Monday, 31 July 2017

When the s**t hits the fan and all hope is lost: world myths, idealism, reality and suicide.

I am in the process of attempting to downsize my library and, as I find it difficult to let knowledge go, re-reading material that has not been taken off the shelf for years in the hope that it is no longer relevant and I can toss it out…hmmm!  At the moment I’m revisiting, among other things, writing on Northern/Germanic mythology.

During the same period there have been a number of television programs addressing depression, suicide and a sense of hopelessness experienced by young people and those involved in war and peacekeeping, including the police.  Two of these programs are Milpirriand Lateline.[1]

Milpirri is a documentary about young aboriginal men who are being educated and guided through culture and the ritual of initiation to give them a sense of grounding, direction and purpose.  Lateline is an interview with Julia Gillard who has been appointed Chairperson of Beyond Blue, one of the organisations which addresses the growing incidence of suicide.

And the question is, why?  What are we, as a society, as a culture, not supplying?  What is lacking in our socio-cultural myths - the stories we tell ourselves about what life is - and our rituals - the communally sanctioned rites of passage?  Are we promoting unrealistic and idealized stories that can never be realized by ordinary people?  Are we not giving a clear enough picture of the world? How do we guide people through the messy reality of our world and come out with a sense of hope, if not for the world at least for ourselves?  Perhaps all belief systems and ritual have been attempts to process these issues in order to maintain inner and social harmony.

I wonder if part of the mindframe around self-destruction and suicide comes from this inability to reconcile an imagined ideal world and an ideal life for ourselves and those we love with the reality of world news and our daily experiences.  Human fragility is such that the smallest incident can tip the balance and send our mind-brain into a spiral of self-other-anger, loss of focus and hope, depression, and self-destruction. 

Understandably some of this is a result of being confronted with and having to endure horrendous events, and of realising that all efforts to ‘do the right thing’, ‘hoping to make a difference’ or ‘hoping that things will change’ seem to have come to nothing.  I wonder if this ‘spin-out’ comes from not being given the right support structures, including belief systems and myth, to be ready for and process this sense of betrayal.

Yet we seem to need the open window offered by idealized versions of life that organizations and individuals work to attain; that there is ‘someone out there’ who stands for ‘good’.  This need is exemplified by the popularity of the variation-on-a-theme super-hero movies, cartoons and computer games in which ‘good’ versus ‘evil’...and ‘good’ wins.

Re-reading Northern-Germanic mythology has been a reminder that many of our ancient stories contain this ideal.  Stories are filled with the messiness of the world and the need for it to be destroyed in the hope of its rebirth and renewal…or of heroes who fight ‘the bad’...or that there is an alternative world, a paradise, which is perfect and waiting for us when we die. The reality is that since those stories were written the world has not much changed in this regard and yet we continue.

The Northern-Germanic myths also contain the story of a sacrificial victim.  This symbol is questionable as it heroizes the one who is either killed through no fault of their own, or who offers themselves up for the sake of others or the world.  As with suicide, it is a waste – a waste of potential and a waste of a life which has the same right as every other living creature to live, survive, and thrive.

The Milpirri initiation project seems to have parallels in Jane Ellen Harrison’s[2] analysis of early Cretan/Greek rites which are considered to be initiatory.  She focuses on myths where the child is taken from their mother, symbolically killed or hidden away and given instruction including learning the culture’s stories, songs and dances, and then resurrected or returned as mature adults able to function in their society.

Harrison theorizes that the early rites of passage emerged out of the needs of the community.  The underlying assumption is that most people in the community shared similar goals, similar beliefs about their society and each person’s place and function, and that the rites of passage reinforced this common ethos.   The difference now is, we don’t all believe the same, act the same, or dream for the same things.  We are able to live, on the whole, individualised lives.

Information about our icons or god/desses and ways of living is accessed via TV, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram and the like.  Multitudes of ways of being and believing are available for us to compare, judge and fashion our own lives.  However it is obvious that for some this is not enough.  So the question returns, ‘what are we missing in contemporary society’?   Is it that we need to develop our individualised, alternative myths, rituals and rites of passage, and if so, who has the knowledge, understanding and sensitivity to guide us through?

By the time I entered university for the last time that is exactly where I had arrived – the need to create a myth of the world and my place in the world[3], and to develop my own rites of passage to see me through each stage.[4] [5]  The most difficult stage for me was that of confronting the world and life as it is, no illusions.  Some Christian religious call it ‘the dark night of the soul’ or ‘being in the wilderness’.  Other cultures talk of ‘a vision quest’; one where you face your own fears and mortality.  The common thread is facing the fear that ‘it may not turn out all right in the end’. (also see Addendum)

The other common thread seems to be that there are usually 'elders', 'spiritual directors', counsellors or group therapy facilitators who function to guide and guard, even from a distance, in case the whole process becomes too difficult.  It is not an easy journey.  This goes some way towards answering one of the questions I have previously asked.

In every religion there seems to be a dark side and the symbol of the ying/yang in Taoist philosophy is the closest, I think, to visually representing and balancing both sides.  Yet... ‘what if the balance is not maintained in the cosmos, what then’?  That is the primal fear.  I think part of the answer is in our attitude to, and myth/story of, our personal act of living.  We are alive...that is something...something very special.  So, whatever occurs ‘out there’ or ‘before’ should not be allowed to destroy our moment on the planet.

Some people may have no need for such musings - quite happy to close their minds, and I guess eyes, not think too deeply, and ‘carry on’ acting as if all is well, as it might be in their lives, and survive wound-free.  But for others who are musers, or have seen or experienced too much and have been burned, it is not as easy to ignore that dark side.  My rituals, my rites of passage, work for me.

Others may ask, ‘what about hope?’ ‘How do we give our young, our people, hope for the future?’  In 2007 I wrote a poem in response to a comment about something I had written or performed.  I don’t remember exactly.  The poem still encapsulates my current thoughts on this.


They are so heavy
too depressing really
I just don’t want to think about it
be confronted with it
Where is the hope?

Why don’t you write...perform....create
something positive
something to make us laugh?

Yes, well...

But the need to search for answer
the need to know and confront

to take it all on board as
‘this is what it is’
‘these are the challenges...the contradictions’
‘this is the reality’

to discover that the answer and hope are, after all,

and then to still find joy in each moment
to be able to accommodate
the complexity
the contradictions
the ugliness
as well as the beauty...
and, with the lightest of hearts,
to fully celebrate the experience of living

isn’t that the time we really grow up
when we really attain our adulthood
our maturity?[6]

I have always differentiated between daily habits and rituals.  However recently, the fact that I have woken on another day and am enjoying my morning coffee while watching the world come alive, is precious and has become a meaningful daily theology...just me and my coffee and the the life I have been given moment by moment...finding the cracks...and engaging in practical ways to survive.

It is not the actions themselves, but the honouring of these actions, that moves these habits into the realm of ritual;  similar to saying a blessing over, or grace before, a meal. In Alpha and Omega Harrison writes, ‘if we are to keep our hold on religion, theology must go’.  For her, religion is the realm of the emotions and action, whereas theology is the realm of theory and the gods.  I tend to agree with her and, like her, I suspect ‘I was always a ritualist at heart’.[7] [8]

Nature just is.  The animals just act...and enjoy the sun, or water, or not.  We humans have made it so complicated and probably expect too much. I suspect it is really easy.  We have developed brains able to think deeply and to create and solve the most complex problems.  The downside is we can overthink and dwell too long.  I have had said to me, 'don't think, just do'.  My take is, 'don't overthink or dwell...get moving'.   

I’m not sure whether this has answered ‘what are suitable myths and rituals for our time, including transitional rites of passage?’. Perhaps there are as many as there are people, and individuals need to create their own processes to see them through those times when the s**t hits the fan and it seems that all hope is lost.

For Lao-Tzu in the 12th century it was, the world is ruled by letting things take their course. I prefer to engage more directly with the world I was born into and my myths and rituals need to allow for this while conflating my idealized dreams with the lived reality.  Perhaps the answer is somewhere between separating totally from the world, and getting lost in the fight for ideals.

At this my life is calling and I just need to do it.

c. Annette Maie, 2017

Addendum, 2019
Recently I read two articles by women experiencing this type of darkness; facing loss of hope.  The first is the founder of TreeSisters Clare Dubois, who names it Inhabiting the Gap, and the second is Emily Johnson in Lovinga Vanishing World,

and also excited to read of the work of Dr. Claire Weekes, whose treatment process for anxiety was to face, accept, float and let time pass.

[1] In the process of compiling this update in 2019 it has been devastating to hear of the recent suicide of five young indigenous girls over a period of nine days,
[2] Harrison, Jane Ellen Epilegomena to the Study of Greek Religion and Themis, A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion.  She also points out the link between 'initiation' and 'grown up' in Greek language (p. xxxii).
[3] Centre of the Storm
[4]  Fransesca Gina (Why Rituals Work) exemplifies performers in high stress situations who use rituals to reduce anxiety, boost their confidence and perform well, and presents studies which have been conducted on the use and impact of rituals.  Andrew May (Seven morning rituals that set you up for success) presents a personal list which ‘energise me keeping me healthy and productive…kick starts my body and brain into gear and before long I’m back feeling fresh again’.  For Andrew these actions become rituals by being ‘done with deliberate intention and focus’.
[5] Interesting to read Richard Fidler’s Ghost Empire: a record of his and his son’s travels through Constantinople and its ghastly history, which they embarked on as his son’s ‘coming-of-age’ ceremony ‘to mark a child’s entry into incipient adulthood’(2016:23)
[6] If I have understood her correctly, Susan Murphy in Upside-Down Zen calls this process ‘the tiger’s kindness’.
[7] Harrison, 1915:179,184
[8] Elizabeth Kolbert, That’s What You Think, presents studies which demonstrate that a person’s beliefs, as well as the beliefs of their group, have more power than reasoned argument or the reality.   Kolbert’s writing can be extended to support, in my case in relation to suicide prevention, the argument of finding alternative ways to change one’s belief about the world and one’s own place in the world, and that reasoned arguments will not be enough.

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