Saturday, October 17, 2015

Guns, Melancholia, and the Meaning of Life

Published in the Concord Monitor 10/15/15
Original photo taken on deserted outer banks of Cape Cod
CC Jean Stimmell  4/12/14
In the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, politicians and the media have focused, as usual, on guns: Should we have more or less? Our national debate reminds me of the guys in that iconic commercial arguing whether their favorite beer  “tastes great or is less filling.”

Let’s for a moment look at a deeper existential issue: What will we do when our time comes near? In most cases, guns will not be the primary topic of concern. For me ­– as much as serving 18 months in Vietnam or having two kinds of cancer – the movie Melancholia forced me to look death straight in the eye.

Melancholia explores the existential question of what gives meaning to life, even in the face of imminent death – in this case when a rogue planet is about to crash into earth. The heroine Justine, like many of us, is already beaten down by the pressures of modern life, while her brother-in-law, the ultra-rational, take-charge-guy, thinks he has a solution for everything, even the rogue planet; he thinks science will always be able to save the day.

However, when the rational guy finally figures out his situation is hopeless – that science has no answers – he gives up and commits suicide, leaving the other family members to fend for themselves. At this point Justine steps up and takes charge of her family, showing them how to find meaning in their lives in the face of death by building a magic teepee – a sacred canopy – and finding refuge inside.

To my way of thinking, this movie provides a metaphor for our times, highlighting the question of how we find meaning in today’s world? Where is our sacred canopy when we need it most? The common bonds that used to connect us are being torn asunder. Our fundamental problem is not about guns, but our increasing conflict over what our social and moral norms should be.

Emile Durkheim, eminent French sociologist of the 19th century, called this kind of social breakdown, anomie. His research clearly shows the ill effects to society when “social and/or moral norms become confused, unclear, or simply not present:” Individuals become alienated from group goals and values; they lose sight of their shared interests based on mutual dependence; and worse yet, this loss of social cohesiveness leads to increasing suicide, deviant behavior and, in our modern age, mass shootings.

For millennia, organized religion was our sacred canopy; it was that institution that gave our lives ultimate meaning, cohesion, and common cause. More recently, science has replaced that role for many people. But now we have been set adrift, no longer able count on either to provide us refuge when we need it most.

In the West, the fabric of the religious sacred canopy began to fray over 500 years ago when Galileo “discovered” that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe, ushering in the age of science.  Since then, our society has become increasingly secularized as science has emerged as our surrogate god, the new deity who mesmerizes us with an endless stream of magical inventions, fooling us into believing that with science on our side, we are invincible, able to control our destiny.

But now we are beginning to see through that illusion. Rather than floating effortlessly on the magic carpet of technology, we find ourselves more stressed, anxious, and impoverished than ever.  And when it becomes most important, when our own death draws near, we are discovering just as Justine’s brother-in-law did in the movie, science is powerless to help.

Perhaps that is because, in the cold world of empiricism, scientists can’t grasp the reality of a sacred canopy because it can’t be measured or dissected like a laboratory rat. But, despite the lack of physical evidence, it has always been an essential dimension of what it means to be human.

 Of course, sacred canopies will vary, depending on time and place, and may involve symbolic self-transcendence or maybe not.  But the bottom line is, as our final moments approach, we need to be able to validate what is most meaningful in our lives: our human connection to one another. We do that by coming together and being there for each other, seeking refuge together under the symbolic sacred teepee of our choice.

For indigenous people, able to live mindfully in an animate world, their sacred canopy is not a human projection but a seamless part of everyday life, an ever-present reality woven out of their sustainable, interdependent relationships with their tribe and their living, breathing earth mother.

For those of us today, trying to cope with the dysfunction of our modern world unraveling around us, reaching for a gun is not the answer. Instead we must conjure up the most important assets we possess, our imagination and sense of the divine, to weave a new myth – a new sacred canopy – under which we can once again feel secure and validated, cradled in the arms of our loved ones, our community and our living, breathing planet.

xxx (842 words)
Jean Stimmell, LCMHC
Original photo taken at Ft. Foster, Maine
CC Jean Stimmell: 3/21/14
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