Seeding the Possibility of a New Story

September 16, 2009

C.G. Jung Institute of Santa Fe

Here we are in the fall again, and the only thing that seems certain is that the sun sets further south along the rim of the Jemez, already the geese are flying, staying only a few days at the high lakes, moving with the seasons as they have done for millennia.  Autumn is regular, more or less, but that is pretty much the end of regularity.  Kennedy, the one man in the Senate who knew his mind, absolutely, is dead; pundits write off Obama as too little of this and too much of that, health care reform is uncertain; Pakistan is nearly as divided as Afghanistan, pinned by ancient Islam like a butterfly to the wall of its feudal past.  Israel, which was awarded its homeland by a self-conscious and guilty Europe is holding onto territory taken by force and is locked into a title search tracing back nearly 3,000 years. Here at home the jobless are wallowing in the collapse of middle class expectations, and the rich are seeking protection behind slogans of outrage against socialism.  Government gives to the wealthy secure patents, secures their local advantage with tariff barriers, protects their trade secrets, grants tax credits for drilling and subsidies for start ups, creates limited liability corporations to insulate them from failure, but this does not keep those who enjoy these protections from attacking government that might protect the health, education and jobs for those who are not rich.  Government assistance to the poor is socialism they say while government assistance to the rich is capitalism.

Hypocrisy was the point of attack for Jesus. “You are like whitened sepulchers!” he cried. I love the image. The Pharisees were like faded old sarcophagi, whitened in the sun, as if the old dogma could provide the inspiration for a new day.

Hypocrisy is perhaps the cardinal sin and it dogs us still. Television advertises with tongue in cheek that it will make us sexually satisfied, prominent, safe and into real Americans. A million songs on our I-pods, our gateway to the internet and to all kinds of free speech, celebrate violence and rage far more than beauty and truth.

This is a kind of social and intellectual chaos that the formulations of our past seem ill equipped to explain. A theory, if we had one, should sort out all these elements, organize them and make sense of them. But no scientific theory can today explain the rage in the Republicans in congress against social change, or greed in our banks, or despair in our songs, or failure in our marriages, or drop outs above 45% at Santa Fe High. We are in a stage in the evolution of our story when we seem to lurch from pillar to post, for war and against war; for any measures including torture, and for the rule of law to abolish torture; for a black man for president but only if he lifts the white man’s burdens, and since he does not, then for someone else who will destroy government altogether.

In a profound sense, perhaps more than at any time in history, this generation lacks ideological orientation. Chaos does that, of course. We are overwhelmed with information and unable to organize it; deluged with opinion and unable to plumb the depths of it; heartsick at a thousand losses and sufferings and unable to pray.  We are uncertain in which direction Mecca may lie.

And what are the stories upon which we have relied, in the past, to make sense of all this, to point us toward a god or a truth or the rib structure of what is, upon which we could place our faith?

Let us imagine that the story of western civilization begins with the principle of glorious power and that power alone establishes right: right with one’s fellows and right with God.  This would be the principle organizing Sumarians, Egyptians, Hittites and Mycenaeans in the second millennium BC that we now call pre-history. It would be the principle of patriarchal survival at the foundation of western culture.

Parenthetically, lest one think that that principle is extinct, know that if you were to go tomorrow to a local playground in Armenia or Azerbaijan, Georgia or Kazakhstan, and watch children play together on a basketball court you would see that it is accepted and parentally approved that older children systematically, as a matter of course, drive younger children from the game ; the stronger ones are expected to rip the ball away from the hands of the weaker ones. There is no, “Oh, let little Arzu have a chance.” Power is still the principle of survival on the children’s playground and one cannot be surprised when it dominates political leadership of those countries.  The attitude does not change when ministers are negotiating.

So let us go back to the beginning of this.

Organization of societies in the second millennium BC would have depended upon force, violence, dominance and clan hierarchy. Tribal leaders, Hittite kings, Greek heroes, would promote subordination of the weak, of women and female irrationality, and control of property would be achieved through the control of women’s sexuality. Patriarchy required that there be no breeding outside the patriarchal line. To keep kings and princes in power the heroes of the time would be warriors and pirates, like Achilles and Odysseus who go off to Troy to insure the sexual restraint of the beautiful queen Helen. For Achilles and Odysseus, violence, lying to strangers, and patriarchal loyalty all rank above rationality, competence in trade, peace making, or—Lord help us—fairness or equality.

If you try to imagine what you know about Afghanistan today, you can imagine these values in a package. Afghan society has not changed much in the last four thousand years. If you imagine the 13th century BC society of the Mycenaeans described in Homer’s Odyssey, you will have the earliest western literature that describes the same thing.  When Odysseus kills the 11 servant girls at the end of his story, he is fulfilling the needs of clan, murdering the last of the sexually active women, and promoting Penelope’s chastity without which patriarchy cannot survive.  Homer sets all this down as an instruction for Greek culture and, as it turns out, the rest of the western world for nearly 3000 years. Lie to strangers, kill when useful, dominate the weak and survive.

These would have been the ordinary values throughout the patriarchal world from Sumaria and Babylon, to Egypt, to the Hittites and Assyrians and Persians and they would persist down to Rome and the Caesars and even down into feudal times. In some places, positioned away and distant the trade routes, these values linger into modern times. Today, society in both Afghanistan and Russia can be explained substantially by the degree to which they lay off the historic trade routes.

The key fact to note is that when trade began to expand in the Mediterranean in the middle of the second century BC, three contrary impulses were awakened and grew to gradually and increasingly contest the Homeric values.

The first of these contrary impulses was Judaism with its insistence on one God, meaning (at least) a common god for strangers as well as Israelites, and justice, meaning a common justice for those inside and outside the tribes. This is a breakthrough of gigantic proportion.  Justice and truth telling to strangers is new; Achilles and Odysseus would have considered it childlike, naive. But honesty is foundational to trade and without truth in commercial transactions trade contracts are unreliable, unenforceable, and trade slows to a halt. Corruption becomes the norm. Of all the great contributions to western culture, none is more significant than this Hebrew attention to justice for the stranger trader as well as within the family.

The second great modifier to the original principle was unexpected, arising out of Greek civilization: it was the claim to discover what is rational and true through the use of the mind. Rationality, the search for atoms, the search for geometry, or the science of the anatomy, or the true, the good and the beautiful, did not always benefit clan, or power.  Truth and beauty can be quite corrosive of power. Socrates gave his life because of that conflict between his search and the requirements of those men who ruled Athens.

The third great modifier, challenging the power of patriarchal clans and the effectiveness of Homeric violence, was the Jesus teaching of compassion for the underdog, the outsider, the non-clan member, and by his time, the non-elite in the Jewish hierarchy. This was as great a challenge to the power of kings as had been the idea of justice. Power and right had always been bound together in the codes of Hammurabi of 1728 BC and in the world of Homer, where Agamemnon gets the girl, and the girl has no say.  Power was the ability to determine right by the wave of the sword and there was no right outside of power. So it was said  until Jewish justice, and then Christian compassion.

Ever since, running through the struggles for supremacy in the West, century after century, these themes have been in conflict. When Alexander Hamilton railed against democracy in the constitutional debates of 1789 and Thomas Jefferson fought for the First Ten Amendments to the Constitution to give rights to men without property, the right to be free from search and seizure to people without property, the right to trial by jury, the right to habeas corpus, these ancient themes were in direct conflict. Hamilton argued for a permanent place in government for the wealthy. Jefferson argued for a place for those outside the powerful and established propertied aristocracy.

When Susan B. Anthony argued for women’s rights in the 19th century, she was arguing against the patriarchal code of Odysseus, for justice, with the just mind of the Hebrew prophets, and when Florence Nightingale argued that women should be allowed to enter the field of medicine she was countering those other parts of the Bible and of Greek philosophy that held women as beings of unlimited sexual passion, irrational and uncontrollable except by force. She was arguing for the part of the Bible that lauded justice and that women could be rational, could be compassionate at the same time. It was a revolutionary thought for which many women before her had given their lives.  Susan B. Anthony did not lose her life or her freedom in part because of Jefferson’s demand for free speech in the First Amendment when he won that battle against Hamilton.

In our times, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, all worked to reestablish the permanent place for the wealthy, or the oligarchs of great and magnificent wealth, the modern day equivalents of Agamemnon, or Caesar or the English aristocracy. The weak response from the today’s left has shown the degree to which the dominant feudal, Homeric values are creeping back into even this culture, even this one that attempted to embody outright the dissent of ancient Hebraic codes and Christian compassion.

Today, then, these four themes are still in conflict. And, to add to the confusion, not one of these ancient themes organizes our chaos or gives us a solution to today’s needs. Neither justice, nor rationality, nor compassion, nor power clears the way, in religious terms, on the long road to see God.

In secular terms, the old stories do not resolve the chaos of today’s daily lives.

It used to be, in my younger years practicing law, venturing into politics and civil rights, lawyering and suing, negotiating with the Soviets, when I lay sleeping, my dreams were often dreams of warfare. I would lie behind a parapet and hold a rifle, sighting in on an advancing enemy hoard. I dreamt those dreams most uncomfortably and often awoke drenched in sweat and afraid.  Looking back, it is not hard to see the connection between those dreams and my daily life, especially during the years in court.

Later on in life, however, living through the mindless self-interest promoted by Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, and Bill Clinton, feeling as if our country were adrift, my dreams have changed. Now the most recurrent dream is of myself in some foreign city, on the way to an assembly or an airport, being temporarily diverted from the way by some unexpected event and then, knowing the way back, knowing the landmarks, finding none of them to be where I thought they should be. I turn left, remembering the corner, and the ticket counter is not where it should be.  Or I return for my suitcase and it is no longer there.

What I knew to be true before is no longer true and I have lost my way.  Night after night, this will be the dream, in one form or another.

I tell you this because I think it has profound implications for not only me, but perhaps also for our culture.

No hunger is greater, I believe, no need in the human is greater, no pull toward sexual fulfillment, or a life of meaning, or a life of material prosperity, or great power, or fame, none of these is greater than our desire for orientation.

Above all, we have a need to know which way we are going. We don’t mind being poor so much if we know we are on the road to prosperity. We don’t mind being without meaning if we think we are doing the things that take us toward meaning. We don’t hunger for love more than we hunger to know how to get it, what we must do, or that is, to find our road map to happiness.

That is where story comes in.  The story is the roadmap.

The awful dream is that the road map is not working; things are not where they are supposed to be. We turn the corner and the ticket office is not there; the flight is not leaving. The president is not leading; the congress is not legislating.

The American psyche is now dealing with this nightmare. 

I have a friend who one day gave a lecture at the Unitarian Forum here in Santa Fe tracing the origins of Israel’s claim to the Holy Land taking his listeners back to the shards and ruins of the sixth century BC..  He was creating a story that would be for his co-religionists a road map to safety. Once later, in a small group in which he and I both participated he said he was at bottom, personally, deeply worried about the return, in some form, some day, of the holocaust. Israel’s survival therefore represented to him the way to insure against that return, and to make Israel’s claim incontestable he would begin the story with shards of pottery found in the layers of dust of 2,600 years and perhaps 500 wars ago. 

That is the influence of story. More than any scientific theory; more than any song; more than any form of government or law, the adhesive of any culture is the narrative it follows to tell in which direction it is heading, and why it is going there.

It is what we do; it is what stories do.

When I was negotiating in the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Vice President of Armenia explained the justice of the Armenian position by recounting details of that country’s history beginning with their resistance to the Romans in 340 AD. That was a lot of centuries ago and the conversation went on for about three hours. My friend here in Santa Fe could have gone on for at least three hours about the history of the Jewish people. Stories explain where we came from and where we are going to and we all have them.

The Vice President of Azerbaijan’s story began only in about the 18th century, when the Russians invaded the Turks. Like the Armenian and Israeli story it was also a narrative of prosecution and victimization.  In that case, the very white empress Katherine the Great forced the much darker Azeri people into perpetual servitude and disrespect from which they have not yet recovered.  Justice and revenge are still today smothered somewhere down deep in their unconscious.

Tonight, let us begin our conversation with the premise that stories are not truths. They are just stories. They are a selection of some certain set of facts and the neglect of other facts. Until now, it is true, we have thought as a people that we have survived through the successes of power and violence, from the wars of Agamemnon, to the Caesars, to El Cid and Charlemagne to George Patton. But that is a narrative selecting only some facts and neglecting others. That is a narrative that neglects the human’s capacity for cooperation; our utter and complete dependence upon collaboration in science, in medicine, in education, in building successful businesses; that is neglecting our natural tendency, day after day, to bind together, to put a common shoulder to the wheel, to raise the children and build everything from parks to giant corporations in a common enterprise. We do this because we have always done this, and it is absolutely necessary because none of us makes it alone. And we do this much more of the time, every day, than we do violence, or aggression, or make war. The truer story that we are now ready to piece together is the hitherto unremarked tale of our natural and innate capacity to get along. That story has been underreported, not because it was not there in the facts but, to the contrary, precisely because it is everywhere in the facts; it is not newsworthy. It is not newsworthy because it is the dominant story of every day. It is so ordinary that it does not make the news because it is not news.  But that does not make it less true.

In these last years, that the ancient efforts to ameliorate the violent or military story by insisting upon justice, rationality, and compassion has left us a long way from any narrative that in some way also encompasses beauty and truth, fairness and generosity. To fashion that story we might well begin again, this time to extract from the centuries in our past not only the wars and brutality but also that something else, something undeniable if we have eyes to see it, the ineffable compassion, decency and need to cooperate in us all.

Thank you.