We won't be going back

I’ve been reading Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” lately. I know, I should have read that book when I was in college. I have owned it for some time and I have referred to at a lot of times. It was easy to read short sections of the book and even extract quotes and concepts for other writing that I have done over the years. The book has a very clear table of contents and is thoroughly researched with an excellent bibliography and footnotes. I knew the basic flow and concepts of the book before I started reading it word for word, cover to cover. The result, I admit, is that reading the book is a bit of a “slog.” It is quite a bit more boring to read than would have been the case had I not familiarized myself with its concepts before getting around to reading it.

I’ll write a review of the book in my books section on this website when I finish reading it, and I don’t intend to do book reviews in my journal, but one of my arguments with the book so far (at about 2/3 of the way through it) is that the push to discover commonalities in the wide variety of stories and mythologies discussed is so intense that the book lacks any specificity about the distinctions between religions and cultural beliefs. A basic assignment of teachers seeking to enable critical thinking is “compare and contrast.” Campbell got the “compare” down superbly in the book. He would have to write another volume entirely to approach the “contrast” part of the assignment. The result is that people whose core beliefs rest with one of the specific religions discussed feel that their faith has been slighted by Campbell. They approach their faith in terms of its uniqueness and what distinguishes it from other faiths. Campbell is looking for similarities and asserts that all faiths are telling the same story.

One of the areas where Campbell fails to understand the different stories by trying to make them all the same is a significant difference in the view of the nature of time. Another well-published author on the subject of mythology, Devdutt Pattanaik, focused on the fundamental differences between eastern and western thought in a TED talk a few years ago. He asserted that it makes a big difference whether you believe that history is a one-way street or that it is a loop that repeats itself. If death is a singular experience, one has to achieve what one can in this life. If it is an oft-repeated experience, what is not achieved this time around can be done in another life. I’m grossly simplifying Pattanaik’s argument here, but the distinction is important in understanding the world view of others. By asserting that there are distinctions between world views, Pattanaik offers a depth of understanding that is absent in Campbell’s book. To be fair, I haven’t finished the book and perhaps I will be surprised by its ending.

All of this is to provide a bit of background for a bit of political commentary that has been going through my head since the recent US presidential election. I’m not an accomplished political analyst, and I am not capable of explaining the results of the election, but there are many voters who have a kind of nostalgia for the past that I don’t share. The campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” is based on the assumption that somehow our country isn not at present as great as once was the case. Several commentators and pundits have concluded that the desire of at least some of the voters is for a return of the 1950’s when our country was experiencing a post-war baby boom, a growing economy, an expanding middle class and had a sense of increasing opportunity for workers. While other commentators have observed some of the problems of the 1950’s such as embedded racism, deep set sexism and huge inequalities, I am not particularly interested in arguing whether the 1950’s were greater than the 2010’s for our country. The argument, it seems to me, is pointless.

No amount of votes and no map of red and blue states can change the fact that it is impossible for a nation to go backwards in history.

Just read the headlines in today’s paper. Debbie Reynolds died yesterday at age 84. According to her son, Todd Fisher, she suffered a stroke while discussing funeral plans for her daughter, Carrie Fisher, who had died the pervious day after suffering a heart attack during a flight to Los Angeles last Friday.

Like the people whose funerals at which I officiate, the death is real. Debbie Reynolds is not coming back. If you want to reprise “Singin’ in the Rain” you’re going to have to do it with another actress. If the 1952 musical with Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly is your idea of the moment when America was great, there is no way to make it happen. The world has moved on. Furthermore, I’m not a movie buff, but even I know that Singin’ in the Rain was a nostalgia movie harkening back to the “good old days” of movie making in the 1920’s.

Because we are deeply aware of the losses that come with the passage of time, our lives are compounded with grief upon grief. Like the family of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, we are not allowed to have a singe grief at a time, but our hearts are broken by many losses. We can wish for a time before we had experienced such grief, but such a wish will not change reality. In fact when grief gets hung up it can develop into a severe and debilitating mental illness that requires careful professional treatment.

History is a one-way street. There is no going back. I, for one, am grateful for that simple fact, if for no other reason that when I finish Campbell’s book, I have no plans to ever read it cover to cover again. I’ll be glad to put that one behind me.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!