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The Myth We're In, Part Three : Exile, Home

In Parts One and Two of this essay, I suggested that our current president brings to mind a buddhist asura, a relentlessly angry anti-god. Asuras cast a powerful spell of paralysis and division, but we can break the spell and become what the asura president refuses to be : protectors. I wondered about seeing this time as a national humiliation, a necessary passage in a culture-wide initiation — an initiation that might mean we attend to what has gone unattended and come to maturity as a culture. Now I’m turning to one last mythical aspect of the age of the asura president : Is it possible that we as individuals are experiencing this time as a confrontation with an archetype that could lead some of us to our own kind of initiation?

In this second spring of the reign of the asuras, I notice the stirrings of a shift of attention, as though we’re shaking off some of the shock and feeling a weariness we’ve come by honestly. Enough already, no? But if we’re drawn to do more than simply turn away, we could look for what is being driven out, and hold fast to it : amidst the chaos, we turn to the simple and quiet; from the relentless solar glare we head into the lunar night; when fires are set all around us we go underground toward water; in the age of rage, we touch sorrow. We resist the pressure to see the world as dangerous : If it is, rather, incomplete, even broken, it is not our adversary but something in need of our care. We refuse to accept the myth of exile, from our own country or within ourselves, as we struggle with what this time stirs up in us.

Because, beneath all the surface disturbance, I’m wondering if exile is what this is about : the primordial sense of banishment that comes with embodiment, that sense of expulsion from the original garden, or fall from the heavens onto the hard and unforgiving earth. Not just once a long time ago, but again and again, in a life full of losses and leave-takings, disappointments, bewilderments, and terrors. And exile not only in relation to the world, but inside ourselves as well : Are there parts of ourselves that seem irredeemable, forever separated from the love of others, even from our own acceptance?

There’s an unsettling purity about the asura president : he’s so impermeable and predictable, so outside our experience of the complicated ways people usually behave, that he makes us think more of a symbol than a person. Is it possible that the asura president is, most essentially, an archetype of exile? Is it incidental that he is so intent upon banishing others and separating our country from the rest of the world? These would be reactions you’d expect from a man who’s always looking for someone else to blame for his uneasiness. Parts One and Two of this essay addressed the devastating effects of those reactions in people’s lives in our country and around the world. Here I want to make an inward turn, to ask whether, for any of us on more intimate terms with our interior lives than he is, the asura of exile also represents something we contain in ourselves, something it is painful to hold our gaze upon without looking away. At so many levels, is he disturbing because he confronts us with what we most fear about the world, and other people, and ourselves?

In one direction he represents what seems most challenging about embodied life : its cruelty and indifference, the relentlessness and capriciousness of the many ways there are to hurt each other. In the other direction he’s almost a cartoon version of that part of ourselves we’re afraid will never change, will hold us captive inside a heart-mind that suffers and causes suffering to others : the monster within that we’re afraid will never transform, never become a protector of others, or of ourselves.

Before you object that you contain no inner asura of exile, let me agree : most of us don’t, not like that. But most of us have some version of the clod of worry that he represents. It’s clay we’re constantly kneading, as though working a lump of existential angst is as normal as breathing. Or we’ve given up working it and it lodges, hard and dry, in our throats or around our hearts.

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In Part One I mentioned a myth about the time when gods and asuras lived together on the peaks of Mount Sumeru. Eventually the gods got fed up with the asuras’ constant belligerence, so the asuras were cast from the heavens, landing at the foot of the mountain, in our world. That sense of a fall from paradise into a world of sharp elbows and gutting limitations is a pretty common one among the great human stories, a way of explaining what Buddhists call dukkha, the unsatisfactoriness of this dream of a life. Some at least of our yearning for enlightenment, heaven, nirvana, utopia, the lost city of Atlantis, and all the rest comes from a desire to wake up in a different dream, the paradise we’re sure is our true home.

But here we are, living in the regime of an asura of exile, who’s so vividly acting out what we fear about the world. We’re constantly confronted with the sense that we’ve fallen into a dangerous, uncontrollable place — a place where, no matter how hard we try, chaos and destruction will reassert themselves. And the asura of exile manages to embody not only our fears about the world but also our epically maladapted coping strategies in reaction to those fears. Which he does in that cartoonish way that undermines our last refuge, the dignity of our suffering : In the exile places within us, we’re not as sad and petty as that, are we?

Because he’s an archetype, the asura of exile is exaggerated : He is unable to experience anything but loss and be really angry about it, insensible to the consolations of even a broken world. But the job of an archetype is to pursue us until we acknowledge the small, candlelit truth hidden inside its strobing neon package. Asura reactions to exile might be all wrong, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t real questions about exile in our lives. Asura rage, resentment, and aggression capture the attention, but they’re just epiphenomena of the failure to engage the question of exile, defenses against the sorrows the question evokes. So let’s decline to be distracted by the messenger and engage the questions. Are there ways in which we feel separated from the world? Somehow, indefinably yet fundamentally, not at home? And are there parts of ourselves we’ve tried to banish, unable to offer them a home, even on the outskirts of our souls?

What counts as the irredeemable within us — fear, grief, rage, guilt, self-doubt, depression, envy, ungovernable impulses, loneliness, failure — will be different for different people. But it is always the old wound around which new wounds gather, the original sin, the hard mass that stops us from breathing deeply, the secret lover, what’s behind the uneasily closed door or the elaborate battlement. It’s what outlives therapy and meditation and new diets, what we believe is in the way of happiness. Are we destined to carry this unborn thing around with us forever?

And how, really, do we feel about the world? Is it, too, in some ways unforgivable? In Part Two I spoke of the ways we as a country have, imperfectly but steadily, included different groups of people that we had previously marginalized. If we can, imperfectly but steadily, find home together, is it possible that an archetype like the asura of exile could no longer animate enough people to destabilize our culture?

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The asura of exile is full only of exile, but we are not. We carry home inside us, too — not just as an imagination of paradise lost, but as a felt experience of what any moment might open into. We know what it’s like when the habits of exile drop away, leaving us, simply, returned — to ourselves, to others, to a world that goes on forgiving us for finding it unforgivable. Perhaps we’re all survivors of a shipwreck, but it is possible to salvage what we can from the waves to furnish the huts we build together on the beach.

A man I knew a long time ago was co-owner of a boat. He was out of the country once when he received a rather startling telegram from the other owner : “DON'T WORRY | STOP | SALVAGE OPERATIONS UNDERWAY.” Don’t our lives sometimes feel as though a previous, essential message must have gone astray? This is a world of second telegrams, and they can have a kind of wild beauty, an essential message of their own, if we let them.

Perhaps it is enough to say : I don’t know why the boat sank. But I am home here, on the beach, with the silver spoons and tattered sails and casks of hardtack we salvaged from the wreck. We build our huts, hang the majestic, useless ship’s wheel on the wall, sit out under a sky filled with stars. It is a beginning, and the stars are beautiful.

Shipwrecked Odysseus washed up on a beach and prayed for mercy there. Rilke suggested we love what’s been merciful to us by praising this world to a blind angel, spirit of that place we were never actually expelled from, who walks among us but needs to be reminded, because her eyes are filled with interstellar night, of the small wonders of our beach. Take the angel by the hand and show her, take yourself by the hand and remember : “Perhaps we are here in order to say : house, / bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit tree, window — / at most : column, tower …” How poignant — and how essential — the simple recitation of the facts of the gate and the fruit tree are, in this time of so much lying. And they recite us, in turn. The merciful facts of this dream of a world anchor us here, helping protect us from the forces of exile.

A world of second telegrams is by its nature incomplete, and that incompleteness gives rise to a sorrow the asura of exile’s entire way of being is meant to deny. Letting that sorrow ripen and mature in us is one of the most powerful antidotes to the immature rage of the asura. We come to see the world not so much as incomplete in the sense of lacking something, but as not-yet-completed : a work in progress, full of the moving persistence of things in the face of struggle and setback.

Years ago I worked with someone who was a forceful personality, not necessarily given to detail. She was very depressed. One night she came to me and said she’d become aware of a miraculous thing : Sitting in a group of people, she’d suddenly noticed that everybody’s chest rises and falls as they breathe, just as hers did. When she said that, I knew she was going to be okay, not because she was suddenly un-depressed, but because her depression was becoming tenderness.

It’s so hard, being alive, and we go on doing it. Every day sunlight sweeps across the planet, and in a wave following the sun, people and animals and plants get up and say, One more time. Our mature sorrow can feel and bear that, wants to feel and bear that, because it’s the truest thing, and we are part of it. Every day the animals and plants of our own hearts also get up and say, One more time. Should we abandon any of them as beyond redemption? Should we drive the small goats of our misery out into the desert, and has doing so ever actually relieved us of our sins? Can we instead call them home, whisper even their names to the blind angel?

Can you love a broken world? Can you love your own broken heart? Do you see how these are deeply moral questions?


Rilke - translated by Stephen Mitchell