Medora Woods, M.A., J.D.
Santa Fe presentation: February 1, 2013
Santa Fe presentation: February 1, 2013
On the first of August, 2007, at the end of an unusually hot summer afternoon, a freeway bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed onto the river’s banks and into the water. Almost a hundred cars, buses and trucks, along with their drivers and riders, and the construction crew that was repairing the bridge, were hurled into the river or came to rest precariously on huge broken slabs of bridge. One minute it was an ordinary commuting day in a large American city, traffic stalled on the bridge which was under construction, the next it was a scene from a 21st century urban hell. That large American city was and is my city. For us, this wasn’t a sad far-away tragedy; it touched me and virtually everyone in the community personally. Many of us often drove across that bridge or, like me, had close family members who drove over the bridge almost every day. It felt to me that day, and for days afterward, that all of us, most especially those on the bridge, like Persephone, had been suddenly and shockingly abducted into the Underworld.
The bridge collapse was preceded by other apocalyptic events: the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001; a devastating Asian tsunami which killed perhaps a quarter of a million people and displaced almost two million more and a hurricane which destroyed much of New Orleans. It was followed by a massive oil spill which fouled for at least a generation the waters and shores of our Gulf, powerful hurricanes which rendered large parts of Haiti and, most recently, our own East coast almost beyond repair, massive floods in Pakistan and a sudden shocking economic meltdown which personally
devastated and still affects millions of people in this country and the world. It was followed most recently by the massacre of children and teachers in a Connecticut elementary school, just like all the others to which we send our beloved children every school day. These and other apocalyptic events are tragic, horrific, and heartbreaking. While I was still in my own descent to the Underworld in the days immediately following the collapse of the I-35W Bridge, I started to wonder: what do these apocalyptic events mean? What are they telling us?
Three weeks after the collapse of the I-35W freeway bridge, after our dead had been sadly and solemnly removed from dark waters filled with jagged wreckage, the city reopened another bridge just immediately downriver of the collapse site. Soon after it re-opened, I felt compelled to go stand on that nearby bridge and look at the collapse site. Here’s some of what I wrote about my experience:
The bridge that Monday afternoon was not a sad place, but it wasn't a cheerful tourist place either. Dozens of people walked and stood at the railing, some staring sadly or quietly at the river, some talking in hushed voices, some taking photos. I walked three-quarters of the way across in order to get a full view and then slowly, very slowly, walked back. I felt compelled to stop and look, time after time. It seemed as if others there felt what I felt, the presence of Something much greater and more mysterious than the work below. I needed to stand very still as I stared, not exactly at the collapse site but in that direction, sensing Presence beneath the human activity. I didn't want to leave. The workers, the broken bridge, the clouds, the city, the river, the onlookers: we floated in timelessness.”
An opinion piece published around that time in the Minneapolis Star- Tribune newspaper gave me language to think about what I had felt that early September afternoon: sacred space. The writer suggested that the loss of thirteen people created sacred space. As I wondered what it meant that I and
others experienced sacred space at the collapse site, I also wondered if it was not the other way around. Perhaps the sacred had broken through the veil between worlds and destroyed the bridge, killing thirteen people and plunging the community into shock, heartbreak and almost unbearable vulnerability. Just as when the Twin Towers became massive pillars of smoke, fire and death. Just as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when we helplessly witnessed the terrible suffering of those unable to evacuate the city. A huge and apparently sturdy bridge fell down. It was unthinkable, unimaginable. Yet there it was. What did it mean? If this were a dream, what would it say about the dreamer? And who would that dreamer be?
I eventually found my way to Edward Edinger’s thoughts in Archetype of the Apocalypse: Divine Vengeance, Terrorism and the End of the World, his analysis of the images in the New Testament Book of Revelation. The Greek Apokalypsis means “revelation” or “the uncovering of what has been hidden”. Apocalyptic events, Edinger says, signify the “coming of the Self into conscious realization”. “It is a momentous event,” he goes on, “the shattering of the world as it has been, followed by its reconstitution.” I’m never entirely sure when a writer references Jung’s concept of “the Self” what exactly is meant. But it seemed clear to me at the time I read those words, and it seems clear to me now, that when apocalyptic events and images arise, individually and collectively, the world of the dominant consciousness is about to be shattered in the service of Life. If the dreamer is those of us identified with the Euro-American inheritance of Western Consciousness, these events are our collective dream. We dreamed this world into being and now we are dreaming its end.
I can’t talk about apocalyptic images at this particular moment without noting that about forty days ago the world lived through a date around which apocalyptic imagery collected for many years: December 21, 2012, the end of the 13th b’ak’tun of the Mayan Long Count calendar. Some imagined it as a moment when terrible catastrophes like earthquakes and tsunamis would overwhelm civilized life on our planet. Others imagined it as heralding planet-wide spiritual awakening. Mayan elders, inheritors of that ancient Mayan tradition, are the only ones who can really tell us what the movement from one age to the next in their Long Count calendar meant to their ancestors or means to them. What I want us to think about tonight is what the anticipation of Solstice 2012 and the apocalyptic imagery and events so pervasive at the beginning of the 21st century might mean to us, inheritors of Western consciousness. Here are just a few thoughts.
I believe we in Western Consciousness are being called to individual and collective awakening, my way of thinking about what Edinger calls “the coming of the Self into conscious realization.” Deeply unconscious contents are pressing into Western and Euro-American consciousness. From the point of view of the ego, the experience of long-rejected parts of the personality forcing their way into awareness is catastrophic. I believe apocalyptic images and events herald world- shattering, paradigm-shattering, realizations which may bring us to our knees. I can’t help but imagine that continued denial and repression of the knowledge of how we in Western consciousness behave towards our fellow humans, the more- than-human beings with whom we share the earth and the earth herself is moving us relentlessly toward ever-more-shattering events. What will it take to wake us up?
While we Euro-Americans are not inheritors of ancient Mayan traditions, I still wonder about the intensity of events in late 2012. The last one, the slaughter of children and their teachers in the Sandy Hook Elementary School hit me hard, as it did so many. It occurred almost exactly a week before the Solstice and deeply permeated our national awareness as the calendar moved inexorably toward that date. I have wondered about the levels of possible meaning in it as an archetypal warning about just exactly what presses into Euro-American consciousness.
Some sources have suggested that Nancy Lanza kept guns in her home because she was a ‘survivalist’, someone who literalizes and acts on apocalyptic fantasies about imminent severe and permanent long-term collapse of society and its infrastructure. Responses to this apocalyptic fantasy range from benign decisions to live ‘off the grid’ to the more disturbing varieties in which people buy guns and build bomb shelters in order to protect themselves and their families, fearing that society will descend into chaos and friends and neighbors will threaten their survival. We still know very little about Adam and Nancy Lanza, but it appears that her survivalist behaviors tended toward the latter: she had a number of guns in her house; she was unwilling to let anyone from the community into her home and she gave her son shooting lessons, allowing him to be all-too-swiftly lethal when he murdered her and sprayed two classrooms of children with bullets. Such end-of-the-world fantasies run directly contrary to what often happens in communities which suffer a catastrophe. In actuality, catastrophic events often bring out the best, most compassionate, side of us, as author Rebecca Solnit describes in her book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster.
In the end, the deadly threat came from the closest member of her family. I imagine Nancy Lanza’s failure to see the real danger to her life to be an echo of our national post-9/11 fantasies that the world-shattering threats are outside of us, from ‘terrorism’, and not from what could happen if our Euro-American consciousness is not radically transformed. As with Nancy Lanza, our responses to those fears, particularly our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and their consequences, are serving only to bring about exactly what we most fear. And what about Adam Lanza, the stereotypical male loner who came out of the shadows to terrorize and gravely wound his community? We know little about him because he apparently destroyed evidence which might have helped us understand. Whatever his reasons for erasing all trace of his murderous intentions, we are left wondering and unable to make final judgments about his horrific act, unable therefore to comfort ourselves with imagined solutions to the possibility of more Adam Lanzas in our future. Our inability to ground our understanding of him with details of his particular human life leaves us uneasily in the presence of an inhuman archetypally evil force. In the end, he becomes a symbol, an embodiment of psychic content rising out of our shared cultural shadow, not a living, if profoundly disturbed, human being.
How might this event, so eerily close to Solstice 2012, be information about what lies in our national shadow? We have seen an outpouring of both soul- searching and blame following the massacre, some of which we can hope will lead to more sensible gun control laws and a realistic assessment of the current state of mental health services. Still, for me, much of it misses the mark. I feel that we grope for but fail to arrive at a coherent understanding of this horrific event because we cannot see the collective psychic context in which it occurred. It is
beyond the scope of this short presentation to go into detail about what I imagine that psychic context to be and I plan for us to take that up in the workshop tomorrow morning. But let me leave the tragedy of Newtown, Connecticut, with just a few thoughts about the dark invisible parts of our Euro-American psyche.
The land on which my community rests was inhabited for thousands of years by the Dakota people. The shadow of their treatment by the European settlers and their descendants hangs over that land and the waters we think of as ours. An event commemorated in the waning days of 2012 brought that Euro- American shadow into awareness. The hanging of 38 Dakota warriors in Mankato, Minnesota, at the orders of President Lincoln, a-hundred and fifty years ago on the day after Christmas, is the largest such execution in American history. The “US/Dakota war” began with the failure of the U.S. government to honor treaty obligations to provide food for the Dakota people, leading to widespread hunger and starvation in their communities. Some, by no means all, Dakota men, enraged by what they felt as a betrayal and fearful for their communities, attacked Minnesota settlers. In the end, after the execution, most of the remaining Dakota, feared and vilified by the settlers, were driven out of the state in a long march which proved fatal to many of the already-weakened Dakota, to settle in states immediately west of Minnesota. Most Dakota live outside of Minnesota to this day. Up until very recently, this event in our dark past was never discussed and while I was deeply saddened and outraged, once again, by what we had done, I welcomed a public conversation about it.
After the slaughter at the Sandy Hook elementary school, more than one commentator noted the discrepancy between our understandable heart-felt grief about the little ones who perished there and our failure to notice and remember
the little ones who have died at the hands of American drones during the so- called War on Terrorism. Scholar and historian Juan Cole, estimates the number of children killed by US drones in Pakistan, a country with which we are not at war, at 178. Guardian writer George Monbiot, refers to what he calls the murder of Pakistani children by President Obama. He says:
Most of the world's media, which has rightly commemorated the children of Newtown, either ignores Obama's murders or accepts the official version that all those killed are 'militants'. The children of north-west Pakistan, it seems, are not like our children. They have no names, no pictures, no memorials of candles and flowers and teddy bears. They belong to the other: to the non-human world of bugs and grass and tissue.
I wonder if the consciousness that can murder Pakistani children and imagine them to be “collateral damage” was reflected back to us in Adam Lanza’s demented act. I can only suggest tonight that a consciousness which traumatizes other human beings and the earth in pursuit of its own aims is, itself, deeply traumatized. It isn’t just that individuals and societies tend to see their inner states in projection and so enacted in the so-called ‘outer world.’ It’s also that the so-called ‘outer world’ eventually becomes a mirror of the state of the ‘inner world’. As Jung so famously said:
The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate. That is to say, when the individual remains undivided and does not become conscious of his inner opposite, the world must perforce act out the conflict and be torn into opposing halves.
Adam Lanza made his inner world visible to the rest of us and what a heart- breaking terrible world it was. What is going on in the inner world of the dominant consciousness that we see so much oppression, injustice and poverty, so much war and ecological devastation and so much violence in our surrounding
world? I believe the apocalyptic events and images of our times ask that question and call each of us individually and all of us collectively to wake up from the 5000- year old dream of “Western civilization,” to see its failures as well as its triumphs. To feel in our hearts and grieve the violence, injustice, inhumanity and selfishness of our 500-year Euro-American history on what some indigenous peoples call Turtle Island. Perhaps we then might be able, with all humility, humanity and vulnerability, to come together with each other and the communities in the rest of the world in a different dream, a dream of peace, justice and respect among all of us, for our fellow more-than-human beings and for the earth herself.
That day seems a long way off. However, another event in the waning days of 2012, gives me hope and touches me deeply, as I watch the indigenous peoples who have lived in our collective shadow for 500 years insisting that we see and feel that shadow, showing us the way toward collective awakening and transformation. On December 11th Atta-wa-piskat Chief Theresa Spence, from a First Nations community in what is now far northern Ontario, went on a hunger strike to highlight long-standing injustices to the First Nations of Canada. Her hunger strike started a day after a First Nation’s movement called Idle No More began, protesting a parliamentary omnibus bill which is widely seen by First Nations people as designed to weaken environmental protections and terminate their sovereignty and rights. The Idle No More movement, coalescing around Chief Spence’s hunger strike, has swept North America and inspired solidarity actions all over the world. Here are the words of Derek Nepinak, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs:
In the past several months, I have sensed a growing and powerful energy amongst our people...we are witnessing the rise of a people's movement, where the passion and energy of our people will no longer be harnessed by
apathy, political correctness, deference, or a blind trust in provincial or federal politicians to do the right thing. There is a new energy that is now awake and its messaging is spreading quietly amongst our people through the whispers, the prayers and the songs of our young men and women.
I don’t know what the beginning of the 14th b’ak’tun means to contemporary Mayans, but I do know that Western astrology pinpoints this time as a potential turning point for the institutions based on the psychic structures of Western consciousness. The beginning of the 13th b’ak’tun roughly five thousand years ago also marks the earliest beginnings of Western consciousness. I wish the ‘new agers’ had been right, that humanity had suddenly awakened at 6:11 am EST on December 21st, 2012, but that idea, like the opposite idea that the world will come suddenly to a violent end, is based in ideas of linear time that permeate Western consciousness. A number of cosmologies say that we live in times of transformative change, of old eras ending, of new eras beginning. If we believe that we are in a rare moment in human history where the dominant consciousness can be awakened and transformed, we are all asked, individually and in our communities and nations, to do the hard, often painful, often joyous, work of making it so. If we are doing the work of our hearts and it serves Life, we will have the wind at our backs.
I want to close by reminding us all of the presence of sacred space at the site of the I-35W bridge collapse which, in the end, became a monument to cumulative human error, short-sightedness, misplaced priorities, carelessness and hubris. When lives are sacrificed for our collective awakening, we owe those lives and Life itself our fiercest, most committed, most sincere, most humble and most honest search for an understanding of how we failed them and how we go forward. It is a debt to them and to Life we most urgently need to begin to pay.