It feels like the world is unraveling right now, doesn’t it? Like things are spinning faster and faster toward some not-too-distant breaking point.
It almost doesn’t feel real. It’s all somehow familiar though, and that’s partly because of our shared mythology.
There have been a handful of gigantic, unavoidable stories in recent memory. Harry Potter and Star Wars, for instance — these sorts of massive, legendary tales are some of the myths of our time and place — these are the sorts of myths and stories that live in the collective consciousness have been around across the generalizations and the civilizations and the errors. They reflect the times in which they are told and created, and in that same sense they were also instructive, especially for the people of the time when these stories were told.
If we look to our myths now, they are telling us what to do. We already recognize the tropes and characters unfolding in the drama around us, which in the end gives us a way to move forward through the darkness.
I mean, just look around you. It’s all right there.
Biff Tannen is the President of the United States. And we’re not talking about the small-time beer-swilling bully from the original. We’re talking about Biff from the alternate timeline in “Back to the Future II,” when he has Gray’s Sports Almanac and he’s a rich and disgusting and powerfully weird tyrant.
Meanwhile, Dolores Umbridge — err, I mean, Cruella de Vil — wait, no, it’s Betsy DeVos! That’s right. Betsy DeVos, a real-life simpering villain who seems to hate kids and teachers alike, is overseeing our nation’s schools.
And DeVos is just one example of the unfortunate new rule, not an inconceivable exception.
This is all just the tip of the melting iceberg, of course.
The Keystone XL Pipeline burst not long ago and spilled 200,000 gallons of oil.
A police sergeant in Portland, Ore., told his officers recently, “If you come across a Black person, just shoot them.”
Brazil’s newly-elected right-wing president openly targeted indigenous peoples, former slaves and environmental groups in his first days in office. Canada, too, encroached forcefully in recent weeks on indigenous land in the name of oil baronhood.
It’s everywhere, it’s everyone, and it only keeps getting worse.
Two children have died in U.S. custody in the past couple of months. Two migrant children under 10 years old, captured by ICE and held in detention centers (which is, of course, just a softer way to say “prison”). And remember, it’s at least two kids that have died. Two that we know of.
Many more kids and parents remain unaccounted for.
Can we be honest with each other for a second? Can I say what I try desperately not to think about?
Certainly more children have died in ICE custody, in detention centers, in the hands of border patrol.
Certainly others of those “unaccounted-for” children have been sold.
Certainly many children, beloved by the people in their lives just as we treasure our own children, have been molested while incarcerated by our border patrol stormtroopers.
Certainly even more have been threatened and insulted.
And every single one of those children has been afraid, we can be sure of that. Every one of them has been separated from their loved ones, wrenched from their protectors.
In other words, every one of them has been traumatized.
Every single one, after all, has been caged. Incarcerated. Herded like an animal. Left, in some cases, to die.
And us? We have known about it.
So. Take a deep breath with me.
This is happening. It’s been happening.
And it has all been happening here. In our place and in our time. Not in a history book and not in a fable, not in a movie and not in a stable. Not in some “other” jurisdiction.
It’s you and me, here and now. This is your life and you know about this.
So. What comes next?
Well, that depends. It depends on you. And me.
What will we do? What will I do as someone who knows? Because — and this is vital to remember — not everyone knows. We can’t afford to lose you to idle understanding. It’s critically important for each of us to stand up and breathe life into our knowing by taking meaningful action.
It’s easy, after all, to know about all of this and to hate it — to despise this oppressive, violent reality and to know how wrong it all is. It’s relatively easy, even, to say it. Fairly easy to write about it, too, all things considered.
But if that’s all we do — know, disagree, voice our dissent — we will, in the end, have condoned through our lives and actions the violent oppression we disapprove of intellectually.
When the heroes of our myths stumble onto their moment of “knowing,” we don’t wonder what they should do. It’s crystal clear! They should go for it with every part of their being! What else is there? Sacrifice whatever it takes!
When confronted with violence, evil, darkness, oppression and tyranny, you stand and fight. We know this. You organize. You rebel. And you don’t do it halfheartedly. You give everything you have, because to lose this fight — or not to fight at all — is to save your life at the expense of your soul.
We don’t wonder if Harry should pursue his destiny. We don’t second-guess Meg and Charles Wallace when they plunge into the darkness with three strange witches, or Luke when he decides to become a Jedi. We revel in their adventures.
When the heroes of our myths even voice their misgivings, they often sound absurd. Remember when Obi-Wan first tells Luke about the Force and hands him his father’s old lightsaber? He invites Luke on an adventure, on a secret mission to overthrow a power-hungry, unethical government, and at first Luke says no! He says he needs to stay home on the farm and keep helping out.
“It's not that I like the Empire,” he says. “I hate it, but there's nothing I can do about it right now. It's all such a long way from here.”
And we watch this movie and we know that Luke is being ridiculous, because we know he’s special. He’s been chosen, and part of us longs to be in his shoes, finding out the world is magic as we hold a glowing laser-sword.
But also, we know that the evil Luke faces is worth standing up to. We know that when something like the Empire comes around, there’s nothing to do but fight.
Still, as obvious as it seems to us looking on, most of the regular people and aliens bustling through the Star Wars background are just trying to get by. They’re just trying to live their lives, run their businesses and feed their families. They probably have opinions about the Empire, but they stay out of it. Many of them probably don’t even fully realize what the Empire is doing, or what it really stands for.
But you and I, on the other hand… we know. There’s no way out of that truth. It’s just not an option for us anymore to be extras scurrying around in the background. You’re special, whether you like it or not.
So, put yourself in your hero’s shoes, because they’re yours. You’re living a myth.
You know that a massive government is systematically jailing and abusing families. You know that a spineless leader and his minions are gradually stripping people of their civil liberties, promoting hateful division and a prejudiced, colonial (empirical?) worldview. You know that they rule over a nation that has never truly known peace, and whose leaders have always willingly shed blood and exploited humans and animals alike in the name of extracting resources.
You know also that this evil empire only allows doctors to treat patients who spend almost all of their time working, or who in some other way can afford to buy healthcare. People in this empire are systematically judged and treated differently based on arbitrary things like skin color, gender and physical abilities — often with violent consequences.
People in this empire suffering from addiction or mental illness are cast aside and left to die, and the symptoms of their diseases are criminalized.
When you, our hero, wake up and realize that the world you’ve been raised in is not what it seemed, and that you are entrapped in something much deeper and darker than you’d ever thought possible, everybody watching the movie isn’t going to sit there and think, oh, gosh, just make sure you don’t lose your job! I know it’s all an evil farce, but still, get your kids to the Imperial Academy on time, and then get to the office!
Nobody reading your life story is thinking, we get it! It’s not that you like the empire — you hate it! But you have a really good job at a non-profit, and you’re doing really good work for kids, and you’re going to keep putting this tiny band-aid on this huge gaping wound instead of demanding change and revolution with every part of your being. It totally makes sense.
No. No, no, no.
We would be watching this movie or reading this book and thinking, this person sounds ridiculous. Get up and go for it! You’re special, damn it! So give it everything you’ve got and save the day!
I probably sound a little silly, or a little crazy, and I may well be one or both of those things. But I’m also serious, and I’m talking to you (and to myself — I give myself the same pep talk every day).
Don’t let yourself off the hook. This is real. This is your life.
What would you do if you knew you were the hero of the story?
Lay your most prized role models, whether mythical hero or real-life giant, over the top of today’s current events. What would your heroes do if they found themselves surrounded by the evil that entwines us all now?
What would you expect Dumbledore or T'Challa to do if they woke up in your world? How would you expect MLK or Malcolm or Sojourner or Harriet to respond if they knew what you know today?
See? You already know what to do.
Now the only question is whether you and I will have the courage to do what we know needs to be done.
This is your life, and you are the hero. Now be it! See to it!