President Obama and The Power of Myth

Did tears come to your eyes, taking in the spectacle of the Inauguration of  President Obama.  Were you moved,  taking in the pomp and pagantry, the vast crowds stretching as far as the eye could see, the speeches and songs and prayers?   I admit that I teared up at points, but I’ve been fascinated to hear a range of reactions from friends.  Most were  “very moved.”  One wondered why she wasn’t so moved, why she feltjust  cautiously optimistic.  One friend expressed dismay that the crowd that cheered Obama also booed Bush and Laura Bush.  This showed her that a crowd  can also become a mob.   That observation flowed into an insight I heard from the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, that what marks Obama’s inauguration as extraordinary is the emotional connection people are making with this President.  That’s what I saw on the mall: an upwelling of emotion that had to be expressed.

At some point,  I remembered learning that President Obama’s mother loved  “The Power of Myth,” the video series starring Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, which Parabola helped bring to the world.   When I read his address in The New York Times the day after,  I couldn’t help but be struck by way he assumed the role of the hero.  “Could it be (and it’s a question, not an assertion) that first and foremost the hero is one who is willing to set out, take the first step, shoulder something?”  wrote P.L. Travers in the inaugural issue of Parabola, which was dedicated to the hero.   Travers wondered if the quest wasn’t always the same if you examined them closely.  “Perhaps the myths are telling us that these endeavors are not so much voyages of discovery as of rediscoery; that the hero is seeking not for something new but for something old, a treasure that was lost and has to be found, his own self, his identity.  And by finding this, by achieving this, he takes part in the one task, the essential, mythical requirement: the reinstatement of the fallen world.  It is the long and perilous journey back from the nadir to the zenith….”

Could it be that we the people have longed to be led on a journey and here at last is a hero? This is the way Obama articulated it on that cold, bright day:  “In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given.  It must be earned.  Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less.  It has not been the path for the faint-hearted–for those who prefer leisure over work. or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.  Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things–some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor–who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.”

He urged us to return to values that are old and true–to remember the words that the father of our nation,  our first hero, had read to the people:  “Let it be told to the future world that in the depths of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.”

In one oral history I recently read about the failures of the Bush years, insiders complained that after 9/11, people yearned to be rallied to a common cause, to remember our cherished ideals and stories, to sacrifice and strive together towards a greater goal.  Bush never did.   Obama ended his speech with these ringing words:  “America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words [about meeting danger].  With hope and virute, let us brave once more the icy currents and endure what storms may come.  Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter, and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

Many commentators have talked about how carefully considered Obama’s speech was.  If it didn’t soar like Kennedy’s or F.D.R.’s–if it lacked the majesty of Lincoln’s second inaugural–well, still, it hit all the right notes and covered all the bases.   What I heard was President Obama taking his first step on a hero’s journey…and bracing us for the unknown.  What do you think?

6 thoughts on “President Obama and The Power of Myth

  1. Carl Jung once said, “Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism.” Somewhere between pageantry and history, there lingered a question: What are people responding to? Are they responding to the historic moment when the final brick in the wall of Jim Crow separation came tumbling down? Are they responding to the possibility of a new leader and a new direction for a country plagued by ills that could have been prevented? Are they reacting as the media hype has directed them to react without really knowing what they believe? Or are they celebrating a leader they believe in?

    Yes, I had tears in my eyes when I pulled the lever in the voting booth, even though he was not the candidate I supported in the primary. And yes, I had tears when I watched John Lewis, the courageous Freedom Rider, on the stage watching the Inauguration. And yes, I was moved to hear the stories of those who traveled long distances to attend the event. But large, emotional crowds make me nervous. I have read too many times of the Rights of Man quickly becoming the Severed Heads of Men.

    But perhaps there is something greater pecking at my conscience than an emotional crowd, maybe there is a whiff of P.L. Travers in my mind. What does it mean anyway to be the Hero? Is the hero always some Macedonian Alexander who is raised in the belief of his divine destiny and necessarily must be followed and obeyed by the masses? Or is the hero like some Ayn Rand character that is independent of the machinations of others and has no need to dominate others but must be free? Or is the hero anyone of us who is willing to journey to something greater? Is there a John Locke of heroism: you have the right to life, liberty, and heroism? Or must it be earned?

    Ultimately, that is what plagues me. After the twentieth century and its Pol Pots and Hitlers and Pinochets, isn’t it time to move away from cults of personality? And can devotion to a charismatic leader, even one who does good, lead us away from assuming responsibility for ourselves?

    Maybe it is too much Gandhi. But when Gandhi was offered the office of Prime Minister, he declined. So, returning to Jung, is it addiction to idealism which is bad or fusing idealism and personality? And if our ideals become embedded in a person, would we change them if that person changed?

    Yes, I believe that a hero is someone who responds not to popularity, fame, or wealth but to the true dictates of his conscience. “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.” That is heroic. Somehow I just sense that a politician is more committed to his political position than his conscience. But I could be wrong. Maybe a politician can surprise me.

  2. Thanks for your interesting comment. One of the heartening signs that President Obama may actually possess a conscience is the way he keeps emphasizing the need for each of us to assume personal responsibility. How do we do that, one moment at a time?

  3. Perhaps we could do that by realizing that WE need to be heroic – rather than expecting leaders to do it for us. Perhaps we need another kind of reformation to evolve. A change where individual ideals are allowed to be expressed, shared, and maybe used to live by, and where we aspire to more than “enough”.

  4. Conscience? How little most of us know about that. What appears to be activated by
    Conscience may in fact be only an emotion or a thought….conscience is neither of these. Conscience is feeling – not the same as emotion.

    Obama seems to be a good man; nonetheless he is an ‘ordinary’ man. He is only the level of self-awareness common to 99.9 percent of humans. And without awareness of self as well as the so called outer world, intentional ‘good’ is not possible. Its action will be limited to a small scale. It is an interesting question as to why an unconscious, asleep human, such as Bush, can do harm on such a wide scale?

    In spite of Obama’s words and ‘good intentions’ already he has blood on his hands as it is he who has authorized the dropping of bombs on fellow humans.

    But we are all guilty. We all have a hand in the decline of man.

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