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We Must Let the Old Stories Die
The Neo Axial Age, Part 2
NOTE: This is Part 2 of series. You can find Part 1 right here:
I still remember the thrill I felt that day in 1977 when I finally caught my first glimpse of the imposing, mysterious Devil’s Tower on the big screen. For those who haven't seen Spielberg’s iconic film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the entire third act takes place there. The tower absolutely mesmerized me as a kid. It felt so alien and enchanted to me—exactly the sort of landscape where wonder and possibility could still thrive, at a time in history when those qualities were in short supply. I remember wishing I could have been in the movie, right there with the characters, and promised myself I'd visit that tower some day in real life.
Well, it took me a while. But in the Autumn of 2019, on the eve of a pandemic I didn’t know was coming, I finally got there.
I camped in the shadow of the tower next to the Belle Fourche River (pronounced Bell FOOSH), meaning “beautiful fork,” so named by early French explorers in the area. Its Lakota name before that was Šahíyela Wakpá (pronounced shah-EE-yea-lah wah-KPAH), meaning the “Cheyenne Tribe river.” A grove of massive cottonwoods kept watch over the camp, still clinging to the last of their dry-paper leaves that hummed through the night in the cool Autumn wind, singing in echo to the river’s chorus nearby.
There’s a gravity to this place, a layering of stories that stretch back generations. As I lay in my tent that night, I listened for the echoes of the thousands of other souls who had also made their bed on these grounds. Most of the northern plains tribes call the tower Bear Lodge, including the Lakota. It is an especially sacred place for them, a place of refuge, of prayer, and of celebration. They held their sacred Sun Dance at the tower during the summer solstice. They considered Bear Lodge a place of renewal, and the ceremony was a time when they fasted and sacrificed for the sake of the world so that through their actions both they and the world could be renewed.
That’s that deeper reason I’ve come here — not just to reconnect with the iconic stories of my youth, but to join with the layered stories of the thousands of other human souls who have come here to pray for renewal … both for themselves, and for the whole world.
Just yesterday I heard again about a storm of “unprecedented size and intensity” bearing down on some region of the country. This came on the heels of the “unprecedented floods” that fell on Greece, and before that, the “unprecedented high temperatures” under a massive heat dome that dominated the U.S. plains. The Atlantic ocean got hotter this year than it has ever been since we started keeping records. Our experts don’t know the effects on sea life such a spike will have, or whether we should expect such hot ocean temps to be our new normal.
But climate change is just one of many “unprecedented” crises we are now facing. There’s also the possible AI apocalypse, which could happen any day now or so it seems, and the revelation of E.T., which may or may not be happening this year. Then there’s the 60+ percent reduction in biodiversity on the planet since I was born, and the population hitting 10 billion by 2050 or so, and the madness of Christianity being coopted by political power, and the madness of social justice being coopted by hate. And, and, etc., etc. The list of potential world-ending threats has gotten so long that my friends and I have stopped trying to recount them all in our shared laments over the world. Now we just call it The Everything.
I hear voices that tell me things are no worse than they’ve always been, that the only difference now is that we hear about all of it on account of the internet. I hear the voice that says I’m only doing what all older people do—bemoaning the loss of my idyllic past because I live in a world I no longer know, or recognize. It’s not worse; it’s just not mine anymore.
I don’t know. All I know is that my soul braces within me with a kind of electric dread. I can feel it in my bones: the world is in pain, and that pain is increasing, heading for a crisis that will lead either to a correction or a collapse. The scream inside me is so loud I can’t shut it out. I marvel that people are having children without a second thought. I marvel that we say oh yeah 10 billion, as if that’s just a figure on a whiteboard. I marvel that you can’t look at the sky anymore and not see jet trails. I marvel that you can’t hike in the wilderness and not see other humans out there with you, everywhere you look. I marvel that no one seems to care that we’ve lost more than half the biodiversity of life on our planet in just the last 50 years. Our house is burning and we all seem to think the fire is cozy.
We are in grave need of a global Sun Dance ceremony, a shared threshold experience where we can collectively wipe the slate clean and begin a new chapter in this thing we call being human. One of the powerful qualities of thin places is their capacity to bring something old to an end, and give birth to something new. We need just such a new beginning, one that can open our eyes to a better way to live that, try as we might, we just can’t currently see. We can’t see it because we’re still stuck in the same old dramas and social games we’ve been playing with ourselves for a long time.
“Our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.” — T.S. Eliot
At some point in your life, if you're paying attention, you realize that most of what we humans call our lives is nothing but a grand farce — a role play and a pretense designed to distract us from the existential dread of the real story we are actually in. To exist on a tiny dot in the midst of a small swirl of dust in the middling reaches of a single galaxy among trillions of such galaxies in a mysterious nothing that is not nothing but has no center and stretches on forever as far as we can tell … and upon that dot to be alive, and to know you are alive, and actually sentient, able to comprehend your place in the universe … is to confront an aching, tragic question for which there is no sure answer this side of death.
Is there meaning in any of this?
In the unconscious grand rush toward entropy, are you — all your loves, your pains, your dreams, your hopes, your thoughts — nothing more than a passing fluke, a random mix of heat and chemicals that for a moment looks like art but quickly dissolves to nothing? Are we but a passing cloud that for a moment takes the shape of a miracle but in the end is mere illusion, and no one is watching it, anyway?
The possibility that this is our truth is more than enough to drive any sane soul to despair. What if everything, everything we are or have been or ever will be, is utterly meaningless, a chance emergence, without intention or purpose, a random coalescence of molecules and atomic reactions that will soon pass into nothing? What if life really is as Shakespeare said:
"This life, which has been the tomb of his virtue and his honour, is but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." — Shakespeare
It is perhaps the most important question a human soul can ask. Yet, it is a daunting question, and feels so existentially terrifying that we’ll do nearly anything to keep from asking it.
One of my mentors in Christian philosophy and the writing life, John O'Donohue, said that the two closest companions we have walking with us through this life are Death and the Unknown. From the moment we are born, Death and the Unknown are right there next to us, standing on either side of us, and they accompany us through every step of our lives. We are always just one breath away from death, just one heartbeat away from the veil that leads out of this world. And for as long as we live in this realm, the future remains a complete mystery to us. No one knows what's going to happen from one moment to the next. Thus the unknown is always with us, waiting for us just one second in the future. We are accompanied through every moment of our lives by these two teachers.
Sadly, though, as O’Donohue points out, most of us do everything we can to convince ourselves they aren't really there. We construct elaborate stories to live inside and cast ourselves in the starring role. We build paradigms of pretended realities to insulate and distract ourselves from the larger questions of life that we are terrified to ask. We create the Matrix, and hide our true hearts away inside it, willingly exchanging our freedom for the sense of safety we crave, and protection from loss.
But it doesn't work. We still feel unsafe — very often — and loss always finds its way into our lives, unfazed by our attempts to deny it. Try as we may, our elaborate role-playing games cannot stop death and the unknown from sneaking in.
There's a lot of fear and anger in our culture at the moment about a great many things. Political division, racism, mass shootings, debates on gender and sexuality, immigrants and refugees crossing our borders, economic disparity between the rich and poor, the automation of society, AI, climate change, war. It has become a daily parade of imminent threats to the stability of our lives. It seems our “reality” is unraveling at the seams.
All of these issues are important. They matter a great deal to us as a society and, in a larger sense, to us as a species. Yet, beneath them all there is a deeper conversation that is aching to be had — a conversation about our shared experience of loss and uncertainty in these days. We have lost the world as we thought it was or wanted it to be, and are now besieged every day by the relentless uncertainty of what it may actually become.
We have entered a new wilderness. The old stories that once held our lives together and gave them meaning have died, and we are slowly waking up to the fact.
We need to have a conversation about the death of those stories — be they relational, cultural, spiritual or scientific — about what the loss of them means, how it feels to be without them, and how we will now engage the mystery of the liminal wilderness in which we now find ourselves.
Only by naming and accepting where we are can we begin to envision a new and better story that can carry us where we want to go.
For those who’ve already begun to travel that path, or are ready to now, I’ve curated a handful of questions that have helped me on this path, exploring them with trusted allies who travel alongside me. Perhaps they can do that for you as well:
What’s different about the world now? What has changed?
What’s been lost? What must be grieved?
What’s the story you’re telling yourself about all this loss and uncertainty? How are you explaining it all to yourself? What convinces you, if you are convinced, that the story you’re telling yourself is true?
What desire arises in you from all of this? What do you want — for yourself, and for the world?
What new rituals, symbols, or practices might be needed now, to help you honor your experience of leaving the known and entering this new wilderness?
If there is a new and better Promised Land awaiting us in the future, the only way we’ll find it is by braving this wilderness together, and sojourning hand in hand all the way to the other side.
But the first step into that wild landscape is the willingness to let the old stories die.
“Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long possessed that he is set free — he has set himself free — for higher dreams, for greater privileges.” ― James Baldwin