As a person whose formative years were the 40’s & 50’s, I grew up hearing that our brand of democracy was the answer to all of the world’s problems. When I say “our,” I’m not referring to the governmental system of any particular country, but to all the peoples who hold the Western world view (or way of looking at things). School, media and comic books pounded out the message: We were the people with the most of anything and if everyone else would follow our lead, the world would waltz into a golden age.
Although that propaganda now sounds hokey and jingoistic, it was not entirely without justification. At the end of World War II, the victors had treated the vanquished in a manner that was without precedent in the annals of human history: Instead of imposing reparations, they embarked on a program to rebuild the defeated nations. Instead of sowing the seeds for a future war (as was done after WWI), they chose a course that would steer humanity away from war. It was an enlightened experiment that transformed two societies. Two nations, one Occidental and one Oriental, who had long histories of viewing war as a noble enterprise are now among the most peace loving in the world. Those same two societies that lay in ruins at the end of the war are now among the most prosperous.
Well, here we are, 70 years later. Our efforts to further export the Western value system have met with humiliation and failure time after time. People we try to help end up hating us. This isn’t my idea of a golden age. What went wrong? Is it possible that we missed something along the way?
Before I offer an answer to that, I must hasten to say that I’m not a doomsday prophet; I don’t think that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. On balance, I believe that the world we experience today is a better place than it ever has been. Although the media bombasts us with bad news—because that’s the kind that sells—there is plenty of good news to be found via “not for profit” sources. If you look at all the good things that are happening, you will discover that there is a new generation of organizations—businesses, religious affiliations, scientific groups and many others—appearing that exist not for profit or prestige, but for the betterment of their employees, members, customers, and the environment. There enough of them that they are now becoming an economic force with their own identifier on the stock exchanges—“ethical companies.” If you have an in-depth look at them, you will find an interesting commonality in the people that are behind them—they don’t think like most of us do. They tend to think more like Easterners than Westerners. The difference is subtle, but I wonder if that may be the something we have missed along the way.
I’d like to offer my opinion of what that something might be: For background, I have to mention that I was taught that the myths passed down from one generation to the next in ancient (and aboriginal) societies were attempts to explain natural phenomena. The writings of Joseph Campbell showed me that isn’t so. Why isn’t it? Because those people had little interest in explaining things. Their focus was teaching the next generation how to live. The idea of employing communication methods to impart information is a very young Western idea. For most of human history, storytelling and writing were done for the purpose of communicating moral values or concepts. The ancients had no intention of setting down a chronicle of actual events when they wrote their histories; they were trying to communicate the principles upon which their society worked via an entertaining narrative. The aboriginals were not wanting their children to believe that people shape-shifted into animals; they were illustrating a useful life skill through the nature of an animal. Why they did this may explain why we find ourselves in the current dilemma.
In my seventy-several years of observing people and trying to understand why they do things, I’ve become convinced that the business of establishing a moral compass or philosophy to live by isn’t something that can be transferred from one individual to another as mere information. Since we are all individuals, the outworking of any principle will vary from person to person. I might agree with something I hear or read, but I won’t act upon it—it won’t become part of me—unless there is an emotional involvement. Emotion seems to open the door for truth to get down inside of me and churn around until it gets mixed into my value system. That’s the way we appear to be hooked up.
In my experience, Catechisms and commandments don’t work because there’s no emotional appeal. “Thou Shalt” and “Thou Shalt Not” only inflamed resistance to “Shalt” and desire for “Shalt Not.” I guess it’s because we all seem to have a built-in resistance to anything that doesn’t originate from our inner compass. On the other hand, when moral principles are part of a story that is taking me on an emotional ride, my innermost being is touched and there is a possibility that my moral compass might be reoriented.
I’d like to offer that the important something that we are missing is an appreciation of myth. Westerners try to communicate the lessons they’ve learned to the next generation by relating catalogues of facts and opinions. And, the next generation repeats the mistakes because their conscience remains untouched. By disregarding the importance of myth, we’ve lost the ability to pass the profit of our life experiences on.
But, we can take heart. All is not lost. As I said before, there is good news. Academics like Joseph Campbell are restoring our understanding of the importance of myth. Then, we’re ready when a modern myth like Star Wars comes along. Star Wars? Sure, it is a modern myth. Nobody expects it to be about actual events. It’s just a great yarn that illustrates a number of spiritual truths without preaching about judgement. It leaves the viewer free to appropriate according to his/her unique conscience.
As near as I can tell, when universal principles are taught in a manner that touches the heart and leaves the hearer free, people begin to sound more like Easterners or Aboriginals and things like ethical companies happen. In the words of Jon Landau, who produced Titanic and Avatar, “You can’t change the world by telling people to eat their broccoli…It all comes down to telling them a good story.”