That is indeed a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around, Johanna. Elsewhere Campbell refers to this as the bodhisattva formula: “Joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.”
It sounds calloused and uncaring when taken out of context, but even those familiar with Joseph Campbell’s body of work can find this a difficult principle to absorb, especially in light of personal or collective tragedy. Some critics complain Campbell is encouraging passive acceptance of poverty, injustice and catastrophe. But it’s not so black and white, not an either/or – definitely more nuanced and complex than that.
When we remove humans from the equation and focus on the natural world, it’s a little easier to understand Campbell’s point. Here he expands on the concept in response to questions at the end of a lecture on Hinduism and Buddhism:
CAMPBELL: I saw a picture several years ago in an issue of National Geographic of three cheetahs eating a gazelle. The gazelle was still alive. They were at his belly, and the gazelle’s head was lifted. And I said to myself, “Do we say yes to that?” We do.
Q: The way you are talking about “saying yea” to it all – doesn’t that risk condoning immorality?
Sure. That’s what’s tough about it; it’s the essence of the problem. How long can you look at it? How deeply can you see? What can you take? Or are you going to play a little game: “Listen to the birds, aren’t they just sweet? Don’t look at the gazelle being eaten by three cheetahs.”
You make your choice. If you want to be a moralist, go ahead. If you want to go love life, do – but know that life is nasty. And it will involve death. Sorrow is part of the world.
Q: So we participate in life’s violence?
CAMPBELL: No, you don’t participate in it, but you can’t condemn it; this is part of life.
It takes an awful lot of guts really to say yes all the way. Do you have the energy and strength to face life? Life can ask more of you than you’re willing to give. And then you say, “Life is something that should not have been. I’m not going to play the game. I’m going to meditate. I’m going to pull out.”
Through life and lust one comes to know something. And then there are two ways of knowing it: one, simply in its sensational aspect, and the other in the way of the mystery that is speaking to you through these. It’s the same mystery, birth and death, and this is the way life works.
Then there are two ways of participating. One is compulsively. The other, after you’ve got something of the experience, is to gain control of your dealing with life and death. It’s a delicate walking on the edge. If you do too much to control life, you kill it. The other option is to let life move.
When it comes to cheetahs eating a gazelle, that’s the way of nature – it’s easier to accept that. Disturbing as the sight may be, there is no moral calculus to it: we don’t expect gazelles to go to heaven while all cheetahs rot in hell.
But “saying yea to it all” doesn’t apply exclusively to the natural world (or maybe it does, when we remember that humanity itself is a part of nature). Campbell even singles out sinister examples of man’s inhumanity to man – Hiroshima, Auschwitz, the firebombing of Dresden, the rape of Tibet.
“Joyful participation” is not simply adopting a Pollyanna perspective, jollying one’s way through catastrophe and ruin: rather than retreating into denial, one instead fully embraces the experience. Campbell points to Victor Frankl losing his wife, and nearly his own life, in a German concentration camp, and to a Buddhist monk and colleague of Campbell’s who had seen family and friends slaughtered during the Chinese annexation of Tibet. These are individuals who “joyfully participated” by fully experiencing what life presented them, and who emerged from these experiences not harboring bitterness and hatred, but with compassion for all – even for those who injured them most!
Campbell isn’t saying we have to acquiesce in evil, accept it as inevitable and resign ourselves to being victims. But as the Wheel turns, wherever we are – whether tasting Paradise, or enduring Hell – we are best off if we embrace each moment and experience the full range of emotions, the ecstasy and the agony of life. It is this that Campbell means by “joyful participation.”
Does this perspective lead to passive acceptance of evil and suffering, fostering a victim mentality? Hardly …
There are two aspects to a thing of this kind. One is your judgment in the field of time, and the other is your judgment as a metaphysical observer. You can’t say there shouldn’t be poisonous serpents – that’s the way life is. But in the field of action, if you see a poisonous serpent about to bite somebody, you kill it. That’s not saying no to the serpent, that’s saying no to that situation.”
(Campbell, Power of Myth, p. 83)
Yes, Campbell does observe, “We cannot cure the world of sorrows . . . When we talk about settling the world’s problems, we’re barking up the wrong tree. The world is perfect. It’s a mess. It’s always been a mess. We are not going to change it,” he is speaking from the perspective of that metaphysical observer. But he also notes that doesn’t mean you don’t go out and march against the atom bomb (or racism, social injustice, etc.); doing so is not saying no to the world, but “saying no to that situation.”
In other traditions, good and evil are relative to the position in which you are standing. What is good for one is evil for the other. And you play your part, not withdrawing from the world when you realize how horrible it is, but seeing that this horror is simply the foreground of a wonder: a mysterium tremendum et fascinans.
“All life is sorrowful” is the first Buddhist saying, and so it is. It wouldn’t be life if there weren’t temporality involved, which is sorrow – loss, loss, loss. You’ve got to say yes to life and see it as magnificent this way; for this is surely the way God intended it …
It is joyful just as it is. I don’t believe there was anybody who intended it, but this is the way it is. James Joyce has a memorable line: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” And the way to wake from it is not to be afraid, and to recognize that all of this, as it is, is a manifestation of the horrendous power that is of all creation. The ends of things are always painful. But pain is part of there being a world at all …
I will participate in the game. It is a wonderful, wonderful opera – except that it hurts.
(Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, pp. 80-81)
I have yet to meet anyone who perfectly embodies this concept – just not that many living bodhisattvas in my neighborhood, I guess – but I do notice the more I’m able to consciously cultivate this attitude, the less likely I am to either magnify or deny the suffering I do encounter. Ironically, the conscious acknowledgment and embrace of the pain inevitable to living and dying actually dissipates much of my unnecessary, self-generated suffering, leaving me better equipped to deal with what life throws at me.