Black Elk, a Native American visionary and Lakota Sioux medicine man chronicled by John Neihardt in Black Elk Speaks, believed a coherent vision to be central to a people’s well-being. Black Elk’s prophetic message was clear—“Without vision, the people perish.” A vision encompasses not only the values and goals a people strive to honor but creates a mythology of who we are, what we stand for and how our vision fits into the cosmic order. Out of this mythology comes its symbolism of meaning that functions in maintaining the moral integrity and stability of the community as a whole, while also assisting individual members through the stages of life. Vision permeates what Jung calls the self, “…the organizing principle of the personality,” through the archetypal symbolism we embody tied to the collective unconscious. According to Jung, the self is the archetype of order, organization and most importantly, unification, which harmonizes all other archetypes and their manifestation. The visionary connected self carries us through crises that occur during the course of our individual lives and the history of a people.
Joseph Campbell, a professor and lecturer on comparative mythology and author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, found that danger exists when the social order requirements and interpretations of social institutions (religious, political and cultural) “…press on people mythological structures that no longer match their human experience.” Campbell maintained that the symbols or metaphors which express societal mythology must possess a “spiritual aura” signifying a living spiritual core of awakening. If mythological symbols are “…reduced to the concrete goals of a particular political system of socialization,” they lack the “connotative meaning of metaphoric imagery” that leads to a realization of transcendence. This type of concrete symbol merely denotes a localized ethnic meaning caught in a static historical context devoid of universal spiritual significance.
The American Mythology
The American mythology of the Old West “rugged individual” symbolized by the lone cowboy riding into to town to save the people, is of the ethnic variety of an incomplete hero’s journey that has become brittle with age and no longer gels with our contemporary globalized world nor serves us in a world that for the most part thinks in collectivist terms. The illusion of the lone cowboy saving the world through individual heroics is a worn-out Messianic construct—an interjection of a non-existent idealized past which in reality is littered with the genocide of our indigenous people, the nightmare of slavery, and a whole host of other violent indignities. We forget that these false symbols of American daring are perpetrated on the backs of the impoverished and least powerful among us. These kitschy boastful expressions dredged up from archaic symbols of our American past merely act as destructive consumerist substitutes for an authentic reality.
A pivotal moment in American history, when we could have turned towards a renewed American vision for the new century, occurred at the time of 9/11, now indelibly etched in our minds as witnesses to a greater escalation of fear and terror. Unfortunately, out of the rubble, an opportunity to create a more collective ideal for peace was lost by invoking the worn-out national mythology of the lone cowboy iconic imagery of western frontier individual heroics. In response to a reporter’s question regarding the fate of bin Laden, President Bush said, “I want justice. And there’s an old poster out West, I recall, that says, “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” This hackneyed construct of American mythology failed to connote a deeper sense of spiritual connection to our inner lives. At this inner level, we transcend the historical concrete “here and now” to what Campbell terms the universal “ah” giving one “…a sense of actual participation in such a realization of transcendence, infinity, and abundance…” The function of these metaphorical symbols is to speak to our deepest levels of being whenever they arise in a context of contemporary experience. The fact that we did not move beyond the pain of loss through the threshold of a deeper level of shared experience to the rebirth of a new worldview continues to burden our country and drives the current political discourse of dissension, contempt, and moral self-righteousness.
The American Dream
We have also been reminded constantly that if we work hard we can realize the American dream. The once idolized “American dream” rings hollow in our current social and political milieu and, as Campbell stated, has become a dangerous symbol that no longer aligns with many Americans’ human experience, leaving some to feel cheated and demoralized. Rather than adhering solely to the individualistic “can do, pull oneself up by the bootstraps” mantra coursing through everyday life, a new American mythology would allow us to examine our values, assumptions, and sense of purpose that dominate our worldview. In so doing, we can consider alternative interpretations by creating a larger more inclusive and realistic context for defining what it means to be American. Visionary Fiction books, such as The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, The Alchemist, and The Celestine Prophecy, have moved many Americans to reconsider the world as they know it along with all the old mythologies and move to a more transcendent vision of themselves and the world as it truly is—interconnected on all levels of existence, infinite and abundant. From experiencing the wisdom contained in Visionary Fiction narratives, envisioning an evolved consciousness becomes possible for individuals, as well as communities and nations.
A broader American vision based on a more diverse collective narrative of transformation, speaks to us on a soul level and our experience as a nation of immigrants. While rooted in the constitutional fundamentals of governance of the people, by the people and for the people, this new vision would shine a critical light on the larger context (beyond paranoid delusions of security) of our political, economic, and military actions affecting the world, while still affirming our authentic core values of equality, liberty, and rule of law. A radical shift in our nation’s inner psyche at the time of 9/11 from one embedded in individual unilateral heroics to a more collective consequential focus, would have been a transformative debate profoundly affecting “the state of the union” and the lives of future generations for the better.
Marian A. Lee is a hospice chaplain and holds a BA in Political Science from George Washington University. She has a Master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling from the University of South Florida and has completed two years towards a doctorate degree in political science. She is revamping her fictional visionary book, The Lioness of Brumley Hall, to bring in a stronger narrative based on the precepts of magical realism, as well as, a children’s magical adventure series imbued with subtle political irony.