This, Our Mythic Moment

April 17, 2020

There is a point in the swing of a pendulum, at its farthest position from the centre, when it pauses mid-air, before returning on its downward journey. At that moment it is both in motion and yet immobile, momentarily hypnotised by the tension between gravity and momentum.

Some years ago, at a small workshop in London, storyteller and teacher Sue Hollingsworth introduced me to a concept she termed the “mythic moment”. In the context of a personal story, such a moment might encapsulate a mind-bending experience, a sense of awe at something magnificent or terrible, or a piece of shocking news after which life will never be the same. The defining characteristic of moments such as these is that time seems to slow down, stretch out, even stop completely, the universe and its unfolding events paused in brief hiatus, like the pendulum suspended at the top of its swing before a new perspective comes into view and motion is resumed.

This concept helped redefine a project I’ve had underway for some years: a much longer piece of non-fiction writing (perhaps, eventually, a book*). The idea of a turning point, when time slows down and new insights emerge, fell neatly into place as the linchpin of the work, and in a heartbeat made sense of my jostling array of ideas. (Thank you Sue, for this and so many other insights.)

The project is not about individual lives, though: instead it takes a giant step backwards to explore ways in which we might tell the story of humanity, or more accurately, of the dominant, “Western” human culture (i.e. the one in which individualism, efficiency and concrete are incentivised over cooperativism, care and ecology).

My research had identified a number of angles, some overlooked, from which our society appears to be at a momentous turning point; and from which, if we could only stop and consider them, we might take stock of the situation, understand more deeply what it is that we’re turning from and to, and make sense of the change.

The writing for this project was plodding on, if falteringly, in the background of my life until a long-predicted, unexpected viral tsunami swept the world, marooning the lucky ones in domestic exile, sending countless others into crisis, critical care units or to their tragic and untimely death, and tipping the administrators of power and money into paroxysms of damage-limitation, the effects of which are yet to play out.

Suspended in vitro

As I write, bringing the coronavirus pandemic under control is the top priority for the world, and rightly so. For some of us, the crisis has also brought the sense of a collective mythic moment right into the foreground; within modern society, time seems to have abruptly and unexpectedly stopped. Billions of us (luckier ones) sit transfixed to the news, struggling to take in the magnitude of the crisis, the response, the disruption, and the impacts on the machinery of the modern world.

Suspended in vitro between screen and window we are prevented from going about our daily life; while outside our homes, the skies are peaceful, the roads clear, the factories hushed. The hyperactive manoeuvres of the high-energy human world are on pause, and us with them. We see the rest of existence from a new vantage point now, unaffected by the blur of motion.

This hiatus may not be the ultimate pivot point for everything or everybody. A cacophony of pendulums will start swinging again, many of which we rely on and will welcome, some of which we’d rather have halted for good, most of which will surely struggle to regain their mutually reinforcing interplay. Something will resume, but something has changed: we have experienced a different world. We have started to discriminate between the tangibly valuable parts of society and the pointless and vain. The naked lies of myriad emperors are in full view. In real time we are collectively experiencing how love, grief, community and care count infinitely more than power, war, growth and shares.

We have been offered an opportunity to meditate upon humanity’s situation at this moment in history, to find our bearings, and maybe to grasp a fleeting chance to help shape the inevitable re-ordering. Of course I am far from alone in contemplating the gargantuan risks and possibilities ahead; my line of thinking is but one among many** and I offer it into the mix while acknowledging the variety and value of the others.

The late Joseph Campbell, American mythologist, writer and professor of literature, analysed dozens of myths, stories and world religions, in the process uncovering a surprisingly consistent, circular narrative structure — or monomyth — shared by them all. He called this structure the hero’s journey, and detailed it in his seminal book “The Hero with A Thousand Faces”. In this model, the protagonist is a manifestation of the hero archetype, as defined in Jung’s theory of the psyche in which an archetype signifies a recurring pattern of character. Jung specified 12 archetypes as the basis of a common palette from which the subconscious draws its motivations and shapes our behaviours; Campbell drew extensively on Jung’s work.

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The story of the hero’s journey is divided into three primary stages: separation, initiation and return. A rough summary has the main character, the hero, experiencing a call to adventure, in which he or she is invited to venture into unknown lands. From his or her comfortable position in the ordinary world, the hero at first refuses this call, and then accepts it, crosses a guarded threshold and embarks on a journey into a different world, where previous rules no longer apply.

This journey, the separation part of the story, entails many ordeals and temptations. It reaches its climax at the moment of initiation, at which point the hero faces a central crisis that must be overcome in order to gain reward or treasure. Once this is achieved, the final stage of the story, the return home, can proceed, albeit with challenges of its own. Finally the hero crosses the threshold back into the ordinary world again, forever changed, and brings the treasure back for the benefit of the community. After that point he or she is able to move between both worlds.

What might happen (I wondered, while anointing the ‘mythic moment’ concept as the new keystone of my treatise), if we overlay the hero’s journey structure onto the story of humanity, casting humanity — as it presents in our dominant, expansionist culture — as the hero?

While I’m certain the thought came to me independently, I was certainly not the first to have considered it: American author Duane Elgin had already attempted such an overlay. In his book ‘The Living Universe,’ Elgin proposes that humanity has been on a journey of separation for tens of millennia, with the now dominant culture taking ever greater strides at ever greater speeds into new worlds, well beyond the simple existence of survival-within-habitat. This has entailed epic migrations not only across physical geographies but also through psychological, social and spiritual ones, by means of which we have explored new and often daring ways of living, organising, learning, and creating, while using the energy and materials at our disposal in ever more sophisticated and powerful ways.

Hero archetype

Although Elgin doesn’t go so far as to say this, it seems reasonable to suggest that this adventurous and challenging journey away from an ecological state of being has reinforced the hero archetype as a dominant force in the collective psyche, at the expense of other archetypes such as caregiver or lover. These latter archetypes are still prominent in society, but are largely associated with positions considered of secondary importance. Meanwhile the hero’s shadow component — the dark, suppressed side of the archetype, in this case manifesting as a hubristic urge for conquest — has been magnified and projected without restraint.

Looked at through the timeless lens of the monomyth, humanity is now reaching the initiation part of its journey — and approaching the moment of our ultimate ordeal. The onus is on us to face the music, confront our shadow, and embrace the implications for finding our way home, wherever and whatever that may be. Admitting and absorbing the shadow (in Jungian terms, “integrating” it), so as to neutralise its toxic projections, will mean recognising the fear and insecurity that underpin the urge for conquest, renouncing the machinery of power and force, and learning to proceed differently, in community, with love and courageous humility.

This transformation may result in a shift in archetype, a suggestion proposed by psychologist and psychotherapist Professor Rachel Vaughan in a recent paper entitled “The Hero Versus the Initiate: The Western Ego Faced with Climate Chaos,” published in the Journal of Jungian Scholarly Studies. Vaughan’s research examines “how we can live through our time without resorting to unhelpful psychological defences” and “uses Jungian psychology to examine the limiting beliefs and thought patterns prevalent in the developed Western world, with its emphasis on action and progress.” It concludes that “a more humble way of being may be a better guide as we move into an uncertain, contingent future.”

Vaughan’s focus is on how we might respond to the climate crisis on an emotional level, individually and collectively; she suggests that the initiate — the archetype of the second part of life, characterised by the surrendering of control and submission to the uncertainty of true change — is a more appropriate model for these times than that of hero, and acknowledges that the shift is not only for individuals or communities: “As a civilization we are at this juncture.”

The initiation

Our particular rite of passage, our initiation, says Vaughan, requires us collectively “to acknowledge that we have already destroyed the very conditions under which we and everything else alive today evolved, and to avow the enormity of our error. It demands that we bow to our own mortality and acknowledge our total dependence on the rest of the biosphere, as well as the fact that there is a higher goal in life than our own gratification: that of the continuance of life.”

At this moment, while the high-speed momentum of the modern human world is interrupted by a fast-spreading disease, it befits us to consider the broader implications and requirements of this opening act of our initiation period.

Avowing our grotesque collective errors does not mean saying “oops” and then attempting to carry on as before, finding some new justification for the conqueror mentality and burying its shadow side.

It means acknowledging our dependencies on the systems of destruction, relinquishing our belief in their justifications and forsaking the ways in which they validate our egos. It means feeling into our shared culpability and vulnerability, and letting those feelings morph into a sort of courageous humility. It also means discerning and rejecting the messages and the messengers that obfuscate the truth of this moment and manipulate us into clinging to an out-of-date map reference. Instead we must acknowledge that we are on a bigger journey. Right now we are poised at the end of its outward sweep, the vectors, objectives and directions of which are no longer relevant.

I’ll say it again. The outward part of the hero’s journey is over. We can look back and see how its trajectory and defining impulses explain our culture’s high achievements and grim calamities, its science, medicine, art, wars and colonialism; we can better understand its thrills, temptations and shadow-masking techniques. The review can be instructive. But it does not take away from the fact that the era of conquest is drawing to a close.

We have arrived at a turning point of mythic proportions. The challenges of this moment of initiation are both immense and simple. We are called upon to denounce the artificial, destructive imperatives embedded within infinite economic growth models and unjust social power structures, in which our individual and collective egos are so invested, and to divorce ourselves from the pointless trappings of modern life that protect us from our insecurities. Instead we must address the questions of who we really are, where we have come from, and what we have learned.

It also requires us to consider where we’re going from here.

Here’s a clue: for reasons of energy and ecology it physically cannot be more of the same.

For all the essays discussing the enormity of this moment in history and pointing out the myriad choices of political, economic and social transformation facing us, few if any admit that our options are all bounded by one simple truth: where we’re going next, by necessity of science, is a form of return.

The return

Recall the pendulum. The outward swing of humanity’s journey, from its ecological roots to industrial modernity, has been propelled to its great heights in part by surplus physical energy sources, marshalled by means of hierarchical social power structures and a win-lose logic that selects for competitive success and conquest. But the extent of the outward swing of a pendulum is limited by the energy applied, and, for modern society, that climate-crashing, nature-thrashing energy supply comes at a price.

That price is the health and viability of our ecological habitat, and therefore of the human society that lives within it.

In other words, the price is life.

Keeping the pendulum straining at its apex, elevated unnaturally away from its natural motion, requires the constant application of more power and energy, creating an untenable strain on its string. We can see it fraying now, strands pinging and popping and whipping back into us, in the form of global health crises, catastrophic weather events, forest fires and locust plagues. Whether we want to or not, we cannot keep expending that energy and paying its price indefinitely. The pendulum must return, or the string will snap.

Of course, philosophers, researchers and writers aplenty have identified a turning point imperative. Among them is Joanna Macy, scholar of Buddhism, deep ecology and systems thinking, who for more than a decade has talked of the “Great Turning” from a doomed industrial growth society to a life-sustaining society. Charles Eisenstein, in his early book “The Ascent of Humanity,” characterised with genius and erudition our current Age of Separation and the coming shift to the Age of Reunion. In 2007 Richard Heinberg wrote “Peak Everything,” in which he set out a resource-based argument for an inescapable winding down of our high-energy, high-consumption society to a low-energy, localised economy. Research into degrowth economics is a current hot topic. Recently, farmer, blogger and author Chris Smaje theorised in his well-referenced piece The Three Causes of Global Ecocide that a serial combination of large-scale grain agriculture, capitalism and fossil fuels brought us to this critical moment, and that if human society is to have a hope of surviving we have little choice but to pick them apart, starting from the most recent, and try to find our way back in energy terms to some form of low-impact, small-scale, ecologically-compatible society.

Yet, despite exhortations such as these, despite their erudition, beauty or pragmatism, the concept of return as applied to industrial human society still collides violently with mainstream narratives about where we are meant to be heading. Progress, that questionable and loaded term, has for centuries meant linear travel away from simple to complex, away from “primitive” to modern, away from manual labour to automation, away from local to global, away from Earth even, to Mars, or the stars. To return is anathema. A range of taboos blind us to the inevitable.

But the truth is: humans are not supreme. Even the smartest technology cannot extend life within an ecocidal culture. When a growth-dependent, consumption economy destroys oceans, forests and soils, no amount of green retail or eco-tourism will let us get away with it. Our time of indulgent thrills and misadventures is up.

And for a moment, suspended here in our pandemic mythic moment (without denying the great hardship caused by an abruptly stymied economy), we can see that life itself does not depend upon or require the vast majority of those things on which such an economy is predicated.

Life itself depends on a mutually beneficial relationship with our ecological habitat. Building societies around that principle requires deliberate re-engineering to create political economies that promote priorities such as healthy ecological communities, inclusive ownership models, circular material flows, human-scale impacts and accountabilities; ecological education, a regenerative model of investment and return, in which money and economy are underwritten by the health and diversity of wild nature; a narrative of interconnection and love, and extremely low use of surplus energy supplies.

The hour is late, and much more will yet be lost, but the work of exploring such models and concepts in service of a living, caring future is well underway. However, as long as the incumbent brokers of power, law, money and public rhetoric remain fearful, controlling, and locked into their own shadow projection behaviours, this work will not see the light of day, and the second half of the human story will remain forever untold.

Our adventure has taken us out of our natural habitat and left us exiled, exposed and uncertain, barricading ourselves against the depredations of the toxic wasteland we have created. In this stuck place, blinkered to the destiny and the beauty of return, unable to reconcile the impossible visions of what comes next, we become futureless, listless, lacking in purpose, inclined to lunge back to the past for comfort, trapped in Jacques Derrida’s hauntological state of not-present.

It is essential for our mental health, as well as for any chance at a living future, that the return journey is acknowledged, articulated and enabled.

Even then, just as in the hero’s journey, the return will be fraught with its own obstacles and challenges. Existing systems and vested interests, legacy institutions and rules, old habits and values, deadly, self-serving power structures and their armies are working hard to keep us deluded in the belief that we can proceed on the same bearing as before. Our first challenge is to spread the understanding that those systems, institutions, power structures and beliefs are useless to us now, nothing but hazardous traps guaranteed to extinguish all chances of homecoming.

Our next challenge is to spread the conviction that they can and must be transformed or dissolved; and then, to strengthen and link the networks that will make that happen.

Those things seem a long way off, but this monumental pause presents a monumental opportunity to at least plot the route: to catalyse a shared and simple sense of direction, back home, to deep social and ecological belonging. If that sounds boring, or limiting, recall the hero’s journey. Once the protagonist is back in their community, they have the ability to move between worlds.

That is the prize. We know now where we have been, what it felt like, and what we lost from our world, our bodies and our souls in the process. We know what balance looks like, and the joy that is to be had in re-finding it.

* The book proposal for this is now fully drafted (and redrafted!) and has been authenticated by a handful of rejections already. If anyone would like to recommend a publisher, an agent or any other form of support for this project, ideas are welcome, in the comments.

** Several other essays emerged online as I put this together. The above was not influenced by them; overlaps can perhaps be attributed to a growing collective awareness and shared philosophies. Here are some of the best I’ve seen; there will be other, excellent contributions that I have missed.

The glimmer of hope towards the end of Nate Hagens’s pragmatic summary of the unfolding systemic crises, thrown into stark relief by the pandemic, centres on a rapidly shrinking “disconnect between our physical reality and what people assumed to be our reality.” American culture, he suggests, is waking up to the fact that we live in a physical world, and to the value of pro-social responses and altruism.

Jeremy Lent, in a comprehensive analysis of this pivotal moment, sets out how things could get very much worse, socially and ecologically, from here; and also how the rise of “glocalization,” compassionate community, ecological stabilisation and a “revolution in values” could instead “change the basis of our global civilization from one that is wealth-affirming to one that is life-affirming”.

In his long essay “The Coronation,” Charles Eisenstein goes even deeper. It is impossible to do justice here to the depth of this piece, but his exploration of the potential for this moment of crisis to shine a light on our vulnerabilities and insecurities, and to play into the mechanisms of control — or alternatively to “turn [us] onto a path of reunion, of holism, of the restoring of lost connections, of the repair of community and the rejoining of the web of life” is well worth half an hour of your time.

Paul Mason considers that recovering from the coronavirus crises will require a new economic system. So do Richard HeinbergBrian Davey and Julia Steinberger. Eric Holthaus sets out a broader set of political and economic requirements for a new, post-Covid world; as does Professor Ian Goldin along similar lines.

Vanessa Spedding

I am a journalist by training, sometime scientist, intermittent community activist and avid reader of all things that might explain how our treatment of the planet and ourselves reached such a low point — and what we must do to correct it.

Tags: building resilient cultures, cultural stories, mythic thought