This is the second of three reflection papers I recently wrote for a program offered by The School of the Spirit. My application for this 18-month program, which was called “On Being a Spiritual Nurturer,” can be found here. The first paper I wrote, “Two Roads,” is here.
What follows was submitted in September of 2019. How can that be? Surely far more than a year must have passed since our class gathered at the Franciscan Spiritual Center outside of Philadelphia for our fourth residency.
My sense of time — not to mention my sense of reality — has gone topsy-turvy since the coronavirus pandemic circled the Earth. For most of us, the pre-pandemic normal is no more; and whatever the post-pandemic reality may turn out to be, it has yet to appear. In this tensioning interval, many of our former assumptions and certainties are being deconstructed.
That’s why Medicine Wheels for Story Orphans feels increasingly relevant. As tumultuous and disorienting as these times are, they aren’t unprecedented. Stories are maps of meaning, and we are hardly the first generation to be shorn of our stories.
This paper will explore the working hypothesis that we live within a world which is heavily filtered and largely self-referential; that it’s a convincing tapestry woven on a loom of stories. Losing foundational narratives can be dangerous for individuals and cultures. Such losses, however, also call forth new stories from our myth-spinning mind.
We will see how this process of losing and renewing core stories played out in the lives of three influential storytellers: George Fox, Carl Jung, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Each of them made perilous journeys into non-ordinary reality and returned with medicinal tales to tell.
Interwoven with these biographical sketches will be my own attempts to understand how a street in Manila could be imbued with radiance one moment and shrouded in shadows the next.
An Awakening in Manila
I have flown from Occidental Mindoro to Manila, the sprawling, urbanized capital of the Philippines, to finalize my early termination from the Peace Corps. The Philippines has been a colonial outpost of the United States since the Spanish-American War of 1898. Now it’s early February of 1968 and the American military bases here are becoming directly involved in the killing fields of Vietnam. Tomorrow morning I’ll fly to California to join the escalating protest against this unjust war.
This evening, though, one of the downtown streets in Manila is alive with light as my two companions and I near our destination, a Chinese restaurant. The light comes from everywhere – not just from the streetlights and the headlights of passing cars, but shimmering in shop fronts, in high-rise office buildings, and in the sparkling eyes of our fellow pedestrians. The sidewalk itself is radiant. Thousands of tiny, yellowish-white Christmas tree lights seem to have been flung across the landscape and are subtly glowing. I walk slowly, lost in wonder. It’s as though the entire city of Manila and all its inhabitants have become enlightened.
Then a whispery suspicion drifts through my mind: this illumination is only a drug-induced fantasy. For my new-found friends have just flown in from Laos, bringing with them a stash of potent hashish. We had met in the lobby of our hotel. They invited me to their room, where the shaggy-haired man with the huge mustache produced a small pipe. Soon he and his girlfriend and I were toking away, holding in the pungent smoke as long as possible before exhaling. Having spent four years at a college nestled in the cornfields of Iowa, I had no prior experience with psychedelics this strong.
So sitting in that Chinese restaurant, I begin to assume that my elation at seeing the world turn incandescent has been a pipe dream. We finish our meal and leave the restaurant. I’m astonished to see that the street that had been magical and light-illumined only an hour before is now dark, dank, and dirty. A cold wind blows scraps of paper around. Old ladies sit on the sidewalk selling cigarettes. Instead of being filled with euphoria, I’m feeling morose, dejected, worthless.
Back in my hotel room, I lie in bed wondering how I could have seen the same street in such diametrically opposed ways. The hashish had clearly messed with my mind and mood. But what if it had been the skewed mind and mood, rather than the psychedelic, that had altered my perceptions? Different people do see the world in different ways. Neither of my two companions – let alone the other pedestrians or the cigarette ladies sitting on the sidewalk – saw the same street I saw. Our genetics and gender, our stage of life and cultural conditioning profoundly shape our perceptions.
Still unable to sleep, I recall my Peace Corps training in Hawaii. The cultural sensitivity sessions had been eye-opening. In the Philippines, we were told, you should laugh if someone falls off a bike; it will put them at ease. Young men who hold hands there are simply good friends; it has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Learn to eat dog; it’s considered a delicacy. Practice eating with your fingers; that’s the way it’s done in much of Southeast Asia. Always eat with your right hand, too, even if you’re left-handed; the left hand is reserved for the other end of the food tube. And by the way, you won’t be using toilet paper on the smaller islands; you’ll be splashing water on your bottom.
Confronting cultural relativity had been intriguing and disturbing. But what had just happened on the way to and from that Chinese restaurant was even more threatening, for it challenged the core assumption that what I see when I look at the world is the world as it is. To believe otherwise, to be shown that my view of the world is simply a worldview, a construct, a story (and only one story among countless others) – that would necessitate a radical reorientation.
Once again I’m drawn back to my training in Hawaii. I see myself studying late at night in a small cabin on the Big Island. Without warning the windows start rattling, the door jolts open, and the floor moves beneath my feet. My first earthquake isn’t high on the Richter Scale, but its impact is profound. For I had always assumed that the earth I stand upon is solid and dependable, just as I had always taken my view of the world to be true. Now, in Manila, this second bedrock belief has also been upended.
A Story-Woven World
Soon after I returned from the Philippines, I encountered several evocative seed ideas that seemed to support what I had experienced on my last evening there. That sly coyote Carlos Castaneda, for example, says that “the trick is in what one emphasizes. We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”1
Did a likely drug-assisted shift in emphasis make a luminous street in Manila suddenly seem dark and depressing? Jane Roberts explains it this way: “You get what you concentrate upon. There is no other main rule.”2 She elsewhere said that “you see and feel what you expect to see and feel. The world as you know it is a picture of your expectations.”3
Is the world “as we know it” merely a picture of our expectations? If so, to what extent does culture, gender, and genetics determine what we see and feel?
Stephen Covey likewise disabuses us of the illusion that we see things as they actually are. Elaborating on an insight of Anaïs Nin, he says that “each of us tends to think that we see things as they are, that we are objective. But this is not the case. We see the world, not as it is, but as we are – or, as we are conditioned to see it.”4
All these passages about how conditioned our perceptions are resonated. But I didn’t yet appreciate how intractable my conditioning would prove to be. It’s an appreciation that ripens with age.
Two recent books have helped me see how closely story, world, and sense of self are intertwined. Jonathan Gottschall, in The Storytelling Animal, writes that “a life story is a ‘personal myth’ about who we are deep down – where we come from, how we got this way, and what it all means. Our life stories are who we are. They are our identity.”5
Gottschall believes that we hear, watch, read, and tell stories both day and night, awake or asleep. Stories, he says, are hardwired in our species because they teach us how to live, in the same way that flight simulators teach pilots how to fly.
“Human life, especially social life, is intensely complicated and the stakes are high. [Storytelling] allows our brains to practice reacting to the kinds of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species.”6
Stories bind disparate individuals into families, groups, and societies that have enough shared values and common goals to be cohesive. “Story is the counterforce to social disorder, the tendency of things to fall apart,” Gottschall states. “Story is the center without which the rest cannot hold.”7 The corollary, as we are about to see, is that when things do fall apart, when social cohesion dissipates and unravels, then the need for new stories becomes acute.
The second book that recently spoke to me is The World Is Made of Stories, by the Zen teacher David R. Loy. It’s a slender volume of quotations about stories, interspersed with Loy’s brief ruminations on each of them. He quotes Muriel Rukeyser for example: “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”
“Not atoms?” Loy asks playfully. “Of course it is made of atoms. That’s one of our important stories.”8
Then he jumps octaves.
“If the world is made of stories, stories are not just stories. They teach us what is real, what is valuable, and what is possible. Without stories there is no way to engage with the world because there is no world, and no one to engage with it because there is no self.”9
Loy observes that just as the body needs food, the mind needs stories. “The food we eat becomes our bodies, assimilated stories form our identities.”10
The Perilous Loss of Story
Losing a story that is deeply held, life-affirming, and identity-defining is painful. And sometimes it’s dangerous. Narratives that once were viable may lose their hold on us. Or we outgrow them. Or they become dysfunctional. Some stories die gradually; others crash and burn. This is true for individuals, cultures, and civilizations.
Turning first to the personal arena, most of us can recall when one worldview gave way to another. Maybe it was falling in or out of love. Or maybe we became disenchanted with a religion that had once provided guidance, fellowship, and support. Perhaps a promising career or a calling appeared after a stretch of barren years.
Due to the correlation between bone marrow stories and one’s sense of self, losing a story can be traumatic — whether it be a terminal diagnosis for oneself or a loved one; a descent into mental illness; the onset of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; or a collapse of meaning triggering a dark night of the soul.
One of my searing encounters with trauma grew out of an automobile accident I was in. Someone I had been close to for decades had died. Eventually I found a book about P.T.S.D. called Shattered Assumptions. 11 Its premise is that we see ourselves and the world only indirectly, through the filters of our preconceived ideas. Trauma can shatter our underlying stories about the world being a safe place; that it’s meaningful; and that I’m worthy. If these essential beliefs become compromised, serious problems can arise.
Sometimes core stories must be shattered or left behind in order for new stories to form, just as children have to lose baby teeth to make room for permanent teeth, or let go of favorite shoes that no longer fit. In a similar way, traditional societies use rites of passage and initiation rituals to help people navigate the story-changing stages of life such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death. Puberty is especially crucial. Boys and girls begin as dependent children; then they’re thrust into solitary encounters with the Mystery; finally, they return as newly adult members of the society. It’s a perilous journey.
Cultures and civilizations are likewise shaped by shared stories. They have discernible life cycles and pass through transitional stages. Sometimes these transitions are so turbulent that they sweep thousands if not millions of people into their vortex. This was certainly true for the three storytellers we will be considering in this paper.
George Fox, Carl Jung, and J.R.R. Tolkien were thoroughly scourged by the turbulence of the times in which they lived. They were dismayed to discover that their cultural stories, their maps of meaning, no longer described the strange territory they found themselves in. They therefore became story orphans.
George Fox came of age in a 17th century England that was wracked by a brutal and bloody civil war. Combat deaths and war-related diseases left over 100,000 men and women dead. King Charles, considered by his subjects to be a divinely appointed king, was executed. The Church of England was dismantled and Oliver Cromwell was installed as a military dictator. Many people believed they were living in the end times.
George Fox was a confused and tormented young man.
“I fasted much,” he recalled, “and walked abroad in solitary places many days, and often took my Bible and went and sat in hollow trees and lonesome places till night came on; and frequently in the night walked mournfully about by myself, for I was a man of sorrows in the times of the first workings of the Lord in me.”12
Carl Jung’s crisis arrived in mid-life. In the early 20th century he became a psychiatrist and was a close colleague of Sigmund Freud. Starting in 1912, however, he was buffeted. First, Jung and his mentor became alienated. “After the parting of the ways with Freud,” he said, “a period of inner uncertainty began for me. It would be no exaggeration to call it a state of disorientation. I felt totally suspended in mid-air, for I had not yet found my own footing.”13
He wrote a book about mythology, folklore, and religion, only to discover that he himself had no myth. He felt “like one uprooted.”
Then, while riding on a train in October of 1913, Jung was seized by an hour-long waking vision of Europe undergoing “a frightful catastrophe.” He said that he saw “the mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilization, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood.”
Two weeks later the vision came again. This time it was even more vivid. “Look at it well,” Jung heard an inner voice say. “It is wholly real and it will be so. You cannot doubt it.”14
Jung couldn’t conceive that his visions foretold a revolution. “And so I drew the conclusion that they had to do with me myself, and decided that I was menaced by a psychosis. The idea of war did not occur to me at all.”15 The outbreak of World War I, however, was less than a year away.
J.R.R. Tolkien was in his mid-twenties when the Great War swept him into its vortex. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the British Army and was trained to be a signals officer. A few months after he got married, Tolkien was on the front lines at the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in human history. Over a million men were killed or wounded. Tolkien lost two of his three best friends from school during the first days of that slaughter. He himself contracted trench fever and was later sent home for a lengthy recuperation.
My own generation faced a collective trauma somewhat similar to that faced by Fox, Jung, and Tolkien. There was the ever-present Cold War threat of global nuclear annihilation; a bitterly divisive war in Vietnam ending in a first-ever military defeat for this country; the unprecedented forced resignation of a sitting president; and the successive assassinations of President John Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Senator Robert Kennedy. These psychological body blows goaded many young people in the 1960s and ’70s to search for new stories.
This was long before the days of Google and Amazon Books. All we had to go by were sketchy maps and travelers’ tales. Some of us journeyed to the East, ending up in India or Southeast Asia. Others gravitated to the few bicoastal enclaves of alternative spirituality. Still others used hallucinogens. There was a rising crescendo of generational agitation.
Part 2 of Medicine Wheels for Story Orphans will be posted next week.