Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Good Hearts Grow Strong

A resonant moment in the “Water of Life” (Grimms’ version) happens early on when the youngest brother differs sharply from the older two especially when he gets down off his horse showing respect to the small voice. Although it’s more subtle, we were given advance notice with their contrasting hearts: his is filled with tender love for the father and theirs are dark in self-centered greed. The story happily rewards the good-hearted with the prize but only after he suffers and grows a heart strong enough to deal with the dark side. Humans are not meant to remain in the Garden but like Eve are destined to know of good and evil.
From that third son we’re offered some sense of the heart’s journey, but the Arabian Nights’ version of this tale gives an enriched account. The character who embodies the heart-journey continues to be figured as the third child but shifts to the feminine. Early in the story, it’s the third sister who playfully makes the big-hearted wish to marry the ruler. Such a lofty wish does come true, but her naiveté (along with that of her husband) prompts harsh consequences extending even into her own daughter who has to live the rough trek out into the knowledge of dark voices, growing strong enough to foresee the necessity of developing a protective strategy.  
When we seek to further amplify this theme of the good heart that develops into a strong heart, we’re fortunate to happen into a tale from Sierra Leone, Africa. The figure of the good but still innocent heart comes in “the daughter of the village” who is much loved by the ruler. The daughter gets separated from the village and is believed to have been taken by the ruler-above. In order to bring her back, the village has to absorb four or five (depending on the version of the story) unfamiliar and even unwanted characters. The nature of these characters includes: 
  • appearing to be lazy—while actually creating webs that are artistic but almost invisible connections, and by doing this work without being seen and thus without getting any credit, 
  • appearing to steal material objects—while redistributing wealth and thus incurring the wrath of the rich, 
  • appearing to inflict harm—while digging into the groundwork and too-familiar pathways, 
  • appearing to be unreliable, confusing, and inconsistent—while providing safe proximity to power, and 
  • appearing to inflict pain—while providing warnings of toxic materials and disclosures of high value.

Messages from these stories related to our real-world village here in 2017 seem almost too painfully clear. Where is the water of life that carries cleansing and renewal for our land, for all people of the world, including the rich folks who desperately, even if unknowingly, need renewal, inner and outer? Is the water/daughter still waiting, still captive, because we have not yet developed strong-enough hearts and generous-enough vision?  We must see into the secret spaces, share resources, open to hard truths, and expand into Emerson’s darkened knowledge that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” And we must grow strong enough to endure the pain of dealing with poison within and without. Love that survives is not just altruistic; it also demands the discernment of giving with care so that resources are not turned to evil.
Martin Buber points our way to our divine resources and to the necessity of facing the old stories anew. It’s like admitting the stranger. 
“…face the Book with a new attitude as something new…its sayings and images will overpower…mold…ferment…enter in…to incorporate itself anew…To endure revelation is to endure this moment full of possible decisions, to respond to and to be responsible for every moment” (On the Bible, pp. 5-7).

For our world village to adapt and survive, we need to work and play as if the spiritual text is unfamiliar, not frozen but alive, so that we can receive the needed revelation. One friend from across the ocean who is in our Good Stories class brought in a perfect passage from Pushkin to help us open to the revelations from Books and tales:

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Amplifying the Water-of-Life Theme

Photo taken from my home office window this morning, Feb 9, 2017. Perhaps today’s “water of life” says to stay in and appreciate a less active form of beauty…
        One theme that we’re following in Good Stories is represented by the image of the “water of life.” Without water, we die; so the archetypal image pushes us to consider the essentials of living. For example, what do we do and what do we take into our beings that brings refreshment, cleansing, and renewal?
        Although water was not the dominant image in our first story, we did wonder if there was more to Luis in “Buried Treasure” than laziness. A sense of wonder signals a place to focus, a point of resonance. The primary evidence that Luis has mysterious power comes in his ability to stop the runaway horse. But we might need to backtrack if we want to explore this amazing gift. When we reflect back into the story, we notice an easy-to-skip-over detail about his initiative. In order to get on the path of the horse, he had to set out in search of a spring—that’s an image of the water of life. This action, the willingness to go after the water of life, although subtle it’s an opposite to laziness, and it leads to the connection with horsepower, with the spirit being, and with the “tatema” treasure.
       The focus on this moment in a story is what we’re calling resonance, and our backtracking and circling around the “hotspot” shows the beginning of “amplification.” To amplify is to increase understanding. Often it involves zooming in like we just did to get a fine focus on Luis’ action. Amplification also works by circling around a theme through finding different translations of a story, variations on the theme, and similar stories. Often we need multiple perspectives on an archetypal image if we are to gain enough texture so that applications to our individual lives can be appropriated.
        We amplify the moment where Luis goes in search of a spring by looking at other stories where a character looks for the water of life. One comes from the Grimms tales and another is from the Arabian Nights collection. A version of the Grimms’ “Water of Life” is included in Shah’s World Tales, and the hardback version has powerful illustrations by Melvyn Grant.

       "Golden Water" comes from Arabian Nights and contributes to our amplification by emphasizing female characters. It even features a younger sister who becomes a mother and has a third child who is female. This double presentation lets us see a continued development of the character that is needed to search out the water of life.
        Our resonance and amplification of the water-of-life theme can be portrayed like this:
1. We are struck by the advanced embodiment of a quality in Luis. He has been labeled as “lazy” but we see he has amazing capacity and wonder how a person might develop this ability. We might also note that sometimes a wonderful gift is not seen by others and even can be desecrated by them.
2. When we amplify this point of resonance with the Grimms’ “Water of Life,” we see the development of the younger son (who also is incorrectly perceived as weak). His character includes love and humility, instead of arrogance. We watch how his rather naive love progresses through suffering into a love that can face evil and that can design necessary strategy for dealing with betrayal.
3. When we amplify further with the Arabian Nights’ “Golden Water,” the person who has capacity to bring back the water of life is shown to have an advanced capacity for strategy related to self-defense.
4. The amplification of the water-of-life theme suggests next steps that might involve exploration of a related theme such as the nature of guidance. Concerning guides, our sequence of stories included 1) a spirit-being who just suddenly appears, 2) a small but powerful voice that has to be respected, 3) a semi-hidden dervish, and 4) a talking bird!
        Because exploration of the water-of-life theme offers to guide us in relation to the essential dimensions of life, it’s a good one for amplification. When we look for comparison stories that feature the water-of-life theme, we find it’s been labeled as tale-type 551 in the system devised by Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU). It’s classified within the category 550 “Supernatural Helpers.” Wikipedia shows links to 13 stories associated with “Water of Life” from around the world; sometimes the healing comes through something other than water.
       The guidance we find in amplification does not provide a roadmap, of course; but it does give us clues about the development of character that contribute to an enriched life. For example, in the Grimms’ version, the youngest son is motivated through love of his father in sharp contrast with his brothers’ desire for status and wealth. While his good heart helps him get the advice, directions, and resources he needs to get to the water of life, we find that love as he initially knows it won’t be enough. He is too trusting and has to suffer the development of a more mature love that includes discernment of traitors. His older brothers may be related by blood but they’re not related by heart, and he has to learn that love can include being strategic.
        In our primary textbook, On the Origin of Stories, Brian Boyd develops the meaning of reciprocal altruism: “I help you in the expectation that you may help me later” (p. 57). Boyd features this concept in his chapter “The Evolution of Cooperation” and continues throughout the book to show how reciprocal altruism has played a vital role in the survival of species and how it continues to be very significant in human’s cognitive development. Our ability to enact reciprocal altruism could be a significant development connected with the archetypal image of the water of life. Stories provide us with models of effective incorporation of reciprocal altruism in our lives.
        Passages from Boyd that elaborate reciprocal altruism include these:
"Cheaters will thrive in exchanges with altruists unless altruists discriminate against—refuse further exchange with, or actively punish—cheaters" (p. 57.
"For altruism to work robustly a whole suite of motivations has to be in place: sympathy, so that I am inclined to help another; trust, so that I can offer help now and expect it will be somehow repaid later; gratitude, to incline me, when I have been helped, to return the favor; shame, to prompt me to repay when I still owe a debt; a sense of fairness, so that I can intuitively gauge an adequate share or repayment; indignation, to spur me to break off cooperation with or even inflict punishment on a cheat; and guilt, a displeasure at myself and fear of exposure and reprisal to deter me from seeking the short-term advantages of cheating. We can reverse-engineer the social and moral emotions so central to our engagement with others in life and in story. (note 21) Rather than merely taking these emotions as givens, we can account for them as natural selection's way of motivating widespread cooperation in highly social species" pp. 57-58.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Inspiration & Revolution

this morning
Late winter

most leaves down 
yellowed grass
Light comes thru
plenty of room
     Through the past twelve or so semesters, this final seventh of a forty-plus-year career in teaching, it’s all crystallized in a course I designed and continuously revised called Good Stories. The heart of our engagement centers in the essence of the making of a good story. In the oral culture, story is alive, not frozen in print or on screen; and the vitality pulses in renewal, even in revolution.
     Life depends on change and adaptation, including social reorganization as well as advancing consciousness; this inner-outer dynamic pushes forward an enacted conscience as reflected in the subtitle of the course: Teaching Narratives for Peace and Justice. Looking out in the window of today’s world, we must wonder if we’ve been telling enough good stories. 
     Despite the prevailing overemphasis on entertainment, narratives can be shaped and enacted for the force of goodness; this potential is convincingly evident in the narratives enriching the major religions of the world. Consider, for example, Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative Kenan Rifai’s commentary on Rumi’s Mathnawi, and Crossan’s books on parable, especially those of Jesus.  Instead of renewing life, far too much discourse, particularly in our educational system, seems to have lost the revolutionary power to inspire us beyond hegemonic selfish interests that freeze and kill. 
      Change comes hard, particularly to persons who are fat and happy or drugged into distracted illusions that deny climate change, poisoned food and water, toxic dogma, soporific screens, and inane mind/heart numbing test-taking. Good stories happen not just in the telling but in the calling for them by persons who are searching. Rumi’s radical narratives were frequently paused by the command for the storyteller to stop talking; persons have to be ready to break open. 
     Perhaps one of the most powerful examples of this comes in the narrative around King David. Walter Brueggemann consolidates several incisive explorations with the synthesis that “this narrative is distinctively counterculture, subversive, against our presuppositions” and “against such a self-deceiving enlightenment” (p. 49, David’s Truth in Israel’s Imagination and Memory). The reformations of power and surrender shape in the heart rending parable of shepherd and lamb, love and death.
     That the essence of a good story rumbles in its revolutionary power is also modeled in Rumi’s “The Merchant & the Parrot.”** The caged bird (yes, remember Maya Angelou) provokes us to consider our spirit contained within the body. 

‘My parrot, O my most sagacious bird,
  interpreter of all my thoughts and secrets!
Whatever comes to me that’s just and unjust,
  she told me from the first so I’d remember.’
A parrot with a voice from revelation
  began her life before the first existence,
This parrot is concealed inside yourself;
  you’ve seen her image in phenomena.
Alan Williams, Trans. Rumi: Spiritual Verses, p. 162.
** Several print versions of “The Merchant & the Parrot” can be seen through this page:
 (Links to an external site.) . It includes translations by Whinfield (19th century) and Barks (20th century), who each translate Rumi according to the poetic expectations and liberty of their time. If you are interested in a more literal translation of Rumi (13th century), you can take a look at a version of "The Merchant and The Parrot" by Ibrahim Gamard.