10 - Atonement with the Father - The Bird and the Snake
Updated: Jun 27, 2020
In this assessment, the word “atonement” is quite perfect, for it’s not a matter of defeating authority, as we might intend to do as bratty teenagers, but bringing authority into balance in our lives. This is arguably the most emotionally eviscerating and difficult point in the story, when the hero realizes that the solution to the problem he started out working to solve will involve the acceptance of ideas, people, or forces that he once thought were wrong, and the integration of such into his life and world-view. It’s realizing that there are positives, or things we can at least learn from, even in the most abhorrent of people or circumstances that we may be connected to, and adopting the lessons they present enables us to change in ways that we never thought imaginable.
In Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back,the film’s main antagonist, Darth Vader, tells Luke Skywalker, the protagonist, that he is the young man’s father, just moments after relieving Luke of his right hand. He then offered Luke the chance to join him in a coup to usurp Emperor Palpatine and rule the galaxy with an iron fist at his father’s side. This revelation shocked audiences across the globe, but if moviegoers were paying attention to at least SOME of the symbolic elements of the story, it wouldn’t have been so surprising. Earlier, on the planet Dagobah, when Luke was undergoing his training to become a Jedi knight under the unwavering tutelage of Master Yoda, the pair passed by a dark cave that Luke felt drawn to. He asked his master, “What’s in there?” To which Yoda replied, “Only what you take with you.” Noticing Luke going towards it while arming himself Yoda added, “Your weapons. You will not need them.” Luke shirked the admonition with all the self-assuredness of a young man in his idiotic prime, and ventured into the abyss. Within a few steps, he was confronted by an apparition of Darth Vader and he drew his light saber. Vader responded in kind, and the two dueled, which ended when Luke relieved the phantom Vader of his head. The helmeted appendage rolled towards him and the mask exploded off, revealing Luke’s own face within, staring back at him, mournfully. Later, when Luke ran off to rescue his friends who he, thanks to The Force, sensed were in danger, Yoda attempted to dissuade him with the warning, “The cave. Remember your failure at the cave.” When I was a kid there was so much about this that I didn’t understand, especially because it seemed like Luke had won the battle when he defeated the apparition of Vader! However, once I learned about the monomyth, it all made sense, especially since I knew that George Lucas wrote the story with the direct intention of following Cambpell’s analysis to the letter.
In the real world, boys often struggle with their identity in relation to their fathers as they grow up, which is precisely why the pervasiveness of fatherless households has precipitated the rapid unraveling of Western Civilization, but that’s a subject for another blog. Each of us are the echoes of our parents, and all of their hopes, dreams, and sins remain with us as we develop, often becoming part of the baggage that we take with us into adulthood and pass along to our own children. So, when Luke’s face is seen under the mask of the Vader apparition, it should have signaled to the audience that they were watching history repeat itself. The headstrong, young Luke was running at problems without thinking, being swept along by his emotions, exactly the way his father was prone to doing at the same age; a fact alluded to in the first film during a private conversation between Luke’s aunt and uncle and clearly stated by Yoda himself. All of these thoughts are encircled by Yoda telling Luke that what was in the cave was, “Only what you take with you.” At that point, the audience had all the foreshadowing they would need to know exactly what was coming in the now famous climax of the film. More importantly, it set Luke up for his eventual triumph by helping him deal with the very problem that he started with.
When we next see Luke in the sequel, Return of the Jedi, he’s a much different person. He’s calm, reserved, and significantly wiser (and he has a brand-new hand). The confidence he exudes is not youthful arrogance, but faith in his abilities, and those of his closest allies. This is evident throughout the first act of the film where he manages to orchestrate and execute the complicated rescue of his friend, Han Solo. At that point, he not only accepted his pedigree, something he had once hated and tried to suppress, but integrated the implications of it as part of his identity. This allowed him to become clear and focused, so that when Yoda told him the only way to become a full-fledged Jedi was to confront his father, he was prepared. This was a rather blatant, yet brilliant, plot device on Lucas’ part, as it drove home the point that the uncomfortable truths which we want to avoid are what hold us back the most, and it is only by confronting these issues that we empower ourselves to overcome our deficits. Please forgive my nerdy blasphemy, but I actually believe that the much-maligned, and honestly terrible film, Spiderman 3managed to execute on this theme perfectly, as its only saving grace.
I can’t take credit for what now follows in this blog, as it was the YouTuber, Like Stories of Old, that brought the value of Spiderman 3to my attention, and he based his work on the book, Facing the Dragon: Confronting Personal and Spiritual Grandiosityby Robert L. Moore. In his analysis, LSOO asserts that for Peter Parker, grandiosity was an issue that followed him since the beginning of his journey as Spiderman, and does not find a solution until the third film. LSOO also makes it known that Sam Rami presented the subject of “evil” in its most primordial form, as not simply the byproduct of a set of circumstances, but as a “separate entity that exists within the psyche, that battles for dominance against our normal self.” This is an ancient understanding of evil that is, as LSOO put it, “an energetic driving force within us that is separate from the normal human self or ego, and how you relate to it is a determinate for our mental health and overall wellbeing.” He asserts that the Venom black-suit that envelops Peter Parker is simply a mechanism which allows the character’s underlying problem to become manifest. He says, “Like the insidiousness of traditional evil that takes root long before you realize its danger, Peter’s grandiosity too is already present before Venom enters the scene.” This assessment makes us think back to the previous stage of the journey, and allows us to see how insidious external forces work in tandem with our own internal flaws to create a toxic brew that can envelop us, and not only lead us astray, but convert us from hero to villain.
To be clear on what is meant by grandiosity, Robert Moore says it “means you have larger fantasies and wishes for yourself than your real-life experience can support, so they either make you manic, running around trying to keep up with their demands, or they make you depressed, because your desires are so high and unachievable that it soon seems useless to try to do anything at all.” Our egos, which are not us, want us to live out a fantasy where we exist as the indispensable center of the universe, while secretly harboring an internal self-hatred and fragility. Anything to remind us of our pedestrian place in the universe can trigger unbridled rage or a complete emotional breakdown. Hence, we currently have a generation of young “adults” that believe that they can “fix the world”, yet assert the need for authorities to protect them from words, lest they feel the remotely mild sting of an unintentional insult. Nothing reminds the ego that it isn’t a god quite like reality, and so despite the increasing, quantifiable goodness on the planet, as I’ve touched on before, the people on it become ever-more chaotic and harder to understand. This is why I believe that Moore’s likening the evil of grandiosity to a dragon is so perfect.
In mythology, the dragon is an agent of chaos, and the manifestation of evil, particularly in the Bible, as Satan himself is referred to as a serpent or dragon, multiple times. He is also referred to by Jesus as the “ruler of this world”, the “father of the lie”, and the one in charge of “the spirit of the air”. In the Bible, Satan is explained to be the grandiose commander of a coup against his creator, who is now hole up in a previously inconsequential backwater at the edge of a spiral galaxy. As a consequence, our world has been infected by the toxic influence of Satan and his allies, and it is that air/spirit/energy of grandiosity – that push for god-like power, and the obsessive belief in the vision of our superiority, which manifests as an evil drive within human beings to do terrible things to ourselves and each other in order to maintain that vision. And because this ever-pervasive and powerful presence is within all of us, it becomes a de-facto authority to which each and every hero MUST atone.
Confronting the dark energy within us and giving it the space to exist as a part of who we are as limited, mortal, human beings is no small feat, especially since our own perceptions can be completely warped in this case. Moore explains, “a really humble person may be having more trouble with grandiosity than a person who thinks they’re pretty hot stuff. If you get depressed a lot because you think you are worthless, it indicates a mighty struggle with this little god within.” To keep the demonic force of grandiosity, the “father or this world”, in check, especially in relation to our endeavor to live a meaningful life, requires one thing above all else, and that is Humility. As Moore states, “There is such a thing as humility, however, and we must learn the true humility that consists of two things: (a) knowing your limitations and (b) getting the help you need. It has nothing to do with any ascetic personal style or with being self-effacing. It is simply knowing your limitations.” In essence, grandiosity sees its antithesis in the statement made by Gandalf the Grey that evil is held in check not by great power, but by the small, everyday deeds of kindness and love performed by ordinary folk. And just as Dr. Peterson says, ad nauseam, that in order to live a truly meaningful life we must understand that every little thing we do has a profound consequence on the world, even though we might think of such things as being quite trivial. To quote Eric Draven in the film The Crow, “Believe me, nothing is trivial.”
Like Peter, grandiosity is an issue that plagued me throughout my journey. As I said before, I was a collectivist for much of my life, waving one banner or another, and even as I stripped out one layer of bad programming, I would later discover more erroneous mental tracks that had to be excised and restructured. The propensity to assume that I was right about everything has always colored my worldview, and when reality clashed with that perspective, I would react…poorly. The most glaring example of my hubris and reality’s unwillingness to yield was when my angry rant of a book ceased to make a dent in the cultural zeitgeist. In fact, I would say that everything I lost in Naraka was because of my desire to not be bothered by such trivialities like reality, and the only way to change that desire for unearned godhood was to lose big, much like Luke Skywalker. Fortunately for me, I still have all of my limbs.
There’s a lot I had to go through psychologically and emotionally before I made it passed this point in my journey, but this stage is somewhat paradoxical, in that it is simultaneously ubiquitous to the human experience, and yet uniquely nuanced to each individual person. For me to relate a lot of specific details in how I managed to get through this phase might not actually be that helpful to anyone else. Despite the fact that discussing my life as it relates to the Hero’s Journey is incredibly therapeutic for me personally, the main reason I do it is to serve as a model for you to reflect off of; anything else would be catering to my own narcissism. Suffice to say, I’ve had to work on this one for a while, and it’s one that I still contend with every day. In fact, it never ends for any of us, so long as we breathe. As Robert Moore says, “Remember, there is no such thing as a person who has completely transformed his or her own narcissism. There are only people who acknowledge their grandiose energies and try to learn how to relate to them consciously, and regulate and optimize their contacts with them intelligently.”
When it comes to my own struggle with grandiosity the most I could say in regards to my relative (and hopefully not all that transient) success is that for me there was no specific moment that I can look back on and say “This was the moment I got it under control.” However, I will attest to our ancestors’ ability to bring the discordant parts of the human psyche into contact with each other in a healthful way, as I did my best to follow in their footsteps. I took a few pages from my ancestors’ book and subjected myself to many sessions of meditation, and even magical ritual, and found that it was incredibly…therapeutic. These sessions were followed by long hours of self-analysis and more meditation, and more prayer, and of course, conversation with others. To say that I did this all by myself would be to again cater to my narcissism; I did need help, and I got it.
As I said before, the feeling of a greater destiny has helped me push through my worst times, but it also comes with a huge drawback, as the temptation to only look toward a grandiose vision of the future causes me to overlook the meaning that I could find in the small things in the life that I am currently living. Throughout my process of dealing with this dragon, and much to her credit, my dear friend Lauren has stuck by me – sometimes closer, and sometimes further away – to help me to see the damage I was doing to myself and others when I was refusing to accept the value in the mundane. She was willing to fight with me, and fight FOR me, and I’ll be forever grateful to her for that. I’ve also had help from other friends; some of whom were a sounding board, or a way-marker, or a sympathetic ear, or a philosophical powerhouse – each one enabling me to eventually see my way clear. And while I can’t point to a singular moment where I gained relative mastery over my own inner dragon, I can narrow it all down to a singular choice.
Just as Luke chose to stop fighting his father and break the cycle that the grandiose Emperor Palpatine had set into motion decades prior, or as Peter chose to shed the black suit, and to later go to his friend Harry for help in the final battle, I too made a critical choice. I chose to stop making digs at myself for failing to live up to a previously held vision of my life that simply has yet to manifest; to acknowledge that I can’t have exactly what I want, exactly when I want it, but to trust that the process of living was and is gradually shaping me into the person that I want to be. I intend to do great things with my time on this planet, but I now choose to know that it won’t be accomplished with the grand bluster of a superhero, but will be achieved by living my life as if the small, everyday deeds I perform have a significant consequence, because they do, especially when it relates to my daughter. Now I treat every blog I post, as well as every video, picture, and tweet I share, as one more step towards creating the world that I want to see. “If I can just help one person” may be an annoying platitude, but it’s one that I have chosen to live by, and that has indeed made all the difference.
For you to deal with the darkest and most powerful of shadowy forces, the insidious and pervasive dragon of grandiosity that is the authority of this world, you must confront it, as Luke confronted Vader. You must shed your attachment to its seductive power, as Peter shed the Venom suit. Then, you must acknowledge its role in your life, integrate it as part of your being, and keep it in check by constantly choosing to find the meaning in the mundane. The key to doing that is found in maintaining meaningful relationships with other people. These don’t have to be romantic relationships, but by connecting to others through commonly held values, you enable yourself to engage in the act of living more deeply. The humility to acknowledge our need for others is the only force within us that’s comparable in power to grandiosity. Like the Phoenix of ancient lore, locked in an eternal struggle with the Dragon, the two components will be deep inside us forever, battling each other until we take our last breath. Therefore, draw close to people, the right people, who can help keep you on track, and be humble enough to admit when you need help in doing just that. Above all else, never retreat from the world, and never, ever take nothing for granted.
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