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  4. The American Dream and the Economic Myth

Such a society can weaken its "ethos"--what ties us together besides the laws we all have to live by. The contrast between ethos and law shows up in the apocryphal story about a group of Americans playing rugby with some English boys. At one point during the game, one of the Americans threw a forward pass to someone. The English players were appalled. When reason is king, the ties to the transcendent loosen.

We can see this indirectly in the move from religious symbolism to allegory in the design of the dollar bill. The world becomes human-centered rather than God-centered, and we look to the progress of technology to cure our ills in time. Human-centered though it is, the enlightenment myth contains its own characteristic form of idealism in which we dream of a better society, set up according to reason--the laws of Nature and of Nature's God.

But if reason is used not to follow the dream of a better society, but simply to attain earthly riches, the depth dimension of life begins to evaporate. Early in the Renaissance, Christopher Marlowe showed through his character Dr. Faustus what happens when the man of reason sells his soul for power in the material world.

Faustus can do anything he wants, but in the process of fulfilling his desires, he loses a larger capacity of imagination. All his desires become trivial ones, such as playing practical jokes on the clergy. Not only have we lost the illusion of the perfectibility of society, we have also lost communal faith in the existence of a Designer behind the design. A recent edition of Bartlett's Quotations offers us this from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist: In medieval times, the tallest buildings in any city were the cathedrals; later, princely palaces and government buildings dominated the landscape; now the tallest buildings are commercial, reflecting the economic myth within which we now live.

The economic myth is potentially the first truly global myth. We live in an economic myth the way the fish swim in the sea--unconsciously. We appeal to "the bottom line" to win arguments; we see the history of the world as an economic history, not as the march of great men across a stage or as the working out of the plan of God; in the United States, we win elections by offering not "a covenant" with America a term coming from our religious myth but a "contract" with America. The economic myth is not synonymous with capitalism, although varieties of capitalism are its hardiest expressions, from the classically laissez-faire American style to the social democratic varieties in western Europe to the socially authoritarian styles found in parts of Asia.

Whatever form the economic myth takes, it displays three central characteristics:. One of the reasons the economic myth is potentially the first truly global myth is that it is not bounded by the traditional fences of language. The numbers representing GDP apply to every nation, and the lifestyle shown on television programs like "Sex and the City" can be seen on televisions all over the world. The fall of the former Soviet Union was a triumph not of democracy, but of capitalism and the economic myth--and the media that convey them: In its pure form, the economic myth is egalitarian in that anyone's dollar is as good as anyone else's dollar.

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Worth is based on net worth, not on the nobility of one's parents or the color of one's skin or one's gender or even what country one is from--all accidents of birth. The economic myth is a horizontal, not a vertical myth. It counts rather than evaluates, locating value in the exchange function rather than in something "higher up" or absolute. In part, this leveling has been responsible for the saying I quoted earlier: The economic myth honors quantity over quality.

Unlike the democratic myth, in which truth can arise from any quarter, in the economic myth, truth does arise from every quarter, through counting or polling. Power lies in the numbers. The economic myth has at its base the ideal of growth: In addition, we tend to think of this growth as necessarily involving competition--although its aim is monopoly rather than simply "a good fight. Like all myths, the economic myth allows for some possibilities--and not for others. If we do not understand the limitations of the economic myth, we will not be able to deal with the difficult challenges that face the global community.

On the other hand, if we attempt to solve our social problems through recourse to the earlier myths, in which our social institutions are embedded, we will fail, because these earlier myths no longer have the power of the economic myth. We will also fail globally, because these earlier myths, unlike the economic myth, are western.

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Your Mythic Journey by Sam Keen |

While we can argue that the economic myth arose in the west, too, its basic premises--the broad characteristics that distinguish it from other myths--are being accepted worldwide, although not without struggle. Threats Posed by the Economic Myth. Loss of the values embodied in our earlier myths. The values embodied by the hero myth are distorted by the current economic myth in which they appear. For example, in the economic myth, we tell the hero story as a matter of good versus evil. But ancient stories often honored the opponent. Hector has traditionally been as honored as Achilles, even though he is on the losing side and is defeated after having run around Troy in sheer terror.

The Romans even traced their ancestry back to the losing Trojans. We, on the other hand, tend to dress our heroes in white hats and their enemies in black. Our hero myth is embedded in our operating myth, which is economic. That means that instead of heroes, we have celebrities. Celebrities are known for having more of what we already value--more money, more beauty, more power--rather than leading us to expand our values, as earlier heroes might have done.

For all its drawbacks, the hero myth offered an ideal of excellence and individual responsibility, which was especially inspiring to young people. But how can we extol individual responsibility in a world where we're just a number SSN with the slight chance of fifteen minutes of fame on some talk show if we have a bizarre enough victim story to tell? The crisis of the hero myth in our culture arises from many causes, including our lack of support for heroism in certain groups of people.

Such "discarded" groups then form alternative gang cultures, ones in which heroic virtues of courage and self-sacrifice and disregard for their own lives becomes the stuff of street legend and graffiti.

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It seems we don't know how to integrate these heroic impulses in our young men into the larger society and its values. Traditionally, this integration was done through war and the sports that echoed battle. While fathers can still play softball with their sons, sport has become big business, and even in high school, only the best usually get to play, limiting the opportunities for heroic deeds, no matter how local the stage. War, too, has become difficult to sustain as a heroic enterprise, partly because of its mechanization.

Mechanization increases efficiency, but does little to highlight individual heroic deeds--or even individuals themselves. In recent wars, civilian casualties have been referred to as "collateral damage. We don't know how to sustain heroic energy because we don't have a culture that honors it except in sports. Auden remarked on this in his poem "The Shield of Achilles," which imagines Achilles' mother returning to heaven for new armor for her son, just as she does in the Iliad.

But this time, when she looks at the shield, she sees not the integrated harmony of the community, which was displayed on the original shield of Achilles, but scenes from modern life, including one of a boy in a vacant lot throwing stones at a bird:. The shield of the hero displays the total, integrated life of the community.

Without community there cannot be authentic individual heroism.

We are wrong to think that heroism is a matter of will alone, of the individual cowboy riding into the town, cleaning out the bad guys, and leaving. Our problems are more difficult than that--and always have been. Without a community to sustain it, our hero myth is doomed to debasement.

And traditionally, it is the religious myth that has offered us that vision of community. The power of the religious myth gave us a reason to sacrifice in the present for the good of the whole and a better future. But in an economic myth what we give to the community--or to our homes and families--has no economic tag and therefore no way to be valued. Undervaluing service--whether reflected in our lack of support for full-time single mothers or the steady decline of teachers' salaries in relation to those of other professionals--will continue to have a debilitating effect on communities.

The democratic myth held up the ideal of "one nation under God with liberty and justice for all. In addition to a loss of the values embodied in our earlier myths, there is a danger for the society dominated by the economic myth that its citizens can lose their sense of a larger significance--or even of significance on an individual level.

The economic myth is the first large myth that is the story of a process rather than of a character in action. The Greeks had their founding stories of gods and heroes, and the Hebrew and Christian traditions had stories of God and His people and prophets. Even the democratic myth had the implicit sound of God's machinery, ticking away through time, just waiting to be discovered in the inevitable march of scientific and technological progress. But the economic myth, like the natural world, doesn't have a plot. Some might say that such a random collection of ups and downs, like the history of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, is hardly any story at all, simply a changing pattern along a trajectory of growth.

And even that trajectory is "accidental," like everything else in the story. In this myth, humans are the victims of large forces over which they have no control--terrorism, or crime, or pollution, or guns, or global competition, or inflation. The aim of living is survival itself--or, depending on resources, a quality of life that is measured in terms of costs versus benefits.

From the perspective of this myth, the Islamic fundamentalists, who are willing to die for their story, seem incomprehensible. Like the phrase "We the People," "civic discourse" seems a little old-fashioned. We report political news not in terms of the complexities of the issues and the historical background or how the common good might be furthered, but in terms of the power relationships of the personalities involved, as if politics were like a simple sporting event--who's winning and who's losing, or, to follow the little arrows in a popular news magazine, who's up and who's down.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death , Neil Postman claims that in our culture, "all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business. In show business, sex and violence sell. So, too, in television news, the storyteller of our society.

Under our economic myth, we make political decisions on the basis of the story we are being told in order to sell commercial products. We believe the violence we see and experience on television, not the statistics we read, so we perceive the world as much meaner and more violent than it really is--which is why we voted for more prisons in an era of declining crime.

In short, we cannot expect the economic myth that shapes our society to foster the ideals of individual responsibility that the hero myth embodied; or to encourage the ideals of community the religious myth promoted; or to emphasize the pursuit of a common good that the democratic myth supported. And yet these ideals of responsibility, community, and the common good are absolutely necessary for the health of the civic spirit.

Even so, we can't simply return to the old myths, no matter how many movements in their direction we try to beat the drums for. These myths don't hold up for us now. We don't want to look up to the chosen few as our heroes; we don't want to re-introduce the sense of division and intolerance that a ruling religious myth so often fosters; and we're rightly suspicious of the idea of one common good because we know how much suffering has been caused in our diverse society by insisting that our identity fits one mold.

For example, we can no longer blindly tell our history from the point of view of Columbus. We don't have one story about who we are anymore, so how can we articulate a common good? We have to begin by raising our awareness of the myth that we are in--how we are caught in it, and how it shapes us individually and as a nation.

And then we must learn to tell better stories about who we are and who we might become. To deepen the American dream calls upon our minds and hearts--and also our imaginations. The quest to deepen the American Dream through the power of the imagination begins deep in the center of the economic myth--because that's where American culture is. The United States is currently the clearest embodiment of the economic myth not only because of its economic prowess but also because of its continuing link to the founding principle of "the pursuit of happiness.

To deepen the American dream we can imagine a story about the pursuit of happiness that neither ignores the economic myth nor fights against it, but uses its elements in a transformative way.

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The desire for happiness is both a curse and a blessing--a curse because we're so often discontent, imagining happiness to be down the road rather than here and now; and a blessing because the pursuit of happiness turns out, in the end, to be a spiritual journey. Pursuing happiness, we learn love. At least, that's the possibility offered to us. A wonderfully magic characteristic of the pursuit of happiness is the discovery of helpers along the way. You could easily object to this claim, saying something like, "There may be help along the way--but only for some people. Those people get all the luck.

But luck often has a way of showing up in certain circumstances rather than others. For example, there is a recurring folktale motif that features three sons who are sent on a quest--to find a treasure, or rescue a princess, for example. When the first son is halfway down the road, he comes across a fox and says, "Get out of my way, fox, I'm on a quest!

The second son, going down the same road, comes across the same fox and says, "Get out of my way, fox, I'm on a quest! The third son--whose name is always something like "Dumb Hans" or "Stupid Jack"--comes across the same fox and says, "Who are you? Can I help you? This deep impulse towards generosity of spirit is an American virtue, perhaps developing in response to the hardships early settlers shared, where survival depended upon helping each other. Again and again, that impulse towards a common good is the door that unexpectedly opens to the fulfillment of individual dreams of happiness--even though the stories that emphasize individual success sometimes obscure this true source of happiness.

Such stories of the lone individual succeeding in the world are the familiar basis of the self-help book. If we took that popular genre and applied it to the folk tale of the three sons on a quest, we might have the following tale:. Once upon a time, after Dumb Hans has succeeded on the quest after his two brothers have failed, the oldest son buys a self-help book--"How to Succeed on the Quest. He rapidly thumbs through the book--"Hmm. There's a chapter here called 'Be sure to talk to foxes,' but nothing about horses.

The second brother has bought the same book and, like his older brother, not finding anything to guide him in response to this new circumstance, reacts the same way. Dumb Hans, as you can guess, greets the horse--and the horse has the key to the castle, the magic cloak, the crucial advice, etc. The moral of the story is that help was on the road for all three brothers, but only the youngest brother found it--not because he followed a recipe of what to do, but because his way of being allowed the help to become apparent.

There is no "to do" that elicits the helpers--only a way of being. The youngest brother is fully present to those he meets along the way. In the economic myth, with its emphasis on efficiency and time management, the discipline of full presence is particularly challenging. From a spiritual perspective, love is always present. But to experience love requires us to step out of the hurry of measureable time--time as money--into a sense of slow time--time like honey, smooth and sweet.

No wonder that the son who ignores the opportunity costs of slowing down is called "Dumb Hans" or "Stupid Jack.

The American Dream and the Economic Myth

In the Economic Myth, the aim is not goodness, as in the religious myth, or truth, as in the democratic myth, or excellence, as in the hero myth, but "more. And a corollary to aiming for more material goods is the drive towards perfection--the desire to have perfectly white or straight teeth, the perfect slim figure, the latest model appliance or car. If happiness is pursued as "more" or "perfection," however, it will never be achieved. There is never enough; nothing is ever perfect.

As wise observers have always taught us, the pursuit of happiness is most fruitful when it is experienced as the pursuit of wholeness--a journey that depends upon a recognition that even our flaws, or the shadow side of our selves, must be acknowledged and accepted as part of us even as we attempt to improve. Our failures become part of the meaningfulness of life that gives it shape and individuality and that leads to understanding and treasures of the spirit. There's an old folk tale of a man plowing who stumbles across an object--and when he stops and looks at it closely, it turns out to be a box of treasure.

It's a common motif, characterized by the saying, "Where you stumble, there your treasure lies. During the voyage of the Beagle, when it anchored off the coast of South America, Charles Darwin climbed a mountain in the Andes. There on the peak, he looked down at his shoes--maybe he stumbled; the account doesn't say--and next to his feet was a fossil seashell.

Darwin realized that the seashell's journey--and therefore, the mountain's journey--from ocean floor to high peak must have taken a much longer time than the earth's age of 6, years, as theologians had computed, based on the Bible. Some looking has profound consequences. Where we stumble, there our treasure lies. I once quoted this to someone who responded, "Is that like 'if you get a lemon, make lemonade'"? The answer is "No"--for several important reasons. A Mythocartography of California at the Margins. Deliteralizing the Gnostic Worldview. Culture and Psyche 4 4 , October The Folly of Repetition or the Wisdom of Remembrance: Toward Contemporary Styles of Earthly Discourse.

Healing the Faustian Ego," posted at Chalquist. Education for a Sense of Place. Outgrowing and Outloving the Cult of Quantification," a chapter for the anthology Perpetual Adolescence: Toward Refineries of Dream. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology , Fall Book Review of Janet O. The institute grew into the graduate program at Pacifica, which is unique in the way it combines mythology and psychology. His many decades of scholarship were reflected in the many manuscripts and heavily noted books.

Assembling the archive was an intense sojourn inside Joseph Campbell's mind as I struggled to understand how he worked with such a vast range of ideas. Pacifica also hosted retreats with James Hillman. I was often involved with organizational details of the seminars and worked with Hillman over the years. Also, he came into my classes to give guest lectures.

Finally, Pacifica had the opportunity to obtain his manuscripts and files to create a Hillman Collection. I spent considerable time at his home in Connecticut gathering the materials. It was a little spooky sorting files in the attic of his old New England house but the end results were well worth the effort. Thomas Moore draws heavily on Hillman's ideas and is a gifted writer.

I first met him when we were both presenting at a Festival of Archetypal Psychology in Hillman's honor at Notre Dame University in He can make complex ideas understandable and has made a marvelous contribution to archetypal thought. I was involved in a seminar with him sponsored by Pacifica on the re-enchantment of everyday life.

He serves on the board of editors and contributed a marvelous article on Developing a Mythic Sensibility. Psychotherapists have always worked with stories. That's what clients bring us - the accounts of their journeys. To some degree we are helping them with an editing process. Therapy is, in part, a literary endeavor. We are showing clients how to write their tales. They are deciding what kinds of roles they play and how to situate themselves within the plot. We sometimes call this reframing.

We help them with the narrative flow of their life experiences. Introducing a mythological literary perspective is just deepening what is already going on. In my trainings there is great interest in mythological approaches among social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists who are looking for ways to get beyond the press of the everyday problems. It is not that the client's immediate issues are not important. But, we need ways to reach the underlying dynamic issues of the unconscious.

Using mythic references as mirrors allows the conversation to approach the deeper levels in the clinical process. As psychotherapists move towards briefer treatment, I think that there is a yearning for a richer experience. Case planning is being restricted by factors beyond our control, so there is a need to do deep work in less time. I am interested in how to bring a mythic approach into brief treatment.

If you only have four sessions, how do you make the most of it? Pastoral counseling has often been effective in a few sessions. There is a long history of people having one or two visits to a minister or rabbi - often with significant results. The few conversations meant a great deal to those people.

The work likely included references to parables. The approach used stories and what is called the mythic imagination. A brief approach may involve giving a client homework by saying, "It sounds to me as though you are dealing with a situation such as Rapunzel faced when she was in that tower with the enchantress. Why don't you read that story and see what you think? Such simple homework can extend the magnitude of the treatment.

Erickson was a master. He tended to come up with original stories - specific to clients' situations. The tales grew out of the quandaries that the patients' presented. My emphasis is on the parables that have been handed down for many generations. The fact that these allegories have been received from the past adds a certain weight. We are not all as gifted as Milton Erickson at putting new stories together quickly. Fortunately, we can draw on familiar body of ancient fables. Other than the source of the text, the application is very similar to Erickson's method.

The fact that he was such a skilled hypnotist acknowledges that stories are mesmerizing in taking us to deeper levels within ourselves. The effect is similar to what Freud accomplished with free association. Freud worked with hypnosis early in his career and was not very skilled at trance induction. He thought that there should be other means ways to approach the mysteries of the unconscious. He experimented with his method.

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  7. Having the analyst out of sight makes the session less of a dialogue. The patients lie down on the couch and let their minds drift from one thought to another. It isn't a dream state but it isn't ordinary conversation either. It is some place between the two. I think we enter that state when we hear a teller of tales or when we spin a yarn ourselves. Brainwave studies would likely confirm this, but any clinician can sense that shift.

    We go into a semi-hypnotic state - where we are able to grasp issues and follow emotional processes more closely than in everyday consciousness. Intuition is a difficult word because it is hard to define and sounds somewhat magical. When you write case notes you never want to mention that you chose a strategy intuitively. Of course, a trained professional is going to rely on their training and some sensibility that they may have had before they began their training.

    Rollo May often commented that psychotherapists were not so much trained as born. They are often people who were doing family counseling long before they ever took their first class in psychology. Using stories for guidance is nothing new. Christ and the prophets taught through parables.

    Talmudic Midrash notes expound upon allegories and legends. We each have a personal life story and a sense of an unfolding journey. We have our daily soap operas as well as a long-term drama going on. Thinking in these terms is available to everybody, whether or not they are particularly intuitive. I'm impressed with the work of James Fowler and his book, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning It is useful for psychotherapists with interest in spirituality.

    He uses the extensive life-span developmental theory refined at Harvard. The book essentially adapts Piaget, and Kohlberg to spiritual life. Fowler's work is for seekers - those drawn to philosophical questions and the search for meaning.