Making sense of the senseless
Each morning, during this time of Corona Virus, this time of uncertainty, this time of fear, this time of disbelief, this time of sorrow, I have been reading 'The Peace of Wild Things' by Wendell Berry:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
It has brought me solace and a chance to breathe before I go on to read the latest statistics and news. I feel that I am somehow held in a strange stasis, trying to make sense of that which I cannot comprehend.
I see that others are trying to do the same, creating stories to try and explain why this is happening. I have read the stories of:
The creation of stories to explain the unexplainable is nothing new. Mankind has been creating myths to explain the stars and planets, why the sun rises and sinks, eclipses and much more, well before the 'science' was discovered. In fact many of the old creation myths are currently being explored by scientists as many contain information that has now been proven true. The sharing of these ancient myths is being utilised by NASA and the Lunar and Planetary Institute in the US who have recently been working with Native American Indian Storytellers, including the wise Dovie Thomason. The architecture of the human brain is designed to create stories and as such our myths are the foundations of our experiences.
We often think of a myth as a lie but in fact they tap into a universal truth, like a divining rod that shows us where the well-spring of humanity is. They are true in that they inspire us to create the ideals they contain. In his interview with Bill Moyers, the great mythologist Joseph Campbell states,
'Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life. People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that the life experiences that we have on the purely physical plane will have resonances within that are those of our own innermost being and reality. And so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive, that’s what it’s all finally about, and that’s what these clues help us to find within ourselves.'
I can sense this in myself as I think about the millions of deaths that are happening, I find myself asking what does it mean to be alive in such a time of death? Yet one cannot exist without the other. I remember a time four years ago, when I was waiting to go for lung surgery. I was on a ward with all the patients who would have lung surgery that day. Some knew they had cancer that needed to be cut out, others like myself ,did not know what they would wake up to; whether it would be a diagnosis of cancer, whether it would need to be a major surgery where they break your ribs, whether it would be less invasive with just a smaller section of the lung taken out, or even whether you would wake up at all.
In this moment, sitting there, like Inanna about to descend into the Underworld, I watched the builders who were fixing the door to the ward. They were chatty, laughing with the nurses and being a bit cheeky and flirtatious. My first flash of feeling was one of anger, 'how dare they, here on a ward where people are about to lay themselves under a surgeons knife not knowing what the outcome would be! What right had they to laugh and joke?!' Yet as I sat there, my resentment ebbed away and I smiled, this was life. Life would continue whether or not I was there. Those men, those women, all of us here now, survivors, have a right to go on living fully and abundantly, though many of us carry the pain of having someone we loved die because of the virus. We have to live with death. It is one of the things that I believe makes us profoundly human, our ability to still love and live and laugh in the knowledge that we will die, our loved ones will die, our pets will die, yet still we pour our love into them. Still we pour our love.
During this time I have seen the best of so many people and I am thankful that we have digital devices that allow us to connect and check in on people. My mother-in-law who is 87 and a formidable rapscallion of a woman, has an iPad that she is very proficient at using and we are so grateful for that. I am also aware that many of us are trying to use this as a time of 'gathering' a time of gathering those things that we have witnessed as being positive; those shining, strong threads of humanity, creativity, connection and support. So that when this virus is conquered we can start to weave, we can start to weave a future that integrates what we have learnt. We can start to weave a new myth for ourselves. We are the warp and weft of our communities, what threads are we choosing to collect in order to come together stronger than before, wiser than before? I look at that phrase, 'stronger than before' and realise how it sounds ... like a rally cry, like politics, like empty rhetoric. Yet for me the greatest strength is in being vulnerable, being open, being compassionate, accepting help with graciousness. That is what the myths teach us.
Henrich Zimmer, in his book The King and the Corpse, talks about the mythic hero. He states that the hero only accomplishes his tasks through losing his ego. In many of the classic quest stories the hero has to be a bit of a fool to begin with, as everyone says that his task is impossible, he will die, yet still he continues. Often he then has to accept he cannot do it alone. He has to trust the horse he is riding to lead him, he has to let go of the reins and trust or he has to go to some sort of creature for assistance. Zimmer states that this shows the letting go of the ego and the recognition of our dependance on the natural world. Often a hero may have to follow a metal ball that rolls ahead of him. Zimmer explains that 'to be able to let oneself go, yielding trustingly to the ground law that is the secret sense of one's own weightiness, and which, nevertheless, is singing everywhere in the harmony of the spheres, the primeval melody of the All, the 'singing match of the planet brothers,' the 'thunder passage' of the sun - is to solve absolutely everything at a stroke. For this is to fall in love with the vast rhythm of the universe and to move with it. This is to follow the blindest, dullest, mutest impulse - sheer gravity - yet thereby to plumb into the centre of all things: to that point where the greatest quiet abides; that point around which everything must circulate simply because it holds its peace.' The hero also is often asked to sacrifice his 'helper.' Perhaps it was a horse or a dog who has been his constant companion and now that companion asks the hero to kill it and bury its bones. The hero will often refuse but then is forced by the plea's of the companion. When this is done the companion often comes back to life as a human who had been under a spell or curse. Zimmer offers the idea that it is only when the hero is truly aware of the pain they can cause, (and the grief that follows), that they can achieve true wisdom. This is a feature in many hero stories though in many of the Goddess stories it is the female who often must willingly become the sacrifice in order to come back stronger and wiser. The fact is though, they must both know death in order to become stronger and wiser.
I re-read these myths now, following the pathway of millions before me but taking my own, unique journey. I sit here, in Sweden with no work and no money coming in. I sit here hearing the breathing of the dog sleeping on the floor behind me and the sounds of my husband on the balcony eating his lunch and also the sound of birdsong floating into the room. I wonder about my future and try to untangle the knotted worries that grow tight in my head .... will I ever find regular work in Sweden? Will I have enough money? Will I have to go back to Britain? Will I stay healthy or will I catch the virus? Will my daughter be safe in the States? Will my loved ones be safe? Will I be able to continue trusting that all will be ok?
I turn back to Zimmer and read:
'The moral of the story: follow your unconscious, intuitive forces blindly and with confident faith; they will carry you through your perilous trials. Cherish them; believe in them; do not frustrate them with intellectual distrust and criticism; but permit them to move and sustain you. They will bear you thorough the barriers, across thresholds and beyond dangers that could not be met with any other guide, surpassed on any other mount. And until they ask you of themselves to consummate what will be felt as a painful parting, do not kill them. When the time comes they will mark the moment and indicate the way; for better than the rider, these mute forces understand death is a prelude to rebirth, transmutation and reunion, and they know when the possibility for the miracle is present.'
And so I will continue to trust, continue to gather the threads of hope, courage, community, creativity that I find all around and hopefully meet with people who will weave with me on the loom of myth.