Renewal in times of loss by Michael Meade
• To be alive at this time means to be exposed to the raw forces of nature as well as the rough edges of culture. The world is awash with profound problems and puzzling changes and beset with seemingly endless conflicts. It is a time of great uncertainty and surprising changes that include extreme weather patterns as well as the rise of religious and political extremists. We are subject to increasing levels of fear about the health and future of the planet we live on as all the great questions about life and death and all the great fears about dissolution and destruction hang in the polluted air and trouble the waters all around us.
As tensions in the outer world escalate, anxieties intensify on both collective and individual levels. People feel more helpless and unable to control things; not only more isolated, but also at odds with one another. Facing huge issues, massive threats and seemingly impossible tasks, there seems to be no end to our problems and time seems to be running out on everyone. We become like a “collective Job,” inundated with loss, tested by both God and the devil and left alone to face various scenarios of impending doom. Increasingly, it does seem that everything might come to a screaming end, that it could happen at any moment and that it might happen from a mistake of culture or from a catastrophe of nature.
Our common fate places us in the winding down of some great cycle that has entered a dramatic turning point and it is not clear where we might end up. Call it the great turning or the great churning. Call it the end of time or the “archetype of apocalypsis” when everything seems to happen at once and nothing remains in place for very long. As the archetype of radical change, apocalypsis presents a pattern in which a shattering of forms occurs before the world as we know it can be reconstituted.
When not taken literally or religiously, the archetypal dynamic of apocalypse can refer to what happens when the web of life loosens, when the veils lift and the underlying forces of life become more palpable and evident, but also more transparent. Old structures may collapse and once vital systems may fall apart yet other patterns and barely imagined designs are on the verge of being revealed.
When seen as an archetypal dynamic, apocalypsis describes a troubling period of uncertain duration in which the underlying tensions and oppositions of life become uncovered and rise to the surface. As the veil of normality lifts, the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, between those suffering in poverty and those living in luxury, becomes revealed. At the same time, age-old conflicts between ethnic groups rise with a vengeance to the surface and religious factions become willing to destroy the world rather than find ways to heal their theological rifts.
To be alive at this time means to become a witness, willing or unwilling, to the loosening of the web of nature as well as the unravelling of the fabric of culture. It means to be present as accepted patterns dissolve, as institutions become hollow and uncertainty comes to rule. The overwhelming problems and massive threats are real enough, but they also function as a cosmic wake-up call intended to awaken us from the sleep of so-called “reality.” Something subtle and enduring about the world is trying to be remembered and be rediscovered and it seems to take some big trouble to awaken to it.
Seen in mythical terms, the world drifts from cosmos towards chaos, it slips from order to collapse, as everything shifts back towards the original state of chaos that existed before creation. The issue is not the literal “end of the world,” but the winding down and speeding up that happens on the downside of a cosmic cycle. At the mythic level, ends and beginnings are essentially connected and one keeps leading to the other as the eternal drama of life continues to unfold – when the end seems near ancient and lasting things are also close and waiting to be rediscovered.
Disorientation and disorder are essential aspects of apocalypsis, but so are revelation and renewal. Yet when looked at with an eye for apocalypsis, what we find at the end are both last things and things that last. The deeper texts of life are full of lasting ideas: postscripts and even post-scriptures that can indicate the ways to salvage time and redeem meaningful aspects of life.
Apocalypsis presents the psychic condition of being betwixt and between, especially between the ending of one era and the beginning of another. It is what the ancient Kalahari Bushmen called a ja-ni, or a “yes-no” situation. Is the world going to end? Yes, for the world as we know it has already ended in many ways. Is it the end of the world altogether? Not likely, as what we call the “real world” is secretly connected to what people used to call the “world behind the world.” The manifest world grows old at times; it suffers varying levels of dissolution and collapse, yet it regenerates again from the eternal world that has been behind it all along.
An apocalyptic period can involve the uncovering of many wounds and revelations of collective and cultural shadows. Yet it can also lead to the discovery of new directions in life as well as a rediscovery of old and valuable ideas that had been forgotten. With the collapse of familiar structures, there can be a loosening of restrictive patterns as well as revelations of the roots of renewal. At the end of an era, fact approaches myth and myth can take on its old meaning of “emergent truth.” When all seems lost and logic is of no avail, when everything seems about to unravel, mythic imagination and narrative intelligence can offer surprising ways of not only surviving but also contributing to the renewal waiting to happen.
A mythic inoculation
Once we recognize that we are in a paradoxical, yes-no situation it makes more sense to face the psychological presence of apocalyptic fears and terrors. Accepting that we are caught in the middle of a great turnaround helps make sense of the tumultuous events and discordant feelings all around us. It is in the middle of what seems like the very end of everything that things secretly begin again. Caught between fears of the bitter end and secret hopes of it all beginning again, we might learn to be truly human again. Despite the contemporary fixation on rational thought and the insistence on facts and measurements, the human soul is mythic by nature and mystical by inclination. To be truly human is to be both psychological and mythological, for we are mythic by nature, each imbued with a living story and each tied to the enduring story of this world that ever teeters on the edge of annihilation.
Modern parlance uses myth to mean something that is patently false, yet what is most true is also most elusive and cannot be captured by logic or arrived at by reason alone. Where reason fails and logic stumbles, myth waits to open paths of imagination and understanding. A mythical story is an installment of eternity that can interrupt the march of time and break the spell of the ordinary world. Myths are not things of the past, but rather the eternal, ongoing stories that point to the underlying truths and essential meanings of the continuous creation of the world.
The world around us is a place of mystery and wonder and revelation waiting to happen; it is always more that it seems to be. As the endless story of the world reaches another cosmological turning point and the fabric of life loosens, the veil between this world and the Otherworld becomes more transparent. Things become both impossible and more possible at the same time. Just as time seems to be running out, the sense of the eternal tries to slip back into awareness. That is what the old stories say and the old stories have survived the ages and all the previous stages that seemed surely to be the last act of creation. The wonder of creation is that it continues to create; it is the ongoing story that starts over again each time it reaches the End.
An old mythic idea suggests that each human soul can be an agent of the eternal, each having a touch of genius and each being born at a time when they can be useful to creation. The deepest human resources tend to awaken amidst the greatest human disasters. Each carries from before birth a unique arrangement of character, talents and gifts that are needed in this world. When the troubles are all around us, everyone can find some place where they are needed, where they can help heal all that is wounded and help protect all that is threatened.
Mythic threads are woven into us from the very beginning and those who can imagine how things come to an end can also find the threads of imagination for beginning again. Being near the end also means being near the threads of existence and being invited to lend a hand in the great reweaving of the garment of life. Life reaches not a final end, but a vital edge of revelation rippling with sudden disclosures and pregnant with surprising insights. In such a time of many endings, it becomes important to have a sense for lasting things, a narrative feel for life and a reverence for the unseen. In the end, or near it, the real issue is not simply the future of humanity, but the presence of eternity.
Excerpted from Why the World Doesn’t End (Chapter one, “Apocalypse Now”) by Michael Meade (Greenfire Press).
February 23: “Finding Genius in Your Life” workshop with Michael Meade, 9:30AM-5PM, Centre for Peace, Vancouver. Tickets $95 Banyen Books 604-737-8858. Visit mosaicvoices.org