A light in dark times

What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?

~Theodore Roethke from “The Waking”


The Midwest poet, Theodore Roethke experienced recurring bouts of undiagnosed bipolar disorder throughout his adult life. We feel some of his anguish in his poem, “The Waking,” in which he asks the question above. Within the question, we feel his struggle with mental illness and his pushback against self-blame. It is as if he is adamantly declaring that he is not a bad person, but rather, that his soul is noble, yet at odds with the society around him and the circumstances in which he finds himself.

What does he mean by “nobility of soul”?

As noted in Part One of this series, Michael Meade defines it as one’s deepest essence—one’s most authentic and genuine humanity. Inherent in his definition is the notion that the soul is not the same as the ego that drives the mind and body. Rather, it is something more original, more innocent—purer and more trustworthy. Some would describe it as beyond human or divine, whereas I would define it as the ultimate integration of both.

What we know with certainty is that when external authority is foisted upon us in ways that harm the soul, we are driven toward madness, and in extreme instances of such oppression, we become psychotic.

The Wetiko Virus

Contrary to the uber-individualistic worldview of Ayn Rand, who penned The Virtue of Selfishness, author and Jungian therapist, Paul Levy, notes that Native Americans tended to think of selfishness, not as a virtue, but as a virus. In his extraordinary book Dispelling Wetiko, Levy elaborates on wetiko which is a Cree term for the virus of selfishness. According to Levy, “Wetiko psychosis is at the very root of humanity’s inhumanity to itself in all its various forms.” And of course, Levy does not exclude the Earth community as a victim of human wetiko. The origin of wetiko is the human psyche, or as the modern Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung named it, the human shadow, which is comprised of parts of ourselves that we disown or insist are “not me.”

In his article, “Unsettling America,” Levy writes,

Because full-blown wetikos are soul murderers who continually recreate the on-going process of killing their own soul, they are reflexively compelled to do this to others; for what the soul does to itself, it can’t help but to do to others. In a perverse inversion of the golden rule, instead of treating others how they would like to be treated, wetikos do unto others what was done unto them. The wetiko is simply a living link in a timeless, vampiric lineage of abuse. Full-blown wetikos induce and dream up others to experience what it is like to be the part of themselves which they have split off from and denied, and are thus not able to consciously experience – the part of themselves that has been abused and vampirized. In playing this out, wetikos are transmitting and transferring their own depraved state of inner deadness to others in a perverse form of trying to deal with their own suffering.

Paradoxically, wetikos both try to destroy others’ light, as it reminds them of what they’ve killed in themselves, while simultaneously trying to appropriate the light for themselves.

Wetikos do not value their own souls because they have sold their souls for money, power, fame, or other material gains that enhance their ego achievements. Perhaps their souls have been sucked out of them through abuse or other forms of suffering. In any case, the human shadow is uncannily susceptible to the wetiko virus and to inflicting it upon others. Wetikos often act out authoritarian behavior through bullying, manipulation, lying, social and economic repression, and astonishing levels of corruption and self-aggrandizement.

When someone else has authority over you, you cannot be the author of your own life. Creative energy must be channeled into survival. Hardening one’s heart feels necessary in order to protect oneself and one’s loved ones.

While it is true that our country has foisted power and control on millions of other people throughout our history, our own form of government has not been authoritarian. Authoritarianism is anti-human because it is not in our human nature to be controlled, repressed, or live under hierarchy.

However, since the forces of authoritarianism are pervasive at certain times in human history, such as they are in this moment, one must remain vigilant both individually and collectively by committing to the hard work of protecting human rights and the essential freedoms of liberal democracy. Yes, the democratic process is almost always hard work. It is time-consuming, tedious, and slow-moving. On the other hand, government by fiat, executive order, and the issuing of directives from one leader or a handful of oligarchs is less onerous and usually less fraught with delays. It is quite simply, faster and easier.

In “The Shocking Paper Predicting The End of Democracy,” Professor Shawn Rosenberg writes, “Democracy is hard work. And as society’s ‘elites’—experts and public figures who help those around them navigate the heavy responsibilities that come with self-rule—have increasingly been sidelined, citizens have proved ill equipped cognitively and emotionally to run a well-functioning democracy. As a consequence, the center has collapsed and millions of frustrated and angst-filled voters have turned in desperation to right-wing populists.”

“Our brains,” says Rosenberg, are proving fatal to modern democracy. Humans just aren’t built for it.”

It is the “hard work of democracy” that leaves us vulnerable to wetiko and often prevents us from being vigilant regarding the liberties we are inclined to take for granted. Yet the more consciously we are aware of our inextricable connection with all living beings, the more compassion we feel and the more we value our own nobility of soul and that of others. In his “Unsettling America” article, Levy writes that, “Seeing the field, and stepping out of the perspective that we are separate from each other converges into being the same experience. Seeing ‘through’ the illusion of the separate self, rather than seeing ‘through the separate self’ as a lens through which we view the world, entails recognizing that even the full-blown wetikos, the master predators themselves, are not separate from us. The Big Wetikos are fully em-body-ing, in person-ified form, a pathological tendency that exists in potential within ourselves. It is as if they are the externalized materialization of this potential within ourselves that we’ve projected outside of ourselves and literally collectively dreamed up into manifestation. Recognizing this generates compassion for this part of ourselves. It is only through compassion that we immunize ourselves from the virus.”

Self-Care Restores Nobility of Soul

Our nobility of soul often erodes as we under-value or ignore our own self-care. A toxic culture does not value physical, emotional, or spiritual health because it is a culture of death. In that milieu, our “health” either becomes equated with status, youthfulness, sexual attraction, and control, or it becomes yet another avenue for cultivating and feeding narcissism. However, as we increasingly value life and our deepest humanity—our nobility of soul, we find ourselves taking better care of ourselves through diet, exercise, adequate sleep and rest, and space for reflection, solitude, and spiritual practice. Not only is self-care “good for us,” it flies in the face of a culture of death.

Grassroots activist, Shelly Tygielski, states that “Self-care is an act of resistance.”

In her observation of the lifestyles of activists over many years, Adrian Maree Brown, in Pleasure Activism, writes: “I have seen how denying our full, complex selves—denying our aliveness and our needs as living, sensual beings—increases the chance that we will be at odds with ourselves, our loved ones, our coworkers, and our neighbors on this planet.”

Activists sometimes live like martyrs who deny themselves proper rest, food, healthy friendships, spiritual enrichment, the enjoyment of art, beauty, and sexual pleasure. In this kind of “political asceticism,” they injure the nobility of their souls. While they may be extremely erudite and well-informed regarding current events, they do not nurture the mind with meditation or non-escapist mindfulness practices. Many suffer from a dearth of emotional intelligence, sometimes ignoring or repressing emotions such as grief or fear. The heart and soul become arid and armored while the body may suffer from lack of exercise, play, or direct contact with nature.

One of the great revolutionaries of all time, Emma Goldman wrote, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

Lack of self-care directly stifles our aliveness. We eventually may become so focused on “the cause,” that we begin to die. Obviously, the extinction of species, including our own and our natural trajectory toward death dictate that we are dying every single day; however, we further participate in a culture of death by failing to care for ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. We hasten our death and ignore what so many noble of soul in the face of resistance and death have taught us.

Victor Frankl in Auschwitz displayed extraordinary nobility of soul, as did Thomas More in the Tower of London, Nelson Mandela throughout 27 years in prison, Sophie Scholl as she willingly walked to the guillotine as the sentence for her resistance against the Nazi engulfment of Germany, and of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Birmingham jail.

A West African proverb states, “When death comes, may it find you fully alive.”

Some would argue that self-care is narcissistic. “What makes you special or entitled to it?” they ask. But I ask: If you wish to liberate the oppressed from their chains, must you bear the weight of your own chains? In the activist’s protests against self-care, I hear a twisted survivor guilt and an amorphous self-flagellation that serves no one, particular one’s own soul.

A recent example of commitment to prioritizing self-care is the former Kansas City, Missouri mayoral candidate, Jason Kander. A brilliant attorney, author, Army veteran, and politician, Kander dropped out of the 2019 mayoral campaign because he realized that he needed treatment for Post-Traumtic-Stress Disorder. His decision was beyond courageous—and risky. Would he be forever-labeled as weak, unstable, or even mentally ill? How many other politicians would publicly announce such a decision? This was a moment in his life best described by the name of his son, True.

Perhaps being vibrantly alive is the best revenge. Perhaps it is the most authentic ingredient in our nobility of soul. Authoritarian perspectives thrive in times of war, inequality, and racial divide—in a time when nobility of soul is devoured or diminished. It also thrives in a culture that places high value on over-achievement, busy-ness and speed—digital or otherwise.

From my perspective, one of the most potent ingredients for maintaining nobility of soul is eros. Defined by popular culture as synonymous with sexual pleasure, eros is actually our sense of embodiment, our enjoyment of connectedness with other humans and with nature, our appreciation of beauty and pleasure, and our capacity to deeply reflect and make meaning in our lives.

Our vigilance regarding wetiko and our commitment to protecting the nobility of soul does put us at odds with circumstance, yet these do not automatically condemn us to madness. Rather, these are sovereign declarations that we, not any institution or regime, are authors of our own lives.

Read Part 1 of this series



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