Revolution of Values, or Values for the Revolution?
by Robert Riversong
It has been said that God (good old divinity) is always whispering in our ears. If we do not hear the voice, it becomes a shout. And if we ignore the shout, we get hit over the head. There is so much din in our ever-accelerating culture that the quiet voice has been all but drowned out. For Job, it required the “voice of the whirlwind” (not the commonly mistranslated “voice in the whirlwind”) to wake him. For many of us, it has required the thundering collapse of the World Trade towers, the angry shout of Katrina, the jack-boot stomp of expanding empire and diminishing liberties or the perfect storm of peak oil, climate change, species extinction and ecological devastation to awaken us from our hypnotic trance, our sleep-walking to the edge of the cliff.
But what we seem to agree upon — those of us seeking a way out of the madness — is that the “old story” no longer supports our deepest needs nor any hope for a sustainable world, that we are in a state of Koyaanisquatsi, the Hopi word for “life out of balance.” “Yes, we did produce a near perfect Republic,” said Thomas Jefferson. “But will they keep it, or will they, in the enjoyment of plenty, lose the memory of freedom? Material abundance without character is the surest way to destruction.”
Gandhi went further in spelling out the “deadly sins” of what we call modern civilization: Politics without Principle, Wealth without Work, Commerce without Morality, Pleasure without Conscience, Education without Character, Science without Humanity, Worship without Sacrifice. When asked by a reporter what he thought of western civilization, Gandhi replied, “I think it would be a good idea.”
Yet we don’t need to reject, in toto, the long-standing and powerful myths which brought us to this juncture, as many tried to do in the 1960s. Like the First Man, First Woman, and coyote in the creation chants of the Dine (Navajo), we continually recreate a world of dreams and experiences, forging new traditions and history. This new world builds upon but never totally replaces the older worlds and stories.
As Rod McKuen so poignantly put it: “There is no single day or time within the life I’ve so far lived that I’d have changed or altered. Possibly there are some days I could have missed and never missed. But I suspect that I could not have come down to this place a different way, as I suspect that being here I don’t as yet know where I am.”
We don’t know where we are, perhaps, because we’ve built for ourselves a house of mirrors, crafted over centuries from the self-justifying “truths” that we’ve come to believe. Those “truths” may have sustained us for a time, but — as the indigenous people say — if they “no longer grow corn” for us it is time to let them go. It is time to walk through the looking glass.
In his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech, Harold Pinter intoned, “As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false? … But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror — for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.”
We, as the purveyors of the dominant culture — the old story — both individually and collectively, are in the midst of a great Passage, a transformative moment, a smashing of the mirror. The therapeutic professions have recognized the psychological state of “spiritual emergency” as a unique and valuable transitional process that mimics schizophrenia, but which — if recognized and respected — can become an integrative rather than a disintegrative process.
Yet integration, the restructuring of self or society, requires a period of dis-integration. We certainly find ourselves in a time of great sociopolitical division and breakdown, with conflict and cultural polarities intensifying and the ground seemingly shifting under our feet. It becomes difficult to keep our balance.
But if we recognize and honor this moment of “emergency” (which Swami Beyondanama would call “emerge-n-see”), then we can understand it as a Rite of Passage, a necessary and healing ritual of metamorphosis. There is a new creature struggling to be born. But the caterpillar must undergo dissolution before it can emerge as a butterfly.
There is no more profound political document than our Declaration of Independence. But dependence on cultural myths is far more difficult to either perceive or relieve than political or economic dependence. Joseph Campbell, the renowned professor of world mythology, said that myths are shared “public dreams” that shape and guide our lives by giving us meaning and purpose.
“The world is as you dream it,” say the Shuar of the Ecuadorian jungle. “In the North, you had dreamed of huge industries, lots of cars, and gigantic skyscrapers. Then you discovered that your vision had in fact been a nightmare that would ultimately destroy you. Change that dream.” Ben Okri, Nigerian novelist, tells us that “Stories are the reservoirs of our values. Change the stories and you ultimately change the people and the nation.”
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the mythological roadmaps that guided them to the present moment, they must co-create a new moral compass to guide them onward, derived from a healthy respect for the Laws of Nature and Life. Such healthy respect for our proper place in the community of life requires that, when we take up that moral compass, we set the declination so that we can know true North. We must set ourselves to decline excess, to decline manufactured wants in place of authentic needs, to decline to lay waste to the Earth, to decline the “myths” of division, dissension, and dis-ease.
Vermont, where I live, is in a unique place to take the lead in redefining our story, for we are not far removed from the culture, the values, the qualities that once sustained us in better balance with the community of life, and we have often led the nation toward wholeness (being the first republic in the world, for example, to outlaw slavery). But we are not the only place that retains memories of essential values. The old Yankee adage, “use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without,” can once again become a guidepost along our journey.
“The greatest country, the richest country, is not that which has the most capitalists, monopolists, immense grabbings, vast fortunes, with its sad, sad soil of extreme, degrading, damning poverty,” quoth Walt Whitman, “but the land in which there are the most homesteads, freeholds — where wealth does not show such contrasts high and low, where all men have enough — a modest living — and no man is made possessor beyond the sane and beautiful necessities.”
Martin Luther King’s words are as relevant today: “This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed non-conformists. The saving of our world from pending doom will come not from the actions of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a dedicated minority.” Vermonters have long been known as a “dedicated minority,” creatively maladjusted to the dominant paradigm, and we and others like us can once again lead the nation toward a more true-to-life deep pragmatism.
In his perceptive analysis of the American personality, Alexis de Tocqueville (Democracy in America, 1831) wrote: “Choose any American at random, and he should be a man of burning desires, enterprising, adventurous, and above all an innovator.” We must once again become that “innovator” to produce the feedstock for a self-reliant economy, but not one led by the false god of technological and material progress.
We must rediscover our earth-based spiritual roots to help us re-member our dismembered consciousness so that we may alchemically transmute the dross of our dysfunction into a new spiritual ecology. We must, together, write a how-to manual for departing the failed paradigm, disentangling ourselves from the addictions which are destroying us, and entering a new/old story based upon Earth-skills and tribal connectedness. And we must — like so many now in the world — engage in non-violent political action to instigate a velvet revolution which reasserts our sovereignty and natural rights.
Wendell Berry’s Manifesto, which appeared years ago on the back page of the Utne Reader, proffered: “As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn’t go.” There are ancient cross-cultural trails that we must re-awaken like the labyrinth which, as an archetype of the journey to wholeness, has only one path so that the mind can be checked at the gate to allow Spirit and Heart to guide one’s feet.
We are in the midst of an epochal Rite of Passage from a failed paradigm — the old story — to a true-to-life paradigm, built upon the rubble of the distant and recent past. Vermonters and other co-creators are in the process of writing a new story which will inspire and guide a heartful transition from the Age of Separation to the Age of Reconnection. We are called now to build bridges between the past and the future – for that is the purpose of the present moment. We must share our prophesies, visions, and living examples with one another. Take a deep breath, relax, release, and join this journey. We are all needed on board this ark.
Robert Riversong is a prophet, teacher, guide, and midwife for a world struggling to be born. He blogs at Turning the Tide.