“You can tell what informs a society by what building is tallest,” Joseph Campbell says. He goes on to describe how churches were the tallest buildings with ancient towns built around the church, then castles or government buildings, and finally corporate offices. We got stuck on fearing the government when corporations have become the bigger threat. This was done to us deliberately, so we would cheer deregulation and lower taxes on the wealthiest and be grateful the government wasn’t overstepping and controlling us. Meanwhile powerful corporations and the vast wealth disparity they create are ruining people’s lives. The GOP has been working for this for decades, and Trump, for all the many other flaws he has, is an unscrupulous businessman who hates regulations because they make it harder for him to rip people off and now he’s deregulating everything and signing a tax law tailor made for business people like him all while still profiting from his businesses. It hasn’t been ten years since the ’08 crash that almost wiped out everyone’s 401Ks and now we’re stripping away the bank regulations put in place to make sure that never happened again. It’s an old tactic of control: look over here where this extreme would be hypothetically scary and bad for you but don’t look over here where that extreme’s opposite extreme is causing actual damage. Our fear now should be of too powerful corporations and a government who does their bidding.
The idea of tribalism goes back to ancient times when bands of hunter-gatherers were following the animals they ate and searching for edible plants and fruits. Peoples clashed. They probably didn’t always clash, but if food scarcity was at levels that threatened survival, they certainly would have clashed. Compassion was enough of an instinct that killing would have troubled them, so they needed to carry a tribal god with them that told them they were a select group and other groups they ran into were not in that select group, which gave them permission to kill that other group without guilt or with diminished guilt. There are remnants of the tribal god thinking in the Western religions, which derived from the hunter-gatherer style of living. In the Bible, there are lists of foods appropriate to eat. These lists are worse than arbitrary, these were lists of the foods these people were already eating, so that when they ran into peoples eating different foods, they could kill them for violating religious law. There are other lists in the Bible, for how to sew etc. The Western religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) have adapted to a more unified globe and now teach messages of peace, but this tribalism origin shows in their texts and that influence probably affects our thinking, whether religious or not, we’re all influenced by Western religion.
A close equivalent to tribalism, in modern times, might be people who take sports rivalries way too seriously and imagine the campus of a rival college team or the city of a rival team a completely other set of people, even when everything else about those two cities or campuses would point to them having a lot in common (similarly sized, same region of the country, etc.). Tribalism would be if I eat Wheaties for breakfast and I have a neighbor who easts Mueslix, and I think, What kind of an asshole eats Mueslix for breakfast? I don’t even have an issue with this neighbor, I’m just looking for arbitrary distinctions so that when the end of times comes if we’re down to one loaf of bread and one bottle of water between the two of us I can not share without guilt.
The problem with explaining the divide in America today with tribalism is that it attempts to establish a false equivalency, kind of a buzz phrase through the 2016 election and continuing after, but a buzz phrase because the tactic is used constantly. There is a tribal element to the divide in America, because those Western religion influences are so powerful, but the distinctions of tribalism exist solely so that there are distinctions. They exist to create us and not-us, other. What divides America today is where we align on actual issues and what the influence of tribalism allows us to ignore is that there are objective truths behind those issues. This predates Trump. Jenny McCarthy used a study, later determined to be based on manipulated data and fraudulent research, to convince people vaccines cause autism. Many probably still believe this. Vaccinating a perfectly healthy baby is frightening, so it can be tempting to believe someone who tells you not to do it, but read up on how terrifying Polio was before a vaccine to prevent it existed. Climate change, caused by human activity, is no fun to think about, so when someone claims we’re just in a natural warming period, it’s tempting to believe. If you’re a Trump supporter, believing, as he said, that millions of people in California illegally voted for Clinton is tempting to believe, because winning the popular vote would be a nice feather in the cap of the person you voted for. Similarly, believing his inauguration was more well attended than Obama’s.
The scientific method allows us to eliminate our biases in how we observe. It has ways of eliminating that we might like to believe Trump’s inauguration was more well attended than Obama’s with what we can clearly see in pictures, that it wasn’t. Science has ways of studying how and why the planet is warming and was able to establish an extreme likelihood that digging up millions of years’ worth of fossil fuels and releasing them into the atmosphere as a gas is, inconvenient as it is to learn, the how and the why. Science establishes extreme likelihoods because science doesn’t deal in certainties. Certainty ends the search for potential new information and our ability to integrate that new information with what we already believe or to change what we already believe completely. We seem to be in a new age where people are comfortable believing whatever they choose to believe, and those people take advantage of science not dealing in certainties and use that to create irrational doubt, which is not the same as skepticism.
Soon after Trump was elected, he made the claim Obama had wiretapped him. An interviewer made every effort to nail him down on this, as Trump tried to be oblique, as he likes to be, you might remember this clip, Trump kept saying “you can figure it out,” and the reporter said, “I want to know what you think, you’re the president.” At one point, Trump said, “I don’t stand for anything,” and then he told the reporter, “I can have my own opinions. You can have your own opinions.” This is the problem in America, and Trump is just an expression of that problem. Whether or not Obama was illegally wiretapping Trump is not a matter of opinion, it either happened or it didn’t. That clip is here; it’s hard to watch:
After Trump’s win, a lot of Americans questioned how people could have voted for him and the response to that questioning was often, “Apparently people aren’t entitled to an opinion anymore.” That’s nonsense. Of course, everyone is entitled to an opinion but respecting others’ opinions doesn’t require not questioning them. As much as people were entitled to vote for Trump and defend that vote, I was and am entitled to state that they voted wrong. Russian paid for millions of ads on facebook manipulating Americans into being for Trump and against Clinton and, more relevantly, which doesn’t get the mention it deserves, those ads were shared by American citizens millions of times. We got duped. Russia rigged our election for president taking advantage of our willingness to believe whatever we like to believe.
If we’re not allowed to challenge each other to be better voters, our democracy is threatened. I hope everyone who’s read this far reads the quote below from David Foster Wallace. What comes through even more than his wish for his fellow citizens to maintain a Democratic Spirt is his compassion at how difficult it truly is, how we all fail, sometimes, how the trap of failing to maintain a Democratic Spirit is universal. Compare how his words below try to unite us at the same time as they try to make us better. Compare that to how our current president uses that same trap to try to divide us and make us worse.
“A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others. As any American knows, this is a difficult spirit to cultivate and maintain, particularly when it comes to issues you feel strongly about. Equally tough is a DS’s criterion of 100 percent intellectual integrity – you have to be willing to look honestly at yourself and your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually. A Democratic Spirit’s constituent rigor and humility and self-honesty are, in fact, so hard to maintain on certain issues that it’s almost irresistibly tempting to fall in with some established dogmatic camp and to follow that camp’s line on the issue and to let your position harden within the camp and become inflexible and believe that the other camps are either evil or insane and to spend all your time and energy trying to shout over them.” – David Foster Wallace, from a 1999 article, “Authority and American Usage”
I’ve probably been to Catholic Mass as many times since my mom died as I’d gone with her since returning to Ohio from Seattle, several years ago. I always felt like an imposter when I went. Everyone worshipped so sincerely and I felt like I detracted from that energy, the way a non-participant in laughter therapy can ruin a session. I went a few times with her as her illness progressed because I felt like she wanted me to and I got something out of it, but I liked to stay home and write while she and her husband were at church and then have breakfast ready for them when they got home. Mom came to understand that represented me better and she respected that.
Now I’ve been to her funeral Mass, another bereavement service, Christmas, and Easter. I go so her husband doesn’t have to go alone, but I also go for me. Mom’s there. I drift in and out of paying attention. I’m mostly communing with the mystery, where Mom’s gone, to the mystery of being. Our presence proves the mystery of being. My conflict with religion is that it attempts to unravel the mystery by attaching specifics I don’t relate to. What Joseph Campbell taught me is that all religions are true. They’re metaphorical of something. What’s happening to Jesus should be happening in your life. Whether Jesus rose from the dead or didn’t, that was almost two-thousand years ago. I relate to it as a story. Jesus died and rose from the dead, as a metaphor. My mom died but I think of her sitting in her church with her husband, as I always think of her, but being in church brings me closer to the mystery of being, where she is now, and I commune with her. She has risen. It’s well known that that’s blasphemy, in some thinking, but in other thinking that is the point of religion to recognize that God is in you and your loved ones and everyone you meet. Joseph Campbell says, “Jesus ascended to heaven but what is heaven? Heaven is no place. He ascended to heaven through the inward space which is where you must go.” Sitting in church, I travel to the inward space and be with my mom. I enjoy that.
What if we remembered our first Christmas? Even babies born in the last six days of December lacked the verbal skills by their first Christmas to be at all prepared for the smorgasbord of stuff suddenly pressed on them accompanied by a showering of gleeful attention from those big people we’re learning love us. Remember, up to a certain age, young children think anything that moves is alive. I don’t remember getting a train that would flip every time it bumped a wall and move in the opposite direction until it hit another wall and flip again and head to a next wall until its batteries drained, but I’ve seen videos of me sitting up with chubby legs and tracking it enraptured.
Then we attach this magic to a guy named Santa Claus, who is either a myth or a lie. The choice is ours. The myth is a stand in for Christmas Spirit, itself a stand in for holiday cheer and good feeling, people doing nice things for each other. When we discover there is no Santa Claus we aren’t surprised. We kind of knew, not all along but by then, that our parents were behind the whole thing. Our parents have conjured magic for us at maybe the only time in our lives we’re capable of fully buying in. After we realize Santa didn’t bring us anything, our parents, maybe sometimes with money that didn’t come easily, bought us this stuff and gave Santa the credit so we would believe in the magic, the curtain is drawn back but the magic remains.
This will be my first Christmas with both my parents gone. That’s been on my mind pretty steadily since about two weeks before Thanksgiving. People say the holidays are tough when you’re grieving, but I keep thinking back on how great my parents made every Christmas. The TIE Fighter I found under the tree the year I woke up at three in the morning and snuck into my room to play with for five minutes before going back to sleep, the electric train set going around the tree I know my dad must have been excited to buy his only son, the copy of Infinite Jest my mom got me a few years ago after I dropped only one hint about wanting it more than a month before Christmas. I keep thinking of how magic Christmas felt long after the illusion of magic was gone because my parents always made it special not with stuff but with effort and care. That’s the magic that lets me, about as anti-commercialism as one gets, work in retail and not focus on shopper frustration around the holidays but see mostly people in good moods excited to buy stuff for people they love to make them happy by the thought behind the gift. That’s the same magic that lets me, a not religious or even spiritual in the typical way person, feel like my parents are with me this Christmas.
Mother died today. Or it might have been yesterday. I only don’t know because right now I’m enjoying morning coffee with her while she receives therapy from one of her Hospice nurses. I’m preparing this blog ahead of time linking some of the blog posts I’ve made over the many months since her diagnosis of terminal liver cancer. Months we’ve managed, following her lead, to make the most of. Sharing her through my writing is likely to be my path through grief.
I’ll link them short to long. If you feel like reading any, please do. I’m grateful for your thoughts, your comments, and your time.
1. Compiling A Reading List I Hope not to get to soon
3. Dreaming of A Living Funeral
4. Bulk Popcorn
5. Hearts Connected by String
7. Integrating Sadness and Joy:
8. Scan Day:
9. Keeping An Eye on Her Grandchildren
10. This post I wrote about my father four years after he died:
11. My Mother’s Simons:
I have a Trump theory that’s weirdly optimistic. Trump’s function is that of the trickster. Joseph Campbell says, “No matter what system of thought you have it cannot possibly include boundless thought, so just when you think you have it all figured out, here comes the trickster to show you it’s not quite that way, and then you get the becoming thing again.”
In the story, a trickster god walks through a town wearing a hat with different colors on each side. He walks through one way and then turns the hat around and walks back. So the townspeople are all talking about the god who walked through town but they argue about what color his hat was. After a big row, the trickster god comes forward and says, “It’s my fault. Spreading strife is my greatest joy.”
“Spreading strife is my greatest joy” would work as Donald Trump’s tagline. Not only is it his greatest joy, it’s his only play. He’s not playing the role of the trickster but as a nation we can allow him to perform that function. “Make America Becoming Again” would fit neatly on posters.
With permission, I’ve shared details of my mother’s journey through my own reflections, here’s another. My mom had a vision of Jesus carrying his cross and her following with a cross of her own. Jesus was giant-sized, she half his size. Helping her were tiny figures. She looked closely and saw that they were people who’ve sent cards or texts or otherwise offered encouragement. (That would include readers of my posts, as well.) The faces of Jesus and her are both blank.
My mom hopes it was a vision, not a dream or a hallucination. To me, the difference isn’t central. She’s accessing deep mythological themes that are comforting her. It’s bound to her specific religious beliefs but pushing deeper. She and Jesus are faceless. I interpret that as moving past the personification to that mystery beyond all human comprehension. The image of God is the final obstruction to the religious experience of interfacing with the transcendent.
We require models to show us how to die, which are really models to show us how to live knowing we’ll die. That’s the real human struggle. After all, dying’s no trouble. Dying isn’t even an action event. We have trouble with this concept, of course, and its inevitability isn’t necessarily comforting. In the Bible, Jesus died on the cross for our sins. What sins? The sin we’re born into the world with, well that makes no sense to me, personally. Considering the same story, I interpret the crucifixion, as I mention in Little Book of Thou, which I’ve excerpted here, as God becoming so immersed in the role of Jesus as a human being that Jesus didn’t know he was God and had to die a human life with only the same faith in what came next that every other human dies with. (What that is being unique to each individual)
We’re all on this journey but my mom is on it with a heightened awareness, because she’s terminally ill. She’s carrying her cross, now, and being helped by her Simons, but she’s also helping her Simons. She’s providing a beautiful, courageous model for accepting the passing of this life she knows and treasures. In some ways, it would be easier not to know what’s coming, but we’re all, those who love her, her Simons, following her lead and choosing to value the knowing and treat this ending leg of the journey as a gift.
(An excerpt from Little Book of Thou, chapter eleven: Jesus Christ and the Hero Journey. The first two hero journeys mentioned prior to this portion are when he went to the temple to teach the elders and when he resisted the Devil’s temptations in the desert.)
I think the third hero journey of Jesus came with him introducing the planting culture ideas we talked about into a religious system more based on the hunting culture myths. Remember, the hunting culture myths led to religious systems based on duality. One of the troubling results of that thinking is a failure to see another group’s God as the same God as yours with simply a different name. So this pitted you against your neighbor, if your neighbor had a different God, but what does Jesus say? “Love thy neighbor.” Jesus also says, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” This to me sounds a lot like the planting culture idea of Earth as a manifestation of the transcendent energy out of which all life comes into being.
Joseph Campbell says, “If you think of us as having come out of the earth, rather than thrown in here from somewhere else, then we are the eyes of the earth, ours are the hands and ears of the earth.” We are the sense organs of the earth in this view. I love that thought and what Jesus says reminds me of that.
The fourth hero journey Jesus goes on is dying on the cross.
Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?
You’ll find lots of answers from many different readings. You’ll find answers from people in your life whose opinions you especially value. Feel free to mark this one clearly with a check mark for What Uncle Greg Thinks [ ]
As you know, I’ve spent my life reading and writing stories, so I tend to appreciate and get the most out of the text of the Bible in story terms. What I believe the crucifixion story is meant to do is teach us to let go of our ego attachment to this world and our bodies and return to the transcendent energy from which we came. Because we can’t relate to that mystery of being returning to it is a frightening prospect. Joseph Campbell puts it this way: “What am I? Am I the bulb which carries the light? Or am I the light of which the bulb is the carrier?” Our bodies carry a speck of the transcendent energy distinctly us. When our bodies die, that speck of transcendent energy distinctly us returns to that sphere beyond all human comprehension.
In the Bible, God came to Earth in human form, as Jesus. The way I interpret that is God so immersed himself in the role of Jesus as a human being that He no longer knew he was God, he was left to wonder. Then he had to believe he was God. He had to have faith. He had to choose to identify with the light instead of the bulb.
The crucifixion represented just how difficult accepting death as part of life can be, but Jesus showed us the way. He was crucified by people threatened by a new way, but he also contemplated escape when he spent the night in the garden before choosing to accept death as a necessary part of their being life. (Which reminds me of Eve’s choice to accept death as a necessary part of their being life, when she ate from the apple, also in a garden.)
Grandma Lynne reminded me of The Resurrection, where Jesus returned to life after death and visited some of the apostles. Interpreting this as a story, what that makes me think of is when Grandpa Gary first died I had numerous intense dreams about him that helped me grieve. This must have been an experience many people had, this intense visitation of recently deceased loved ones, and so that common experience went into the crucifixion story. Then Jesus ascended into heaven. But where is heaven? Heaven is a “place” transcendent of a physical location. Jesus also said, “The kingdom of the father is spread upon the earth and men do not see it.”
So Joseph Campbell is saying that it’s true that Jesus ascended to heaven, it’s true as a metaphor, and what it means is that Jesus ascended to heaven through the inward space. Divinity exists within each of us, and we can try to live with our awareness of that divinity within each other, which is the concept, I think, Jesus was sharing with us when he taught his message of peace to the world.
The Tristan and Isolde story as told by Joseph Campbell in my own words, from Little Book of Thou, chapter six: Social Order and Individuality
Tristan was the messenger of a king and was sent to Isolde, who was due to marry the king in one of these arranged marriages. The king and Isolde had never met. Well, Isolde’s mother had prepared a potion for Isolde and the king to drink, a magic potion that would make them fall in love. But Tristan and Isolde, mistaking the potion for wine, drank it together. They fell in love. Isolde’s nurse realized right away what happened and said to Tristan, “You have drunk your death.”
And Tristan said, “If by my death, you mean this agony of love that is my life. If you mean by my death, the punishment we are to suffer if discovered [which would have been a sentence of death], I accept that. But if by my death, you mean eternal punishment in the fires of hell, I accept that too.”
What do you think of that story?
An interesting hint in that story is that Isolde’s mother prepared a potion to make the king and Isolde share a love. That sounds like people were aware that arranged marriages, at least sometimes, resulted in partnerships where this special kind of love wasn’t present and that this special degree of love was hoped for in arranged marriages. Here was a mother making a potion so that her daughter would have a life with this love in it. But she drank it with Tristan and the two of them had the special love which was illicit, in these times. Tristan and Isolde really would have been killed, for this, if they existed in real life. But here we have Tristan’s declaration of this love being more important than society’s rule, society’s punishment for disobeying this rule, and even the punishment of enduring the pain of spending eternity in a literal hell, which people commonly believed in back in those days.
This view eventually prevailed, but change is scary to people. Change is hard. So it may have taken many real life Tristan and Isolde’s insisting on this new way to effect a change in the law of the state and of the church.
Did you notice Tristan called love a pain? Love is also referred to as an affliction. You’re probably familiar with Cupid, who we refer to playfully around Valentine’s Day. What did Cupid do? He shot arrows into people, right? Ouch! Love has also been called “the wound that only the one who delivered the wound can heal.” Joseph Campbell says, “Love itself is a pain, you might say, the pain of being truly alive.”
What he means by that, I think, isn’t that love is a bad thing, at all. Love is a wonderful thing, just that when finding someone or something to love, you are taking on an element of risk. Someone or something loved might be one day lost, which will cause pain, but that’s the nature of life. Life is a cycle of having experiences and having those experiences pass, wanting them back sometimes and feeling sad, feeling pain, but then realizing that those experiences, all your experiences, never truly do pass away. You carry them as memories and they will reside in you always. You may try to take one out and find it still causes you sadness or pain. Then one day you get out that same memory and it brings you that same joy again. That is love.
This is from The Little Book of Thou: Reflections on Ancient Myth and the Writings of Joseph Campbell, a book I wrote for my sisters’ kids as a Christmas present.
Excerpt from Chapter Six: Social Order and Individuality
You remember in an earlier chapter we talked about mimicry. Ancient humans mimicked plants they ate and the animals they ate. These influences didn’t go away but there was something else they observed about the world that they tried to mimic. Can you guess what? Look up. What do you see? If you’re outside, you’re likely to see either the sun or the moon, depending on if it’s day or night. Well, ancient humans observed the sky, a lot, particularly as farms made their food source more consistent and dependable. They found in the sky seven lights that moved against the fixed stars: the sun, the moon, and the five visible planets. These correspond to the days of our weeks, today, which shows how these influences continue to impact future generations. They noticed those lights moved in a consistent order. They thought this must have meant something important that they ought to mimic. How do you mimic lights in the sky?
They applied the consistent order of the lights’ motion. If you think of people first noticing the moon and other smaller lights and then recording how they move over time, you can imagine how profound it would be to discover they moved in a consistent pattern. Why? What did it mean? They decided it meant they should establish a similarly consistent social order. This is where the ruling court of feudal times comes from: the king as the moon or sun, the queen as Venus, and the other court members the other visible planets. They also formed social castes within their populations, a sort of ranking order of importance among people, to match these moving lights. Imagine how important they seemed!