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Reply To: The Air We Breathe


Thanks, Michael, for initiating this conversation and providing an opportunity to explore in greater depth the mythological ramifications of the present moment.

What is happening on a global scale is so huge and beyond any one of us that events tend to swamp the individual psyche – or, at least, that’s what happened for me. I like to think of myself as calm, cool, collected, flexible enough to “go with the flow” – but in this instance I felt overwhelmed and adrift, unable to find my footing.

When that happens, I have learned to turn to myth for guidance:

If you live with the myths in your mind, you will find yourself always in mythological situations. They cover everything that can happen to you. And that enables you to interpret the myth in relation to life, as well as life in relation to myth.

(“Elders and Guides: An Interview with Joseph Campbell,” Parabola, Vol. V No. 1, February 1980, p.59)

Joe knows whereof he speaks. There are many ways to do that. For me, that takes the form of latching on to one key archetypal image – in this instance, the mythology of Breath. Given space considerations, there is only so much ground one can cover in a MythBlast; I hope to expand on this motif over the course of this discussion.

Another invaluable mythological approach is to view what is happening, on both the individual and the collective scale, through the lens of the Hero’s Journey. On a personal level, even just venturing out to buy groceries without exposing oneself to the coronavirus requires slaying a number of dragons. But I am fascinated by the point you make: everyone on the planet is going through this together (whether we want to or not). The pandemic is happening to us all – a collective Hero’s Journey on a global scale.

In his MythBlast entry some two months back, David Kudler reminded us that there are really only three stages to the Hero’s Journey: Separation (or Departure), Initiation, and Return. In that first stage, Separation/Departure, one leaves the Ordinary World behind. Not hard to see how that has played out: the world-that-was, whether in terms of work or travel, education, family dynamics, leisure activity, that world is no more.

Initiation, which generally involves some sort of death-and-rebirth scenario, is where we find ourselves now. We are traversing the abyss, punctuated by the actual deaths of nearly half a million people so far.  When we will emerge on the other side and what boon we bring back on our Return is far from clear at the moment – but emerge we will – and the emphasis, in this moment, is on the “we.”

We – the whole planet – are the collective hero of this story – “the hero with seven billion faces,” if you will. No single savior-hero will rescue us; the only way we get through this is with cooperation, collaboration, and compassion. We are learning that going it alone, whether as an individual, or a single nation, does not work. What does work is pooling resources, knowledge, information, and talent.

I find that intriguing, especially in light of the re-emergence of nationalism in many countries in recent years.

We’re in a period, in terms of history, of the end of national and tribal consciousness. The only consciousness that is proper to contemporary life is global⁠. Nevertheless, all popular thinking is in terms of loyalties to the local communities to which all are members. Such thinking is now out of date.  What we face is a challenge to recognize one community on this earth, and what we find in the face of this challenge is everybody pulling back into his own in-group. I don’t want to name the in-groups, but we all know pretty well what they are. In our country we call them pressure groups. They are racial groups, class groups, religious groups, economic groups, and they are all tangling with each other⁠. . . .

The new thing that is very difficult  for people to realize is our society is the human race. And our little suburb is the globe. Spaceship Earth⁠.

(Joseph Campbell, in a yet-to-be published manuscript I’ve been editing)

The coronavirus does not recognize borders – there’s just no way to build a wall tall enough to contain it. What’s more, we’re also recognizing that this really is a global economy as well – when China’s economy goes down, it reverberates around the world. The pandemic is teaching us that this really is one world – Spaceship Earth – and we’re all a part of it,  together.

That, ultimately, is the challenge in this moment.