Disrupted Lives, by Iona Miller
The Role and Value of Journey Work in the Process of Recovery
by Iona Miller, Asklepia Foundation, 2003
1). Disruption and Continuity;
2). Healing Words: "Metaphors Be with You";
3). The Healing Power of Narrative History;
4). Soul Support: Healing the Disordered Bodymind;
5). Character: Have Some, Don't Just Be One;
6). Pathos and Healing
Summary: Our life journey is an unpredictable series of chaotic twists and turns which mold our lives, despite our best intentions and plans, as we wend our way toward our certain end. The 'journey' is a core guiding metaphor for our multifarious experiences through all of life's disruptions. It is a poetic journey of self-discovery. Chaos theory provides a natural yet scientific metaphor of this complex trajectory of emergent order from disorder, the complex dance at the edge of chaos.
Process-oriented therapies help us not only recover but make sense of our feelings and experiences by evoking our story, a meaningful narrative of our unique course. It is a combination of subjective healing fiction and our objective history, but expresses the reality of our psyche -- our embodied soul. Even if many have embarked on a similar quest, each of us makes this dramatic voyage of discovery for ourselves -- we become our own "Columbus of the soul," going where we do not know. It leads into the great unknown where fearsome dragons (pain, suffering, loss, grief, illness, dissocation, emotional devastation, mortality, our own personal demons) await to devour us.
How we navigate those turbulent seas or traverse that undiscovered country is crucial to our wholeness and well-being...even as old explorers heading for the shores of death. If metaphor is central to embodied experience, we can find healing meaning embodied in our personal tales, which speak from the soul of the resilience of human spirit.
Disruption of Continuity
Efforts to control a chronic condition are rooted in two ideas: that people can control their environment and that people should take responsibility for their health. The notion that chronic illness can be controlled is common in U.S. medical practice, whereas discussion of the limits of control are uncommon. Often couched in terms of illness management in both the medical and social science literature, control over the condition reflects interpretations of Western Cartesian philosophy, which, in contemporary thought, has been interpreted as mind over matter. The responsibility people feel for controlling their chronic illnesses and the efforts they make to overcome the constraints such control places on everyday life affect self-perceptions and alter as the illness waxes and wanes. . .embodied knowledge is assaulted by the ethos of rational determinism. The imposition of another type of order [leaves us] without meaning in [our] lives. The close relationship between embodied knowledge and meaning is thus relegated to a subsidiary position, while control over the body becomes preeminent. Metaphor is central to embodied experience.
--Gay Becker, 1997
Uncertainty is the zeitgeist of our day. We are anxious and unsure. We face global warming, environmental deterioration, emerging infections and incurable viruses, pandemics, bioterrorism, wars, urban violence, soil and water depletion, rampant population growth, genetically-engineered food and organisms, hazardous waste, and profound doubts about our earth's ability to continue to sustain life. Much of earth's life is already going extinct, and we wonder about own own and our grandchildren's futures, health, and well-being. Many of us feel the impact as loss of our cherished dreams of a better future.
We did not anticipate this transition from the arrogant certainty of the rational enlightenment promise to disquieting uncertainty. We have realized only empty promises of solutions to life's fundamental problems, like world health, food, and peace. Despite all our knowledge we have not been able to control or dominate our environment successfully. Knowledge is not wisdom, or even understanding. There is a deeper current in life and it is embodied in Mystery-- the unpredictable, the unknown, and perhaps unknowable.
Chaos Theory (CT) is the third revolution in science after relativity and quantum theory. It is the prime source of unpredictability in the macrocosmic world and the human scale, formerly described only by classical physics. Chaos and complexity is nature's own way of organizing systems and creating structure. All systems emerge from and eventually dissolve back into chaos.
Chaos is ubiquitous in nature, but it was missed by science due to the overwhelming complexity of detecting its underlying pattern and purpose. Chaos theory means dynamic processes are deterministic though unpredictable. Much the same can be said for its discovery in human physiology and psychology.
It is well established now that most dynamics in nature, ranging from the orbits of planets to behavioral adjustments in life, are essentially chaotic. We are chaotic systems ourselves, and chaotic systems exhibit holistic behavior. Holism sees the world in all its diversity as connected through complex feedback loops. Through the chaotic process of emergence, order appears spontaneously or even instantly within a system.
The conventional medical model has failed many of us. Holistic health systems embrace the mindbody paradigm, but that does not necessarily mean we should all rush out to substitute "foreign" or alternative therapies for conventional medical wisdom. Generally, these modalities are complementary to biomedical care. However, the holistic scientific metaphor provided by chaos theory allows us to describe the psyche in terms congruent with physical reality. This is simply the way nature works, and the way our nature works, too. It provides a comprehensive psychophysical metaphor for uniting physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual realities.
Holism is a paradigm - a worldview, which is equally applicable to the universe and our human existence. Chaos Theory is not a metaphor, per se, but functions as a science metaphor to describe systems, organisms, and dynamic behavior, including complex adaptation. It describes how order emerges from chaos. People often spontaneously incorporate science metaphors in their self-narratives, using such terms as "black holes" and "melt downs," or "quantum leaps," etc. to describe their feelings or personal dynamics. And the same can be done with aspects of chaos theory which can describe how we adapt to life at the edge of chaos in our own unique way.
Paradigms from one field of science often interpenetrate others. Because the findings are more than metaphorical, they translate across disciplines. Metaphors reflect the interdependency of mind and body, and the embodied nature of metaphor holistically reflects the unity of individual and world. Embodied knowledge reflects our shifting understandings of the body.
Metaphors of chaos are as prevalent in our life trajectory as the explicit chaotic patterns are in our physiology (in our brains, hearts, and metabolic systems, etc.). The events of our lives become embedded in our structure and metabolism. We might call this embodiment "metaphorms."
Various forms of metaphor therapy can help us heal and adapt in the recovery process, giving our psyche a voice. With the advent of chaos theory and complexity theory, universally negative attitudes toward chaos are changing slowly but surely, at least in some individuals. We are learning to consciously accept chaos, and intuit that it also has value. Linear and deterministic theory is on the decline in favor of nonlinearity, fragmentation, multiplicity, iteration, complex feedback loops, and indeterminacy.
This ascendancy of the scientific paradigm of chaos includes medical uncertainty, both for practitioners and patients, who must learn to deal creatively with chaos, tolerate ambiguity, and respect the unapparent. Our sense of control over our external world is a destructive illusion. As we come to understand that disruption is part of the creative cycle, we learn to understand how "emergency" is part of the creative process of "emergence" of renewal and new potential.
Over time we can expect this paradigmatic shift to penetrate more deeply into the cultural fabric of our lives and an integrative health system. Chaos theory, systems theory, and complexity theory have shown us that self-organizing order emerges from chaos, and is thus the paradigm of the natural healing process. It describes the dissolution or fragmentation and reconstruction of the volitional self. It helps us attach a more positive valence to disruptions of our mortal human lives, either through illness or misfortune.
Society itself, even taking into account the various cultural distinctions of diversity, changes in unpredictable ways, including through human frailty or perversity, such as crime and war. Political figures, in particular have the ability to affect great masses of people with their policies and dictates. How we mediate and ameliorate these societal disruptions is a major part of our personal stories, and the story of humanity, in general.
Medical Anthropology , in particular, is the field of inquiry which deals with how different cultures handle healthcare issues. Cultures are dynamic holistic systems which are 1). webs of meaning; 2). patterns of and for behavior; 3). "integrated" and interwoven; 4). filters which proscribe and prescribe; 5). give meaning and create order.
What is medical anthropology? Medical anthropology is a subfield of anthropology that draws upon social, cultural, biological, and linguistic anthropology to better understand those factors which influence health and well being (broadly defined). It encompasses the experience and distribution of illness, the prevention and treatment of sickness, healing processes, the social relations of therapy management, and the cultural importance and utilization of pluralistic medical systems.
Thus, we see that culture influences the definition, experience, and treatment of sickness in Western and non-Western societies. Western medicine is mechanistic, while other cultures tend to incorporate the subtle or spiritual dimension in their healing practices. There is also a definition of sickness based on the patient's perception of suffering rather than the physician's assessment of biomedical signs.
This is the dimension of psyche, or soul, in the embodied rather than religious sense. This is expressed as autobiographical narrative, or personal poesis, which is imaginal in form, composed of healing fictions as well as fact. It tells the subjective story "as if" this is the way it is. It is generally also colored by the culture we are immersed in.
The discipline of medical anthropology draws upon many different theoretical approaches. It is as attentive to popular health culture as bioscientific epidemiology, and the social construction of knowledge and politics of science as discovery and hypothesis testing. Medical anthropologists examine how the health of individuals, larger social formations, and the environment are affected by interrelationships between humans and other species; cultural norms and social institutions; micro and macro politics; and forces of globalization as each of these affects local worlds.
There is an anthropological antidote for too narrow a framing of the complex tangle of ways-of-being and ways-of-telling. Stories of illness and healing are often arresting in their power, and they can illuminate aspects of practices and experiences surrounding illness that might otherwise be neglected. Recognizing the theoretical value of these healing tales among those eliciting, telling, and responding to narratives, we can explore these subjective stories from a variety of perspectives.
There is inherent poetics in the experience of personal chaos, tragedy, and illness, just as there is high drama in the grand confrontations of world history. Creative narratives flow from our challenging experiences as both healing fictions and historicities. Broadly, poetics means an expression of the movement of the human spirit. It details chaotic change which profoundly moves our psyches as well as our bodies, revealing resilience of the spirit if not the flesh.
Aristotle describes the classical framework of all dramas in the Poetics. These same qualities can be found in all our personal stories. Do we do it intuitively, or in fact, do these stories create us? People tell their stories; that is how they explain themselves whether to friends or strangers, therapists, or the public at large. We spontaneously weave our stories together into an overview, a word picture of the way it has been for us, from the inside out -- from our personal point of view.
The same dramatic framework is reflected also in our experiences of tragedies: catastrophes, natural and personal disasters, disillusionments, our dark depressions, life passages, loss of our dreams, shortchanged childhoods, stolen innocence, the pain of relationship break ups, sexual dysfunction, distorted body images, addictions, the pain of war, sickness and catastrophic illness, or other losses which move us deeply. Often the chaos of "real life" throws us off our projected course.
Some chronic illnesses and mental disorders have chaos or high drama as their constantly reiterated theme. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, for example, is the constant reliving of painful chaotic sequences and seeing one's whole life through that distorted lens. But these soul-revealing narratives also have their own healing power and constitute a creative therapeutic avenue of their own, which restores meaning to our lives. Whether spontaneous or evoked through therapy, these stories are meaningful and important to our souls and spirits.
To heal originally meant to make whole. But, if we do not feel whole then the image of wholeness becomes a defense against feelings of fragmentation. There has been a loss of meaning in Western medicine. The body has been reduced to the the image of a machine, then medicine can say it is impaired, incomplete, and requires healing.
Biomedicine thinks in linear terms of illness and treatment, as if abeyance of symptoms equates with cure of disease. Sometimes it does, but not always. Sometimes we heal physically, but don't heal emotionally or spiritually. Or we heal emotionally, but not physically. When we step outside of this medical model, we find not only a fictitious goal, but also a new goal, or rather telos: function becomes psychic reality itself, deliteralized -- metaphorical.
Entering our interior story takes the same courage as starting a novel. This is not to say that each of us going to the doctor or therapist should come up with some coherent narrative, or deep insight. But given the opportunity, we do have a story to tell about what brought us to that point. These stories are not consciously crafted. Sometimes our medical treatment is relatively straightforward.
However, we can recognize the fact that most of us spontaneously do go through these internal dialogues, whether we realize it or not. They concern our own issues and our relationship to our bodies, our existential positions, our culture. They go on even when we are not in need of medical treatment. The fantasies and imagery we automatically spin around our psychophysical self surround us like a cocoon.
Autobiographical self-consciousness is a systematic record of our memories of past situations, of our self image, and of likes and dislikes--in short, of the more invariant properties we have discovered about ourselves. It generates the subjective experience of possessing an identity over time. Interestingly, what it grows out of is a much more transient entity--the core self, which is "ceaselessly re-created for each and every object with which the brain interacts." Neurology has produced this new idea of anchoring our traditional self-concept in a more fundamental notion of a "core-self" -- continuously changing bodily processes.
Perhaps we do not create our stories, rather our stories create us! Neurologist Antonio Damasio (1999) asserts that consciousness is an internal narrative. The "I" is not telling the story: the "I" is created by stories told in the mind. The more serious our affliction the more we tend to focus our attention around it, to spin tales of our journey around it. All of us take that one road, our idiosyncratic path of life, unique only to us. Sometimes there are detours and complex loops in our lives, our trajectories, and our stories -- factors beyond our control. Unlike an author with specific goals in mind, we do not know where it may take us, for it is not complete until our final breath.
Symptoms belong to the embodied soul. The metaphorical reality of the psyche is more than mere fiction but less than literal. Metaphors are more than symbolic ways of speaking. Metaphors facilitate thought by providing an experiential framework in which newly acquired, abstract concepts may be assimilated. They are ways of perceiving, feeling and existing. Through this imaginal reality we find soul, meaning, and significance in our suffering. Intractable problems create a continuous flow of psychological ideas, (Hillman, 1975).
Psyche connects us with the larger process and purpose of life. Then our symptoms reflect back to us other parts of ourselves that were alienated. They call attention to the way we live life that has made us feel disconnected, haunted, abnormal or afflicted.
The truth of our situation is not reflected in the literal conditions but in symbolic, poetic form -- in mystery, not history. Which is not to say that some lives aren't heavily impacted by collective history, war in particular. Nothing calls our attention to life like a close call, or brush with death. Or perhaps chaos came hauntingly early in life, creating the feeling of being an "outsider" all along, never seeming to fit in to the commonplace social forms.
When we literalize our symptoms, we remove them from their metaphorical basis, and this amplifies our suffering. Our autobiographical fictions do not have great explanatory power, but they do provide a resting place for a mind restlessly searching for ambiguity and depth. Psyche or soul calls us to place our attention back there by creating illness, morbidity, disorder, abnormality, and suffering, so we see our lives through the deformed or afflicted perspective. Literature is full of sorrowful laments, such as we find from Tolstoy:
"It seemed to him that he and his pain were being thrust into a narrow, deep black sack, but though they were pushed farther and further in they could not be pushed to the bottom...He wept on account of his helplessness, his terrible loneliness, and the cruelty of man, the cruelty of God, and the absence of God...Why hast Thou done all this? Why hast Thou brought me here? Why dost Thou torment me so terribly?. . . 'What is it you want?' was the first clear conception capable of expression in words that he heard. 'What do I want? To live and not to suffer,' he answered...'To live? How?' asked his inner voice. 'Why, to live as I used to--well and pleasantly.' 'As you lived before well and pleasantly?' the voice repeated. . . He suffered ever the same unceasing agonies and in his liveliness pondered always the same insoluble question: 'What is this? Can it be that it is Death?' And the voice answered" 'Yes, it is Death.' "Why these sufferings?' and the voice answered, 'For no reason -- they just are so.'" (Tolstoy, Ivan Ilych).
Medicine holds up an unrealistic image of an ideal level of functioning where virtually every system and organ works properly, and sets this image up as its healing goal. The wound or disease is an aberration in the wholeness of the 'machine' and must be repaired to its previous level of functioning.
This empty metaphor of unimaginative fixing prevents us from a deeper, more meaningful relationship with our afflictions. Setting of goals and progress, especially in psychotherapy, locks us into a specific ideal of problem and solution, ailment and remedy, wound and healing which is too linear to reflect our complex human nature. It is not actually healing but a palliative -- an unimaginative fantasy of healing.
Cultural concepts, like this medical model, shape the experience of illness. Body image is related to culture, as is self-image. Around the world, we find diverse rationalities and multiple realities surrounding health and healing. Beliefs about body and illness are linked to social and political agendas.
This unique symbolic construction of illness prevalent in the West has spread through 'medicalization' into other cultures.
Medical anthropology studies the beliefs and practices related to enhancing human health and healing in specific contexts. It describes a cross-cultural picture about how pain, illness, suffering, and misfortune are handled worldwide.
Using a medical anthropological “lens,” we can examine the diverse ways in which individuals and societies understand, express and deal with illness and health. Medical anthropology offers a window into the relationship between individuals’ bodies and their ongoing social, cultural and political worlds, including the political agendas of scientific research. The diversity of medical beliefs and practices includes shamanic, humoral, bioenergetic, holistic or mindbody, and biomedical healing systems. There is an intimate relationship between healers and patients and quality of care.
Likewise, there is a relation between the human life cycle, gender, health and the social implications of new biotechnologies, and international health issues. It impacts many of us through new technologies and diagnostic and treatment procedures.
We are overwhelmed and confused in our rapidly-changing world by such issues as genetic engineering, safer sex, birth control, birthing procedures, infertility treatment, hormone replacement, cosmetic surgery and enhancement, preventative medicine, and a variety of other health-related choices that directly impact our self-image -- hence our soul and spirit.
The healing approaches from many cultural sources are practiced in the west as complementary care. Over 40 out of 124 US medical schools are beginning to offer courses in complementary or alternative care. Some of these so-called alternatives, originating in Asia or indiginous shamanic cultures, are much older than allopathic medicine. Many nursing schools teach complementary concepts and skills as part of undergraduate and graduate curricula. 
According to an often quoted 1993 study by Dr. David Eisenberg at Harvard Medical School, one out of three adults in the U.S. report using a complementary treatment for a health problem, Americans made more visits to alternative practitioners than they did to primary care physicians and they spent .7 billion for such treatments, of which more than .5 billion was paid out-of pocket. The figures are even higher now, since these statistics are 10 years old, and complementary treatment has an even better foothold.
The public's interest in non-conventional health care has risen dramatically in recent years.
Whether referred to as complementary, alternative or integrative care, the subject is receiving significant coverage in both the popular press and in professional journals. Several studies have estimated that 30-50% of the American adult population are consumers of complementary care. In a recent publication, Janis Claflin of the John E. Fetzer Institute referred to this movement as the "invisible mainstream". While initially this was a very consumer driven movement, increasingly health care professionals, third-party payers, health plans, and other purchasers of health care are taking note as evidence accumulates that many complementary care approaches achieve credible outcomes at lower costs. There is a significant need for interdisciplinary models of education and research in complementary care.
The new scientific model of health and illness argues that a bioinformational process constantly oscillates between chaos-like non-linearity and linearity. When this oscillation collapses into a repetitive linear loop, it looses coherence with its bioinformational field creating a rigid state of pathology, (Martinez, 2001). This suggests the individual is an inseparable unit of cognition, biology, and historical culture.
Health and illness are neither exclusively biological nor totally mental. All human processes are inseparable biocognitions of bodymindculture, which is the domain of psychoneuroimmunology, bioinformatics, and medical anthropology. These fields have enriched clinical medicine. Body, mind and culture also meet in our stories where we either "think it out," or "tough it out." These stories express explanatory knowledge or power -- the power to define ourselves, to define our experience of reality -- to personalize and mythologize our experience of consensus reality. They may include denial, anger, and delusory features, but they are our version of the facts none the less.
In the objective, scientific model of who we are, we are complex fields of dynamic information flow. The bioinformational field is contained by horizons functioning as attractors that oscillate from stability to instability in the process of communicating and learning. This oscillation is operational at all levels of the bioinformational field, ranging from cognitive to cellular and perhaps subquantum modes of communication.
Reductionist and dualistic limitations of upward and downward causality are superseded by the notion of 'contextual coemergence.' This suggests causality is a co-authored and simultaneous process taking place within and between bioinformational field horizons rather than originating at the molecular (reductionism) or cognitive (expansionism) levels of life, (Martinez, 2001).
Chaos Theory (CT) is a holistic discipline which has cut across all the sciences, including medicine. It has grown to include models of nonlinear complex dynamics, patterns of randomness, global effects, scale-invariance and deterministic chaos from the quantum to macroscopic realms, including the human scale. Gleick said, "Where chaos begins, classical science stops." By that, he means linear, causal descriptions stop and the nonlinear rules of turbulence hold sway. Near criticality, a crisis-point, predictability becomes impossible.
Gleick quotes Ford as saying "Evolution is chaos with feedback." It includes the science and computer modeling of fractals, bifurcations, intermittancies, strange attractors, complex feedback loops, and periodicities. In complexity theory, humans are viewed holistically as complex adaptive systems. This has also offered us a new, more positive perspective on the nature of chaos and disruption in our lives.
Chaos comes into our lives through an endless variety of crises. We all intuitively recognize how chaos interpenetrates our lives, punctuating our so-called equilibrium, diverting our most carefully-crafted plans and detouring our agendas. Sometimes it hits us broadside. It is unpredictability, part of our emotional "weather," and we are generally trying to adjust to it in some way.
Chaos theory holds that the more complex a system, the more stable and self-correcting it is. Disruption to a linear system throws it off course, but only affects a portion of a complex system, which soon adjusts to "fill in the gap." Chaos can engulf us either subjectively or objectively, but becomes embodied in any case, beginning by increasing our stress levels.
Disruptive changes impact us from inside as fear, pain, symptoms, compulsions, complexes, irrationalities, delusions, grief, mental disorders, blind spots, dementia, moods, suicidal tendencies, woundedness, addictions, nervous breakdowns, panic attacks, distorted thinking, social disconnection, and immunological dysfunction, to name a few.
Whether it is rational or not, shame, guilt, dissociation, and low self-esteem may come along with many breakdowns, diseases, or disorders. Vulnerability and guilt walk hand in hand; the affliction reaches us through the guilt it brings. Physical pain is compounded with emotional suffering. When we feel something is wrong, we are likely to perceive something as wrong with ourselves as well as with our bodies.
From outside, chaos impacts as accidents, impairment, injury, maladies, emotional loss, decline, frailty, debilitation, paralysis, dismemberment, mobility loss, brain damage, victimization, disenfranchisement, unexpected traumas and catastrophes (both personal and collective), a near-death experience, and the 'normal' yet unfortunate set-backs we all experience.
Or, we may be the victim of unsavory acts of human perversity in its myriad forms. All can have potentially devastating effects. Chaotic impact from outside oneself brings its own issues of blame, forgiveness, enforced rest, struggles for compensation, dependency, crises of faith. Our concern resides in our symptoms, embodied in more than metaphors. Our pathologies have immediate impact; they change our point of view.
Events beyond our control can lead to sudden, profound changes in our being, in our very physiology. Images of the sick or wounded are exceptionally moving to us all. The psyche itself either denies or complains and pathologizes spontaneously by magnifying all our sensations, aches and pains, often way out of proportion. Under this mental magnification, the body becomes the acute focus of our attention. Our anxiety may lead beyond our legitimate ailments into additional psychosomatic phenomena or even hypochondria. We hold our breath waiting for the next sign of distress.
Even when we are sick or wounded, we simultaneously have fantasies of "falling apart," being sick and wounded, around being sick and wounded. Affliction, real or imagined, reveals deep movement taking place in the psyche. Dreams, fantasies, and symptoms reveals the same imaginal process. As usual, our problems remain the focus of our fantasies. Chaos touches the dark edge of human experience and celebrates the mystery of our nature and destiny, soul and spirit.
Yet somehow people create meaning in a chaotic world. Some of our reactions depend on the basic foundations of our character. Creating meaning involves a process of life reorganization, after assessing the magnitude of impairment.
We like to think we are immortal, unassailable. We tend to live in denial of such almost certainly expectable disasters striking us, even though we know others are assailed daily. Cultural constraints, such as lack of access to affordable medical care can throw more people into crisis. Some of them never see treatment, or treatment and medicine are cut off.
The course of our lives are structured by expectations about each phase of life, and meaning is assigned to specific life transitions, events and the roles that accompany them. When expectations about the course of life are not met, we experience inner chaos and disruption. Restoring order to life necessitates reworking understandings of the self and the world, redefining the disruptions and life itself, (Becker, 1997).
Disease (or injury and degeneration) is an agent of chaos whose attacks can originate from inside or outside of our skin boundary. It even affects us second-hand by generating stress in family systems, and in our social networks. Stress, of course, is one of the commonest causes of many chronic symptoms. Stress can dramatically impact immune function. Serious illness can be like living in limbo. Illness or infirmities can limit our options and independence and thus can enforce the metaphorical death of the old way of life as well as actual deaths. The journey of our lives is interrupted midstream.
Sociologists and anthropologists have begun applying the principles of complexity to their studies of human nature and behavior, and to culture in general. Like mathematicians, they have found that complex adaptive systems, such as human beings, seem to function best at or near the "edge of chaos."
Cultural foundations are revealed particularly in the narratives surrounding states of the body, birth, rites of passage, health, illness, death and dying. These are the stories we tell about ourselves, reflecting our experience as we see it and as we wish others to see it.
Healing Words; "Metaphors Be With You"
Like "the Force", metaphors are always with us. They help us move conceptually from the known to the unknown. They help us embody concepts in sensory terms. There is a reciprocal loop between metaphors, conceptual models, and physical orientation. Metaphors imply models, and models aren't easily grasped without metaphors. That is why we have modeled our bodymind after communication systems metaphors ranging from the switchboard to the computer, and now to a quantum computer. Over the last few decades our technology progressed but we still model the body as a machine.
The known metaphor helps us grasp the functional concept. That is why chaos theory comes as a more "user friendly" model, since it is organic, complex, and dynamic, rather than static. The principle of self-organization is arguably complementary to evolution. We are completely immersed in metaphors and our thinking is enabled by them. It is impossible to say many things literally, without resorting to metaphor.
We all speak in metaphors whether we realize it or not, not just scientists and poets. Linguist, George Lakoff, in Metaphors We Live By, suggests that they make our thoughts more vivid and interesting while they actually structure our perceptions and understanding.
So, metaphor is much more than a poetical device of the imaginative. They are pervasive in daily life, not only in language but in conceptual thought and action. They help structure what we perceive, how we perceive it, and how we orient ourselves in the world, and communicate with others. They help define our everyday reality, organizing our thoughts, shaping our judgments, and structuring our language.
Lakoff claims the mind is "embodied", that almost all of human cognition, up through the most abstract reasoning, depends on and makes use of such concrete and "low-level" facilities as the sensorimotor system and the emotions. Therefore embodiment is a rejection not only of any dualism of mind and matter, but also of claims that human reason can be basically understood without reference to the underlying psychosensory metaphors.
Conceptual metaphors also consitute the vocabulary of dream interpretation. It is the collection of our everyday conceptual metaphors that make dream interpretations possible. This is the language of symbolism, but it should not be taken too literally. Each symbol we can extract from a dream has a specific context and dynamic that make it unique. We should be cautious when we think we know what it "means," since as a symbol it stands for the unknown.
We don't want to extract symbols from dreams, but dreaming while awake, we want to surrender to imagery which emerges from us revealing our "as if" reality, our psychic reality. The unconscious mind makes use our unconscious system of conventional metaphor, sometimes to express psychological states in terms of spatial orientation and physical symptoms. They ground concepts in the body.
For example, in the Event Structure metaphor, there is a submapping DIFFICULTIES ARE IMPEDIMENTS TO MOTION which has, as a special case, DIFFICULTIES ARE BURDENS . It is fairly common for someone encountering difficulties to walk with his shoulders stooped, as if carrying a heavy weight that is burdening him.
The network of metaphors that underlie thought in this way form a cognitive map, a web of concepts organized in terms which serves to ground abstract concepts in our physical experiences, and in our relation to the external world. A major component of the human cognitive map is what Lakoff terms a cognitive topology, essentially "a mechanism by which we impose structure on space, in a way to give rise to spatial inferences" (Lakoff 1988).
A unifying framework links a conceptual representation to its sensory and experiential ground. The target to become grounded in spatiophysical experience via the source metaphor. In this view, a metaphoric schema is a mental representation that grounds the conceptual (intellectual) structure of an abstract domain in the sensory (sensible) basis of another, more physical, domain. the target to become grounded in spatiophysical experience via the source. The result is that the schemas which mediate between conceptual and sensory levels in the source become active also in the target. In this view, a metaphoric schema is a mental representation that grounds the conceptual (intellectual) structure of an abstract domain in the sensory (sensible) basis of another, more physical, domain.
There are many allusions surrounding the metaphor that "life is a journey." It implies that purposes are destinations, means are routes, difficulties are obstacles, achievements or catastrophes can be landmarks, and choices are crossroads. The "end of the line" is "written in stone," which reads R.I.P. If a lifetime is likened to a day, death is sleep; if likened to a year, death is winter. If life is a struggle, dying is losing that contest to an adversary. If life is seen as a precious possession, time is a thief and death is loss.
We speak of the "high points"of life, and our "lows." The physical basis of metaphorical well-being is clear: Serious incapacitation forces us to lie down physically, and with death we are physically "down for the count," and buried even deeper. We can be "deeply disturbed," or "deep in trouble." When it's really bad, it is "living Hell." Happiness is "Seventh Heaven."
The most common metaphors of sickness and health relate healthy life with being "up"and sickness and death with being "down." We say that we are at "the peak of health," "he rose from the dead," "she's in top shape," "we fell ill," he's sinking fast," "they came down with the flu," "her health is declining," "he dropped dead." Having control or well-being is referred to as being "up," while loss of motivation and control is being "down."
Metaphors help us describe what experiences are like . Rather than literal, they depicts an "as if" reality. A simile is a simple comparison; a metaphor is more complex, expressing an implicit rather than literal comparison. They are emotionally charged, clarifying or emphasizing an idea by translating it into more concrete and familiar terms.
Metaphors transform abstractions into images. Metaphors carry several meanings simultaneously, and 'work" when they are appropriate to the context. Thought and image must harmonize. They enrich meaning by implying added dimensions of thought and feeling.
There is no formula for creating metaphors. Whether metaphor arises from "inside" the subject or from "outside," its coming depends on imagination. There is no magic for discovering metaphors. It is a talent which emerges with a sense of freshness and originality. They can be emphatic, expressing feelings or judgments, intensifying our awareness, and strongly restating a theme while creating a memorable image. Thus we describe, embellish, even embody our incapacitation, devastation, despair, pain, anger, and shame.
Personification is a special kind of metaphor which speaks of the inanimate or abstract "as if" it were a person, a subtle being. For example, the image of menace, chaos, or death is often personified in a number of culturally-expectable forms, such as "the grim reaper," or "Father Time." The purpose of personifying is to expand, explain or vivify. It breathes life even into the image of death. Or, it comes more metaphorically, embodied as being "scared to death," "being at death's door," or "a brush with death," "cheating death."
We use metaphor to describe things we can't see or that are not readily apparent. We use metaphors which come from our own experiential base. Thus, children are able to make metaphors which come from and are familiar to a child's vision and experience. We all know they are not to be taken literally.
However, if a metaphor lies outside our experience or is too learned, we will fail to "get it." If understood, they help us extend, explore, and expand our understanding. We do not necessarily need to concoct or develop metaphors of our experience; they emerge spontaneously. They help familiarize the strange. They link the known with the unknown, yoking us to reality by joining diverse experiences.
Metaphor therapies help us describe a vaguely-sensed process. We grope toward descriptions of our experience. They help us develop our healing stories, encapsulating the inner and outer journey we have been forced to undertake.
Epistemological metaphors tell us how we known what we know. They are unique to each individual. As soon as we describe what a condition or experience is like, we have created a metaphor of our dynamic state. We all know what we would like to have happen and what happens when it doesn't happen. We can generally describe what that experience is like, how we know, and when, where and how we feel it in our bodies.
When we don't recover as quickly as initially expected, a profound sense of hopelessness and doom, even suicidal thoughts, can set in. Or, we waiver between hope and hopelessness. Feelings of hopelessness can lead to further psychophysical complications, dysfunction, and breakdown. The longer the trauma lasts the higher the incidence of post-traumatic stress (PTSD) and the risk of dissociation associated with loss of goal-directed action.
In treating psychophysical trauma, many goal-directed mindbody practitioners make an error using metaphor therapeutically. They attempt to "import" or artificially introduce metaphors into the healing system. The unspoken assumption is that they can somehow "know" what images will effectively "work" on their subject. They take their client on a prefabricated or "canned" journey, of their own fashioning, which may or may not fit. This is a "band-aid" approach, bringing only temporary, if any respite.
What is needed is the mobilization of self-discovery , one's emergent process, rather than a surgical strike with a metaphorical missle to "get rid of" a symptom. One must follow one's own chaotic trajectory. "One size fits all" does not work when it comes to therapy. It has to be tailored to the individual.
A good therapist never pre-empts the process of self-discovery by informing the client of some realization which is obvious to him or her long before the client can articulate it. These externally introduced, or "guided" imagery practices ignore the reality that what is needed are the home-spun emergent metaphors, specific to the individual and arising spontaneously from within.
Destruction of the fabric of daily life, health and wholeness -- disruption of the intrinsic order of everyday life -- can leave us with a sense of unreality. We are forced to face the destruction of the habituated, embodied self as well as uncertainty about whether we have time left to create new selves.
This task of linking past, present and future may be beyond our cognitive or expressed abilities. For this reason, the transition is often aided by process-oriented "journey work" which is neither logically nor physically demanding. It merely requires focusing deeply on the embodied imagery that is already there. These are the images which get to the heart of the matter.
Our "healing" stories all have a common plot: a disruption to life is followed by efforts to restore life to 'normal.' There are many journeys, yet just one road, our own well-trodden "trail of tears." Plot forms give stories coherence and order. Events are defined not in terms of their singularity but in terms of the meaningful contribution they make to the unfolding of the story or history in question. They contribute to the development of a plot and a story line. Often this coherent plot will not emerge until years later.
We portray the anguish and changes we undergo and the ways we reframe the disruption over time. Thus images of fragmentation, black holes, explosive disintegration, dismemberment, the disorientation of limbo, etc. are common metaphors in the narrative process. They express the opposite of integration -- dissociation.
Our old self-image dies before the new one emerges. Confronting the changed body is the first task of recovery. But the body cannot be treated as separate from the mind. Emotions can be triggered unconsciously, from unattended thoughts or unknown dispositions, as well as from unperceivable aspects of our body states.
Reason and emotions work together, as do intellect and spirit. Neural processes become images which are incorporated into the narrative of our stream of thoughts. Emotions and the body are intimately linked. The critical difference between stressful but normal events and trauma is the feeling of helplessness to change the outcomes. Helplessness leads to numbness, withdrawal, dissociation, confusion, shock, even speechless terror. Emotion-focused coping is an attempt to alter emotional states instead of the circumstances it arose from to reset equilibrium.
The biological purpose of emotions is clearly to help regulate metabolism, homeostasis and survival. They underlie our autobiographical experience. Feelings are sensory patterns signaling pain, pleasure, and emotions as images. Inducers of background emotions are usually internal - visceral. They allow us to experience background feelings of tension or relaxation, fatigue or energy, well-being or malaise, anticipation or dread.
The "body-loop" of chemical messengers and neural signals can change our somatosensory perception. Each symptom, illness, distress, or disease we manifest, whether physical or mental, is based in or reflects a deep psychosensory self-image. It defines our existential worldview, which simply means how we experience self, the world, and the the relationship between the two.
Thus, the mysteries of consciousness are rooted in our basic life regulation processes. The basic emotions function as fundamental regulatory mechanisms. They are complicated collections of chemical and neural responses, forming a pattern.
Primary universal emotions include happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, or disgust. Secondary social emotions include embarrassment, jealousy, guilt or pride. Background emotions, essentially degrees of arousal of either the sympathetic or parasympathetic systems, include well-being or malaise, calm or tension. The name emotion has also been attached to drives and motivations and states of pain and pleasure. All emotions use the body as their theater.
The Plot Thickens
Plot has the capacity to model our experience, it organizes our emotional experience. The plot weaves together the agents, goals, means, interactions, and unexpected results and renders the story's contents intelligible. Formulating the plot points is a crucial imaginative task of people who face sudden illness. It is a tool to mediate disruption and promote self-healing.
We choose how to plot their autobiographical narratives, which unify the chronological and nonchronological. This interweaving of non-linear narrative time is not reducible to linear time, and the beginning and end are often confounded with significance and explanations. We weave convoluted tales of stories within stories, shaping memory and events.
Narratives are a way to articulate and resolve core issues, or universal problems and paradoxically a way to either avoid or heal biographical discontinuities. In storytelling, we organize, display and work through our experiences.
Narratives can be a potent force mediating disruptions, whether it is caused by illness or personal misfortune. Experience is reframed and reshaped in the narrative process. Narratives are subject to change with subsequent experiences. They can have contradictory and multiple interpretations, as we struggle to characterize our existential condition.
Journey work helps us create narratives which heal. But journey work is not a linear, rational, enculturated process like the conscious stories we confabulate around our experiences. The defocusing of our enculturated conscious orientation allows an underlying paradigm to surface from nature's own self-organizing principles.
Chaos works for us as it becomes more explicit -- the underlying truth of chaos and creative, emergent self-organization. When we are "onto something" during an inner journey into our own depths, the more fundamental issues will surface gradually, and most likely spontaneously self-organize at a higher level, a more adaptive level.
Successful navigation of our lives is a rite of passage which never ends. Life includes all of the trials, joys, triumphs, victories, wishes, and the chaotic disruptions we experience as well. We cannot disown any of them, the years of our lives -- both good and bad, the light and dark -- or we disown a large part of ourselves.
To remain authentic, our histories must be comprehensive. The person we are, moment to moment, emerges from the coevolutionary context of our life, including our dreams. But we can always embrace new dreams for ourselves consistent with our current reality, using imagination and creativity.
It is a spiritual matter to own the chaotic as well as the 'successful' aspects of ourselves and incidents of our lives. Others want to hear, want to know how we successfully navigated the treacherous parts of our histories. We draw nourishment for ourselves from the healing stories of others, their triumphs of the spirit. We ask, "How did you survive?", "What did you do?", "How did you keep your spirits up?", "How did you keep from losing your sanity?" "How did you bounce back?" "What did you reject and what was helpful to you in your healing process?"
Narrative is a means for giving voice to bodily experience, from embodied despair to spiritual breakthrough. Any process-oriented therapies which foster the narrative process mobilize healing (Miller, 2003). When sensation and bodily expression are undervalued, narrative is our primary means of accessing the world of bodily experience and essential to our understanding of that experience.
Embodied knowledge reflects our shifting understandings of the body and can be revealed in the metaphors in which we describe that understanding. Through metaphor we come to comprehend what we know, but don't know that we know!
In story we develop creative ways of interpreting disruption and draw together disparate aspects of the disruption into a cohesive whole. We express our development over time. Our individual history is brought together in a work of imagination. In articulating the various points of connection, we transform it into a coherent story. In the midst of our experience it is not always possible to know the meaning of our actions. Only with time do certain aspects of what is meaningful emerge.
Our stories reveal the kaleidoscope of our emotions and response patterns. They run the gamut of human ills, from infancy and childhood catastrophes to the experience of living with chronic illness, especially later in life.
Throughout life we may even be plagued or obsessed with health concerns even when we needn't be, imagining maladies and amplifying psychosomatic symptoms. These are the products of our medical fears and hypochondriasis. Gender issues such as infertility and related disruptions of midlife, relationship troubles, transitioning from independence to dependence, and recovery struggle stories, etc. are other persistent themes.
When disruption comes at the hands of an abuser, assailant, or any form of human perversity, the chaos of another is introjected into our lives. This is even true of car accidents. Our story becomes enmeshed with theirs, even if it is a stranger. The impact on our life's arc can be tremendous -- even more strongly jolting than the impact of metal on metal and flesh.
The loss and pain cannot be compensated. That which is lost cannot be returned, whether it is the innocence of childhood, cherished life plans and ambitions, or stolen treasures of the heart or mind. When we confront a disruption, it often brings in its wake all the disruptions we experienced in our lives, such as deaths of family members, sudden job loss, other accidents, and the onset of illness.
In a sea of unforeseeable changes, disruptions can be cataclysmic, or subtle and profound. Their legacy can persist for years, for decades, even a lifetime. The disruption is actually one of personal meaning, and the consequent destruction of a sense of continuity.
The stories we tell ourselves struggling to make sense of our lives are full of metaphors to make sense of disruption, limbo, and efforts to create continuity. We raise questions about what is meaningful. We try to make peace with our ideals. This dialogue with culture and its constructs takes place in both the body and the narrative. Our lives can also be studded with islands of serenity, periods of stability in which we seem to go on "normally."
Our ongoing interpretation of events, the stories we tell ourselves and others about disruptive changes, enables us to make sense of our personal worlds. And the knowable world provides a framework for understanding major events as well as everyday experiences. Humans thrive in routine, even though we also crave novelty, even ecstasy.
The body, in particular, responds to the orderliness of routine, in terms of sleeping, eating and sexual patterns, for example. Continuity is embodied in the ordinary routines of daily life, since even though they are repetitive or mundane, that is comforting at a deep level. This need for routine in order to thrive is clearly seen in the adaptation of infants. That is why we often react adversely if we miss our morning coffee or tea, or perhaps the morning newspaper.
When disruptions are large-scale, we interpret them first with a sense of loss, loss of our expected future. However, if we can reframe our experiences as time goes on, we see that the disruption of the normal and habitual also opens us to a new realm of possibility.
When things go wrong, when events fall outside of our experiences of life, and our expectations about it, we are called to a challenge. It is a test of our coping skills and resilience, not only of body and mind, but also of our spirit. The notion of the human psyche as a harmony and rhythm appears again and again, as in Shakespeare, who often uses music to suggest the health of the inner being.
Although continuity is apparently a human need and a universal expectation across cultures, continuity has a culture-specific shape. However, our real lives are more unpredictable than the cultural ideal, which is often framed around our notions of what is "normal," -- normal for our age, for our gender, for our station in life, family background, as well as other more subtle parameters.
Each of these categories gives us a window on the assumptions we make about ourselves and insights about the impact of specific types of disruption. We use them to make sense of our lives. We amend these core ideas associated with these categories to encompass our experiences. Then we find antidotes to the moral force of normalizing ideologies associated with such constructs.
We find new ways of understanding catastrophes, family, womanhood and manhood, the issues we face at different phases of life. Resistance to ideologies is a natural part of the process. Anthropologists have noted that distress seems to be a major organizing factor in the way people, particularly in the U.S., preserve or reconstruct some semblance of continuity in the wake of disruptions.
In the Continuum
Continuity is an illusion. Disruption to life is the real constant in human experience. The only continuity that has staying power is that of the body, and even that is vulnerable. But this fact is too unsettling for us to live with consciously. Faith in continuity of the body preserves the illusion of a more sweeping kind of continuity.
There is a disconnect, a disparity between cultural notions of how things are supposed to be and how they are. This disparity is highlighted by disruption. We all face it daily, but want to deny it, and are trained to deny it as a coping mechanism. We subscribe to an ethos that posits an orderly, predictable life, that shields us from a distasteful reality -- unpredictable chaos.
Although continuity in life is an illusion, it is an effective one. We use it to organize our plans and expectations, and the way we understand who and what we are and what we do. Or else, why do it if chaos will surely disrupt it?
This ideology of downplaying disruption and creating continuity is based on key components:
1) embodied knowledge, including bodily order and memory;
2) a view of linear cultural life rooted in development, adaptation, and transformation;
3) a polarized view of order and chaos, favoring order and mentally shunning chaos;
4) prioritizing values of the "Puritan work ethic" and "rugged individualism" -- productivity, personal responsibility, perseverance, control of the environment and future-orientation;
5) embedding order in our narratives to order the very experience of disruption;
6) moralizing with normalizing ideologies and core guiding metaphors, such as 'the journey of life,' and 'transformation.'
Metaphors give shape and form to life stories. They are tools for working with experience. They embody the situational knowledge that constitutes culture. We integrate explicit metaphors and more implicit images that encompass our whole life into a framework for understanding. We grope through associated images of light and darkness, healing and disease, life and death, toward the perception of truth.
When life begins to return to normal and we attempt to bring closure to a period of disruption, the role of metaphor represents a synthesis of interpretation and creation. The previous interpretations yield to new ones. Aristotle valued analogy and metaphor as the basis of poetic language: "But the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances."
The concerns of young and old are not decidedly different -- we all have human concerns. We all cling to core guiding metaphors, and those most employed are "the journey of life metaphor" and "transformation" metaphors. These metaphors help us create critical linkages between the past, present, and future. But, rather than a retrospective continuity, memory is actually an illumination of discontinuity, subject to social influence.
Memory apparently both illuminates discontinuity and enables people to maintain the illusion of continuity. Because of memory, lives 'appear' to have continuity. Memory is not simply a personal, subjective experience. It is socially constructed and present oriented and thus reconfigures experience. People filter memories according to what is meaningful and through these meanings they interpret the events in their own lives. Memories used to maintain a sense of continuity are apparently highly selective. Past life influences the current moment in time through this selection process, enabling the illusion of consistency to be maintained amid the facts of change. (Beaker, 1997).
When we experience one disruption to life after another, we may begin to experience disruption as the rule rather than the exception, concluding that (1) people are unreliable, (2) life is unpredictable, and (3) life is a struggle we fight alone. Metaphors are idioms of distress. They explain our feelings and bodily distress. They help us comprehend suffering, and reorganize our lives. They provide a way of locating new meaning, expanding our personal framework. They help us locate our personal experience in a culturally relevant context and encompass contradictions, such as good and evil.
Thus we construct mediating metaphors for drawing order out of chaos: metaphors for the journey of life, metaphors of identity, metaphors for life's crossroads, metaphors for struggle, metaphors for inexplicable loss, metaphors for the disordered body, metaphors for perseverance.
We have metaphors for transformation, metaphors for healing body and mind, metaphors of hope, metaphors of evil and good, chaos and hopelessness, metaphors for healing the body through the mind. Metaphors for living in limbo, metaphors of acceptance and healing, metaphors for cure, metaphors for present, past and future, metaphors for anticipation of death, etc.
Rather than "May the force be with you," it is more like "metaphors be with you." And they always are here as our creative guides. Our stories need to make sense, above all, to ourselves -- not only to communicate but to create coherence. Metaphors link disruption to meaning through creativity. They help us express emotions by channeling words in creative ways, defining our subjective reality. Their moral authority helps answer the question, "Why me?" when we feel we are innocent.
Metaphors are one of the most powerful change techniques available. Embodied metaphors provide a direct link to the emotions and deep patterns of behavior. In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) tell us that our conceptual system is metaphorical. Women Fire, and Dangerous Things by Lakoff (1987) tells us that thought is embodied and grows out of perception, movement, and physical experience. A number of recent researchers have identified the importance of the body in creating consciousness.
Antonio Damasio (1999) has identified body level feedback systems as intricate aspects of emotions and even consciousness. In addition to neural structures, emotional states are defined by changes in the chemical profile of the body, changes in the viscera, and changes in the degree of contraction of the muscles of the body. Damasio believes that emotions are an important part of our homeostatic regulation and survival mechanism.
Candace Pert (1991), who describes the molecules of emotion and the science behind mind-body medicine, believes that the body is the unconscious mind and can best be addressed through right brain, expressive therapies such as dream work or art therapy. The reason we need to address emotional states in the body is because negative emotions are stored in the physical body long term and must be released before healing can occur. These stored negative emotions can create numerous emotional problems and can even set the stage for disease.
Unconscious or Merely Dissociated?
Negative emotions accumulated over a life time are stored not only as memories but also in the physical body. These stored emotions can become an integral part of our personality and identity. Since these emotions do not represent our true nature, they can often block our success in a variety of areas in life. Focusing directly on the embodied emotions can create change across contexts. It is also a way of bypassing conscious road blocks and engaging the creativity of the unconscious mind. Working at this level ensures that the changes are ecological and are in line with the our own deepest values. In fact this type of change work often has a spiritual component.
The bottomline is that metaphors help us mobilize emotions to enact change -- they move us. They lead toward the understanding of a particular worldview. But when chaos or disaster strikes, we feel the journey of our life is interrupted midstream. Then metaphors help us self re-organize. We do this experientially and through narrative.
What's New with My Subject?
FAILURE OF THE AMERICAN DREAM
"I'm just asking you to hear yourself. Listen to what you're really saying and to what you think you're saying. Control, control, control. When are you going to realize that nothing can be controlled? We live in chaos; it's the central issue in everyone's life. Mack, look around you. Everyone in this parking lot is struggling for control. And you know what it is they're trying to control, each and everyone of them? Fear -- they're trying to control their fear." --Steve Martin in, Grand Canyon
"Sweet Dreams Are Made of This"
"One of the great attractions of patriotism -- it fulfills our worst wishes. In the person of our nation we are able, vicariously, to bully and cheat. Bully and cheat, what's more, with a feeling that we are profoundly virtuous." --Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)
Since ancient times, mankind has shunned chaos and sought order. In Egypt, the primary job of the Pharaoh was to create Maat, order. Then the Nile would flood and with this flow there would be abundance on that thin edge of chaos and order that was Egypt. Thus was born the image of prosperity -- of infinite cornucopia. In the US it is much the same, but in this era it is oil and power that must flow to sustain abundance. Oil greases the wheels of corporate rule and "trickles down" to the common folk. Or so they say...
We might think of this year, 2003, more as "227 A.D." -- the two-hundred twenty-seventh year of the evolving American Dream. The American Dream defines the American soul, soul meaning the force that gives us direction. You become American by having fantasies and dreams that you believe you can eventually attain. When you become American you become an individual. Americans have risen, for good or ill, to the top of the world pecking order, and have been emulated abroad where we have conquered militarily, socially, economically.
Americans have created and spread an immense culture that is garnering more and more converts worldwide. Americans are like the Romans and the Chinese, forever struggling to make others more like themselves. The American middle class, with its consumer affluence, its beckoning to every person to become an individual ("to be oneself"), and its great public arena of particiption in street, forum, cultural, political, and state life, is the single most powerful cultural force in the world. We Americans have become accustomed to, addicted to, the American Dream. First California exported it to the rest of the country, and now it has spread over the world. But the vision can only be sustained if the state keeps conjuring it up, supporting it, making it possible, and above all, convincing people it is good. (Schurmann, 1995).
Is the California Dream turning to a consumeristic nightmare? The "American Dream" of order is a shifting, but central idea in our collective and personal histories. America was built on dreams, that is on the heritage of hope and universalism. What began as a dream of democratic humanism has degraded beyond one of simple home ownership into one of materialistic consumerism -- commercialism. The underlying mandate of rugged individualism (willpower, perseverance, self-reliance, self-determinism), the work ethic, and personal responsibility is counterbalanced by the strong belief that hard work will be rewarded with upward mobility -- abundance.
That upward mobility is the promise of bigger rewards and an upgrade in lifestyle, class, social strata, prestige, health and well-being, personal fulfillment, and opportunities. Its a case of "dream as if you'll live forever and live as if you'll die tomorrow." A plurality of aspirations unites all Americans -- a business-success dream (and not just Americans but the middle-class worldwide). It defines success or failure in the American system. Living proof of the system's effectiveness is an affirmation of the proposition that persistent application of one's talents, small though they may be, pays off. And this, after all, is the substance of the American Dream -- the materialistic "pay off."
[T]he United States, unlike most other nations, defines itself not on the facts of blood, religion, language, geography, or shared history, but on a set of ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and consolidated in the Constitution. At the core of these ideals lies the ambiguous but galvanizing concept of the American Dream, a concept that for better and worse has proven to be amazingly elastic and durable for hundreds of years and across racial, class, and other demographic lines.
Cullen traces a series of overlapping American dreams: the quest for religious freedom that brought the Pilgrims to the "New World"; the political freedom promised in the Declaration; the dream of upward mobility, embodied most fully in the figure of Abraham Lincoln; the dream of home ownership, from homestead to suburb; the intensely idealistic--and largely unrealized--dream of equality articulated most vividly by Martin Luther King, Jr. The version of the American Dream that dominates our own time--what Cullen calls "the Dream of the Coast"--is one of personal fulfillment, of fame and fortune all the more alluring if achieved without obvious effort, which finds its most insidious expression in the culture of Hollywood. (Cullen)
The dark heart of the American dream is that our hearts are torn between the two positions of humanistic conscientious goodwill (love, justice, freedom, equality, liberty), and selfishness if not greed. It is no coincidence that often the most affluent are the most narcissistic, self-absorbed, and addicted -- to everything from consumerism, to personal urgency, to privilege, to manic activity, to escapism and thrill-seeking behavior, to sex, to self-indulgence, to instant gratification, to mind and mood altering chemicals, to power. Ironically, the wealthy are often poor in soul, with few social bonds except through prosperity. They are never sure whose motives they can trust.
The cinematic image of Wall Street's exploitive anti-hero Gordon Gecko and his narcissistic narcosis still haunts us with the refrain, "Greed is good." It is even more poignant now that the Wall Street bubble has burst. The trajectory of our acquisitiveness has gone from less necessity to more choice, to rampant desire ("more is better" whether we "need' it or not), and we've lost our souls in the process. Our consumer culture is built on the Cartesian shopping principle: "I buy, therefore I am."
We obsess on our bodies and minds, often neglecting our souls. But "we need more" than an abundance of material goods.
This greediness, acquisitiveness, the inability to be filled, becomes even more important to reflect upon during the present fall of corrupt corporations and the rise of the Pax Americana , the militarily unopposed spread of American power and values. We are perceived as a bully-nation by a large part of the world. Problematically, there are natural consequences to this unilateral behavior. In some ways the new American "Empire" has become an extension of the resource-exploitive notion of "manifest destiny," exporting it abroad.
American civilization, -- middle class civilization -- with its democracy, individualism, mobility, and human rights, wants to predominate, to encompass the entire world, but it cannot because it remains incomplete. Egalitarianism isn't too far from antiauthoritarianism. Power is exercised by imposing it on others, while authority elicits willing compliance. That moral authority only comes from a shared ethical base that transcends national boundaries, transcends religious affiliation. Such authority cannot fail to be recognized, but no one, no nation has been able to wield it.
The underlying truth of American culture is that it is, of course, multinational, composed of those from all continents, backgrounds, and ethnicities. Americans are a polyglot of Europeans, Latinos, Africans, Indians, Asians, Native Americans, and any other nationality who had strong enough drive to migrate here in the first place. Many people have mixed backgrounds, a robust combination of racial traits. We are Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, pagan, atheist, agnostic, and have more Muslims than Afghanistan. All are free to pursue their orientation without persecution or pressure from neighbors or the state. It is no secret this country was founded on the desire for spiritual freedom.
Americans are English, French, Italian, Irish, German, Spanish, Polish, Czech, Russian or Greek. An American may also be Canadian, Mexican, African, Indian, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Australian, Iranian, Asian, or Arab. Or Pakistani, or Afghan. An American may also be a Cherokee, Sioux, Osage, Blackfoot, Navaho, Hopi, Apache, Seminole, or one the many other native American tribes, or mixed bloods. Because Americans are not a particular people from a particular place, they are the embodiment of the human spirit of freedom. Everyone who holds to that spirit, everywhere, is an American. Many of us are products of the "melting pot," of mixed heritage. We need not deny our roots to become Americans.
Free to believe in no religion, we answer only to God, not to the government, or to armed thugs claiming to speak for the government and for God. An American is from the most prosperous land in the history of the world. The root of that prosperity can be found in the Declaration of Independence, which recognizes the God given right of each person to the pursuit of happiness. Americans are traditionally generous, helping out just about every other nation in the world at some time. America welcomes the best -- the best products, the best books, the best music, the best food, the best art, the best athletes. But it also welcomes the least, as shown by the sentiment expressed by the Statue of Liberty.
The success of democracy in the past was undergird with the family and religion. The fruits of the market system -- science, technology, urbanization, affluence -- are undermining these institutions that are the foundations of social order. In traditional cultures, many of the tasks we now pay others to do for us were done within the family. Shameless self-promotion has taken its place, wherein marketing ourselves becomes a way of life. Speech and action have become marketing, revealing not personality but ambition. We are naturally and rightly wary of people we perceive as peddling themselves. Money gives an individual power; as they say "money talks, and bullsh-- walks." Or, the measure of sincerity is, "Show me the money."
Politics is now presumed to be the realm of dishonest speech and ulterior motives. Politicians, lacking credibility, know they are transparent, but still shamelessly try to manipulate the opinions of voters. Our private wariness and the public failure of parasitic politics has led to an ironic attitude, disillusionment. What should be seen as tragic is perceived as farcical. Our greatest fear is perhaps being caught having staked our all on a false hope -- personal, political, or both. Paradoxically, having fewer hopes can lead to more commitment to materialism, to making money, since little else seems quite worth the risk or emotional investment.
An ironic attitude to politics and public life never invites disappointment by a movement's decline or a leader's dishonesty, ineffectiveness, philandering, propagandizing, manipulation, or overweaning arrogance. There is a kind of security here in the skeptical mentality, but it is the negative security of perpetual suspicion. Irony prevents us from taking another seriously -- their integrity, sincere motivation, authority. We laugh at their trite, hypocritical, sanctimonious posturing. We have become wary even of hope, of believing too much, especially in people. Paradoxically, it has become a point of vague, if convictionless, pride. We have a confused estimate of our powers, limits, and needs. Meaning has given way to postmodern coolness and disenchantment. We're left cold.
We need a sense of purpose -- secure relationships with others, trust and commitment -- something and someone to believe in, not dangerous self-certainty from overconfidence. There is a world crisis stemming from lack of authority. Power is the capacity to force compliance from others, while authority means compliance is given willingly by people to those whom they hold in awe. We are constantly in motion yet rarely satisfied.
For all our so-called individuality, we are highly conformist in dress, in attitudes, in beliefs, etc. Yet somehow, as a nation, we lack what makes a person truly individuated: identity and soul. Identity gives us self-respect and a legitimate place among others, while soul provides direction and true vision. Soul must be driven by more than deep ambivalence and the threat of bankruptsy. It is that kind of true vision that created the this country, the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.
This modern lack of apparent soul has damaged our image in foreign lands where the export, encroachment, and penetration of our culture through television, movies, commerce, policies, tourism, and technologies is automatic. William Irwin Thomson said, "The history of the soul is always the history of the voiceless, the oppressed, the repressed."
We can delineate the problem by contrasting it with Muslim culture, about which we need to learn more and more. It is this same sense of rooted identity that the Arab nations are trying to preserve when Muslims staunchly resist Americanization, cultural homogenization. They want to maintain their own historical identity and cultural independence, claiming Western style states are not suitable in their cultural context, which is based in the community of believers. In their own modernization, they seek a different balance between individual and community rights. Muslims emphasize group over individual values, first considering this holistic identity. Islamic religion cannot be compartmentalized into only the personal sphere of life.
Social order is organized from morning till bedtime around religious thinking and style of life. It is the social glue; the understanding of life and relations to society have one point of reference. Still, Western values have introjected self-doubt into more progressive Muslims, creating psychological crisis and disorientation and splitting their holistic identity. Faith battles modernity, but in America Muslims can reinterpret their religion free of political manipulation. But this theological questioning, a communal journey seeking a new consensus, will never yield a uniform new understanding or synthesis of Islam globally, since it has always been pluralistic in practice.
But intellectual creativity does foment new political and cultural attitudes, even if only among the educated elite without the following of the orthodox masses. The Qur'an upholds freedom of conscience, declaring there is "no compulsion" in religion, leaving room to interpret the relation between divine revelation and human life. The battle, as in Western religion, is between the rationalists and the literalists on spiritual authority from divine revelation. Interpretations need to meet the spiritual, moral and psychological needs of contemporary believers.
Human rights is a Western concept, emphasizing an individual's liberties first. Many Muslims reject as un-Islamic the supposedly universal appeal of values of individualism, pluralism, secularism, feminism, and even democracy. They reject the categories, using instead their own cultural references and symbolic system. Their culture emphasises justice, liberty, equality, obedience and consultation between ruler and ruled, even in authoritarian states. It frames the tension of the spirit of the age between heritage and renewal. Is the Muslim dream any less sweet because it is different?
Technically, it includes the right of the people to chose and question their ruler, and oust those who relinquish this shura trust, in their own form of democratic action. For them standards of human rights must be expressed and adapted to the Islamic vocabulary and context, their own philosophical background of basic rights and freedoms. Secularism, in particular, is alien, challenging the core belief in God's Oneness and the unity of all things in God, making it difficult to separate religion, politics, and culture. The standoff is between Islam and secularism.
Thus, secularism is considered the instrument of colonial and intellectual invasion. It is not difficult to see how the political impasse has occured, between conservatism and liberalism regarding theology, philosophy, and jurisprudence. The big questions remain decolonialization, liberation, unification, social justice, development, identity, and mass mobilization. Practically, it means a modernization of souls whose bodies are living in the 21st century -- issues of development, dependency, critical thinking, alienation, and identity -- by learning to deal with reality without selling out to the secular state.
Our American philosophy, our secular worldview is based on freedom, progress, reason, science and the social contract. We are somehow expected to be self-aware, self-contained, and self-motivated. "I want it all now" is a distinctly self-ish attitude. But American experience begins not in self-confidence, but in a blend of confidence and anxiety that emerges as restlessness. But what happens when progress fails, when reason is abandoned in a toxic system, when an individual falls between the cracks of the mind-controlled society?
"Money changes everything," as the Cindi Lauper song says. Or, the Pink Floyd song Money, "keep your hands off of my stack." If anyone can become rich and powerful in America, we begin to sense the uneasy obligation to try to achieve it or live life in the shadow of failure, where failure means an ordinary, unremarkable life. But we can't all be movie or rock stars. We can hope for a sound, robust, diverse society only if we work for it, beginning with ourselves. Many middle-class Americans thought they had gotten rick in the stock market, only to find their dream crushed in the Fall of 2008. Loss of money, whether a reality or a paper perception, changes everything, too as many are finding out.
Long ago, de Tocqueville defined the insular malaise that penetrates American life: "Each one of them, withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest. Mankind, for him, consists in his children and his personal friends. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, they are near enough, but he does not notice them. He touches them but feels nothing." More and more, we need to consider not only our fellow Americans, but the diversity of global citizenry. Our private lives are pervasively affected by toxic, ailing or failing public institutions, economics and culture. We walk on a tightrope of necessity strung between freedom and responsibility. The whole toxic system is sick unto death.
Conversely, each of us is responsible for the common good and for upholding the integrity of common things, having values and standing up for them. And not the platitudinous values of political correctness, nor the water-down values of fear -- fear of either the enemy or the homeland which has labelled virtually any dissent as treason. To be authoritative, the vision needs to come from an authentic center that values people over things, to honor the social contract of mutual respect, mutual reliance.
Many other cultures do not validate the so-called American dream, -- the myth of progress, the myth of power, the myth of control, the myth of economic liberalism -- a disorderly scramble for goods. Sadly, it has also meant a virtual 'end of nature' in planetary environmental cataclysm. The meaning of the changes that already exist is the profound sadness of a world where there is no escaping the attacks of man. The basic forces of nature, once beyond our reach, are forevermore subject to man's dominion, even if we reorder our lives and live more humbly.
Human productivity is a poor substitute for biological productivity. Sure, the politics could change -- and they have -- for the worse, with massive environmental roll-backs by the G.W. Bush administration. In the historical past, defiance of nature has meant prosperity and a sort of security. Now, the notion of stewardship is losing a battle to planetary management and genetic engineering. The momentum behind our impulse to control nature may be too strong to stop -- nature has ended. We have chosen between that wholeness and our self-interests over other species, to make ourselves gods instead of remaining one of God's creatures. Thus, with 6 billion people on the planet, we've become the "Adam bomb."
2008 Update: We can create an evolutionary politics to build a more creative future. Calculated cycles of commodification and scarcity, business and war have driven the military/industrial complex and the multinational corporate climate. Cover Ups and confusion have paralyzed us into apathy where nothing significant can be trusted, believed or known. One percent of humanity controls 40% of global wealth. But we can empower ourselves to resist status quo politics and shape ourselves a better destiny - a 21st century Manifest Destiny that fulfills our positive spiritual potential. If we don't want a dark future for humanity, we must reinvent ourselves and our culture from the foundation upwards. Even if that is fantastically radical, it can still happen, one inspired person at a time and cascade toward a visionay approach to large-scale societal transformation that heals personal and global socioeconomical scars. Competent citizenry can learn to impliment constructive visions for our collective planetary future. Deep and broad visions can stimulate reflection and lively discussion of contemporary solutions that can become the scaffolding for action plans from the community level upwards. A courageous and truly integrated vision would include a detailed strategy for a vibrant and life-sustaining future. Individually and collectively we have to redefine what it means to thrive with more compassion for others, not just survive. The paradigm needs to switch from "dog eat dog" to "we're all in it together."
2008 Update: We can create an evolutionary politics to build a more creative future. Calculated cycles of commodification and scarcity, business and war have driven the military/industrial complex and the multinational corporate climate. Cover Ups and confusion have paralyzed us into apathy where nothing significant can be trusted, believed or known. One percent of humanity controls 40% of global wealth.
But we can empower ourselves to resist status quo politics and shape ourselves a better destiny - a 21st century Manifest Destiny that fulfills our positive spiritual potential. If we don't want a dark future for humanity, we must reinvent ourselves and our culture from the foundation upwards. Even if that is fantastically radical, it can still happen, one inspired person at a time and cascade toward a visionay approach to large-scale societal transformation that heals personal and global socioeconomical scars.
Competent citizenry can learn to impliment constructive visions for our collective planetary future. Deep and broad visions can stimulate reflection and lively discussion of contemporary solutions that can become the scaffolding for action plans from the community level upwards. A courageous and truly integrated vision would include a detailed strategy for a vibrant and life-sustaining future. Individually and collectively we have to redefine what it means to thrive with more compassion for others, not just survive. The paradigm needs to switch from "dog eat dog" to "we're all in it together."
UPDATE, SUMMER 2009 - The economical collapse and the potential of ecological collapse has brought home the fact that we have been living way beyond our means. The coming years aren't being characterized as a new Depression for no reason. The middle class has been gutted, healthcare is likely to be rationed if widely available at all. The era of democracy is completely over and has given way to that of corporate feudalism. We are in dire need of healing lest we drive ourselves extinct.