Michael Meade is a storyteller, author, and scholar of mythology, anthropology, and psychology. Deeply influenced by the works of Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, Edith Hamilton, James Hillman, Malidoma Somé, and Joseph Campbell, he views our world through a lens of myth, symbolism, and the inextricable connection between nature and culture. Meade’s passion for making meaning and making sense of humanity’s predicament in a dark time reverberates throughout Why The World Doesn’t End: Finding Renewal In A Time Of Loss, as well as his other books such as The World Behind The World (2008) and Fate And Destiny (2010).
As an avid reader of Meade, it is nearly impossible for me to characterize his writing and storytelling in just one word, but if forced to do so, I would have to say “paradox.” His work is replete with paradox and the capacity to hold the tension of opposites in order to facilitate a third option and thereby birth authentic transformation. For example, “finding renewal in a time of loss,” or “a light inside dark times” or “the ends of time, the roots of eternity,” to name a few of his book and CD titles.
In a time of decline, demise, unraveling and what is very likely to be the collapse of industrial civilization and the paradigm on which it rests, it is crucial, in my opinion, to grasp and nourish the opposite of descent by attending to all that may facilitate an ascent to a rebirth of humanity. Descent, in fact, is only one half of the story of civilization that is now playing out its last act. From the ashes of that collapsed paradigm, another will emerge, and our work in current time is to forge a framework with which it can be constructed—a skeleton of sanity, sagacity, creativity, compassion, and vision to be enfleshed on the bare bones of what we modestly call “preparation,” knowing that today’s preparation is tomorrow’s next culture.
The decline of civilization is occurring in the context of an obsession with all things new, innovative, and ostensibly original. Yet increasingly we are discovering that ancient, indigenous wisdom sustained other, more mature civilizations for longer periods of time, and many individuals and communities are avidly reclaiming and employing the myths of our ancestors in order to make sense of our predicament. Michael Meade is such an individual whose work encompasses not only the realm of storytelling and writing but in-depth mentoring programs for at-risk youth and powerful healing retreats for returning combat veterans and their families.
New and old? Endings and beginnings? Of this Meade writes:
Ends and beginnings may be polar opposites, but like most opposed things, they are secretly connected. Part of the revelation of the end-times is that things do not actually end altogether. In the great drama of the world, the end leads bck to the beginning and, from what went before, things begin again. (3)
As we enter the year 2013 we cannot forget the many predictions of apocalypse that colored 2012. Specifically, as the winter solstice date of December 21 approached, media was replete with “end of the world” jokes and spoofs. Ironically, as the ominous date approached, I was riveted to Meade’s Why The World Doesn’t End which served to make the notion of a literal ending of the world all the more absurd for me.
So while I know that the world will not end, I also know that many things are ending. In fact, it appears that every institution constructed by our myriad societies is in a state of demise. Both nature and culture are hugely at risk as humanity has now created a climate emergency in which melting ice caps, rising sea levels, species extinction, famine, and drought appear to shape the catastrophic context of our imminent future. Whether human beings admit the reality of these endings, their ramifications register and reverberate in the nether regions of our psyches. For in fact, the notion of an apocalypse is an archetype or universal theme in the collective unconscious of the psyche. The problem with archetypes, however, is that while they constellate enormous psychic energy, we never know exactly how they will play out. For this reason, myths and stories which have throughout time arisen from archetypes also contain clues about how best to navigate them.
As we well know, in a time of endings, we are all psychologically more vulnerable. Whether it is the death of a loved one, the ending of a relationship, the approach of retirement, a financial bankruptcy, or foreclosure on the place we call home, endings tend to generate emotional rawness. We are open to what Meade calls, “deep vulnerabilities, wild fantasies, and extreme attitudes.” (7) Thus, apocalyptic forecasts often reveal much more about us than the forecast itself. In such times we are open to “psychic invasions,” says Meade, which I find curious in an era of “home invasions” as if the places within us and around us that have felt most secure in the past no longer provide safety. The poet William Butler Yeats speaks of a center that cannot hold as things fall apart.
A culture in decline reveals many things, and of course we must not forget that the literal meaning of apocalypse is “the unveiling.” Generally, in collapse, a culture’s shadow or underside is revealed, and in a society which prides itself in being rational and logical, it is not surprising to see ghastly eruptions of the irrational and a chilling madness that results in mass murder and an escalation of terrified people arming themselves in attempt to prevent further carnage. The mind boggling spike in gun sales since the Sandy HookElementary School massacre of December, 2012 reveals the level of terror that permeates the lives of millions in the United States.
Apocalypse is not only an unveiling but a time of being in a state of “in-between-ness” that is neither a complete ending nor an authentic beginning. At the same time that collapse and destruction are occurring, so also are discovery and renewal and a re-inventing of what once was. “Ends and beginnings are secretly connected,” says Meade, “but it takes a mythical mind and a metaphorical sense to see how one might lead to the other. Whenever the end seems near, the beginning is also close at hand.” (20) One of the roles of myth is to give life meaning or as Meade states, we are narrative beings who find our way by story-ing the world around us. (23) The lack of mythical mind in the age of decline presents a challenge for humanity that causes many to become mad for lack of the capacity to make sense of monumental loss.
Myths are not facts that can be proven true, but throughout time they have proven valuable when people lose a sense of what is true and realize that reason alone cannot provide meaning. In fact, Meade often describes myth as “a series of lies that tells the truth.” In other words, they are not accounts of historical events that took place in real time, but they are products of the imagination that resonate with our universal human experience of being inherent “meaning makers” as we navigate the vicissitudes of life. Modern culture, however, has been stunted in its capacity to do so because as Meade notes, “modern cultures try to produce obedient citizens and life-long consumers instead of people who know the meaning and purpose of their own lives.” (25)
To be modern is to live in a soul-less world. Soul in this context is not a religious word but rather as Meade says, “our unique, inward style and way of being in this world.” Nevertheless, the enormous gift in this time of loss and seeming meaninglessness is that soul can be grown amid the chaos and collapse because “the threat of collapse and utter loss can also provide a deeper sense of wholeness when nothing but total involvement and wholeheartedness will work….In this darker revelation, things become both impossible and more possible at the same time.” (38)
In recent years I have committed my life to assisting my fellow earthlings in preparing emotionally and spiritually for a daunting and chaotic future which is clearly manifesting its implications in current time. While I am also a storyteller and a student of myth and imagination, my perspective is often more literal than Meade’s, yet I am aware that for the most part, spiritual preparation is about making sense of one’s experience, both as an individual and as part of a community. My work takes me to people and places where the hunger for meaning and the capacity to make meaning with one’s community is not only palpable but often astonishes me as I witness the lengths some human beings are willing to travel within themselves and with one another in order to reclaim the ancient wisdom that enables them to re-imagine their world.
In this time of “betwixt and between,” this time of shifting from an either/or to a both/and perspective, it is crucial to logically analyze our predicament and then logistically prepare for it as much as humanly possible. To do so by definition brings one into philosophical and psychological conflict with the culture. A feeling of dissociation or schizophrenia is an invariable result. Likewise, when one witnesses a culture whose inhabitants are marinated in both apathetic denial and substantial levels of trauma at the same time, it is virtually impossible not to feel overwhelmed. As Michael Meade writes, “Periods of radical change either develop maturity in people or else cause them to regress.” (87).
In the second section of Why The World Doesn’t End, Meade tells and comments on a number of ancient stories that offer grounded wisdom and meaning for those wanting to make sense of the chaos of current time. Many of these are delightful stories of endings or challenges that pit individuals between poles of opposites that test their resolve and bring forth a third, transformative force which resolves the situation in an unexpected, so-called “irrational” manner. I highly recommend a journey into the paradox, playful humor, and profound parables that Why The World Doesn’t End offers the reader. In this dark time, one is illumined by a quality of irreverent inspiration and renewal only found in a mytho-poetic perspective. For as Michael Meade asserts:
When the world becomes darker the inner light of the soul becomes more important; when even nature seems about to unravel the inner pattern, the thread of meaning can be the only way to feel woven into life and bound for some valuable purpose that can assist the world in distress. When the world becomes dark with endings it becomes time to turn to the inner thread that first brought each soul to this life. Although it cannot be found by common observers, as long as we hold the inner thread of being, we cannot be completely lost in this world. (95)