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Reply To: The Air We Breathe


Johanna writes

I am deeply disturbed that the landscape is changing in such devastating ways , not least of which is our impact in dismissing our responsibility to take care of our planet-Campbell says “fragile planet’  . Stephen, I am sorry to hear of your struggle, it seems so ironic given the focus on so many of our conversations this summer.

Thank you for your kind words, Johanna.

Just this weekend, after a month of unbreathable air, blue skies appeared and the local air quality index finally registered in the green zone. It’s only a temporary respite – as the winds shift, the AQI forecast places us back in the unhealthy red zone by tomorrow morning – so I’ve taken advantage of this brief window to “un-trash” my backyard: hose the ash off the patio (which reeked like the inside of a full ashtray the moment the water hit it), rinse off the foliage, clean the cogged air conditioning filter, drain the hot tub and suck up the black wet ash, etc.

At the time of my last post (August 31), the fires and smoke were mainly impacting our part of northern California, including the San Francisco Bay area (with its 7 million inhabitants), where the atmosphere glowed a translucent red for two days; since then the skies have appeared overcast and the atmosphere varying shades of gray, with the sun but a rumor the last several weeks.

And the prevailing theme, re “the air we breathe,” has in that time once again moved center stage as fires ignited up and down the west coast, placing up to 10% of Oregon’s population under emergency evacuation orders and swamping Washington and Oregon as well as California skies with unbreathable air, affecting some 50 million people!

Oddly enough, I find the prevalence of that pattern reassuring. Breath, as noted in the essay that generated this discussion (and as you and Mary and Richard and others have underscored with your contributions to the conversation), is a core motif reverberating throughout all mythologies of the world, even hidden in the language of secular societies that have seemingly moved beyond myth (re pneuma, spirit, Odin/Wotan as breath, etc.) … so when that theme keeps surfacing throughout 2020 (including what Covid does to respiration, or George Floyd’s last words inspiring a mass movement, or the effect of global warming, or the hazardous, unbreathable blanket of smoke settling in over a thousand mile span north to south), it evokes a powerful mythic resonance that allows me to associate and make sense of otherwise seemingly unrelated traumatic collective events

. . . which brings me back to myth, and the power of story.

Joseph Campbell draws on Schopenhauer, who speaks of how, once one reaches the age of fifty, sixty, and beyond, and looks back over one’s life, it all seems one grand, unified narrative. Events that were experienced as random and confusing at the time they occurred now seem essential plot twists that help move the story along.

Schopenhauer asks who is writing that story – and answers that you are the author of your life story – not the conscious you, the “you” you think you are, but a deeper aspect of your Being.

Campbell’s point is that you can trust the Story you are living. Yes, conflict and pain are present, as they are in every story – but that’s what makes the tale worth telling.

I remember somebody asked Ramakrishna one time, ‘Why is there so much evil in the world?’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s to complicate the plot.”‘

(Joseph Campbell, in a question and answer session at Esalen)

We are living through one heck of a plot twist in the grand global narrative – hard to make rational, logical sense out of it when we are still caught in that bubble – but, in the long run, I trust the Story.

Doesn’t mean I like everything that happens to me over the course of that story (including the likelihood that, at some point, I’ll be written out of the narrative) … but that brings me back to another poignant point Campbell makes:

I will participate in the game. It’s a wonderful, wonderful opera–except that it hurts.”
(Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, with Bill Moyers, p. 66)