of years this organism and its nervous system evolved by seeking out niches of nourishment, safety, mastery, and procreation. These are the survival drives of our animal nature, represented by a serpent in the Genesis myth.

It takes at least a second reading for Christians, especially, to realize that the garden serpent is not an evil principle but rather belongs to Yahweh’s created order which he declared “very good.” In other words, this isn’t the devil (or Satan) as later orthodoxy would insist. (When the myth was first invented, there was as yet no such absolute principle of personified evil working in opposition to an absolute good.) The serpent merely tempts Eve to seize an opportunity that might work to her advantage – that she will be “like god, knowing good and evil.”

At this stage of the story, Adam and Eve are still innocent and naive. They only know what they’ve been told by their higher power. Their world was created by someone else, is managed by someone else, and the way they should behave is dictated by someone else. Sound familiar? In other words, Adam and Eve are children – not literally children in the story, but serving as archetypes of “the child.”

When we are young children, our own animal nature and its survival drives compels behavior that inevitably runs up against the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of morality, that is to say, of the rule system that lays down the code of what sorts of behavior are commanded or prohibited. Because our animal nature has been at it for millions of years already, it takes time and repeated disciplinary actions for our tribe to bring these impulses in line.

In those early years when our animal nature is ‘tempting’ us to cheat, lie, and manipulate others for what we need, our sense of right and wrong is contained by what we might call a morality of obedience. It’s not necessary that we understand why some action is right or wrong, only that we obey the rule that tells us how to behave. Our taller powers said it, they call the shots, and we must do as they say. When we obey there might be a reward, but more certain still is the penalty (both physical and emotional) that follows our disobedience. The psychological consequence of disobedience is called a guilty conscience.

Part of growing into a mature adult involves breaking free of this morality of obedience where our behavior is motivated by external incentives. While it’s a social necessity that the animal natures of children are brought into compliance with the rule system of the tribe, adults are expected to take responsibility for their own lives and behavior. In one sense, it’s nice to have everything laid out for us, with all the “shalts” and “nots,” lollipops and paddles at the ready.

But our adult experience is not so simplistic or clear-cut. We need to accept the full burden of our existence along with its unresolved, and in many cases unresolvable, ambiguity. To merely “trust and obey,” as the orthodox hymn goes, would be to refuse the responsibility of being an adult. It becomes imperative, then, that we shift from a morality of obedience to an ethic of responsibility.

There will be times when our own higher adult self sees the inherent egoism of obedience – doing something for a reward, refraining to avoid punishment, thinking all the while “what’s in it for me?” In the adult world more variables have to be considered, differing perspectives allowed, and in some cases doing the right thing puts us in conflict with the morality of our tribe. We need to be willing to bear some conscientious guilt by departing from the norm or disobeying a rule when these are enforcing oppression, exploitation, and privilege.

So what does the Genesis myth tell us? That we all need to grow up. That we need to listen to our animal nature as we obey those in charge. But that eventually we will have to step from under the authority of those telling us how to live and figure it out on our own. Taking for ourselves the “knowledge of good and evil,” making our own decisions and accepting the consequences, constructing a world that is safe, stable, and provident for those young Adams and Eves now depending on us – this is our destiny as responsible adults, making our way just “East of Eden.”

 

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The Experience of Myth

heaven_hellA growing consensus regarding the sacred narratives of religion, called myths, is that we must take them literally or else toss them out as bad science and obsolete fictions. Those who would rather not fuss with interpreting the myths are content to simply believe them, and those who can’t with intellectual integrity believe the myths are content to leave them be. In either case the deeper insight contained in them is ignored and rendered mute.

It’s difficult for some to open their minds to the possibility that myths might not be records of miraculous events and metaphysical realities, but not ignorant superstition either. But what other choice do we have? Things either happened just as the myths say they happened (or will happen) or they didn’t (and won’t). Either reality is arranged according to the metaphysical architecture testified to in the myths (with a literal heaven and hell, for instance) or it’s not – right?

Actually, the answer is no: this simplistic either-or logic is exactly wrong. In fact, as I will try to show, the mental orientation responsible for casting our alternatives in such a dualistic fashion is part of what the myths intend to expose and help us overcome. I say “intend” and not “intended,” because myths are living narratives and not mere curiosities of the past. The challenge in being human is essentially the same today as it was thousands of years ago, and myths are transcultural maps that reveal the paths ahead – one that leads to heaven and another that leads to hell.

If it sounds as if I have just slipped into a metaphysical reading of myth with my reference to heaven and hell, I want to assure my reader that this is not the case. To explain, let’s begin where myth itself was born, in the state of persistent ambiguity called the human condition. The prefix ambi translates as “both,” and ambiguity refers to how our situation – the human condition as it impinges on me here and you there, wherever we happen to be – sets us at a place where the path can go in one of two directions.

On the one hand, this ambiguity might collapse into opposition and eventual conflict: the “both” are seen as fundamentally opposed, unconnected, divided, and separate. If the process of our individual ego formation was particularly difficult and we came into personal identity under conditions of neglect, abuse, deprivation, or other trauma, our path might naturally fall to a lower course where everything is cast into antagonism. We are now in the realm of lower consciousness, a realm of distrust and suspicion, of hostility and retribution. This is hell.

When we fall into lower consciousness, as the mythic Adam fell out of his garden paradise, our ego becomes possessed by the passions of insecurity and aggression, intent above all else on getting our share and guarding what is ours. In hell, everyone lives in a state of desperate isolation, tormented by insatiable craving and captive to our own self-destructive compulsions. Our relationships are in chronic conflict, as we are incapable of opening ourselves to one another in empathy and love.

On the other hand, the ambiguity of our human condition might resolve into paradox and communion. In this case, the “both” are seen as fundamentally related, connected, united, and whole. Just as the path into hell might feel more natural to us if our ego identity was forged in adversity, the rise to a higher course is likely easier when our sense of self had been nurtured into formation by more provident higher (i.e., taller) powers. We are now in the realm of higher consciousness, a realm of trust and compassion, of generosity and freedom. This is heaven.

When we rise into higher consciousness, as the mythic Christ (whom the apostle Paul named the Second Adam) rose from the garden tomb, our ego completely transcends the deadly entanglements of insecurity and conviction. We are truly free to give of ourselves, to share what we have with others without concern for returned favors. In heaven, everyone lives in a state of inclusive community, offering our contribution to the greater good and truly caring for one another. There is enough for everybody, and goodwill abounds.

The timeless myths can help open our awareness to the critical turning-point of this present moment, to the choice we have in every new situation. We are familiar with the popular misreading of myth, where believers look forward to heaven in the next life, when their enemies and unbelievers are condemned to suffer forever in hell. Supposedly this is scheduled to happen after we die. But who is it, really, that dies?

In all the major wisdom traditions it is ego that must be transcended – released, surrendered, and overcome; specifically the “I” who believes everything turns around “me” and owes me what is “mine.” As Jesus says in the Fourth Gospel:

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. – John 12:24

We make choices every day that either cast us down into the hell of lower consciousness, into opposition and endless conflict; or raise us up into the heaven of higher consciousness, into paradox and sacred communion with all things. To live in heaven, we must “die” to selfish ambition, drop our holy convictions, and even give up our desperate longing to be saved.

Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.    – Luke 17:33

The sacred narratives of religion are neither literal records of miraculous events and metaphysical realities, nor bad science and obsolete fictions of a superstitious past. They speak a timeless message, but only when we are ready to hear it.

I guess this is as good a time as any to listen.

 

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