2 - Ordinary World - Question the Water
Before the hero sets out on their journey, the world that they inhabit, and the problem they have to solve, must be established for the audience, and that’s done in the first stage. Rather than dissect directly how this has been carried out in literature and cinema, I want to jump right to what this looks like for us. What does it mean to live in the real world, and what problems do we, as humans need to solve? Well, we can look at each life individually and consider the challenges inherit to each person’s existence, but that’s actually superficial, and only distracts from the deep issues that affect us all as a species, which go far beyond the need for survival and reproduction. What are those deep issues?
In 2001 Richard Linklater released his groundbreaking film, Waking Life. It was a cornucopia of astounding philosophical insights, exposed in short vignettes featuring some of the most revolutionary philosophers of the twentieth century. One of these great minds was professor Louis H. Mackey, who only occupied the screen for around ninety seconds, yet his scene has been widely regarded as having the most profound impact of the entire film, and I think summarizes the great problem of our species perfectly:
“There are two kinds of sufferers in this world: those who suffer from a lack of life and those who suffer from an overabundance of life. I've always found myself in the second category. When you come to think of it, almost all human behavior and activity is not essentially any different from animal behavior. The most advanced technologies and craftsmanship bring us, at best, up to the super-chimpanzee level. Actually, the gap between, say, Plato or Nietzsche and the average human is greater than the gap between that chimpanzee and the average human. The realm of the real spirit; the true artist, the saint, the philosopher, is rarely achieved. Why so few? Why is world history and evolution not stories of progress, but rather this endless and futile addition of zeroes? No greater values have developed. Hell, the Greeks 3,000 years ago were just as advanced as we are. So, what are these barriers that keep people from reaching anywhere near their real potential? The answer to that can be found in another question, and that's this: Which is the most universal human characteristic - fear or laziness?”
When I first heard this statement, I was simultaneously blown away and chilled to the bone. I would spend years attempting (futilely) to prove myself neither, by making my first forays into a world of philosophical discourse and inspiring socio-political transformation…or so I thought. In truth, I had yet to even begin my journey into a wider, more dangerous world. Looking back on my younger self I’m forced to agree with Dr. Jordan Peterson who said, “Ideologues assume the problems of the world are someone else's fault. Or they assume that broad-scale systemic change (according to their dictates) is a prerequisite to Utopia. A truly religious person tries to change him or herself, which is a more difficult and less grand task."
There is no question about it; when I was in my teens and twenties I was an ideologue, and an obnoxious one at that. I was a loud-mouthed NPC (non-playable character) who made assumptions about other people that were based solely on the hearsay of those with whom I shared an echo chamber. And while it’s true that the religion I grew up in (which completely occupied every aspect of my life) was in practice apolitical, its foundational dictates mirrored those of the collectivist political movements of the twentieth century which have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. Most notably, by labeling those within the religious sheep pen as “good” and those outside as “bad” (unless they showed signs of repentance and a desire to convert) the religion’s founders satiated a primitive, tribal need within human beings for pre-established structure that the adherents themselves don’t need to participate in designing.
The societal structures in our world that hem us in are derived from constructs that served an evolutionary function at one stage in our species’ development. For instance, the fact that we are the only animal with a sclera means that the only ancient humans that survived to procreate were the ones with whom the other members of the species could detect where they were looking, which indicated what they were thinking; it built trust among early humans and helped us to progress as a collective. However, in order to progress even further in the way that Professor Mackey talked about, we need to evolve an ability to detect what’s in the abstract, and constantly question the inherited structures around us, and to look at the ideas and constructs that are collectively accepted not as ends unto themselves, to be dogmatically defended at any cost, but as tools that serve a purpose, and to know that there is more beyond them.
It’s easy to understand how fear can keep us bounded within our safe and familiar world. Fear of the unknown kept our ancestors safe from a plethora of existential hazards, and our natural instincts for self-preservation forbade us to approach the limit of our experiences. There is also the fear of ostracization, for without the acceptance of the collective, ancient humans would have, at best, been forbidden the chance to reproduce and at worse, cast out of the tribe where they would succumb to the ravages of the wilderness. These fears still live within us, as is evidenced by our modern propensity for adherence to social pressures so as to remain “in” with the collective, and the simultaneous need to revile whoever is deemed the “other”. This need for tribal belonging has been hijacked by many power structures within our society, who know that people would much sooner unite with the goal to destroy what they all can agree to hate, than to fortify what they all can agree to love. Those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and not seeing humanity progress, know exactly how to hijack such tribal, fear-based tendencies, and keep most people complacent enough to allow themselves to fall in lock-step with ideas that may actually be antithetical to who they really are as individuals. And while it’s easy to see how an unconscious fear of ostracization can motivate people to stifle their true selves in exchange for some measure of security, it takes some deeper insight to grasp just how laziness works as an inhibitor.
Laziness is allowing other people to establish the borders of our world for us, and this is how NPC’s operate. In fact, there’s a new meme going around the Internet which pokes fun at this societal artifact in a beautifully wry and nihilistic way. In a recent YouTube video, social commentator Paul Joseph Watson said, “The NPC meme lampoons our tendency to consume the products of mass culture precisely because they are easy to process, requiring neither personal effort, nor prior learning. Serious cultural engagement requires focus, it nevertheless has a rejuvenating effect, whereas the passive consumption of mass culture leaves us more enervated than before.”
The late writer, David Foster Wallace, gave a commencement speech shortly before he died in which he compared our ordinary world, filled with all of the annoying monotony of daily life such as trips to the grocery store, to the water that a fish swims through. Even if a fish were sentient, it wouldn’t think for a minute to question the nature of the medium in which it exists– it wouldn’t even know what water is. We, likewise, often don’t know that we exist in this abstract sea of agreements and understandings that we call “culture”, and how that set of agreements effects our thinking. Most people are so busy living their current lives that they wouldn’t know if they are living in the first, fifth, or twelfth stage of the monomyth, any more than Frodo could know that he was about to begin the adventure of a lifetime on the night of his uncle’s birthday. If we could, as Mr. Wallace admonished us, stop to appreciate the potential beauty in the mundane, and realize that life is a collection of moments and stories each played out by the characters all around us, then suddenly life itself takes on a greater significance. Those who can do this, stand a chance of transcending to that higher level of understanding, and possibly even return with some insight for the rest of humanity, so as to help our species progress, just as Nietzsche and Plato did. To even have a hope of accomplishing such a feat, we need to learn to “question the water.”
The world in which I began my life was small, limiting, and ceaselessly negative. There was little room for comfort in it, which is why I constantly waited on the “new world order”. Despite empirical evidence that things like life expectancy, literacy, and food certainty were improving across the globe, to me the world was always getting worse, and Satan was to blame. There was no hope in my world except to wait on someone ELSE, in this case Christ, to usher in broad-scale systemic change, and all I had to do see it was to act out the role of good little child of God, and to signal my virtue to the rest of the collective, (not unlike a modern social justice warrior) with whom I shared the same beliefs. I shirked off my innate desire for prominence, espoused the righteousness of poverty, and preached constant reminders about Christ’s imminent and violent return. I feared being judged as “unworthy” by God, (or at least by those who claimed to speak for him) so despite my longing for bigger things, I stayed put out of fear, and convinced myself that I was safe where I was…but it wouldn’t last.
As I became exposed to Neo-Marxist thought during my young adulthood, I found that the two sets of ideologies flowed together so seamlessly, and for a time even blended almost completely. Marx’s militant atheism, and my personal devotion to Christ were not at odds within me, because both orders of thought gave me the same object of hatred with which to purge my feelings of inadequacy upon: The Rich. To Christians they were the agents of Satan who catered to their own greed, and to Marxists, they were the oppressors who profited off the poor and working classes. Both fringe Christianity and militant collectivism shirked personal responsibility for misfortune, while simultaneously giving their adherents the “busy work” of readying the masses for the great day when the long-promised utopia will be upon us…after the genocide, of course.
The point of all this is not just to unburden myself of my intellectual errors, but to highlight how small, fringe groups of Christians, and what is rapidly becoming the mainstay of progressive politics, share core similarities in thought, if not in deed. This is important, and not in the least bit semantical, because while its assumed that the starting point of the hero’s journey for each person is going to be solely unique, that uniqueness is, in fact, merely a dressing for the core issue plaguing all of humanity, namely; the fact that we haven’t made any significant mental or emotional progress as a species, as evidenced by the ease with which tribalist behaviors and groupthink can ensnare even the most mentally stalwart among us.
The more I questioned my assumptions, the more I realized just how much of what I had accepted didn’t serve me, so when the time came for me to abandon the collective, I could hear the call to adventure among the background noise of my life like echoes in the water. For me, that internal drive to explore reality, and to leave the religious pen I had been reared in eventually forced me out, but I would come to realize some years later that I was still within the walls of a larger collectivist kingdom which governed a throng of mutually envious, intellectually stunted ideologues. I then set off from that group too, and now I am on an even grander adventure, facing even greater odds, with even more serious consequences…and much better travelling companions. I’ve come to accept that I am a philosophical nomad, traveling from tribe to tribe, picking up allies along the way, never settling down. This time I am seeking a metaphorical utopia, not as a place of finality, but only as the place where my treasure could be found, knowing full-well that I will have to make my return home to help my kith and kin progress as I have. But that’s a subject for a future blog.
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