Saturday, May 16, 2009

Why We Are the Way We Are

May 16, 2009 

This thought-provoking essay is from contributor Subuddh P.; you may contact him via his website

Before we search for a mythology for our time, it's worth taking a closer look at the mythologies that have informed America so far and how they work, how we have come to be what we are. A country as large and complex as America has many different stories, but this is still largely a Christian country. Remember, when Columbus first landed in the West Indies he thought he had found the Garden of Eden, the return to paradise. It is not Columbus but the Pilgrim story that illuminates America. This story runs deep in almost everyone who has been raised here.

The Pilgrims too were looking for the Garden of Eden, but they did not expect to find it in this life. They believed that it was the human task to to build the kingdom of heaven on earth, the city shining on the hill in anticipation of the the return on the messiah and eventually the end of the world. This was the earthly duty of human beings and those who built this kingdom would find a place in heaven, returning to the Garden of Eden to live in an eternal beatific present.

So the pilgrim Christian story is a long march towards perfection of the self and the society as guided by the Bible. When perfection is attained at some point the end of the world arrives. The sense of duty and the knowledge of the return of the saviour gave the pilgrim a psychic space to rest. He or she could take refuge after a long day of hard work knowing that they have done their duty and in the after life there would be a blessed release from all that judgement and striving.

When the outside world was still wild and untamed the perfection energy could be applied towards a mastery of it: towards understanding how things worked, how to conquer the land and make it comfortable, how to make food plentiful and everything else. The material life became synonymous with being a good person.

But as these problems got solved, life became increasingly comfortable, more leisure time was available. This is, in a way, a problem. Think about it, if every thing worked and there was nothing to do and you still had all this driving perfection energy, what would you do with yourself?

Some will claim the fifties were the apogee of this Christian perfection. The perfection energy had to go somewhere and it found new outlets. Some of these no longer work in a viable way, in so much as they do not ensure the survival and continuation of the tribe, and people get more and more far removed from anything they actually are.

It turned from the mastery of the external world to the elimination of risk and perfection of inner feelings. So laws grow and grow to prevent any kind of risk whatsoever. Safety is everything. What is a financial derivative but an attempt to eliminate risk and ensure abundant profit? But the more you eliminate risk the more interdependent you are, the more helpless you are, the more vulnerable you are to a systemic failure.

The subsistence farmer in the Peruvian highlands faces risk of wipeout every season. Yet if he is wiped out it is relatively easy for him to start over, his needs are much less and his survival skills much more. This is the paradox, the more insualted against risk, the more spectacular the failure, the greater the angry response and greater the call for more risk elimination.

It also turned into a idealized emphasis on finding the perfect career. Go back a hundred years ago and nobody expected a "career". Work was just work to be done as a sacred duty. Today there is the popular emphasis on finding and doing what you love. Whether such a thing exists for everyone is an open question and whether it can exist in a way so you can pay the bills is also an open question.

And it turned into a striving for perfection where no perfection is possible, in the world of personal relationships. So the emphasis in popular culture on idealized soul mates and the promise of blissful happiness in this natural life.

Western Christianized fairy tales end with ' they lived happily ever after'. Look closely, what does it mean ever after? A common mistake it to think it means for the rest of our natural lives. Read this as happily *in the* ever after and then it makes more sense. As in, having fulfilled our Christian duty, having married and built a home and family as we are required to, we will find fulfillment in the after life. Psychologists will also suggest that we find deeper fulfillment in meeting the archetype, it is a necessary part of the human experience.

There is no promise of 'happiness' during our natural life, in fact quite the opposite. The natural life has to be lived *as required* in order to secure that position in the after life. In the world of time all things will go in cycles, the summers are to be enjoyed and the winters have to be endured, After all you can know what is happy only when you know what is sad. And on the horizontal line of life you get old and die, glamor and glory fade away.

In one more twist the perfection energy remained while the faith died. There was no longer any sense of duty, no belief in the Bible stories or the end times, yet all that driving energy still persisted. What to do with it, where to rest? You can see it in so much of the left, all their social engineering, the constant need to tinker with things, to move the pieces here and there, to do something.

This gave us a rather potent strain of political correctness, which, as positive proof that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, insisted on regulating the commons in a way that destroyed all its sponteniety. Whereas the commons had always served as a place of refuge where an individual could drop their guard and relax, it was now rendered sterile and functionless, leaving the individual more lost and isolated than ever.

It also gave us the insistence that all women could and should take on the persona of a solitary workaholic alpha male and they would actually be content. So the family was devastated, leaving the individual - men and women -yes, more lost and isolated than ever.

Finally this energy without faith to rest in found its very sad outlet in the disaster of addiction that plagues this country.

The pilgrim mythology worked in so much it gave the pilgrim a relatively stable psychic base for life while ensuring the survival and continuation of the tribe. It also gave its participants a great vitality. Have there been any more creative people in human history than Americans?

But the old stories seem really distant and hard to relate to. Life in the community free, risk free, personality free, cubicle hell suburbs is really boring and the cost of doing things better seems so high compared to the rewards gained. We find ourselves asking, do we really need all this stuff? Is it worth the pain to our community and environment?

The idea of perfection as placing the individual at the center of everything seems hollow and often leaves us empty and alone. But we don't have to accept these definitions for ourselves. As so many entries on oftwominds remind us, perfection is relative and the source of peace and happiness seems to be somewhere else.

copyright 2009 by Subuddh P. 

In Readers Journal: Thought-provoking New essay by Zeus Y. 

Tortured Democracy (Zeus Y.) 

"Good faith" may have limited application in contract law, but it has no place in constitutional law. If you flout the highest law of the land, especially if you are a top-level decision-maker, you should be brought to justice. If you provably condoned, approved, and justified torture against established national and international law, you should be prosecuted.

Our previous list of hot reading (check them out at your local library if you don't want to own a copy) can be found at Books and Films

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