How did we get here? The Commercialization of the Season of Light.
I recently returned from a shopping trip out there in the mall-infested world.
It was like being in a bumper car race at the fair with a bunch of angry, nasty, competitive people who got points for how unconscious they could be while pushing, shoving, and driving like maniacs. I witnessed couples arguing in the aisles about what to get the kids for Christmas.
How insane is that?
I felt stunned and exhausted from a 2-hour trip to just get groceries and gas. This is the Christmas season, the season of lights, Joy to the World, and Peace on Earth. How is it that people are out shopping for Christmas celebrations and acting like the Grinch?
Was Scrooge right? Has Christmas just become a time of year to buy things and spend money we don’t have? Holy smoke people, what about a smile and a “Happy Holidays” occasionally! You know it takes more energy to frown than to smile, right?
If Christmas shopping were good for us I would expect shoppers to look like they were having fun. I have seen happier faces in the dentist’s office. I believe we have gotten sucked into yet another story that is harming us.
In 1931 the Coca Cola Company decided they wanted to increase their sales to children. The law at the time did not allow any advertising depicting children drinking Coca Cola (it was rumored that the company used a narcotic in their recipe). So the company had artist Haddon Sundblom develop a new, friendly, more commercial Santa. Thus the Jolly Old Elf in a red suit with white trim (the Coca Cola colors at the time) was born. They then showed Santa relaxing while he was being served Coca Cola by a couple of cute kids.
At the end of World War II the Coca Cola Santa was adopted by Madison Avenue advertisers and became the new American symbol for Christmas. With the new availability of commercial television and the post war economic boom, Santa became an icon for shopping and consumerism. He was used to push everything from the latest high tech toys and gadgets to feminine hygiene products and beauty aids.
Also let us not to forget the ubiquitous Salvation Army Bell Ringer Santa. Fact is the mythical character of “Santa” has traceable roots that go back some 10,000 years and, if you are willing to accept that the pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers had some sense of the winter solstice and performed rituals around it, he may go back even further.
To trace the roots of our present Santa would take far too long here. The point is we have gotten sucked into an intentional commercialization of Christmas. We have been sold the story that if we don’t get the right present for Uncle Phil or the latest high tech toy for Billy that we are not good people. Well that’s bunk!
Truth to tell, I buy some gifts, make some gifts, and some people just get a card. It is not the number and quality of the gifts, but the quality of the relationships I have and keep that are important. There are rituals and traditions that predate the Coca Cola Madison Avenue Santa that brought people together without all the stress and commercial hype.
In my story I choose to have a potluck with friends and share stories, food, and celebration. I feel no remorse at all that I am not supporting Wal-Mart’s bottom line.
I invite you to re-invent your own story of the season. One that fills you with joy, pleasure, and allows you to feel happy. If that includes shopping like a wild person then that’s great too. And while you’re at the task of enjoying your new story, take some time to offer “Happy holiday” wishes to a stranger..
If you are interested in further reading, I encourage you to read “When Santa was a Shaman” by Tony van Renterghem, published in 1995 by Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN
The Changing Story
Why take an interest in storytelling?
“Joseph Campbell often said that while mythic structure is universal, myth itself is constantly renewed through reinterpretation. Every generation must re-contextualize myth to suit their times, to create their own road map for how to fit into the world. He often suggested that the scarcity of modern myth is an incalculable loss to our culture.”
I see a lot of use of the phrase: “Change the story, change your life, or your world, or your community, or what ever.” I don’t think the idea is new or original. I sometimes think that I live in a state of forced myopia. Not from a lack of awareness about the state of things but from an inability to handle all the information that modern technology makes available at any given moment. I must therefore be selective in what and how much information in which to immerse myself. I try to be broad minded and open to wide ranging sources and points of view but I still fall short of the ideal as an information sponge and processor. It is this veritable tsunami of information that also makes it difficult for me to believe that we can actually generate an individually unique thought or idea. The validity of an idea then doesn’t come from its originality but from the fact that any number of strangers exposed to different information and experiences can create convergent thoughts that support the same idea. The challenge in our culture comes with the argument of who owns the idea. Intellectual property is the title I believe is given to this “thing” that we then employ lawyers to sort out for us. This concept is the topic of a completely different discussion.
Changing the story is the idea that is of most interest to me. In 1987 during the Interviews with Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell charged that he believe the world, our culture specifically, was in a mess because we had not created “the myth to match our times.” What I heard when listening to the interviews was that the storytellers had failed to do their jobs. This does not preclude the responsibility of the rest of society but it does give us a place at which to start.
In my work as a storyteller in workshops, performances, and in college teaching I have found that the phrase “change the story” has become cliché. The phrase is thrown around as if it is somehow “the answer” and is a simple thing to do. Anyone that has done any kind of individual or group counseling knows just how difficult it actually is to change personal or group behaviors, perspectives, and beliefs. Another aspect of changing the story comes with the assumption that people actually know what the story is. How many of us have come to the awareness that advertising is storytelling with the focused intention of manipulating us into a frame of mind where we are not sufficient or adequate until we have the right car, house, cloths, use the right shampoo, have the right hair color, drink the right beer, and on adnauseam. These stories, though well conceived and very effective do not serve us individually or collectively. They create destructive behaviors to individuals, communities and our culture. If you don’t buy this idea check the statistics on personal credit card debt, family health, mental illness and drug and other forms of abuse in all populations of our culture.
Another aspect of the “story” as told in the context of leadership is that what is often called for in leadership is rugged individuality and quick, solid decisions without signs of weakness. Yet much of decision making that would result in positive outcomes for the most people requires clarity, honesty, humility, and humanity all of which are perceived as weakness. Anyone that has spent any time in a leadership role knows full well that social and emotional wounding and attacks are an expected part of the job. I know people who have refused leadership positions because they are not willing to become targets. Why does this belief continue? It is, I believe, embedded in the story that pervades our culture. I believe we are still living as if our businesses and communities are city states that must be controlled by warrior kings. When things are not well we must sacrifice the king. This story no longer serves us in a time when cooperation and collaboration are needed.
So, from my point of view, “changing the story” is absolutely a necessity for our changing times but we must also know what the story is and how it must be changed. We must understand that not everybody tells the same story or needs the same changes. We must also understand that each of us as storytellers cannot possibly take on this task alone. It will be by working together sharing ideas and experiences, successes and failures that we will be able to take on the role that Joseph Campbell suggested that we take and re-establish the value of myth, folklore, and story in our culture. My future vision is that storytellers will be seen by our culture as more important than bankers.
The Changing Story
Stories of Hope
There are millions of stories told on the face of the planet today and if you rely only on the mainstream media you are likely getting an overwhelming burden of violence and despair. There is another genre of story that I believe we could pay closer attention to. In our ancient world stories brought us closer to each other and the natural world. We are hard wired to put meaning to things so we created stories to pass meaning, practices, tribal expectations, and codes of relationship to younger generations. Unfortunately the elders and parents of our culture have often given over the storytelling and the nature of the stories to an authority that does not have the best interest of our children as their first priority. These stories have directed our culture toward behaviors that have not served us very well. The good news is that there is hope for a positive change. We are ripe for it and we can now step up to new vibrant roles of Parenthood and Elder-hood through taking back our roles as storytellers to our children and to a greater extent our communities. I would first like to look what hope means according to dictionary definitions.
⊗ A feeling or desire for a certain thing to happen: I hope to become a great writer.
⊗ A person or thing that may serve to help someone: I have hope that our stories will reclaim our personal power.
⊗ Grounds for believing that something good may happen: I do see hope for our future (which by the way begins in this moment).
The archaic meaning of HOPE is: a feeling of trust. I find it interesting that Hope as a feeling of Trust is considered and old-fashioned term and no longer in “everyday” use. I also find it interesting that the poetic/literary meaning of Trust is: A hope or expectation that one can believe in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something. So I believe when we share stories of Hope we are giving back Trust. Our stories can give hope and trust to our children, families, and communities only if we tell them. We have our own personal stories of hope however there are also stories that belong to everyone. In these stories there is a message to be given for the purpose of giving a person Hope and a belief in their personal gifts. The traditional stories are more often ones of self-discovery and in the process the protagonist would find helpers to guide them. These helpers were often animals or some form of nature spirit. In our own stories we may recognize the help we have received along the way and honor that help by sharing the story. When we tell stories that have some emotional meaning with positive outcomes we are passing on the gifts of Hope and Trust. We can demonstrate through the stories that we share that there are others who have had similar experiences and that there are ways to find ourselves. You do not need to commit stories to memory as I do but tell your own stories, whether they are traditional tales remembered from childhood or personal stories, they are a part of who you are. I believe it is time to break away from the fear mongering inherent in our society and promote positive, hope-filled stories of courage, cooperation, and positive outcomes.
The Changing Story
The Trap of Myth and The Living Hero
After nearly thirty years in public education and nearly as long a time studying story and storytelling I came to the realization that the stories that we use to teach, to define social roles and cultural values are flawed. I know this not only because my personal critic lives in those stories, but I also saw how those stories slowly and meticulously undid childhood inquisitiveness, wonder, innocence, and took away that simple beauty in life we used to call magic. I saw how, in raising my own children and in the educating of hundreds more how these stories create in us and or children a number of negative feelings and emotions that result in angst and conflict within and individual, in families, and in communities. To use but one example consider the impact of media produced body image on teenagers that result in eating disorders, uncontrolled demands for specific products that result in family conflict, and unbelievably bad hair styles and the fashion statements made by young men who wear their underwear on the outside of their pants. The media uses storytelling as an effective way of defining what is acceptable and COOL. Adults fall prey to this same insidious form of storytelling. Our consumerism, feelings of inadequacy, and fear are but some of the issues rooted in these stories.
I began to ask the question why and I began to feel like I had so many questions that my head might explode? Primarily I began to ask, what are the Myths of our modern times?
Let’s first look at the definition of MYTH:
Here I speak of “myth” in a scholarly sense, detached from popular associations with falsehood. The myth is a lie in the modern context.
This is one of the better definitions of myth that I’ve seen. It’s from an essay entitled, Story, Myth, Dream & Drama by: Dr Helena Sheehan: webpages.dcu.ie/~sheehanh/myth.htm
Myths are stories, but not just any stories. They are stories of special symbolic significance. Myths are prototypical stories, concretizing the really fundamental themes of human existence; involving archetypal characters and situations; expressing the really basic curiosities, hopes, fears, desires, conflicts, choices and patterns of resolution. Myths are paradigmatic stories, i.e., stories that are told and retold as shedding light on other stories, as linking past and present, as bringing the unknown into relation with known. Myths are resonating narratives, embodying the distilled essence of human experience; giving symbolic answers to the most basic human questions, questions of origin and destiny; offering stylized solutions to the most basic human decisions; staking out the choices to be made at life’s cross-roads. Myths are synthesizing stories, capturing the zeitgeist of a time and place, bringing to a focus what forces are at work, highlighting its problems, and crystallizing its values.
In the modern context Myths are normative narratives, setting out a society’s history, legitimizing its institutions, codes and values, and envisioning its future development. But what are those modern myths and how do they influence us? One of these Myths is embedded in the context of the mythic hero.
In his book “The Power of Myth,” Joseph Campbell popularized the concept of the Hero’s Adventure. After having given an in-depth account of the classic Hero’s Journey Campbell called for a new myth for our times. A new story that would serve us better to address the problems we were and are encountering in the age of modernity. The time of the solitary, iconoclast who is above and outside of society yet plays the savior role no longer serves us. We must redefine what it is that makes a Hero heroic and hold that new model up as a role model for our times.
Joseph Campbell often said that while mythic structure is universal, myth itself is constantly renewed through reinterpretation. Every generation must re-contextualize myth to suit their times, to create their own road map for how to fit into the world. He often suggested that the scarcity of modern myth is an incalculable loss to our culture.
I believe we have modern myths that permeate every aspect of our lives. We are bombarded by them in radio, television, magazines, newspapers, billboards and the entire myriad of means by which our lives are dictated to us. I would ask you to think about the myths that guide you or perhaps misguide you.
By what standards do you measure your fit into your culture and society?
What does this mean to us here and now?
Our society is guided by an image of a mythic hero that no longer serves us, if it ever did. We are also dictated to by cultural myths that define our visions, goals, values, and behaviors. Even our relationships are defined by using the right deodorant. When we look at the present state of the story, the cultural myth, it is in a very sorry state. Alexander Stille, author of the Future of the Past contends that we have lost our Historical Memory. That’s a fancy way of saying we have lost our folk stories. I wouldn’t say we have lost them, I would say they have been usurped.
In our ancient world stories brought us closer to the natural world. We are hard wired to put meaning to things so we created stories to pass meaning, practices, tribal expectations, and codes of relationship to younger generations. The stories belonged to everyone. In those stories a young Hero would be sent on or embark on a Quest of some sort. The quest was more often one of self-discovery and in the process they would find helpers to guide them. These helpers were often animals or some form of nature spirit. There are hundreds of these stories.
Somewhere in there during our development from hunter-gatherer nomads to agriculturalists this changed. Individuals began controlling the stories and thus become more powerful. The helpers were often elders of some sort who had some mastery over the natural world. These elders were transformed again and became vile old women that would only help for a price. The story givers soon transformed into Shaman, magicians, or priests and the group had to stay on their good side or terrible things would happen. People must have found it easy to give over their personal power because it seems so pervasive in our history and in the present. Whoever controlled the stories controlled the village. In some historical accounts the king’s storyteller or Bard had as much or more power than many ministers and advisors. Nature becomes something to subdue and control and we moved from power with to power over. Then the story givers/takers began redefining aspects of the story. One of these aspects was the nature of The Hero. The classic Hero was born in story. The Hero became one that all should aspire to be like, admire, and even worship.
As a teacher I became distressed at the Hero Images that the kids were looking up to. The Hero as the greater than life, above all (sometimes including the Law), Power seeking, Vengeance dispensing, quick to physical violence, less talk more action, Rambo type. Even within the retelling of classic stories the Heroes often succeed by killing or destroying the perceived bad guy. The bad guy is often portrayed as a metaphor for something of the natural world that must be defeated or controlled.
There are also the mega-million dollar sports stars, movie stars, and music stars. These modern Heroes, based on the classic Heroes of old have become cultural icons. None of these archetypical Hero types are accessible to most kids or adults, nor do they model positive community oriented behaviors. How does the aspiration to become a music star of the genre of the guitar-smashing hedonist serve either the individual or the community? Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n Roll, how does that serve anyone?
It should also be noted that the new action Heroine is now on the scene. They embody the rough and tumble Kung Fu, Martial Arts, Gun Shooting, and bone breaking solitary Hero only in a woman’s very hot body.
Think about the video games, the popular movies, the nature of play and I believe you will see that these media dispensed myths of what makes a Hero do not support the greater good. Sure the Hero may rescue an entire village from bandits or radioactive mutants. The Hero may even save the world. But in the end the village is burning and half the planet has been destroyed in the firefight. The modern Hero accepts collateral damage as a necessary evil. If the natural world is subdued in the process all the better.
We need to take back our stories and begin telling stories of Heroes who are defined by entirely different criteria.
Time for a Positive Perspective:
Now that you have indulged me in my negative rant please allow me to offer a positive perspective. Let’s take a look at the possibility that each one of us is heroic. I propose the idea of what I call the Living Hero. I chose this title primarily because I believe a true Hero lives a full and vital life.
The Living Hero lives in each of us and recognizing the power that each of us holds in our hands and hearts is essential to the challenges that we face individually and in community. As we share our stories we come to know the Living Heroes in our lives. To be a living Hero or recognize one in others is to offer a new way of viewing Heroism. We come to realize that Heroes do not work in isolation they work within and with families and communities to foster outcomes that serve the greater good.
Living Heroes don’t necessarily live from some religious or spiritual dictates, though many certainly do, but conduct their lives based upon right action. The Living Hero truly does consider how their actions will effect the here and now and the future.
Living Heroes accept and celebrate that it is our diversity of body, mind, and spirit that gives us our strength as humans. It is this very diversity that offers us a rich world of stories from which to learn.
To become a living Hero we need to challenge the stories that supports our personal critic’s strength and hold over us. The living Hero challenges the media stories that no longer serve us. To live in the place of the Living Hero is not fast or easy. There is work involved, action to be taken, paradigms to be shifted.
Here are some qualities that I have considered while thinking about the Living Hero. Others may be added or delete as experience grows, views modify, others share their ideas, and time passes:
The Living Hero asks first: What do I fear today?
The Living Hero then asks: Why do I fear this? What is the story that feeds this fear?
The Living Hero does their best to dispense with or face that fear.
How can I change my relationship to my fear and change the story?
The living Hero sees heroic action in the present through right action.
The Living Hero celebrates the Heroism of others without jealousy or resentment.
The Living Hero recognizes the importance of honesty and the value of empathy. Sometimes silence may be right action.
The Living Hero shares stories of real Heroism with children so as to guide and teach them.
The Living Hero strives to be both teacher and student.
The Living Hero does not live in isolation but seeks to build and sustain family and community.
The Living Hero strives to recognize their oneness with all things and honor those connections.
The Living Hero as leader strives to empower others to lead.
The Living Hero seeks ways to connect personally to the natural world.
The Living Hero strives to be enthusiastic about life in the face of darkness.
The Living Hero who is afraid of the dark carries a flashlight.
To be a Living Hero is to be one who asks questions of the stories that exist. Why? Whose says? Is this true?
The Living Hero challenges their own beliefs in the questions they ask themselves.
The Living Hero trusts that their creative muse will be readily available to them in the birth of new ways of being and thinking.
The living Hero is willing to embrace a new truth.
I believe a new truth to be this: We are not alone and unimportant. We can, as individuals and as a community, make a difference for future generations. No one can predict the future so it is what I do here today and everyday to do the right thing for my life, my family, and my community that will create the future. I may act as an individual but my actions have consequences beyond myself. I am a part of everything.
Campbell would often ask of his listeners….So is it going to be the Grail Quest or is it going to be the Wasteland? Are you going to go on the creative soul’s quest or are you going to pursue the life that only gives you security? Are you going to follow the star of the zeal of your own enthusiasm? Are you going to live the myth or is the myth going to live you? (Hero with a Thousand Faces)