CHANGING OF THE GODS? - Michelle LeBaron
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. - W.B. Yeats
It’s here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst. - Leonard Cohen
Something mythic is happening in the world. We are in the midst of an archetypal changing of the gods moment, when apparent “givens” dissolve. Changing of the gods moments happen rarely, but when they do, shifts can be rapid. These are moments when the heroes and the heroines change along with the guiding stars and the constellations of key ideas guiding a society or a people. In such times, we may find ourselves off-center, our unrealized dreams tugging at our sleeves with forlorn longing or frantic urgency. Momentum that we thought was reliable begins to flag. At such times, it is vitally important that the center hold, that the poetry of possibility not yield to the fixed hold of fear.
In times when the very music of being changes, there is openness and possibility. We literally look again at fundamental questions: who we are, where we come from (a question that is always answered in the present, through current lenses) and where we are going (also a question answered in the present, for the future is always beyond our grasp).
Which gods will we choose? Will we fasten our hopes onto a god of generosity, a being spacious, welcoming, and loving? Or will we choose retrenchment, looking backwards to gods of old, vengeful, partisan, and anger-filled? Listening to the rhetoric in the post-election United States, this stark choice has been posed again and again.
But what if the way the choices themselves are framed is part of the problem? As I have addressed lawyers, judges, psychotherapists, dialogue practitioners, and mediators in conferences and community gatherings over the past three decades, conversation often turned to bemoaning the increasing myopia of the political right. The unacknowledged subtext was clear: we have clearer sight. Our people hold the best values. Sometimes, I asked audiences how many people from the other side of the political spectrum they engage in daily life. Often, the question was met with silence. At these times, I wanted to channel the trickster, to pose practical questions about the logical consequences of their stance from a bird’s eye view. But instead I followed the rules, walking away from the podium discouraged.
Consider the trickster figure in mythologies of many world cultures. Trickster bridges heaven and earth, practical yet aware of the larger reality. Symbolizing the playful and disruptive side of human imagination, trickster is more at home in the shadows, on the borders and in the in-between places neither light nor dark. Trickster has huge appetites that lead to slipping between the rules, even lying or stealing. Yet trickster is an indispensable hero, ingenious inventor, and brilliant problem-solver. Trickster does not accept limitations, but finds ways around them. Thus, the trickster figure Coyote taught native peoples in North America how to catch salmon, sing and shoot arrows, and the trickster Hermes taught people to make fire.
One particularly endearing attribute of trickster is his irreverence. He does not take himself too seriously. She does not spend time gazing in the mirror at her flawless countenance. For she is flawed as we all are, and it is through those cracks – to invoke the irreplaceable Leonard Cohen – that the light gets in. Lewis Hyde’s wonderful exploration of tricksters across cultures helps us see that “[t]he old myths say that the trickster made the world as we actually find it. Other gods set out to create a world more perfect and ideal, but this world––with its complexity and ambiguity, its beauty and its dirt––was trickster's creation, and the work is not yet finished.”
Given our unfinished state, what is needed now is not a vengeful God who will come down and strike misguided voters or politicos with lightning. Nor simply the more perfect God in her crystalline aspects of abundance, generosity, and caring. Perhaps the polarization in the post-election U.S. and post-Brexit UK is opening a new channel for the light to come in, a light that more consciously includes shadow. For if shadow is excluded, it takes on even more potent form.
The most virulent, hate-infused conflicts I have encountered as a mediator over the past thirty years have been in religious congregations, not secular settings. In religious groups, shadow is often denied as people come together with an eye fixed on virtue. Yet shadow exists. Wherever we humans live, there is hubris, greed, jealousy, unkindness, even hatred. And when those shadow qualities are denied or unintegrated, they become more barbed and potently dangerous.
This is not to argue for a relativist world where uncivil, hateful discourses are loosed without filters or protest. A lot of what was said during the interminable U.S. election campaign constituted – in my book – deplorable hate speech. It is to observe that the chasm between those who either have or believe they have agency, voice, and economic mobility and those who don’t, or believe they don’t. In the U.S., Britain and elsewhere the chasm seems to be growing, and that this is an urgent problem. The two votes underlined what happens when large groups feel disenfranchised and unheard. In the media fog that paints events red or blue, truth is a casualty. Not truth in a pure sense, but the truth of the messy, paradoxical, complicated world in which socioeconomic class has become an increasingly stark divider, race remains an unsalved trauma, and the clarion of sacrifice is used to bind those who were dealt the worst hand. The hubris of progressives made them blind to this, stoking the fires of the over-confident commentators who predicted sure victories for Clinton or the Brexit remain campaign.
The loud voices of pollsters, analysts, and pundits in the lead-up to both votes were subdued in the face of their undeniable errors. Their errors were due, in part, to their blindness to the mythic, and to the embodied, sensed and lived realities of large numbers of people.
Why is it important to be aware of the mythic dimension of our lives? Because myths, though they are sometimes mischaracterized as untrue stories, are actually part of the “glue” that holds humans together. Karen Armstrong writes that myths are “universal and timeless stories”…that remind us in narrative form what it means to be human. They give us meaning and provide a grammar of being that guides us, often outside conscious awareness.
If this is a changing of the gods moment when the core myths that guide us are up for re-examination, let us turn to Karen Armstrong’s understanding of myth as an art form that helps us inscribe meaning on our world, inoculating against despair arising in relation to its (and our) imperfections. We urgently need the leadership of artists to help us see clearly through this period of tightening and narrowing. We need artists’ familiarity with paradox, irony, complexity; with both the limitations and sublime creativity of the physical body. We need trickster art that transgresses, posing questions otherwise unheard and unsettling our ideas of how the world works.
It is not scholarly cleverness that is needed now, but the courage to question “common sense”; to uncover ways to engage each other across the chasms that gape starkly in our midst. We need to make new myths about who we are, and invent processes to share them. Artists have always done this, across societies and empires.
Examples of artists’ pivotal contributions are many, as artists are often activists on the vanguard of social change. Members of Yuyachkani in Peru (whose name, in Quechuan, means “I am thinking/I am remembering”) courageously performed work about the civil war in Quechuan communities before members gave testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission there. Dijana Milošević, director of DAH Theatre in Belgrade, relates how DAH created multiple works during and after the Yugoslav war based on the belief that “we cannot move forward until we face what happened in our name.” The tradition of artists transgressing borders and challenging prevailing politics extends from Ai WeiWei’s quest for openness in China through David Alfaro Siqueiros’ Mexico City murals nearly a century earlier that inspired a generation of Mexican workers to mobilize, and far beyond them back through history.
In the unsettling process of birthing a greater consciousness, old identities, forms and myths are dying, even as those to guide us forward have not been fully developed. Our work, with which artists are intimately familiar, is to do two things: stay connected to our centers without grasping for old identities or complacent self-righteousness, and to continually engage a broad spectrum of others, especially those with whom we disagree. The way forward is to have the most audacious, ambitious, and inclusive dialogues we can imagine in multiple forums to explore who we as humans can be now.
To do so, we need theatre, dance, music, and visual art that provokes and challenges us. In the past ten years, I have worked with a wide range of artists who know ways to bring shadow and light – within us and in communities – into dialogue. Dancer Margie Gillis encouraged a gathering of experts on religious conflicts to set aside our ideas about religion and our theories about how to engage religious differences, focusing instead on the health of our organisms, collective and personal. She showed us ways to train ourselves through physical movement and interaction, learning how to move the boundaries within and between us. For example, we worked in pairs to explore what movement a subtle tap or light brushing gesture might inspire in our partner. Doing this made us much more aware of our effects – moment by moment – on others. We also used movement to work with strong emotions arising in interaction, learning how fear can calm as we engage with a stance that initially scared us in another. As we did this work, we discovered more openness, curiosity, and confidence in our safety – physical and psychological – when we ventured out of our comfort zones.
Can we preserve our health, individually and collectively, by dancing together? By creating theatre together in the tradition of Augusto Boal? By resisting easy characterizations of right and wrong, progressive and regressive, instead creating murals that depict the collisions and uncertainties that accompany and confound our attempts to build resilient communities? In Margie’s words, “Can we dance with the monsters (our own and others’) until they get tired?” In the space that arises when the monsters are tired, can we find sanctuary from which something new and more healthy can be born?
Artists and theologians have always walked this terrain. Macbeth provocatively proposed that “life is nothing more than a 'tale told by an idiot,' a purposeless emergence of life-forms including the clever, greedy, selfish, and unfortunate species that we call homo sapiens.” Counterpoint this with the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who wrote “There is something afoot in the universe, something that looks like gestation and birth.” I choose the latter vision as my center, yet I know I must include Macbeth in midwifing it into form.
This is not only a decision born of conviction; it is a choice born of my pain when I’ve realized how aspects of my shadow have kept me from the wholeness I desire. Arts practices have helped me see how, at times, cleverness has kept me insulated from intimacy and selfishness has masqueraded as healthy self-regard. This is why my work is now solely devoted to integrating the arts in conflict engagement: they are the most nuanced mirror I know. Without them, I am not sure how we can truly do the work of holding both our individual and collective centers.
Michelle LeBaron explores how we might transcend and include the best opportunities of the present moment. Read the rest of her article, and join the conversation, in Issue Two of The Porch, available here.