Oscar Wilde was a poet and playwright. He wrote “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” in 1891. Peter Kropotkin, an anarchist historian and philosopher, influenced his political views at that time.
Helping Within the System:
Altruists want to help the poor. While some people have benefited, the root cause of poverty has not been solved. Many individuals are still suffering, barely able to afford even their most basic needs. Countless others have died from a lack of food, water, clothing, shelter, and healthcare.
So many nameless workers are grinding under the conditions of “hideous poverty, hideous ugliness, hideous starvation” (Wilde 1). Altruists may feel sympathetic but they are unable to “remedy the evils they see” when they rely on the present system (Wilde 1).
A fraction of the population will benefit from their help, but the problem will still persist. “The proper aim,” argued Wilde, “is to try to reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible” (2).
If there are systemic changes, communities will share the “general prosperity and happiness” of what they have made and will not suffer when circumstances become too difficult (Wilde 4).
In a capitalist system, many work to survive, but feel insecure about losing what little they have. They degrade themselves in “absolutely repulsive surroundings” for low wages (Wilde 2–3). But even then, if a medical emergency should ever occur, they may lose the ability to support themselves.
Wilde believed that it was possible to change the system. For him, (1.) public wealth should replace private property, (2.) cooperation should substitute for competition, (3.) and machines should do the hardest work instead of the poorest members of society.
The new system that he proposed must respect the freedom of the individual. It cannot be authoritarian or tyrannical. The poor do not deserve to have their spirits crushed in order to become more obedient workers. Nobody should have to support a system that dehumanizes them for excessive profit.
The poor cannot wait for breadcrumbs from the rich (Wilde 7). They have to find a seat at the table.
Rather than struggling to get by, workers can take control of their work. They can form associations that are creative and voluntary. Whereas in the capitalist system, they would largely be alienated.
“Every man must be left quite free to choose his own work. No form of compulsion must be exercised over him. If there is, his work will not be good for him, will not be good in itself, and will not be good for others. And by work I simply mean activity of any kind” (Wilde 10).
In the capitalist system, a minority of property owners controls a vast amount of wealth. The majority has “no private property of their own, and being always on the brink of sheer starvation, are compelled to do the work of beasts of burden, to do work that is quite uncongenial to them, and to which they are forced by the peremptory, unreasonable, degrading Tyranny of want” (Wilde 5).
Poor workers have many socio-economic interests in common. Yet they are divided. Their solidarity is undermined in order to keep them from organizing for more just conditions (e.g., higher wages, safer work environments).
The poor are blamed for being unworthy; placated with false symbolic solutions; patronized for their “lower class virtues;” and rejected when they are considered unprofitable to their employers. They are not able to develop their highest capacities. Instead they are subject to externals outside of their control.
The wealthy, on the other hand, have far more opportunities through their ownership of property. Their property “confers immense distinction, social position, honor, respect, titles, and other pleasant things of the kind” (Wilde 13). Those who own material things want to accumulate even more material things. They become “naturally ambitious” to gain the enormous “advantages that property brings,” even if their ownership becomes a burden on them or exploits the most vulnerable in society (Wilde 13). While they dehumanize others, over time, they become dehumanized themselves.
Those in power want to treat the symptoms but not the disease. Focusing on the effects ensures that the system won’t be abolished. The powerful have gained far too many advantages to relinquish their control.
Even so, there will always be people who care for the poor. They may donate money to a reputable charity or feed the hungry, which is admirable. But under the capitalist system, their noble intentions are perverted. Unless it is fundamentally changed, an unjust system will perpetuate unjust conditions.
Question: Is it impractical to restructure society? Won’t there be unintended consequences?
Answer: “It will, of course, be said that such a scheme as is set forth here is quite unpractical, and goes against human nature. This is perfectly true. It is unpractical, and it goes against human nature. This is why it is worth carrying out, and that is why one proposes it. For what is a practical scheme? A practical scheme is either a scheme that is already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under existing conditions. But it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to; and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish. The conditions will be done away with, and human nature will change. The only thing that one really knows about human nature is that it changes. Change is the one quality we can predicate of it. The systems that fail are those that rely on the permanency of human nature, and not on its growth and development. The error of Louis XIV. was that he thought human nature would always be the same. The result of his error was the French Revolution. It was an admirable result. All the results of the mistakes of governments are quite admirable.” (Wilde 58)
Question: You seem to emphasize the importance of the artist in a free society. You claim that artists will prosper when they’re given the opportunity to be left alone and create — especially when they don’t have to worry about public opinion or government censorship. This seems to tie in with your views on the value of Individualism. Can you expand on that?
Answer: “Individualism exercises no compulsion over man. On the contrary, it says to man that he should suffer no compulsion to be exercised over him. It does not try to force people to be good. It knows that people are good when they are let alone.” (Wilde 58)
Question: Some argue that Individualism is selfish because individuals will just live the way they want to live and not care about their communities. Does Individualism support the growth of the community?
Answer: “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them. Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognises infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it. It is not selfish to think for oneself. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all. It is grossly selfish to require of one’s neighbour that he should think in the same way, and hold the same opinions. Why should he? If he can think, he will probably think differently. If he cannot think, it is monstrous to require thought of any kind from him. A red rose is not selfish because it wants to be a red rose. It would be horribly selfish if it wanted all the other flowers in the garden to be both red and roses.” (Wilde 59)
“We often think of peace as the absence of war, that if powerful countries would reduce their weapon arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds — our own prejudices, fears and ignorance. Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of bombs are still there, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we will make new bombs. To work for peace is to uproot war from ourselves and from the hearts of men and women. To prepare for war, to give millions of men and women the opportunity to practice killing day and night in their hearts, is to plant millions of seeds of violence, anger, frustration, and fear that will be passed on for generations to come.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh, “Living Buddha, Living Christ”
There are many Western intellectuals who claim to be against the evils of oppressive structures while: (1.) hiding in the isolation of academia, (2.) benefiting from those unjust structures without doing anything meaningful to challenge them, (3.) “helping” the oppressed on a superficial level without addressing any deeper systemic issues, (4.) perpetuating the ideas of the oppressors themselves.
Noam Chomsky wrote about these types of intellectuals in his 1967 essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” He said that intellectuals, unlike the average citizen, are a privileged minority who are in a unique position to influence society. They should seek to “speak the truth and expose lies’’ rather than remain silent and apathetic. Yet they often fail to meet these moral standards.
Even though in the Western world, intellectuals have the right to freedom of expression and have access to more information than those in other nations, they often represent elite class interests. They maintain the status quo, and support the current ideologies in power, while neglecting to criticize the unjust policies of their own countries.
In traditional education, intellectuals are primarily trained for conformity. The institutions that they work for, according to Paulo Freire in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” focus on socialization, conditioning students to follow a certain social order. Students who question those in authority too much are filtered out over time. They are not supposed to critically think about, or act against, the structures already in place. Traditional education is not about a radical transformation in consciousness. It is more about a subservience to power.
According to Freire, education is never neutral. It is either on the side of the oppressor or the oppressed. While the oppressed are dehumanized, treated as abstractions or disposable objects or inferior beings, those who oppress are dehumanized through oppressing others.
Oppressors depend on the low position of the oppressed to maintain their power. They form exploitative relationships, taking advantage of unfair conditions for their own gain. They have a mentality of more for themselves and less for everyone else. Oppressors want the oppressed to feel unworthy, helpless, and isolated, because under those states, they are easier to control.
After years of teaching literacy to peasants and laborers, after being put into prison and then exiled, Freire came to believe that education should liberate people instead of imprison them.
The oppressed have to reclaim their humanity for themselves, even though at times, they may fear taking on responsibility, internalize the values of their oppressors, or follow charismatic leaders more than their own consciences.
Freire attacked the passive methods of learning in education as well. Students are often seen as ignorant while teachers are seen as authorities. Students are taught to take in information, to rote learn, to listen so they can regurgitate answers on exams, rather than participate in relevant issues.
When schools value the humanity of their students, learning is done in collaboration and with mutual respect. There are open possibilities for individuals to grow. Themes connect to the existential struggles in people’s lives, helping them to overcome their unjust circumstances.
Education has to help the oppressed to reflect on the causes of their oppression. Even though oppressors have tried to limit the critical thought of the oppressed, people need the freedom to learn about themselves and make their own choices.
bell hooks, in a similar fashion to Freire, argued in “Teaching to Transgress” that education should be (1.) communal in spirit, (2.) rooted in the values of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust, and (3.) promote the well-being of the individuals involved.
Students caught in oppressive circumstances often feel powerless to make a difference. They are alienated from their communities. They are conditioned over time to see themselves as inferior to their oppressors.
hooks, on the other hand, argued that education should be about fostering an open space where different perspectives are shared, students are encouraged and not belittled, and everyone is respected.
hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins) experienced both educational environments when she was raised in the segregated south, when she was bussed into a majority white school during integration, when she attended college, and when she taught at different universities. Freire’s work helped her to clarify her own feelings of marginalization and shame under those oppressive systems.
Freire also learned how unjust conditions could impact a person’s ability to learn. He grew up in Northeastern Brazil around poor rural families. During the Great Depression, he suffered from extremes of poverty and hunger. He even had to temporarily drop out of elementary school to work.
In Gadotti’s book, “Reading Paulo Freire,” Freire said, “I didn’t understand anything because of my hunger. I wasn’t dumb. It wasn’t lack of interest. My social condition didn’t allow me to have an education. Experience showed me once again the relationship between social class and knowledge.”
People ultimately want to be free. They want to grow and change and live authentically. But they are constantly being undermined by the interests of interconnected power-structures. hooks called some of these power-structures the “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
From an early age on, whether through violence or propaganda or censorship or other means, people are trained to obey their masters. They are taught about their inferiority rather than their intrinsic value, fractured rather than united, and dehumanized rather than treated with dignity.
Those in power usually shift the burden of proof onto the powerless, pressuring them to prove that they are worthy of their basic rights. But these systems, which have so much control and influence, need to justify their legitimacy to the people. If they fail to do so, then they should be changed or dismantled.
Sometimes, though, when the oppressed rise to power, they carry over the violent patterns of their former oppressors. That is why there needs to be a radical education of self-discovery and inclusion and critical thought, a place of transformation for everyone who seeks to learn. When people aren’t united, when they aren’t free, then the same oppressive practices will resurface.
Freire believed that people have to learn how to be themselves. Education is a process, a path of critical effort. Individuals must seek out the “whys” of their existence. They must be free to choose their own paths.
Eric Arthur Blair (1903–1950), better known as George Orwell, was an English writer. Although he was an accomplished essayist, he gained his fame through later works such as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
He was born in India but grew up in England. When he was eight years old, his parents sent him off to a private prep school in Sussex. As a young adult in the 1920s, he served as a member of the Indian Imperial Police. After Blair resigned from his post in Burma, he tramped around London and Paris. He set out as a wanderer, sometimes without any place to stay, recording the daily struggles of the poor.
He wrote enough to get by but didn’t find much acclaim until years later. During different periods of his early adulthood, he picked hops in a field, washed dirty dishes in fancy restaurants, taught teenagers at a private school, and clerked in a bookshop.
Ever since the publication of his first book (Down and Out in Paris and London), which was seen as too scandalous for the time, he wrote under the pseudonym of George Orwell.
In 1936, at the start of the Spanish Civil War, he volunteered to fight in Spain. He joined up with the communists and anarchists and socialists, among other leftist groups, in opposition to fascist powers.
During a battle on the front, a sniper shot him in his throat, almost killing him. While recovering from his wounds, he was forced to flee to France after conditions around him became too unsafe (Soviet propaganda turned against the militia he once was a member of). After many dissenters were repressed, Blair became disillusioned with intellectuals who supported the Soviet Union. Throughout his life, however, he deepened his commitment to democratic socialist principles.
Blair wanted to fight against the Nazis in WWII, but the British army rejected him due to his poor health. He accepted a position at the BBC instead. While there, he contributed a minor part to the propaganda campaign against the fascists. Eventually he quit so he could work on literary pieces for the Tribune, a democratic socialist magazine.
During different periods in his life, Eric Blair worked as a dishwasher, novelist, journalist, schoolteacher, bookshop clerk, and soldier. He was a tramp on the muddy roads of England, a lieutenant in the trenches of Spain, and wrote about it.
His writings exposed the brutal inequalities in authoritarian systems. As a result, his ideas were seen as too subversive. In some countries, his novels were banned and burned. People caught with his words were put in prison.
Blair had his blind spots as well. Some scholars have criticized his racist, sexist, homophobic attitudes. Yet many of his experiences were so impactful that he was forced to confront his prejudices.
He felt a lot of guilt, for instance, as a privileged white man in the service of the British empire. During his employment with the Indian Imperial Police, he had to take on the compromised role of an authority figure. He was seen as an outsider, as part of an occupying force, oppressing the poor of another country. The more that he adhered to the duties expected of him, as if he were performing before the locals, the more ashamed he felt. After five years as a police officer, after witnessing the direct effects of imperialism, he quit his position.
He later disguised himself as a tramp, voluntarily living in destitution, so that he could learn more about those in extreme poverty. While many in the lower classes had no way out of their unjust circumstances, he could escape. Even though his family were “lower-upper-middle class,” (as he wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier), he still had socioeconomic opportunities that others didn’t have.
After his time in Burma, though, he had changed. He wanted to write authentic stories about the downtrodden. He often took the side of the poor laborer who struggled for higher wages, of the vagabond who roamed the countryside, of the hopper who slept next to other workers in a tin hut, of the miner who toiled in the coal mine.
Blair was known for being a sharp critic of injustice. He looked through the biases of ordinary living to find truths that most were afraid to admit. He attacked authoritarians in every guise, despising those who wanted power for themselves while hiding their true intentions behind propagandistic language. Despite their claims of morality, many ideological groups imposed their order through violence and censorship.
Blair wrote with a sense of wry humor, almost as a defense against his own disappointment. His opinions were unflinchingly honest. He believed that while people were so capable of progress, they were still susceptible to the dangers of totalitarianism.
Orwell, George. The Complete Works of George Orwell: Novels, Memoirs, Poetry, Essays, Book Reviews & Articles: 1984, Animal Farm, down and out in Paris and London, Prophecies of Fascism… Frankfurt am Main, e-artnow, 2019.
Orwell, George | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. iep.utm.edu/george-orwell/. Accessed 17 Sept. 2022.
John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) was an English philosopher. He wrote On Liberty in 1859.
1. Individual liberty must be protected against all forms of tyranny. Tyranny can arise from the state, a powerful minority, or the prevailing opinions of the masses.
2. Mature people should have sovereignty over their bodies and minds. Societal power can justly be exercised over those individuals, socially and legally, when preventing them from harming others.
3. The majority has the potential to suppress the ideas of the minority. Those who are in power, whether they are part of the minority or majority, have historically persecuted those who are not in power. There needs to be precautions in place to protect people from an abuse of power.
4. Punishing individuals for having differing views is harmful to society. People should have the right to publish what they want. They should have the freedom to agree or disagree with popular beliefs. They should be able to determine how they want to live as long as they are not causing suffering to others. If they are mature enough to make their own life decisions, they are mature enough to accept the consequences of their actions.
5. People are not infallible. They are not perfect. Even the wisest individuals will make mistakes when pursuing the truth. Civilizations grow out of the failures of past ages. Even the present time may seem inhumane to future generations.
6. Nobody has the right to decide the best way to live for everyone else in the world. Many possibilities exist for a meaningful existence. People have varying degrees of knowledge in certain subjects. And they know nothing about other subjects. The more that they learn over time, the more they will become aware of what they know and don’t know. Those who impose their dogmatic beliefs on others act from an assumption of infallibility.
7. Individuals come from different backgrounds. They have a variety of preferences, perspectives, and experiences. People grow through a diversity of views. They are challenged to examine their old beliefs when they are confronted with new evidence. Ideas have to be tested continuously rather than obeyed out of custom and habit.
8. Societies are held back when individuals are too scared to share their opinions. If they are punished for their thoughts, then more people will be hesitant to express themselves. They will self-censor. They will hide their minds. They will internalize what is deemed as acceptable by their dominant culture. They will rebel.
People should not be afraid to make mistakes when seeking the truth. Many timid geniuses have been suppressed before they have reached their conclusions. Many promising minds have been smothered by the negative pressures of the masses. Geniuses, although small in number, can only prosper when they are free to think.
9. There may be errors hidden in accepted views. Some ideas, once considered true, have eventually been shown to be false. No belief is above being criticized, even the most cherished ones. Nonconformists, who often question the prevailing dogmas in society, shouldn’t be silenced or denounced. They should be honored for disturbing the unthinking complacency of the masses, for challenging the status quo.
10. People do not exist in isolation. If they harm themselves, they may negatively affect those who are closest to them. Individuals should be free to express themselves. Other members of society have the right to approve or disapprove of their choices. But when their actions are harmful to their communities, then they have to be held accountable.
Questions and Criticisms:
1. How is harm defined? The meaning of harm changes throughout Mill’s essay, especially when applied to the blurring contexts of public and private life. Will there ever be a universal definition of harm?
2. Practically speaking, do the ends justify the means if the moral gains are higher than the moral losses? Who determines what ends are justifiable, especially if the means are unjust?
3. Mill supported colonialism on utilitarian grounds. He believed in liberal values for certain members in his society, but then made exceptions for this standard.
He considered England, which was a major hegemonic power of the time, to be acting out of civilizing benevolence.
When he was writing in 1859, England had already committed atrocities in countries such as India. Mill believed that England was justified in “civilizing” places that were considered “primitive.” He wanted to educate the “barbarians.”
These “backward” countries were all coincidentally outside of Europe.
Powerful countries often intervene in the affairs of weaker countries. They claim to be humanitarians. They talk about peace and justice, while actually serving their own self-interests. These interests can be devastating for the population, while enriching those in power.
In a factory, a girl’s bones stick out through her brown flesh like shards of glass, as she hunches over, as she gazes down, seven days a week, for cents an hour, sewing brand merchandise that will eventually fill up luxury condominiums and office buildings
Overseas, in a town owned by outside corporations, two workers nap under a mirror of gnarled machinery so they can complete a shipment on time; in three years they will be replaced when they turn nineteen and twenty three for younger women without fetuses in their wombs
In shantytowns, rows of roofs rust through the oily dead of air, and trees lean over, their limbs curled beneath the sky; soon all the bark will peel back into white skeletal dust and space, before the last motes settle
In gated communities equipped with security cameras guard dogs walkie-talkies whistles pepper spray tasers and electronic key codes that change every week, sprinklers will spray over identical lawns at dawn until the grass glistens like fallen crystals
In a a suburb shaded by trees, a boy jumps higher in his new designer shorts and shoes and shirt and headband, scoring a basket off the backboard, while his father works at an international bank, approving and denying loans
A pop superstar smiles in a commercial for life insurance, his recognizable teeth enhance across electronic screens in shops, airports, and living rooms; an ad flashes with mild side effects of diarrhea depression fatigue insomnia high blood pressure paranoia irregular heartbeat; regularly scheduled programs return with words from their sponsors
I’ve been programmed to write about “Breakfast of Champions” by The Creator of the Universe.
Here’s another possibility: I am a character in a Kurt Vonnegut novel. Kilgore Trout can’t be the only one to suspect he’s in a fictional universe, which on some days, seems far too absurd to even be a cheap imitation of reality.
But you, dear reader, are neither a character nor a biological machine. Beyond your clothes and hair, flesh and blood and organs, you are much more than a robotized thing.
You are an unwavering band of light.
Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” share some similarities. Although they’re set in different time periods, both authors are criticizing a deep-rooted ugliness in American society. Both authors are commenting on the division of communities, and the alienation of individuals, through the evils of racism and sexism and classism.
Both authors are asking what it means to be free in a country that so often treats its human beings terribly. Many human beings, for generations and generations, were not even considered to be human beings.
Many are still not.
Vonnegut does not ignore how cruel people can be toward each other. He nauseatingly forces his readers to look at what happens when, instead of everyone treating each other with the dignity that they deserve, they categorize each other instead.
In “Breakfast of Champions,” he shows what it is like to live in a decaying America. Unregulated companies use up the natural resources of the land with barely any legal consequences. The rich exploit the poor while blaming them for being poor. Politicians order young soldiers to commit atrocities in unnecessary wars. Neighborhoods are separated by class and race. Organized crime is the undercurrent of many businesses. Communities repeat the same violent patterns that they learned from their ancestors, patterns as old as centuries of slavery and genocide. They pass down their ghosts to their descendants, pretending that the worst parts of themselves are over.
Yet in such a systemically unjust world, people still have a choice. They can still use their “free will” to be compassionate to one another. They can show small kindnesses to strangers. They don’t have to hate just because they were taught to hate. They don’t have to become unthinking, unfeeling machines.
People are not mere robots programmed by their environments, their genes, or even “The Creator of the Universe” to be a specific way or to follow one set path. They aren’t predestined to meet a certain fate.
Many people can choose to behave humanely, even in an unjust country. But if the same force of societal ignorance continues as it had in the past, there may not be enough time left to prevent a nuclear or environmental catastrophe. Homo sapiens may become another extinct species, unable to adapt to the chaos of their natures.
If humans are to ever survive together, they must acknowledge each other. They have to see that other beings suffer just like them, want just like them, cry just like them, and love just like them. They deserve to be respected, not because of their status or wealth, but because they are human.
“This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again. It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors.”
The life of the average concentration camp prisoner was a daily struggle for existence. They had their belongings stolen. They were stripped and tattooed.
Their identities were ripped away as they were reduced to a number among other numbers. For them to live, if only barely, if only briefly, was to know of death.
Every man was controlled by one thought only: to keep himself alive for the family waiting for him at home, and to save his friends. With no hesitation, therefore, he would arrange for another prisoner, another “number,” to take his place in the transport. (Frankl 19)
Viktor Frankl was number 119, 104. His job in camp was digging and laying tracks for railway lines. Eventually, he was allowed to tend to prisoners who were sick, injured, and dying.
The capos, unlike most of the other prisoners, earned cigarettes as well as other privileges. For ordinary prisoners, cigarettes were luxury items, sometimes traded for soup, which was crucial for survival. But there were cigarettes left for those who had lost themselves to despair as well:
The only exceptions to this were those who had lost the will to live and wanted to enjoy their last days. Thus, when we saw a comrade smoking his own cigarettes, we knew he had given up faith in his strength to carry on, and, once lost, the will to live seldom returned. (Frankl 21–22)
When prisoners first entered the camp, they were shocked. Unable to grasp the brutal reality of their conditions. They saw barbed wire and spotlights. They heard shrill commands in German. Ragged humans slumped together in a gray dawn. As the days passed from the train ride to the camp, the prisoners dulled into a nightmarish world:
In psychiatry there is a certain condition known as “delusion of reprieve.” The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute. We, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad. (Frankl 23–24)
Prisoners who arrived at camp were cooped together in the cold. They were starved. Guards would walk over and inspect each of them, deciding on whether they should be sent off to work or die. With one finger pointing to the right or left, there was existence or non-existence, life or execution:
“Was he sent to the left side?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Then you can see him there,” I was told.
A hand pointed to the chimney a few hundred yards off, which was sending a column of flame up into the grey sky of Poland. It dissolved into a sinister cloud of smoke.
“That’s where your friend is, floating up to Heaven,” was the answer. But I still did not understand until the truth was explained to me in plain words. (Frankl 26)
Prisoners had their most precious items stolen, which included wedding rings, writings, jewelry, and photographs; anything that resembled their former lives.
They were stripped until they were trembling and naked. Then they were whipped, beaten, washed of lice, and shaven.
In Auschwitz, prisoners had to adapt to the most horrendous conditions imaginable. They were cold and unclean and wore weathered clothes. Their feet were cracked in the mud. They slept huddled together after hours of exhaustive labor.
Suicide loomed in every prisoner’s mind , from the ever present danger around them to the utter hopelessness for the future. While some prisoners killed themselves, usually by electrocution from touching a barbed wire fence, others, despite the smallest chance of survival, continued through grueling days. Even then, they were aware they would likely be sent off to the gas chamber.
As prisoners grinded on under brutal circumstances, they were desensitized to emotions such as disgust and pity and compassion. After so much trauma, many had become apathetic, detached from their feelings, having only an instinct to survive.
To many, physical punishment didn’t matter nearly as much as the agony of injustice. They felt a complete helplessness to do anything about the terrible conditions that had spread through the camp.
Guards regularly punished prisoners for the smallest of infractions. If somebody stepped out of line, talked back, or helped someone who was struggling, they would be beaten or murdered. They were treated with the same respect as livestock.
Prisoners, who had once lived as husbands and wives and students and doctors and professors and musicians and teachers and shopkeepers, were barely afforded the dignity of their humanity.
After being reduced to such a low state, prisoners became primitive in their need to live each day for one more day. They wanted to make it for just a little longer.
They often daydreamed more than they lived. They imagined they had their simplest desires fulfilled from cake to cookies, from warm baths to deep sleep. They craved an illusion of peace while bearing a terrible reality:
When the last layers of subcutaneous fat had vanished, and we looked like skeletons disguised with skin and rags, we could watch our bodies beginning to devour themselves. The organism digested its own protein, and the muscles disappeared. Then the body had no powers of resistance left. One after another the members of the little community in our hut died. Each of us could calculate with fair accuracy whose turn would be next, and when his own would come. After many observations we knew the symptoms well, which made the correctness of our prognoses quite certain. “He won’t last long,” or, “This is the next one,” we whispered to each other, and when, during our daily search for lice, we saw our own naked bodies in the evening, we thought alike: This body here, my body, is really a corpse already. What has become of me? I am but a small portion of a great mass of human flesh… of a mass behind barbed wire, crowded into a few earthen huts; a mass of which daily a certain portion begins to rot because it has become lifeless. (Frankl 42)
Once they were woken out of their longing and dreams, the prisoners cramped together to work. They moved to the shrill whine of sirens. They barely fit their swollen feet into their wet shoes before another day of labor began. If their feet could not fit inside their shoes, they would have to trudge through the snow, barefoot and frostbitten. After days of weakness, undernourishment, and starvation, they generally lost the ability to care about anything except a fulfillment of their needs. Even their feelings of compassion for other prisoners had numbed after so much trauma:
There were fifty of us in the prison car, which had two small, barred peepholes. There was only enough room for one group to squat on the floor, while the others, who had to stand up for hours, crowded round the peepholes. Standing on tiptoe and looking past the others’ heads through the bars of the window, I caught an eerie glimpse of my native town. We all felt more dead than alive, since we thought that our transport was heading for the camp at Mauthausen and that we had only one or two weeks to live. I had a distinct feeling that I saw the streets, the squares and the houses of my childhood with the eyes of a dead man who had come back from another world and was looking down on a ghostly city. After hours of delay the train left the station. And there was the street — my street! The young lads who had a number of years of camp life behind them and for whom such a journey was a great event stared attentively through the peephole. I began to beg them, to entreat them, to let me stand in front for one moment only. I tried to explain how much a look through that window meant to me just then. My request was refused with rudeness and cynicism: “You lived here all those years? Well, then you have seen quite enough already!” (Frankl 45)
As the prisoners struggled, sometimes their only salvation came through reflection, religious rituals, debate, or the recollection of a loved one. Frankl imagined his wife while marching on sore feet, touching her with his memories, imagining where she was and how deeply he loved her.
“This intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past” (Frankl 50).
By creating such a rich inner life for themselves, prisoners developed an intense appreciation for nature and art. In contrast with their suffering, they found glory in the simplest miracles of existence:
Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, “How beautiful the world could be!” (Frankl 51)
Another time we were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. “Et lux in tenebris lucet” — and the light shineth in the darkness. For hours I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me. (Frankl 51–52)
Most of camp life, however, wore on the very existence of the prisoners. They had to suffer from an endless injustice, which threatened their most cherished values, beliefs, and higher purpose.
The brutality of their world ground their dignity down to its barest form, where they sensed that at the end of all their struggle was death. They were used up until their bodies failed them, until their will to go on, to persevere, eventually faded.
After so many nights of relentless abuse, their spirits were like the thin lights of candles, dwindling into an enveloping darkness.
Camp inmates often were tormented when they had to make choices or take an initiative for themselves, believing that their lives were subject to fate. Small decisions could lead to life or death, whether in the moment or in the future.
On Frankl’s final days before being rescued, he had a chance to escape with some of the other prisoners but he refused. Afterward he wondered whether he should have left with them. Only later on he wrote:
We found out just how uncertain human decisions are, especially in matters of life and death. I was confronted with photographs which had been taken in a small camp not far from ours. Our friends who had thought they were traveling to freedom that night had been taken in the trucks to this camp, and there they were locked in the huts and burned to death. Their partially charred bodies were recognizable on the photograph. (Frankl 71)
Trusting in fate, at times of almost certain death, was an acceptance of what was to come. In other ways, it was one defense against the evil of the camp.
Apathy was another way of psychological defense, of survival. After having to deal with malnutrition, poor hygiene, starvation, and routine slaughter, prisoners looked for every opportunity to endure.
Despite their apathy, exhaustion, and irritability, inmates were never completely lost, never completely forsaken to the hell of their imprisonment.
They still had a choice, a chance within every moment, to act humanely. There were some individuals who, under extreme duress, acted heroically:
Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way (Frankl 74–75).
Everything was stolen from these inmates except for their inner freedom. Some prisoners, despite experiencing so many horrors, maintained their dignity.
Even though these individuals were surrounded by the most extreme external restrictions, they still had a choice to reflect on the unique meaning of their lives. They could still hold onto a higher purpose. Their attitude of spiritual freedom was a crucial element in their ongoing struggle for existence:
The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not. (Frankl 76)
While so many prisoners fell into despair because of the brutal injustice perpetrated against them, there were some who remained compassionate, courageous and loving, giving of themselves when they had no obligation to give, accepting their fate when others denied it, selflessly helping when everything was taken from them, up until the time of their execution. They died with no names, no families and friends, but they never gave up their humanity.
To give away their last bite of bread, to stand up to a guard, to offer a kind word before walking into the gas chamber, despite never receiving any praise or recognition, was to act with freedom.
While inside the camp, there was no time, no sense of a future. Once survivors were freed, they began to feel an unreality, an alien world to their own.
They had to grasp the meaning of their lives again and to not lose themselves to a dreadful past, to apathy, giving up any future possibilities. Some individuals strengthened their inner lives, maturing after the horror of their experiences. Others resigned themselves to a life that was no more:
Naturally only a few people were capable of reaching great spiritual heights. But a few were given the chance to attain human greatness even through their apparent worldly failure and death, an accomplishment which in ordinary circumstances they would never have achieved. To the others of us, the mediocre and the half-hearted, the words of Bismarck could be applied: “Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already.” Varying this, we could say that most men in a concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners. (Frankl 76)
Prisoners who could imagine a reason to survive, who could find a “why” for their existence, could withstand the most unbearable circumstances:
We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand. When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden. (Frankl 85)
Inside the camp, there were those who could undergo the daily atrocities and those who could not. Even among those who could, they survived not only from hope, not only from having a genuine purpose in a world that was against them, but from chance.
For the guards themselves, there were those who took a sadistic pleasure in making the prisoners suffer and die. Then there were those who were sympathetic but remained silent to the abuse, to the tortures, hardening themselves after many years. Finally, there were those who secretly helped and cared for the prisoners, despite a chance of severe consequences from their superior officers.
Some prisoners, who had been promoted to the most marginal powers in the camp, became as sadistic as the worst guards. Other guards, moved by compassion, could bring a prisoner to tears from the smallest act of kindness. No one in either group was entirely good or entirely bad. Life asked each of them a question, in every circumstance, which was this: “What kind of humans would they be?”
From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of “pure race” — and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.
Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil? The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp. (Frankl 94)
When the prisoners were finally released after so many years of unrelenting evil, returning to the world was an ordeal for them. They drifted as if lost in a dream, unable to feel like human beings for a long time. It was so difficult for the prisoners to recover from their time at the camp, where death was their companion.
They often ate an enormous amount once they were liberated, compensating for years of watery soup and stale bread.
Pressure had been building inside every one of them for so long because they had to repress so much trauma. Eventually, this pressure erupted into talk, into a discussion of what had once been too taboo to speak about in camp, into screams and nightmares and long cries about all those who were murdered, into a readjustment back into the unfamiliar world of the living:
One day, a few days after the liberation, I walked through the country past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp. Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song. There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the larks’ jubilation and the freedom of space. I stopped, looked around, and up to the sky — and then I went down on my knees. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world — I had but one sentence in mind — always the same: “I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.” How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence memory can no longer recall. But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started. Step for step I progressed, until I again became a human being. (Frankl 96)
Some of the prisoners who were freed returned to where they once lived. Many of them could not find their families anymore. Others traveled back to their hometowns, but their community could not empathize with them or realize the magnitude of their suffering.
Some of the survivors still held onto hope. They hoped for their husbands and wives and kids, for a place to live, for a future that shimmered beyond all those barbed wire fences and towers.
Some may even have found a purpose after all their suffering, but not because of what the Nazis desired. They looked for what would transcend them, what had meaning for them, until slowly, day by day, they could reclaim their humanity again.
Calm your mind. Open up to what is arising and passing. If you stir up the mud at the bottom of a lake, the water will be unclear. But when you let the water be as it is, not trying to flatten the ripples or scoop out all the mud, the lake will settle down. Then you will not only see the still water, but a reflection of the mountains on the surface.
When you watch the rain, you are the rain just as much as the rain is you. Rather than feeling that you are an observer who is passively watching each of the droplets hit the ground, there is only the splash, splash, splash.
The rain exists beyond your words. Beyond your images and concepts and memories. Yet all too often, you divide yourself from the rain, creating an idea of you, an idea of the rain, an idea of how the rain sounds, an idea of how you should feel when you see the rain, and so on. You forget to smell the freshness of the rain because you are attached to what you think about it.
It is normal for you to separate your experiences into endlessly finer categories. You discriminate between past and future, good and bad, black and white, ugly and beautiful, life and death, young and old. You are looking for order and security. Your universe is placed into a mental filing system.
But as Alan Watts once said, “You confuse the menu for the meal.”
When you can be mindful, when you can let go, then you will come back to the purity of who you are. You will harmonize with nature. Breathing in, breathing out. You are here.
You are not alienated from the rest of life. You inter-are. You are made up of relationships.
A flower cannot unfold without the soil beneath it and the sun above it. It needs non-flower elements to be.
For the petals of a rose to glisten with dew, there first had to be a Big Bang. Conditions before that flower existed helped that flower to be. When that rose wilts back into the old earth, another flower will take its place.
Energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only transformed.
Just like a flower, you are made up of non-you parts. You cannot exist without the oxygen you breathe or your ancestors or the gravity of the planet. You cannot exist without the water from the oceans or the clouds drifting above you. There is no you apart from anything else.
As Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.”
Your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are changing. You are not the same person at five or fifteen or eighty. You may feel the same inside, and believe that you are going to remain young forever, but you are a constellation of processes, transforming in every moment. You are dying and being born. You are changing with the conditions of the universe. You are the conditions of the universe.
Don’t attach to one view of life and claim that is the best view to have. When you cling to your beliefs and refuse to open to what is happening, you will suffer. Your dogmatism will cause other beings to suffer too.
You are all the lives you have influenced. You are all your distant ancestors who survived for you to be born. You are all your descendants who will grow after your decomposition.
You are the sun and water and trees and moon. Without them, there is no you.
Your interconnection with all living beings will help you to see beyond yourself. When you become more aware of the changing conditions of your existence, you will not judge everything outside your flesh as separate from you.
You don’t have to look for ways to isolate yourself from other sentient beings. Clinging to your beliefs and refusing to consider differing perspectives will only cause you to suffer more. You are in others as others are in you.
It’s up to you to be kind, compassionate, and loving.
Every moment is a chance for you to deepen your practice. Talking about philosophy is not enough. Your life is your message. Your teaching.
When you are mindful and compassionate, your presence will influence the people around you. Everyone you meet will be a continuation of you. Your practice is a practice not only for you, but for your siblings, parents, children, neighbors, and the rest of your community.
When you think you are separate from the rest of the world, you will try to run from the world. You will seek pleasure while avoiding pain. You will look for comforting answers to the mystery of existence. You will hide from unpleasant truths.
Rather than resisting ideas that you don’t want to accept, look within yourself.
See yourself in the world just as the world is seen in you. You are not only the blood in your body, but the stars in your blood. You don’t have to climb a mountain to find what is already here. You only need to see.
If you walk in a park, will you notice the leaves falling from the trees? Will you feel the breeze brushing against your skin?
Look for lessons in what is already an intimate part of you. There is more wisdom in a crumbling leaf than in a thousand words about impermanence.
When you walk, walk. When you sit, sit. When you breathe, breathe. Rather than seeking to become important or achieve something outside of yourself, rather than dwelling on your regrets or rushing off to do the next thing, continue to do what you are doing, but with total freedom.
When you nourish yourself, you will nourish other beings. You will care for those who are suffering, who need someone to be there for them.
You are not only working toward an end goal of compassion, peace, and kindness. You can embody those qualities now. Every step can be a step of love.
When you live in the present moment, you will begin to see the impermanence of all things. Flowers blooming in the spring mornings and withering in the autumn sun, a lover with age spots on her hands, a flash of lightning in the clouds.
Without impermanence, a child can never mature into an adult and an acorn can never grow into an oak tree. For there to be birth, there has to be death. Yet at the ultimate level, there is only a transformation of what is.
When you are aware of your own impermanence, every moment is precious, a fleeting miracle. You will care for everything in your life, while knowing that nothing will last.
Pain and anger will fade away just like joy and happiness. Seemingly unstoppable empires will collapse before the rise of future civilizations. Everyone you know will die. Their bodies will break down into the dust of bones. Plants will grow over their forgotten tombs.
There is no you that remains the same. Your perceptions, thoughts, feelings, moods, and behaviors all change over time. From the cells in your fingers to the bacteria in your gut, from the wrinkles on your skin to the hormones in your glands, from the neurons in your brain to the oxygen that you inhale, you are transforming.
You are not alone. You are not an unchanging entity, separate from the universe. You are the same and yet different.
Life is like a garden that you can cultivate. You can water the seeds of hatred and ignorance and greed, or, you can water the seeds of peace and joy and compassion. You have the freedom to choose. It is up to you.
When you tend to yourself, you will tend to others. When you tend to others, you will tend to yourself. You must be wise enough to select the most wholesome seeds to water.
Sometimes in your relationships, you may fall into unwholesome habits. You may forget to be grateful and engaged. As the weeds grow in your garden and in theirs, both of you will suffer. But it is never too late to cut away the weeds and to plant new seeds again.
Rather than chasing after abstractions of success, pleasure, power, and reputation, see these cravings for what they are. When you desire to taste the bait, biting down with all your force, you will only get hooked. You will find freedom only when you can let go.
Be aware of your fear, your need for intimacy, your sorrow, your instinct to survive. You are connected with this earth. Be compassionate with your suffering and nourish your love.
Smile because you are alive on this beautiful earth. You are only here for a short time.
“I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame, they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays. But they are murdered children all the same.”
― Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.”
― Erich Maria Remarque
“The master class has always declared the war; the subject class has always fought the battles; the master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, and the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose — including their lives.”
― Eugene V. Debs
“Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century. Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s minds and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.”
― Arundhati Roy
“The atmosphere of war brutalizes everyone involved, begets a fanaticism in which the original moral factor is buried at the bottom of a heap of atrocities committed by all sides.”
― Howard Zinn
War is profitable for the ruling class but not for the dead.
But what if the dead could talk back?
Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted in Hollywood during the Red Scare. He continued to write for major pictures under a variety of pseudonyms, eventually winning two Academy awards for his uncredited work. Before his successes with movies such as Spartacus and The Brave One, Trumbo had written a blistering antiwar novel.
Johnny Got His Gun sticks to readers like gauze dressings on third-degree burns. It is as brutally honest as it is gruesome. It is an ugly book because war is ugly, because violence is ugly, because the systemic exploitation of human beings is ugly.
Behind all those patriotic slogans about fighting for honor and democracy and freedom, behind all those militaristic ideals about duty and glory, behind all that jingoistic propaganda crammed into the minds of the young and ignorant, there is an ugly greed for more power. There is mutilation and death and rot.
Joe Bonham served in WWI but he could’ve been a soldier in any war. He woke up in a hospital bed after an artillery shell exploded, disfiguring him. The war took his arms, his legs, his face, his nose, his mouth, his eyes, his ears, his flesh, his organs, his almost everything. It had turned him into a mucus dripping meat. A burned torso, gurgling out of a throat. A bandaged wound, trapped forever inside of himself.
He was deaf. He was blind. He had no eyes to see, no nose to smell, no tongue to taste, no lips to speak, no ears to hear. His life was darkness and dreams. Sometimes there was no difference. Yet he could still think. He could still remember who he was, even after drifting through years of insanity. He could still breathe through a tube in his throat. He could still tap his head and squirm. He could still feel the sun warmth on his tingling skin. On his last patches of skin. On his forehead slicked with sweat. He was as alive as any dead man could get.
The warmongers had pinned a sickening medal to his body. Those bastards decorated him with false awards and then ignored him. Yet they continued to enact their aggressive policies and propaganda. They continued to throw their annual parades and marches. They continued to sacrifice the lives of more sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, for their goals of endless expansion and domination.
They didn’t care about his suffering. He was useless to them after his body was used. But he was still a man, he was still a man, he was still a… human being. Wasn’t he? If he wasn’t, then there was no point in existing anymore. Maybe he could be a human again if only he could communicate. If the nurses let him outside into the world, he could scream out of his lightless tomb, defying all the swine who had manipulated him, who would manipulate more generations into their deaths.
Joe Bonham deserved his dignity. He deserved to be recognized not only for who he was, but for what they had turned him into. He had to warn all the impressionable children around the world, forcing them to stare at his fate. He had to warn every naïve kid who was so eager to sacrifice themselves for their government, who was so certain that their side was righteous and just and good. He could show them what war could do to a human being. He could show them what was left of a human being after war.
Joseph Campbell once said that our dreams are private myths and our myths are public dreams (43). Each represents the gods within us. They are symbols of our energy in conflict and harmony.
Our stories, told in different cultures and times, are born in us and change as we change. They show us our paradoxical natures. They guide us through a shadowy forest until we find the light.
Sometimes our public myths match our private ones. Then teachers appear, helping us to learn about our inner quests, interpreting our paths with familiar symbols. At other times, opening ourselves up to the mysterious, engaging with the deep and sacred, can only be explored alone.
We are often in awe of the mysterious. We seek out a timelessness that permeates through all forms, transcending the symbols that we have come to depend upon.
Yet in our ordinary lives, we are conditioned with the dualities of me and you, black and white, good and bad.
Myths change over time in different environmental conditions. The gods in the rainforest are not the God on the mountain top. The divine in nature is different from that in the church. Even the tribes who hunted like their ancestors before them, who depended on skilled movement in intimate bands, perceived other realities than the settled farmer.
Myths endure out of an evolution of ideas. They survive by touching the archetypes of humanity. Otherwise they will fade away, forgotten in time.
Myths have to adapt. They have to grow with the conditions around them. If they cannot bend, they will break.
In mythological tales, there are often heroes. Heroes must say goodbye to their safe comfortable homes before venturing into the unknown. To leave behind their former lives, to be thrust out into danger, is to begin. The only way for them to return back to where they started is to pass through a series of trials.
What distinguishes heroes from ordinary people is their willingness to sacrifice themselves for an ideal, another being, or the ultimate purpose of their quest. What the hero defends will not always be accepted, but as they let go of their selfishness, and confront the dangers ahead of them, they will become truly courageous.
In every stage of life, from childhood to old age, a dragon will arise, whether in the form of greed or inhibition, stagnation or resistance. Individuals must look within themselves to find their own way.
Mythology can act as an interpretive system for deciding what paths are the wisest to take, what practices lead to a higher purpose, and how to reduce the despair of other beings.
Disciples can perform elaborate rituals that represent the crucial stages of human existence. From learning how to love to embracing death, mythology weaves in stories that point to inner truths, showing what swords will slay what dragons.
When heroes cross a threshold of experience, they will transform. During their journeys, they will be challenged to their depths. Their consciousness will shift after their ordeals. If they succeed, they will return to where they began, heightened from a newfound knowledge.
A bodhisattva is enlightened but chooses to remain in the world, helping to free all beings from dukkha. A shaman broods with sacred wisdom, guiding others with language, penetrating rituals, visions, and medicines (Campbell 93, 147).
At the deepest level of consciousness, the hero is love. Heroes are compassionate toward all beings and have a deep reverence for nature. They sense their interconnection with everything that is around them. Along their paths, they have shed their old skin only to be reborn again. Throughout all of time, this essential cycle of birth-death-rebirth repeats in endless forms.
The troubadours believed that love was the highest meaning of their lives. They would undergo intense pain for only a chance of finding themselves in another. The bodhisattva “joyfully participates among the sorrows of the world” while the “mystic swims in the symbolic ocean” (Campbell 21, 147).
While one myth will celebrate the divine in the masculine, another will honor the divine in the feminine.
Even though these ancient stories may contradict each other, they often suggest the same essential messages.
Beyond the dualities of birth and death, right and wrong, here and there, and past and future, at the ultimate dimension, all of existence hums with timeless energy. The cosmos is interdependent, perfect, whole.
While Alfred Korzybski once wrote “the map is not the territory,” a mythological map can be relevant for the right person, at the right time.
Travelers can navigate through its narrow paths and landmarks and dead ends, until eventually moving beyond any known land.
A map is not a final authority on where to go or what to experience. It is a guide, directing those who are curious, who dare to question and seek beyond themselves, toward the transcendent.