There is a thinking in primordial images, in symbols which are older than the historical man, which are inborn in him from the earliest times, eternally living, outlasting all generations, still make up the groundwork of the human psyche. It is only possible to live the fullest life when we are in harmony with these symbols; wisdom is a return to them.
Unfortunately, American modernity with its short memory and determination to distance itself from all things ancient, has misapprehended the importance of myth, all the while living out what was for years a sacrosanct myth called the American Dream. Twenty-first century humans generally define “myth” as something that is not true and use it synonymously with “fantasy” or “delusion.” At its root, however, myth is related to mystery, story, and word. The ancient writers and speakers of myth did not consider myths to be falsehoods, but rather, a series of “lies” or tall tales that speak the truth. That is to say that myths are inherently paradoxical, but intended to convey profound lessons.
Barry Spector, author of Madness At The Gates Of The City: The Myth of American Innocence, defines myth as “… the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. They organize and justify experience and speak to our unresolved conflicts, needs, and fantasies.… we turn to myth to comprehend the elemental forces that move through our lives, to know who we are, to understand which stories inform our consciousness.”(19) In other words, we use myths on the one hand to make sense of our lives or in many instances, to justify or defend them. The American Dream is a myth we have evolved to explain both our history and our exceptionalism.
We assume that in the modern world, ancient stories such as Greek myths have no relevance to our lives, yet all myths and stories are replete with archetypal themes. Archetypes are merely motifs in the human psyche that under certain circumstances and in the midst of specific experiences become activated or constellated and influence our current reality. For example, the mother archetype is present in the psyche of every woman, but it becomes highly activated when a woman is carrying a child and preparing to give birth—and throughout her life as she fulfills the role of mothering. Even if a woman never has a child, her maternal energy is likely to appear at some point in her life, and when it does, the mother archetype is stirred and will inform how she manages her caretaking.
When we consider the myth of the American dream, for example, a number of archetypes become obvious. Before exploring this notion, let’s look at the essential contents of the American dream. It goes something like this:
The United States is the land of opportunity. Our ancestors came here to flee persecution in Europe, and in doing so discovered that if they worked hard and were willing to make sacrifices, they could not only live freely, but could become successful at anything they undertook. Over the centuries, their hard work produced a society in which people could begin at the very bottom of the economic ladder and rise to the top. Eventually, and particularly after World War II, they created a middle class existence in which they could acquire gainful employment and on the basis of their hard work, receive promotions and all manner of rewards. They could buy a home at a reasonable price, have full health insurance for themselves and their families, build a generous retirement package, put their kids through college, and spend their golden years traveling or pursuing hobbies that they had no time to pursue when they were working hard, carving out their American dream. At the end of life, one will have paid for one’s funeral in advance and left a generous inheritance for one’s descendants.
So let’s notice the archetypal themes in the myth: land of opportunity; ancestors; persecution; triumph over adversity; success; heroism; entitlement; elderhood; prosperity; legacy.
Exploring each in depth would be a fascinating study, but more importantly, let’s also notice what is not part of the story: conquest and genocide of millions of indigenous people which made this kind of astonishing success possible; the privileges afforded to people of Anglo ethnicity; the role of war and resource exploitation in creating a flourishing economy; a basic assumption that health care is a human right; the assumption that young people should have access to a fundamental college education; the assumption that at a certain age, the biology of most humans begins to slow down, and they need to work less and enjoy their leisure time more.
Some of these themes are incredibly dark, and others are assumptions that the middle class adopted in order to achieve a desirable quality of life. Nevertheless, what stories omit is equally as important as what they disclose. The American dream is a mixed story: in part, a story of genocide, racism, classicism, geopolitical and resource imperialism, exceptionalism, and entitlement—as well as humanitarian assumptions about what constitutes a rich quality of life.
Nearly all myths contain mixed themes featuring complicated characters who possess qualities that are both “good” and “bad.”
Perhaps the most important reality excluded from the American Dream is the fate of all heroes. The hero (or heroine) is an archetype. H/She sets out to complete a task which the gods (or an inner voice) have ordered. His/her efforts soon become a journey of struggle with forces opposed to the task, and if the hero becomes a victim of hubris, that is, a prisoner of his/her own ego, forgetting the mission on which they were sent by something greater than themselves, either suddenly or eventually, they are destined to fail. The hero may return home having learned a number of spiritual or philosophical lessons, or the hero may fall into his/her own foibles and learn nothing—or h/she may be consumed with hubris and thereby fall, literally or symbolically. A classic example of the latter would be the Greek myth of Icarus who as Wikipedia states, “attempted to escape from Crete by means of wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax. He ignored instructions not to fly too close to the sun, and the melting wax caused him to fall into the sea where he drowned.”
Sooner or later, the heroic perspective must be tempered by “the gods,” or if you prefer, life. Once the hero chooses to humble him/herself, h/she is no longer a “hero” and becomes quintessentially human. To be human is to acknowledge one’s vulnerability and lack of invincibility, and most importantly, to grasp one’s interdependence on and with forces beyond oneself. If the heroic individual (or culture) refuses to be tempered, humbled, and instructed by life, they will ultimately and inevitably encounter their demise.
The American Dream is nothing if not heroic, and it has never recognized what happens to all heroes who refuse to learn from the lessons of their journey.
So whether you choose to perceive the dissolution of the American Dream as the hero’s journey or as the collapse of industrial civilization—or both, the American Dream was fated to fail each time the collective refused to be instructed by something greater than itself.
The question now at hand is: What myth might replace the American Dream? The question assumes, however, that America as we know it will (or should) endure physically as a contiguous stretch of land between two oceans and also assumes that as its demise accelerates, the dominant culture will prevail alongside a number of subcultures. What I suspect are more accurate assumptions are that: 1) The geography of the continental United States may, at some point, be fragmented severely or perhaps unrecognizably by a variety of earth changes; 2) A rotting infrastructure will eventually result in dramatic estrangement of regions from one another; 3) New myths will be constructed by local populations who form their own autonomous cultures as old stories are told and parsed for those aspects that might be useful to retain and utilize, and those aspects that might be eliminated entirely.
I might have chosen any number of stories to insert here, but this one keeps nagging me to relate. It comes from West Africa’s tribal tradition and conveys some arresting symbolism which is deeply relevant to our time.
One day, a young man and young woman were walking through a field of flowers. It was a lovely summer day. Birds were singing, the sun was sparkling between the leaves of lush, green trees, the air was soft and fragrant with the flowers, and the sky was cloudless. Suddenly, the young man and woman saw ahead of them, off in the distance, a man who appeared to be waving at them. They kept walking toward him, and soon enough, they realized the man was waving at them to come closer, and they also realized that he was their father. Now this greatly surprised them, especially since a few weeks prior, their father had died.
As they came close to their father he said, “Come with me. I have something I want you to see.” They followed him as he walked into the field and then began walking into an opening under the ground. He descended into the earth, and they followed behind him on a small path, and then the path expanded into a regular road. Finally, they came to what looked like a village, but no people were around.
Then their father stopped and said to them, “Go over there and hide behind those bushes and watch. Watch very carefully. I’m going to go away, but I will return, and when I do, I want you to tell me what you saw.”
The boy and girl waited patiently and finally many people from the village came and stood in the center of it. They just stood there for awhile, and then soon enough, a man who had the appearance of a chief came toward the people, and they parted ways for him, and he came and stood in the center of them. Then the chief turned one side of his body toward all the people, and the boy and girl noticed that that side of his body was covered with rotting flesh and was infested with maggots. As soon as he showed the people, they approached him and began pulling off the rotting flesh and removing the maggots. After a while, that side of his body was clean and no longer rotting and the flesh there was healthy.
Then the chief walked away into the darkness. Soon after, the people left as well. As their father had told them, the boy and girl just waited there behind the bush. Then after awhile, the people from the village came back into the center of it and just stood there. Then soon enough, the man who looked like the chief came back. This time, he revealed the other side of his body which was covered with gold, and the people approached him and began polishing the gold on that side of his body until it was as shiny as the sun the boy and girl had just seen as they were walking in the flower-filled field. Then after awhile, the people stopped polishing the gold, and the chief again left and walked away into the darkness. Then the people went away, and the boy and girl remained behind the bush.
It wasn’t long until their father came again and asked them what they had seen. They recounted to him the coming of the people and then the chief, and the maggots, the rotting flesh, how the people had removed them, how the chief went away and then how the people went away. The boy and girl also told him how the people came back and how the chief came back and how he showed them the golden side of his body and how the people polished it. They told him how the chief went away again and then how the people went away, and how they remained behind the bush until their father returned.
Then their father motioned to them to follow him. They did so and continued back on the road from which they had come until they again found the narrow path and the opening up into the upper world. They were back again in the beautiful field with the sun, the birds, the flowers, and the trees. Their father just stood their, and they walked passed him across the field, and they began to talk about what they had seen in the underworld and how it is that there is an upper world and an underworld and how it is that there is light and dark in the world—maggots and rotting flesh at one time and gold and people making it shiny and bright at another time.
Thus, the story ends as we leave the young man and woman walking through the field having this discussion.
Let’s notice the archetype of the elder and the young man and woman and the opposites of youth and elder in the story. Very important is the fact that the father wanted to teach his children a lesson, but could not do so when he was alive and definitely could not do so in the upper world in the light of day. Their willingness to follow death and descend to the underworld was essential.
What they witnessed was a series of crucial events. They witnessed a phenomenal event of community acceptance and support. The people did not judge the chief for the fact that one side of his body was covered with maggots and rotting flesh. Rather, they joined together to help heal him. When the community understands that we are all wounded and need each other in order to heal, deep healing can occur—in everyone.
Nor did they judge him because the other side of his body was covered with gold. No envy or jealousy present because one side of his body was golden. Instead, they simply polished the gold to make it brighter and more brilliant. The gold might symbolize each person’s gifts and what we have to offer the world. In the same way that the caring community helps heal its members, the community also polishes and supports everyone’s talents and skills, without jealousy or competition.
Each time I hear or read or tell this story, I am struck with these merciful and caring acts of the community. Yes, the man they attended to was similar to a chief or perhaps was their chief, but the story does not convey a sense of subservience. Rather, one feels as if this is what the people are used to doing—with each other, regardless of status in the community. Authority figure or no, the fact is that one side of his body was covered with maggots and rotting flesh. He was sick and needed healing.
And there is the ascent into the upper world again by the father and the children. With every descent to the dark places, there is an ascent once again to beauty and lightness. We just never get to know exactly when that might happen. As I say when I tell stories, it happens “after a long time or a short time or whatever time it is.”
Perhaps the most important detail of the story comes when the young man and young woman “walk past their father” in the upper world. This is a story of the elder reaching out to youth to teach the young person a lesson that can only be experienced in the underworld. As a result, the wise and transformed young person comes back from the ordeal and “walks past” the elder. Whatever lessons the elder might impart, the wise younger person will, and should, “walk past them” in terms of becoming even wiser. The boy and girl are forever changed and do not walk through the beautiful field mindlessly discussing the weather or boyfriends or girlfriends, but rather, how it is that there is light and dark in the world, maggots and rotting flesh on one side of a person and bright, shining gold on the other side.
Some of the themes that come to mind as I tell the story: Simplicity, death, life, beauty, upper world, under world, the intimate connection of youth and elder, the healing and polishing power of the community.
I invite you to think about the part of the story that most captured your attention. Whatever that part(s) is, that piece has something important for you to reflect on.
There is no one story that will replace the American Dream, but stories like this one—and there are thousands—can inform the myth(s) we create for building and preserving the next culture. In order to do so, however, we must recognize that we cannot live without myth, for it is an essential part of our humanity. If we attempt to do so, given the fact that something in us needs myth, we will only create more myths that echo the American Dream—with themes of heroism, greed, entitlement, narcissism, exploitation, exceptionalism, and myriad abuses of power. How we emotionally and spiritually prepare for and navigate collapse will provide the raw materials for the myths we make and will live by in a post-industrial world.