Degrees of Understanding Over Time
Image Credit: https://www.crystalinks.com/merkabah.html
Before someone named it cyclothymia, I thought it was just an awareness of the seasons and life cycles of nature. In my blood I feel the frenetic energy of summer and the call to hybernation in winter, the preparation for the darkness in fall and the spike of seedling energy in the spring. This is sometimes labelled SAD. Seasonal Affective Disorder. Cyclothymia and SAD aren’t the same thing. Perhaps they are comorbid. I don’t know. All I know is the earth calls and I still have to go to work. The sadness of SAD comes from not making space to honor these changes of the seasons, the cycle of life and death, the way people have for so long. I feel my lack of connection with the earth like a missing limb.
As I may have said here before, I’ve dabbled in many religions. The one that I have been exposed to the longest is Christianity, but there are some true traumas in my relationship with what they call the one God. I had to find my way back to being able to say the word by turning to spirituality from a mythological perspective–stories that people over time have used to understand the unknown. I sought to explore these stories and found a thread of something similar in all of them, though each belongs to itself, much like consciousness as it runs through human beings I imagine. I turned to Wicca when I was sixteen, a rebellious reach in the opposite direction of the dogmatic Christianity I was exposed to and have since decided that limiting my beliefs to one religion, including science and rationality, was the best way to become a product of those belief systems, rather than a conscious individual within those systems actively seeking to embrace and/or improve upon those systems for the better of the self or the self and the community. I believe the same goes for one’s culture. Blindly believing in the American dream made me a product of it. And products do not think. Nor do they have souls.
I am not here to bash the American dream. It is a beautiful concept that I simply forgot was built on the assumption that we are all aiming for common human decency. Maybe I forgot this because I pursued money and material success only to find it was meaningless without substantial character, without friendship or love. Like Harry Potter‘s Voldemort. When one is driven merely by the preservation of the physical self and goes to any lengths to save that self including lengths that are at the expense of the well being of others, all we have left is fear.
Have you ever gotten mad at your loved one for something that seemed really important to argue over, argued over it, pissed and moaned thinking it was the biggest deal in the world only to look back on the argument later and wonder what the hell it was even about?
I feel that kind of ambivalence towards the American Dream in regards to earning money. Money as an end goal is always empty. Now, chasing the American Dream in regards to creating something grand out of practically nothing against all odds even though I’m just one person because I have the help of friends and loved ones who are aligned in a like minded cause and maybe I’m not the hero of their story but I can be the hero of mine helping them be heroes too like the Avengers: That I can do. At least, that’s the kind of dream that will motivate me against all odds.
“I want something good to die for to make it beautiful to live,” wrote Queens of the Stoneage and I came here to make this life beautiful to live only to find that that the things I would die for are, well…
I didn’t know. But I think I’m figuring it out slowly. Aren’t we all?
Here’s an interesting article on modern witches and the resurgence of polytheistic and pagan religions in the modern global capitalist complex. Perhaps this resurgence is because we all feel the call to nature of which I spoke at first. I might have started considering myself a witch the first time I picked up Harry Potter in third grade. I believe all people have magic within them. I believe science and magic are the same thing, only one is demonized because we do not understand it. I think they’re both just different pieces of a bigger picture that incorporates them both as valid and the same. How’s that for out there? The story of Merlin brought me to this idea. The Once and Future King, by T.H. White is an excellent read. Fictional and excellent. It is the story of King Arthur in a traditional sense, and yet Merlin hints at being a man from the future (our time).
Merlin is considered a wizard because he understands concepts of science that are from the future. He’s magical because he can do things people understood as magic in the Middle Ages but that we now understand as scientific. I imagine that knowledge and further understanding will eventually bring us to the place where both our sciences and our religions will be considered rudimentary and crude and I hope that for our future generations. We must buy them the time.
What if we see as magic now what will later be called science?
What if mental illness as we understand it now can serve as a gift with further cultural education? It’s not madness, it’s this kind of intelligence, or that kind of intelligence. Maybe labeling this thing we understand as an illness once worked because it didn’t fit with the current cultural model, but when 1 in 5 Americans adults (just the adults) will experience symptoms of mental illness in their lifetime, it starts to look like perhaps the narrative of the current cultural model has failed to account for something important regarding the health of it’s people. As Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
What I like about Wicca is it is nature based. It helped me to acknowledge the cycles of nature as it moved around me in such a way that these cycles began to inform my understanding of my moods. I get the same moods in the same cycles every year. These cycles reflect the cycles of nature. They have been the same for fifteen years. I have journals to show them. I haven’t actively practiced wicca in maybe two years? I dated a man who called it, disdainfully, a coping mechanism and I found myself too afraid to practice while with him. Everything is a coping mechanism. He drank a six pack a day.
I believe not practicing wicca or, for that matter, any spirituality that positively molds a framework of narrative for my weirder, out there experiences, has negatively impacted my mental health. My mental health is better understood as I understand, pay attention to, respect, even revere the cycles of nature. It is better, also, with meditation, intention setting, writing, reading, focused, meditative work which come with most religious practices. I practice kitchen witchery and kundalini yoga, or was when my kundalini awoke. Now I practice labels and seek clinical help. The clinical speak around mental illness scares me more than the witches and demons. Isn’t that hilarious?
I do not like the idea of strict adherence to any man made text or set of rules. The rules are written within us and the heart knows them in innocence.
Meditation and present moment awareness significantly improve my mental health if I practice them daily. Present moment awareness, when cultivated alone, can be brought to other activities. I must practice daily in order for it to be effective. I do not practice meditation at all right now. I have not found a quiet place to be alone and practice in a long time. That or I do not go to be in a quiet place alone because there is a part of me that resists. There is a part of all of us that resists.
Today I start to meditate as part of my morning routine. Meditation is the difference between me getting out of bed and going to work and feeling like there’s no point.
Its easy to say, “Just meditate every day.” It was easier for me to run two to four miles a day, timing each mile for speed, than it was to meditate every day once for ten minutes. But ten minutes in the morning is what it takes.
Yesterday I asked myself when the healthiest I’ve ever been in my life was.
I lived with my mom. I was 25. I had a pretty steady routine that involved writing, three meals a day and snacks, cooking, work four days a week, taking care of myself and my dog with a daily run to the river, and a trip to Tahoe for school every six months for residency. It seemed to me then that my life was a mess, that the worst disaster that could have happened happened and I moved back home to once again depend on my mother. I’d failed at fleeing the nest. I was not one in the Darwinian gene pool to be meant to continue its lineage. My mind is a mean dark place sometimes.
But I also had daily conversations over a glass of wine with my mom and a smoke–a spliff on my end and a vanilla something or other on hers. We healed a long broken relationship, or strengthened what was a shallower relationship before perhaps. I use harsh language but it wasn’t all that bad. Things just got better. I learned to love my family. Somewhere along the way, with loss of innocence maybe, I forgot how much family means. We healed. I visited my dad and my brother and sisters over the mountains then, too, and we healed. My life was not a disaster. I was taking much needed human time to build relationship with people my lifestyle had separated me from.
My sister came home and the three of us lived under one roof again with my step dad and our brother and sister from him. I was sixteen the last time we lived this way. I was sixteen when they moved and I got emancipated. My growth in the realm of family ended there and it would be nine years before I would get an opportunity to revisit this part of existence that was once integral to survival, at least in tribal culture.
I just realized I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about regarding family and looked into the concept of what a family is. Here is some literature I found from the North Carolina Sociological Association called “The Concept of The Family: Demographic and Genealogical Perspectives” by Charles B. Nam, Center for Demography and Population Health, Florida State University.
Nam writes about the demographic perspective:
” In the United States (and, for the most part, throughout the world), the “family” is defined in censuses and surveys as two or more persons related by blood, marriage, or adoption, AND living in the same residence (Fields and Casper 2001) .”
” In fact, some persons who meet the standard demographic definition of the family and are included may have little association with other family members in the same residence. For example, they may have different schedules of sleep, work, or other activities, and they may not communicate by phone or mail. Their inclusion in the family is pro forma and based only on the given family definition. These facts raise questions about the boundaries of the standard demographic definition of the family and its consequences for interpretations of how family structure might be changing over time. “
And about the genealogical perspective:
” One can examine a family tree and extract a family structure using a variety of family definitions, based on how extensive one wishes to consider the family (Finnegan and Drake 1994). Family trees typically distinguish between living and dead members of the family, so that several family definitions can be applied to only living members. In this sense, the genealogical approach to looking at family structure provides for a broader range of family forms than is possible from the demographic approach. Thus, one can describe a couple and their offspring, living together or not; a multi-generation family, living together or not; as well as extended family groupings. “
These are just two, of many perspectives, surrounding a complex subject. There is always more than one perspective.
The demographic approach is the current cultural structure. The genealogical approach is the structure of the current human within the broader scope of history that widens the possibilities of definitions for family.
Rationality and science and math and business seem to me the demographic approach to life. The creative, spiritual, artistic, receptive, surrendered, unconscious, archetypal divine feminine allows for a more “genealogical” approach, I think. Both inform each other. There’s no reason to not consider them both equally valid. There is no reason one cannot embrace both and practice both. We are complex beings with enormous capabilities if only we could stop placing ourselves in boxes. Boxes are easier to understand, but they are still prisons.
I had no idea family was something I needed to cultivate until given the opportunity to cultivate those relationships. The value of family is beyond measure and, having discovered it, I cannot imagine having gone through life without loving my family. What a horrible thing to admit, but we all have horrible potentials within us.
When I was fourteen, fifteen, I kept to myself. My definition of family then was more the demographic “pro forma and based on the given family definition,” type because I had never been without family. I read books and played trombone and video games and shut the door only to emerge for dinner or the occasional family outing. I resented my family for reasons I still don’t understand. Probably the resentment is from my own fear of self-expression which I have blamed always on others instead of taking responsibility for and growing the balls to express myself. There’s probably a lot more to it than growing balls.
But my life imploded. I had a hypomanic episode at 25 and moved home. That’s what they say it was. I have a manifesto that I wrote then in a journal open on my lap. I have a trunk full of journals I have been keeping, writing, and accumulating memories in since I was fifteen. A personal Pensive. I won’t publish it here–it’s long and my perspective has changed since then. Perhaps in another way at another time.
The essential mission of the manifesto was to reclaim my freedom by reclaiming my spirit, which I felt had been taken away from me by the inundation of material distraction in the world in the form of advertisements playing on subliminal desires so constantly they were changing the neuropathways of my values. I was introduced to the internet on a cell phone at the same time I hit puberty.
To be honest, the thought quite scared me at first: that media was playing a central role in shaping my identity. But I have come to understand since then that our identities are shaped by many things: Religion, genealogy, biology, race, ethnicity, occupation, location, education, experience, language. As our identities change from experience, location, age, knowing, and understanding how much we do not know, as we move through experience and space and time, there is a consciousness within that shapes a narrative around the events of our lives, trying to make sense of them, trying to return us to a state of equilibrium with ourselves in the world. A sort of entropy of identity. A “normal” if you will. I call this consciousness the observer or the witness, a concept that has its roots in Taoism and Hinduism. Ram Dass talks about it. I did not start listening to Ram Dass until two days ago. But the witness or observer consciousness is an old concept. I think that The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself, by Michael A. Singer, was perhaps the best read I found that explains the witness or observer to the animus/ego in a way that it is palatable. I found my way to consciously understanding the Witness mentality through this book.
Stories, religion, philosophy, art, music, history, psychology are the tools we use to consciously shape the identity of ourselves, our culture, and our values. Reference Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
As a kid I read. As an adult, I meditated. Meditating allowed me to look back over the time I’d spent learning and reading and to reach for the narratives I’d read, real or not, that related to my experience. No matter what I was going through, I could reach through time and space into the mind of someone who lived 2000 years ago because they wrote a story that we have then interpreted through a western cultural lens.
If we then apply psychoanalysis to this lens, as Joseph Campbell did, we understand the subconscious motivations of civilizations and can witness what subconscious motivations led to what consequences.
We can use these to inform our culture. But there is a caveat.
When I moved home at 25, it was difficult to face myself as an adult who lived with my mother. I had more pride than I imagined. Pride is associated with Ego, the animus. There are many stories about pride being the downfall of man. Pride was the downfall of Satan. My culture quite values pride, as do I. Now I strive to temper it. Having the cache of human-related story to reach for helped me ask some questions that shifted perspective.
I went from asking: Am I crazy? Why can’t I take care of myself? How did I wind up here living with my mom again?
To instead asking: What is within my control? What is outside my control? What am I learning here?
My story shifted from the viewing myself as a person who failed to meet the expectations of my western cultural consciousness to be a successful independent woman to instead viewing myself a western woman in an unconscious culture that had taught me to abandon the important value of family. Then I started to understand that while it had something to do with my culture, it had quite a lot more to do with me. I started to take responsibility. I started to follow the call of the heart.
I have been overidentifying with having a mental illness in a negative light because I am calling it an illness. It is an imbalance. Physically, it is something that requires more attention than others might need for their own self care. I need a lot of exercise and stillness, a lot of meals in small doses, a lot of little things in exactly the right place, a lot of quiet and alone time to contemplate and create to inform my understanding of my identity or my life unravels. Its always a struggle to find my equilibrium of identity after a big shift. It’s not fun.
Then again, it doesn’t have to be.
As a kid, I remember reaching for stories to inform my weirder experiences. I had a lot of them. Sweat lodge, for instance, or Ceremony. The drumming in the teepees and my sister, my mom and I these white people. I felt like we were encroaching on something that didn’t belong to us just because it was in us the tiniest bit they said. I didn’t want to use my voice. Another time I thought about stories like Pocahontas as the blankets closed around the hut made of hard, bent willow branches and tied with sinew. The hole in the ground in the middle of the domed hut held the hot lava rocks and two men tended the door on either side to pour water and sprinkle herbs which we first pass and pray over aloud sometimes. I may have prayed aloud once. They close the flap. I don’t remember if the singing begins first or afterward. Or the prayer for that matter. It is all a blur. We sit in one row in a circle around the pit with the rocks, facing the rocks on our knees or foreheads to the ground in prayer, or cross legged as we please. Mother, my sister, and I. I am seven or eight years old. The tent is damp with steam from the hot lava rocks and thick padding of blankets over the domed hut. I do not know what it’s called unfortunately. I am eight years old, and do not have the language with which to judge and identify this experience other than with stories. I think on Pocahontas and the way grandmother willow is animated and I pretend to be her (Pocahontas, not the grandmother) and the steam against the glowing rocks shows eight-year-old me faces of the ancestors. The singing moves through me at first. Then the darkness sets in and the only thing I see are these red lava rocks and the steam and the glowing of the faces around at a spark and then dark again and wild chanting and singing like wails and women crying and yelps. A prayer in sound and fire and water and earth. Being joined in voice and song in prayer or intention, should you like to call it that, is nothing short of a psychedelic experience. There are no drugs involved. It is immensely healing. A test in will and in one’s understanding of the power and place of that will in aiding the larger will of it’s tribe. A group of humans kissing the earth, breathing, singing to feel her cool promise of eventuality. I stayed every round pretending I was Pocahontas and knowing I was getting stronger.
The preface to the 1949 edition of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces opens with a quote from Freud:
“‘The truths contained in religious doctrines are after all so distorted and systematically disguised,’ writes Sigmund Freud, ‘that the mass of humanity cannot recognize them as truth. The case is similar to what happens when we tell a child that the newborn babies are brought by the stork. Here, too, we are telling the truth in symbolic clothing, for we know what the large bird signifies,” (xii, Campbell).
Jacques Derrida argued in his book, Limited Inc. that, ” that linguistic meaning is fundamentally indeterminate because the contexts that fix meaning are never stable,”(https://books.google.com/books/about/Limited_Inc.html?id=-ANhg9zaAtIC).
That is, the meaning of language, which is the symbols we use to communicate complex ideas, changes according to context. My favorite example is this.
“It” means something different now than if I write “it” again now. The context of the second “it” is being informed by the first mention of it and that meaning changes when we reach the third “it,” in the second sentence to then include the mention of the first and second “it”s. I believe this is something like the example used in Limited Inc. by Derrida, but it is well worth reading the text yourself, as I’m sure his examples are better understood firsthand.
Joseph Campbell wrote, too, in the preface to the 1949 edition of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, “It is the purpose of the present book to uncover some of the truths disguised for us under the figures of religion and mythology by bringing together a multitude of not-too-difficult examples and letting the ancient meaning become apparent of itself. The old teachers knew what they were saying. Once we have learned to read again their symbolic language, it requires no more than the talent of an anthologist to let their teachings be heard. But first we must learn the grammar of the symbols, and as a key to this mystery, I know of no better modern tool than psychoanalysis,” (xii, Campbell).
The stories of minds throughout time built the one that informs me today. I read and I have been analyzing my mind through a psychoanalytic lens for fifteen years through dreams and Jungian psychoanalysis.
I believe our culture only practices a part of the story of what it means to be a human being on earth. The end game is not material. At least, not entirely.
The only modern literature I’ve found to talk about cyclothymia supports it as an illness. The literature I’ve found only addresses the physical and chemical symptoms. Therapy helps to build stories, and the stories we build within ourselves to communicate with one another build the stories of our culture. Ancient stories about mental illness approached it as a spiritual battle. Whether you believe in spirit or not, approaching the idea from a psychoanalytic perspective, as a myth that helps to inform a part of reality we do not yet have the science to fully understand, can allow for a suspension of belief.
I highly resisted the call to any form of spirituality, having felt the oppressive, fear-based dogma of the Christian god at a young age. The oppressive dogma is the man-made interpretation of language. The heart of the religion is a guide to finding the heart of one’s self. Approaching spirituality, religion, science, and myth as stories that constitute only one part of a grand picture no one person can ever understand, allowed me to engage with them without hatred or fear as well as if humanly possible. I learned to explore the stories people live in. A theological drifter with one foot in the material world and another in the myths of my people over ages and centuries, cross referencing them always with my own experiences. Is this true? Is this working?
Back then, my relationship with my family was weird and distant. A back and forth once in a while about money or health.
I moved home after a brush with mushrooms that had me reeling through some otherworldly experiences I did not have a cultural context for understanding. Reading and educating myself have helped. When I set aside the pride and saw that this was a chance to understand family, I realized this was a chance to change. I started coming out of my room. I started cooking with my family, playing video games with my brother, music with my sister, talking with my mom and my step-dad. I felt like the sixteen year old kid who, instead of disowning my family, decided to love them. We healed. We do not get along all the time. We annoy each other. But love is something that is as present in being annoyed as it is in being in joy.
The fall, the way back to my mother’s was a shock to my identity, one that jettisoned me out of many boxes: Stable, sane, in a relationship, employed, functional adult, student. I became a daughter instead, a hatchling returned home to nurse battered wings. Pride? Gone. Shame: came from the stories my culture tells me about who I’m supposed to be versus who I am. Action: question what you are ashamed of. Ask yourself what can I do about it in this moment? Do that. Over and over. Each little step is another in the direction of pride again. Is there a middle ground or are the spikes and crashes necessary?
And what if we go in the direction our culture validates as successful only to find the cultural lens of success is not a guide to good character or health or wellness or sustainability? We must find these. They exist within the current structure somewhere. Just like a person getting well, reallocating resources to address what is not functioning as it should, or can in respect to its potential, is necessary to the health of a civilization. We are only as well as our people and our land, even if individually we manage to find wellness.
Just a couple months prior to moving home with mom, I prayed to reclaim my spirit, feeling I had lost it somewhere. The prayer was the wish. The fall a disaster. The journey, an adventure. Upon successful venturing through my deepest fear (moving back home-there are so many worse things!) the reward is one I didn’t even know existed, greater than I possibly could have fathomed, and is beyond the material. A rekindling of family.
I have come to understand manifestation, reclaiming of spirit, and the path to enlightenment in cycles that often begin with a wish and a shock to the identity. I believe these shocks come from drugs sometimes, from the death of someone close, from moving to a new location, switching jobs–anything that significantly changes the narrative around one’s personal identity.
I believe, like in any story, the hero starts out in a stagnant state. Recognizing that the way of their kind is just one way in many, the hero’s curiosity leads them to wonder. Could we do better? The hero makes a wish. Something happens. A disaster. The Hero is to blame. This is the call to adventure. The hero rises to it and is successful or denies the call and hears it over and over until they must pursue the adventure or go mad. The outcome is the difference between tragedy and comedy. The perspective along the way is the tone, the style, the type of story one’s hero’s journey relays.
My favorite heroes are the ones who stand in their own way because they do not realize their own power. My favorite heroes are the ones who are motivated to win for their friends and their family. My favorite heroes are the ones who are their own worst enemies. And my favorite heroes are the ones whose friends and families remind them towards the end what they are fighting for.
Harry Potter faces the evil in himself metaphorically when facing Voldemort. They are both of the same soul, Harry being a horcrux, and yet the part of the soul that wins out is the one who knows love and friendship.
Flick, in A Bug’s Life, or Turbo in Disney/Pixar’s Turbo, are very small characters who face great odds against giant systems that are in place outside of their control. They find a better way for their people by answering the call within themselves to take action, although the action is one they are not certain they are capable of rising to.
In following the call within, I found my way back to family and embodied the hero who values love and friendship. I defeated my metaphorical Voldemort. The nature of life being a changing and cyclical one (as in the cycles of nature), I believe we have many opportunities to face our demons in this way–a shock, a stripping of pride, a reclamation of positive personal identity through myth.
In his article called, “How Industrial Cultures View Mental Illness,” by on Big Think.com, Mike Colagrossi writes, “Culture determines how mental illness or aberrant mental behavior is viewed and dealt with,” and “Culture is the arbiter of our conscious reality. To say that it influences how we think and act would be an understatement. For the non-inquisitive or complacent mind, it can set us into the inane doldrums of prefabricated patterns we take to be both our day-to-day reality and how we even view our own psyches and world around us. It comes as no surprise that it also has a significant effect on what we consider to be a normal psychological disposition.”
I have not looked into the research behind this article or its sources, though I intend to.
The point I’m getting at is the above article talks about how people with mental illnesses were once revered as guides to aid people through times of spiritual awakening or as guides, essentially, through the subconscious, aiding the “non-inquisitive or complacent minde[ed]” through the forest of the shadows within the psyche when, as the human experience commands, we must face those shadows. The language in the article is used to describe people is negative in context of our culture and may not be the appropriate language to use here. Everyone thinks differently and all perspectives serve to create the whole of the cultural perspective. In ancient cultures, people like me helped people who were facing their downs, through the downs by spiritual means. You may not like the word spirit. I know I didn’t when I was younger. But is is a symbol for something. A symbol for something humans have not yet identified with science but that many humans throughout history have experiences with.
With the eradication of the value of spirit in a modern materialist culture (the path to success led away from the value of family which is as immaterial as it is material) and a lack of understanding around what spirit stood for in the psyches of the peoples of the past, we have lost a significant part of our humanness: a positive mythology to describe things we still do not understand regarding the workings of the mind, consciousness, and it’s path to finding meaning that is not one as simplistic as “progress for the sake of progress” (hello Umbridge) which is the American dream applied without positive, humble, selfless, sustainable values.
My culture’s story about mental illness is a mythology based on one perspective: a clinical one.
I do not wonder at the rise of wicca and new age mythologies today. I believe people crave the language of myth to inform the unknown which our culture claims to know through technology and science which are part of a much more fantastic picture. I believe the craving for this fantastic picture comes from the inherent inability of the fulfillment of the American Dream to fully inform the wide breadth of human experience of which we are capable.
Mental illness is misunderstood, or it would not be so prevalent. That or it was always prevalent, and it was better understood. Probably there is a story in which both statements are true. Probably we are an intelligent enough culture to tell that story and act by it instead.
Modern tribal cultures have less of prevalence of disease and mental illness and I wonder if it is because they value community and spirituality over the material. Ancient cultures found places for mental illness and even revered it in the realm of the spiritual, emotional, and what a Jungian psychoanalytic approach might call the archetypal divine feminine. Dark, shadow places of the psyche, not unlike the sweat lodge in which I heard the voices of my people and felt a sense of community unrivaled by my experiences on the normal “American Dream” path through school and sports and teaching and blah blah blah. This is important. But it lacks imagination and meaning if one has not taken the time to formulate meaning for one’s self. I lived a pretty passive life and found myself at the end of school and in a career on the track set out for me only to discover it had no meaning for me personally. That lack of personal meaning led to a lack of caring about job performance, and when the job performance is the shaping of minds of our future and those minds are only a handful of years younger than yourself…well I was not equipped to think I knew anything they wouldn’t learn eventually. I had to live. I had to feel like what I had to offer was more meaningful than just the reiteration of statistics and data fed to me through academic channels of a structured, federally approved curriculum.
Here is an excerpt from an article on cultural preservation from Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine about the mental health of indigenous people as it relates to colonization, industrialization, genocide, and in many respects, Christianization, and the importance of offering meaning to one’s society as an individual:
“It is critical to note that an essential feature of a people’s sociocultural environment is meaning. Each culture provides pathways by which individuals may satisfy their needs for positive affect, prestige, and meaning. Small-scale, hunter-gatherer societies provide several such pathways: excellence in hunting, storytelling, or as a healer. More complex societies offer a greater array of pathways. Whatever its size, complexity or environment, a central task of any culture is to provide its members with a sense of meaning and purpose in the world. What happens, then, when a people’s way of life is destroyed through disease, genocide, loss of territory, and repression of language and culture, when pathways to meaning are no longer available?”
My culture once told me that if I went to school, got a degree, and worked hard, I would be successful. I did these and success was empty because I looked around my world and saw chaos and anger and sadness and saw too that some carrot I saw dangling at the edge of my future was in itself a symbol that represented the very happiness found in the things I was running from: family, community, humility, spirit, ritual, emotion. I had moved through life, consciously cultivating meaning with this American Dream construct of assured success at the end only to find that the American Dream promises a kind of success that does not require the individual to find meaning beyond the federally approved curriculum. I am not negating the importance of material well being or the beauty of the American Dream. The body is our connection to reality, but that fact does not make the physical our only reality or we would not have concepts like meaning and spirituality, and religion and philosophy. I’m only saying that a to achieve the American Dream without also cultivating and consciously crafting one’s personal identity makes one a product of their culture instead of an inhabitant of the culture, actively participating in its creation.
Active participation requires questioning, self-care, curiosity, risk, adventure, meaning, a search for meaning, bravery, communication, community, humility, and an open-minded interpretation of reality that allows space for things to be unknown and uncertain.
I had to learn to care about people differently, to approach values differently, and to cultivate them consciously and in order to do this I needed to let go of my story about what I thought it meant to be a successful adult. I had to fail. I failed fantastically, but the lessons learned in the loosening of my grip on what I thought was real were far outside my capabilities to imagine until I dove into what was unknown.
The shock of being a failure to my culture allowed me to see the failings of my culture and to understand where I needed to take responsibility for actively participating in the creation of my identity within it and where I could craft that identity to hopefully aid in repairing myself and one small corner of the hole that is the moral fabric of the modern American mind, even if that mind is only my own.
Even if one does take the time to formulate meaning around one’s identity through stories based on one’s experiences, I believe it is also imperative to social health that these stories also contain meaning for one’s role in their tribe. I do not know my tribe. But I know that Joseph Campbell said everyone has within them, the potential to be a hero. Check out this analysis of Star Wars and the Matrix from this Campbell’s Jungian psychoanalytic perspective.
Who knew going in the opposite direction of what I thought was success would lead me to this hero self? I say this and it sounds egomaniacal perhaps, but Joseph Campbell posited that all people have within them the structure of this journey of the hero, that it is ingrained in the structure of western thought, and that each person has within them the potential to embody this inner hero.
A quote from an article in Quartz Magazine called, “May the Force Be With You: This Classic Formula Can Show You How to Live More Heroically,” says:
“‘A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself,’ according to Campbell’s definition. Anyone can become a hero—on purpose or even accidentally. But it involves a painful evolution that is a prerequisite to greatness.”
He approached this idea through a psychoanalytic lens .
I believe the painful evolution is the shock, the crash, the stripping of pride when we find ourselves at our lowest.
I am faced with a diagnosis now, and my call is to heal this from within with all the methods available to me and publicly that this may stand as some kind of record for someone.
The heart calls and we must follow it no matter how crazy people tell us the call is. We must follow our call to adventure or remain stagnant. Nature does not allow things to stand still. Forcing it to be other than it is only delays the inevitable…kind of like our economy after the 2008 crash.
My culture’s understanding of bipolar and schizophrenia are like the demographic understanding of Family illustrated above: data driven, physical, and lacking in the cultural or humanistic perspective. I am not saying it is wrong. It is just one perspective of a bigger picture that needs more information. In the event that one’s body is at risk of harm from bipolar or schizophrenia, my culture’s understanding of bipolar and schizophrenia call for a pill, restraints, talk therapy, sometimes even jail if the person is lucid enough. But modern medicine can cure what was once incurable and it can help to keep one safe temporarily. You go to the hospital for a broken bone and they fix it but if you go back out into the world and jump off the slide again the leg is going to break. My culture fixes the “breaks”–the episodes, the intolerable snap.
My tribe’s culture calls for sweat lodge and the ancients knew certain diets and told stories about ascended masters and spirits and ghosts and aliens. If I treat these stories as symbols for the unknown human experience, rather than as factual accounts of otherworldly beings–that is, if I use otherworldly symbolism to explain the emotions and experiences I don’t understand the science of–then I have a much better story and a much less stressful human experience than if I were an ill mental patient who needs a pill to make her right again. I can’t not identify with something my culture tells me is an illness. I must be able to participate in my culture to be healthy and to feel meaningful and thus the ill factor must be addressed. But I must participate actively instead of as a product of my culture to create meaningful change within it. And the change that means something to me based on my story and the stories of so many people I love who have had brushes with chronic mental or physical illness, even been consumed by it, is a change in the way we view illness as a culture. Chronic illness is a cultural epidemic the likes of which was once healed by spiritual methods, which might just mean stories we told to explain things bigger than ourselves.
Imagine for a moment that what you think you know about anything is just a big story we’ve all decided to participate in. Imagine that by participating in this story, you are helping to write it. Every day. With every action. With every dollar spent. Every morsel devoured. Every word spoken. Every judgment. Imagine every action as leading to the next and what the outcome of these actions equal on the individual, interpersonal, familial, societal, cultural, national, global, universal scales.
We are not intelligent enough to calculate these in every moment, and yet every moment does echo through all of these spheres.
But we do have a cultural story that allows for understanding things bigger than the self: The Journey of the Hero.
Today, I step into my hero self. The best way I know of to proceed is to understand I know nothing. Innocence breeds curiosity, kindness, and understanding. I would rather tell myself a story that deems me as crazy but lets me learn things like the value of family, of caring for myself and my people despite and even because of our individual differences, than tell myself a story about my identity that would let me hate them, blame them, be different from them. Somehow they became them. I don’t even know who they are. This metaphorical “they.”
“They” are people like you and me. I would rather sit at a bar with someone who spouts a bunch of stuff I think is nonsense and laugh and accept their ideas are working for them, maybe ask questions, and let them continue on with their life than I would spite someone or condemn them as wrong. What do I really know? What does anyone really know?
That’s not to say I’m not mean sometimes or spiteful or judgmental. I am. I’m a moody person. But, as best I can, I make amends and try not to make the same selfish mistakes again.
In the same light as WWJD, I sometimes ask myself, What Would Harry Do? because Harry Potter is a character in my culture’s mythology who embodies a hero to me. Who are your heroes? I know it’s silly, but it’s better than hating on people, better than making people feel low so I can feel slightly higher. Why not just build my own identity? Carve out my own space in this place. Take responsibility for my adaptation instead of hating on them or him or her or my president because he is evidence of my country’s total ambivalence towards consequences that don’t involve guns, money, or walls apparently.
I believe the need to be right stems from fear of losing control of one’s narrative of identity in some regard or another. I believe this because I have often needed to be right and found at the root of my fear a question about my identity revealing something I didn’t want to face. Like what a selfish sixteen year old I was. Like what a selfish 25 year old I was. But the parts of ourselves that live in the shadows must be recognized to be brought into the light. I saw my selfishness, let my walls down, and let myself become part of my family.
A large part of my depression and mania have originated from this incongruence between my idea of who I am within vs. who I am in the world now. This, I believe, is why present moment awareness is such a valuable tool. Instead of identifying with my past and the labels of who I was within the context of my occupation, my best friend, my location, my purpose and passions even, I am here in this moment in the world in the reality of it experiencing it with curiosity and innocence. This perspective lets me see the basic building blocks of reality when there are too many stories from external realities trying to inform my personal one. The present is the seat of consciousness. It is the truth inherent. The stories are there to help us weave the narrative of experiences in the present. As best I can, I try to let the present inform my personal narrative about my identity, but sometimes there are inexplicable things which I can call an illness or a gift or perhaps there is a perspective out there which holds both as true, knows a larger scope of the story, and I suppose that’s what I’m here to discover.
Both past and present must inform the whole of the identity. The present identity co creates the future.
This is all theoretical. It’s a subject I can write a book about and intend to. For now, may we all find the bravery to take the leap into our hero selves, whoever they may be, whatever that might look like.
Be well. Be brave. Break boxes today. It’s okay. We’re all a little crazy.