“There is no greater suffering than the suffering of meaningless wounds.” I’ve said these words hundreds of times. The meaning making capacities of myth and ritual lead us out of passivity and victimhood. I have devoted myself to this premise of making meaning. Lately as I take stock of the variety of ways that people ascribe meaning to their lives I’ve begun to reconsider. What if a life with meaning is misleading, one more form of mass-civilization’s great delusion? And so it is with some surprise that I find myself struck by an unaccustomed thought—”It’s possible that the pursuit of meaning and worth is nothing more than a conceit.”
After all, animals, plants, and minerals appear to be unbothered by such questions. And for themselves the gods seem untroubled by any lack of meaning or worth; that is, until they turn their attention to humans—even some animals and trees seem to notice our confusion. If the gods and the earthly creatures wish to awaken us to a wider and wilder purpose, then perhaps our desire for self made meaning is simply the result of human ingratitude and ignorance. Foxes and cedar trees don’t have to decide how to live; the world grants them their place and their way. For most humans place and way are not clear, let alone granted. The complexities of modern circumstance tend to obscure the presence of a given place and way.
Yet somehow some of us suspect that a rightful place and a proper way belong to us, and so we ask, and seek, and choose. Making choices, and seeking justification for those choices, have become full time preoccupations for the people of modernity. The atavistic notion that one could simply “be”—like foxes and cedar trees—is at best naïve, and at worst a kind of exploitative program of denial.
Part of our dilemma is that human choice is never made in a vacuum. Every life is woven into a collective, a pantheon, an ecosystem, a culture. Our choices affect others and the choices of others affect us—much more so than we can know.
Considering this inescapable interrelatedness, we should turn, not to the best thinking of individuals, but to the best thinking of culture. Such collective thought, when it has matured, is called myth, and it is the myths, of the worlds indigenous oral traditions, that speak to us most deeply of our place and way in the world, of living with meaning and worth. Contrary to the ideologies of individualism and ambition, the implication of so many old stories is that we cannot perform the great tasks of life in isolation, that we need help, and that there is something which wants to help us.
The old Greek word paraclete, paraklesos, means intercessor, comforter, advocate, and it has the sense of something called or summoned. The etymology of the word paraclete is literally “called to one’s side.” In Christian theology the paraclete is The Holy Ghost and/or Christ; this correlation is so pervasive that my spellcheck wants a capitol “P,” every time I type it in. So paraclete with a small “p” is a subtle move toward a broader meaning. I envision a sense of the paraclete like that of Henry Corbin where “the Paraclete is the ‘Spirit of Truth’ that is the unveiler—discloser—of what is hidden.” (p. iviii The Voyage and the Messenger foreword by Jacob Needleman) The word “discloser” is apt because the message sought for here is a “mythic disclosure”(Hatab) which informs us of truths which cannot be explained. Hence, the paraclete can well be imagined as the “not-I”—as in Juan Ramon Jeménez’s great poem—the not-I is the one “walking beside me whom I do not see.” In the oldest sense, then, the paraclete is the genius, the daimon, the guardian angel—it speaks to us of Mystery, often through the gestures of the living world.
There is an old story in which a man is changed into dog. The man wastes no time resenting this transformation, but sets about straight away to be the best dog he can be. He becomes so good that his fame spreads and people often seek the loan of the dog from its master. This situation could be the end of the story, but, as so often happens in the old stories, a message arrives.
The idea that the living world is interested in helping us find our place and way, requires a kind readiness to receive the messages from the world. Many things have to go just right for this to happen.
In the story it goes like this. There is a village being preyed on my a rogue bear. The people finding no way to protect themselves go to the master seeking the loan of the good dog. So they take the dog giving him a clean place to sleep, clean water, and good meat. Thus when the bear comes the dog does his part. Not only chasing the bear away from the village but relentlessly pursuing the bear through the forest and high up into the mountains. As the chase nears the summit the bear turns rearing up on hind legs, the dog stops and the bear speaks. “You are not a dog! You are a human being! And in order to become the man you were meant to be you must do as I say!”
It turns out that this bear has been deliberately plaguing the village in the hopes of meeting the good dog and so the bear would have the opportunity to deliver its message.
The paraclete is always connected with the image of the wounded-healer. This is because the healing we need can only come from that which is similarly wounded. The question of meaning now becomes a question of sensibility; how prepared are we to hear the voice or read the signs? How deeply have we looked into our own wounds?
How many times do such messages pass by undelivered? In the story the dog hears and heeds the messenger, but for us this seldom happens. The arrival of the messenger, the paraclete, may not be so dramatic as a standing bear—a gust of wind, a fallen leaf, a feather—the gestures of the living world may speak to us at any moment saying, “in order to become the person you were meant to be you must do as I say!”
In the phrase “living world,” it should be made emphatically clear, that we are not simply referring to the natural world; what is intended is a world alive because of its inherent connection and communion with the Otherworld.
How do we make ourselves ready and prepared to receive the intercessional message of the paraclete? We have to know many stories so that the myth-making syntax of the living world can reach our hearts. The images in the myths, according to Robert Bly, “are meant to unfold slowly in our bodies”; this “unfolding” is a visceral process which I have called biomythic informance—as I have suggested elsewhere, human beings are biologically prepared to respond to the mythic image. In this way one is not gathering data or information for analysis, its more a kind of gnosis—a way of knowing, as Lao Tzu advocated, with “not-knowing.” The use of biomythic informance depends on a cultivated familiarity with the conditions of radical uncertainty.
So, after all, is it possible that the pursuit of meaning and worth is nothing more than human conceit? Insofar as one conceives that validation and confirmation are derived strictly from the human world, then such a conception is surely a conceit—that is to say hubris. Instead of aiming to invent ourselves, or raise ourselves in order to earn the approval of our betters, the story suggests that the message of the paraclete can only arrive when one departs from the ordinary life and risks a certain kind of sacrifice.
In the end meaningfulness is not the result of belief, or conception, it is nothing so heady as that. It turns out that our inventions of meaning do not ultimately satisfy. The meaning that lasts is more visceral, it sings in the blood, and echoes in the bones, there is no rational thinking involved. When the deep song, the duende, of mythos moves though our body we do not ask “what does this mean,” we simply enter the dance, and the dance is the meaning.
© 2012, Daniel Deardorff. All rights reserved.