There’s a metaphor that’s stuck with me from Beowulf – that of the “pool of bubbling blood filled with writhing sea monsters” that was the gateway to the monster Grendel’s lair – a place so fearsome that “even the hunted stag had chosen to die on the shore rather than dive down into the murky waters”.
The lake is a metaphor for the darkest parts of my psyche – from the person who makes the insensitive remark at dinner to the guy who’s capable of breaking someone’s heart, and everything in between. And as I’d mentioned before, the act of my accepting the parts of myself which are reprehensible to me, to fully engaging with them and giving them the status they deserve, I see as an essential part of creating the kind of life I want to lead.
This process of self-discovery, the dive into the murky waters, got me thinking about pre-literate societies – about how these groups dealt with the darkness in each individual – and how they dealt with the destructive effects of just being alive, the random acts of barbarity delivered by the world without reason or question. The ability to deal with these things internally, emotionally, in a way that actually benefits you and benefits your life is a skill that we’re all required to learn but one we’re given very little guidance on. These elder systems provided that guidance.
In these tribal societies the creation of a self-sustaining emotional collective was paramount. The idea of people pulling together, community helping community, is an extension of this kind of thinking – that the destruction of the world can be mitigated on some level by collective response to emotional disasters. Part of the reason for the creation of ritual, of symbol, of mythology and ultimately of religion was based on a premise of allowing groups of people to create self-sustaining emotional collectives that could ultimately perform better than other species. The ability to emotionally self-manage is ultimately an evolutionary advantage.
The point of these systems was to allow individuals to understand the greater meaning in events, to help process their own darkness and the darkness of the world so they could remain functional within society and ultimately follow whatever destiny was of benefit to the community. Among other functions, these systems mitigated lonliness, feelings of individual persecution and gave some kind of structure to the chaos of the world. With my generation of humans being one of the first since the middle ages to be without any real structure of organized collective emotional management – neither tribes nor organized religion – what tools do we have to face the world on our own?
Take into account the fact that this process seems to be actually speeding up with each passing year, what are we as individuals, set adrift from traditional collective systems of emotional understanding, actually doing to fill the void, to learn how to emotionally self-manage on an individual basis? In other words, what are we doing to become better self-sustaining emotional organisms?
From my point of view, there seems to be a very head-in-the-sand “everything’s fine” approach to this massive shift among my peers, and I think it’s because there’s such a massive, blank canvas in front of us that it’s tough to know where to even start, or if to start at all. But start we must:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
In the middle of the road of my life
I awoke in the dark wood
where the true way was wholly lost
(Dante’s The Divine Comedy)
This moment is coming for all of us, if it has not already arrived. Thankfully, part of the answer to this challenge can be found in the text that preceeds this tercet – it’s a damn good book. As Joseph Campbell said “Artists are magical helpers. Evoking symbols and motifs that connect us to our deeper selves, they can help us along the journey of our own lives.” Yeats packed his poetry in this same “ancient salt” for very good reason.
To me the closest and most easily accessible approximation of the ancient shamanistic tradition, that of the use of symbols, metaphor and collective experience is art. Music’s the form I most clearly understand but storytelling, creative expression and experience in any form is what we have left collectively – as a species – and it’s something we can access now, thank goodness, individually.
I suppose the point of this whole post is this: it seems peoples obsession with art/expression/storytelling etc, it’s creation and consumption, should be increasing in direct proporation to the speed with which we’re moving away from the elder systems which were once so vital to our evolution and survival. It doesn’t seem that it is.
Again, why is that? I suppose another reason is because it’s not easy, and it’s bloody terrifying. The tools of art, of understanding, assimilation and expression of yourself are the tools that will guide you through that dark wood, through the depths of the pool that faced Beowulf.
But what’s down there, what you’re facing, is your very own version of the monster. And these days for many of us, there’s no collective, no community, no tribe who can help arm us to defeat her.
Is it any wonder we’re reluctant to dive?