Archive for October 29th, 2011
Tomorrow is Halloween, the day when Americans agree that it’s OK to talk about death, evil spirits and depravity while eating lots of unhealthy food. These traditions seem normal to those of us who have done this October drill more than a few times, but Halloween must seem completely bonkers to outsiders.
I suspect that Halloween serves as a psychological safety valve, allowing us to air out our anxieties about our deepest fears. On Halloween, we talk about these horrible things (dismemberment and other forms of horror) together while laughing—there’s seemingly safety in numbers. And then we make sure that we avoid talking about these things for the remainder of the year. On days other than Halloween, we don’t like to be reminded of the fact that there are skeletons inside of our bodies and that we’re all on a treadmill leading to inevitable death, and that there is no evidence of any afterlife. These things freak us out because there is no cure, no fix, other than working hard to fabricate that everything is OK. For most of the year, we follow the pattern predicted by Terror management Theory: we cover up the fact that we are mortal animals through the use of elaborate diversions and baubles, pretending that we are Gods with anuses. I often attempt to do otherwise, and to share my thoughts freely, but I admit that my fear of inevitable death occasionally gets the better of me too. Thus, I do think I understand the need for something like Halloween in a society that heavily discourages free-thinking about disturbing topics. These topics are heavy to me too, though regularly delve into these topics rather than dousing myself in Halloween tradition or seeking comfort by joining a traditional religion. For most people, though, Halloween rituals seem to offer a bit of relief from this admittedly heavy existential anxiety.
Thanksgiving is coming around the corner, and we have ready-made myths to take care of our anxieties related to that holiday too. Thanksgiving is the time for many Americans to unquestionably repeat the myth that benevolent Europeans were welcomed to American by the Native Americans: “Hello, white people. Make yourselves at home. Take our possessions and our land. Send us to reservations.” One little story about Europeans sharing a meal with Native Americans takes care of thousands of pages of inconvenient history. One little myth kicks in the confirmation bias and invites Americans to believe that they live on a moral oasis, and that it’s OK to strictly filter our history in order to think happy thoughts about how many of us came to be here. Pass the turkey, please.
What kind of myth would extend one’s belief in a moral oasis almost all the way to the new year? If you owned a magic sleigh and you were capable of creating and distributing toys and food all over the world, why would you ignore the children of Africa? The evidence suggests that Santa skips them year after year, even though many of them are dying of starvation and malaria. Further, this tragedy is something that American children don’t discuss in the context of the Santa
myth. But if you’re magical then, damn it, what’s more important? More iPods for well-to-do American families (it seems like Santa gives well-to-do American families better gifts) or basic food, water and medicine to prevent African children from starving? Maybe Santa doesn’t care about African children. Or maybe he doesn’t know about the existence of Africa because his Atlas is out of date. Or maybe he avoids Africa there’s not much snow there. But, again, we don’t discuss the Africa problem with our children when we tell them about the magic and benevolence of Santa Claus, and we are silent because Africa is inconvenient to the Santa story.
The increasingly dominant prosperity Gospel churches preach that Jesus wants us to hit the stores hard on Black Friday because we deserve to have lots of stuff. Many Americans are attracted to churches that advise them that admission to heaven is through faith, and not good works. It’s OK with this Faith version of Jesus that we buy lots of consumer goods rather than saying no to ourselves and sending all of that gadget money to organizations that can truly feed starving African children and provide them with mosquito nets. Year after year, the Santa myth serves as a focus-mechanism of a precious human commodity—attention–that makes certain aspects of the world salient at the expense of downplaying others. That is the general mechanism of all myths. They are colored filters for reality.
In these modern times, our many comforting myths need some serious self-critical analysis, but that is unlikely, because their power is in their uncritical repetition. All of this immediately makes sense when we remind ourselves that we choose our myths—they don’t fall down from the sky.
[http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-images-santa-in-his-christmas-sled-or-sleigh-silhouette-image20920349 used with permission. Map of Africa - creative commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Africa_(orthographic_projection).svg]
If you would like to support the #occupy movement, but you don’t want to sleep overnight in a city park, here’s an article listing ways for you to help. Item number three on the list is that you shouldn’t hesitate to speak up.
I know people who absolutely support the ideology of OWS, but who remain silent as church mice on the topic. I also know people who kinda like the idea, but aren’t really sure they want to align themselves just yet.
Here’s a little tough love for you: If you’re not helping, you’re hindering. That’s the truth of it. We all have our lives, our work, the pressing needs of our unique realities to deal with. But out there are hundreds of people taking a break from their own demanding realities to sleep on the ground, in the rain, making themselves vulnerable to police aggression and whatever other intrusions come with sleeping night after night in a public place under scrutiny.
If you like the idea of OWS, and feel excited about the sorts of changes we might begin to see in our society, say so. Out loud. To friends, family and partners. On the internet. In line at the grocery store. Talk to people. Talk about the movement. Apathy’s not cool any more.