Wednesday, April 20, 2016

On Stories That Don’t End Happily Ever After

Sometimes a fog obscures our vision.
         Recently we adventured into the African village where the princess searches for her perfect match and discards all the suitors: too fat, too smelly, too boring, pretentious, naïve, goody-goody, too quiet, too loud. All are disdained mirrors. Finally, her father gives the ultimatum for her to find an acceptable man in a week or he will do it for her.
         In an interesting way, this story turns around the theme we explored with Dame Ragnell and the dynamic of choice. How far is the just reach of an individual’s freedom to choose? With Ragnell and Gawaine (and King Arthur!), we suffered the damages of male prerogative and worked into the perennial rebalancing of masculine and feminine from one side.
         In this African tale, Princess Nikun shows the other extreme. What happens when the feminine presumes to know-it-all (cf., Jung’s anima/animus possession). She acts as if the right to choose is cheaply won? In our “real world,” it seems that at every moment someone's hurting due to the illusion of invulnerability. Surely this illusion ranks high among false beliefs. In the mirror of Nikun, we might glimpse our danger and wake up before it’s too late.
         For we are perilously endangered. A great strength also makes a tremendous risk. In Brian Boyd’s summary of the evolution of consciousness, he emphasizes the potential we have to unmask false belief.
Because other agents--prey, predators, and especially human friends and foes--make the most dramatic difference to our chances and choices day by day, our understanding of other minds has evolved into our richest natural mental capacity. We explain the visible behavior of agents of all kinds, especially human agents, in terms of things we cannot see-beliefs, desires, and intentions-and we find these explanations powerful. We see psychological cause as a paradigm of all cause. . . Precisely because we understand false belief, because we realize we may err in action if we err in knowledge, we try to explain events more deeply. (pages 281-2, On the Origin of Stories, my emphasis)
To our extreme risk, we often do not recognize false belief. Our desires can spin delusion, at least misimpression. At times, we don't acknowledge our failure to see, and we even refuse to admit what stands clearly before us.
         Nikun looks so ridiculous especially when she has targeted her dream-match and as she refuses to acknowledge the clear signs that her choice pursuit is not only disgusting but also highly dangerous. No one would act like that, we might scoff. Well, try talking to someone who has watched a loved one sink into addiction. Ask if the wrecks, the lost relationships, the health issues were much too clear to be missed—and yet like Nikun they get denied.
         Good stories offer a chance to witness forecasts of unhappy consequences. Hubris. The old stories often warn us of presuming to know too much, of rushing into freedom as if it demanded little responsibility, as if we knew love. Helen Luke opens the treasure in Good Stories including the Biblical account of Jacob. Her analysis suggests that although Nikun receives a terrible disfigurement, perhaps even the scars, inner and outer, serve a purpose.

If we dare to wrestle as Jacob did, we may be in some way crippled in ordinary collective living. Without this we would not be able to stand it. We would rise out of the weakness of our humanity into the hubris of fancied equality with the gods. After a new insight there are two dangers; either an inflation of the ego may possess us, or we may fall into discouragement, imagining that the insight means that we ought now to be free of all our old inadequacies. The “lameness,” accepted, cures both these delusions. (page 116; Helen M. Luke, The Inner Story: Myth and Symbol in the Bible and Literature)

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Winning and Losing: The Marriage

early April 3: the play of light and dark
Have you noticed in the sports world how many #1s there are? While this might seem ludicrous, almost a parody on excellence, I wonder how this claim toward the top might signal a positive pathway.
         Let’s not be naïve about it. The reach for the crown carries a dangerous aspect. Given the dominant paradigm that offers only one ultimate champion, the multitude of claims for being the best often leads to disappointment and heartbreak for everyone but the one winner, generating despair and broken dreams. Viewed rather cynically, this championship enterprise markets gambling, along with drinking and drugs to distract from the pain of loss.
         Yet these dangers do not disqualify seeing a multitude of teams chanting “We’re Number One!” as an opportune moment. In Good Stories, we explore this paradigm-changing potential through teaching-narratives when we probe the depths of archetypal constructs, especially marriage and treasure. As we all know, fairy tales often build to the climactic wedding. This motif opens consideration of the “marriage of opposites.” How, then, do we marry winning and losing?
         Before we move directly into that question, let’s also note a companion theme that helps open the mystery: the treasure. But treasure is also a polyvalent window; it’s a threshold or opening to another world where the prize shifts shape and where what has been lost gets found. Or, in other words, trash turns to treasure.
         We entered a Good Story this week about twins who initially appear as opposites: beauty and ugly. But, in the way of story, it’s the  unattractive, troublesome one who deals with the trolls. And it’s the loss of beauty’s head, a saving transgression, that empowers their travel under the edge of the world and on into the double wedding, the marriage of opposites in a dialectical transcendence where new vision recognizes beauty beneath the superficial.
         Can we imagine a world that sees beauty as the power to deal with dark forces instead of the number of zeros after the dollar sign? The teaching on treasure is continued redemption. Talents are to be wisely invested in the purification and renewal of life, not hoarded and buried away.
         Playing games that mean for us to lose puts us in the face of our fear of ultimate loss, dying. Rilke resonates this in our wrestling with the angel, asserting, “This is how we grow! By being defeated, decisively by constantly greater beings.” John Dominic Crossan in The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story tells: “game is a very serious practice session for life and death, or, more precisely, for life towards death” (p. 5).
         When we and our athletes have to absorb the loss of the dream of being national champion, do we find redemption? Among the variety of possibilities, let’s consider the world of multiplicity.  To struggle with the marriage of winning and losing builds a world with space for paradox. How do we learn to continue to live as if winning is the only thing at the same time that we accept defeat by constantly greater beings? How else do we learn to go under the edge of the world? We must move beyond the world that wins at small things because we realize the loss when winning gains the whole world but loses the soul!
         Crossan says that we live within story where myth and parable shape us “to be human and to remain open to transcendental experience” (p. 39, Dark Interval). In this paradoxical world formed in the Winning-Losing wedding, our treasure chest stores the liberating role of not-yet-sense.  Storytelling’s redeemed from the poor-box where it’s often relegated in contemporary academics. Instead of the singular presumption of objective reality, the gold coins become Uncertainty and Indeterminacy, affirmed even by quantum physics (e.g., p. 116, Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning.)
         There is no closing to the mystery wedding of Winning-Losing, but a few lines may serve to keep us going:
“And the wonder and mystery of art, as indeed of religion in the last resort, is the revelation of something ‘wholly other’ by which the inexpressible loneliness of thinking is broken and enriched.”  Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous, p 237. (Quoted in Crossan, In Parables, p. 2.)