Enacting Radical Change

This sermon topic was requested by the UU church in Cumberland MD and I delivered it on April 23, 2006. The original title was Enacting Radical Change: Personal, Political, Global

What is radical change and how do we bring it about?political change pic

As some of you may know, I am a writer. And as I sat on Friday looking out at the rain and gloom, I begin thinking about how hard it was to get motivated at times. As I sat, facing the blank page, in the midst of a cloudy and rainy day, I asked myself, “How do you get motivated in the face of such a landscape?”

And I then realized that this is exactly the outlook many of us face as Americans and as inhabitants of this planet. How in the world do we get motivated to act during a time when everything seems so gloomy and so desperate? When for many of us our every effort seems so small and ineffectual. And every previous seeming victory is now called into question.

Radical change? Hell at this point, I’d guess that many of us would be happy with a sliver of change in the right direction. Or maybe I should say left direction.

I wrote in a frequently forwarded post after the last election, that

“ …if we cannot rely on the "youth vote and the disenfranchised single-female vote and the "Daily Show" vote and the Eminem vote and the celebrity vote and the humanitarian vote and the antiwar vote and the gay vote and the pro-choice vote and the Howard Stern vote and the immigrant vote" to turn an election, what the hell else can we do except re-look at everything again.”

And re-looking at it all again is ultimately what this sermon is about. How do we enact change? Not just at the political level, but also at the personal and the global level?

Okay, confession time -- It has taken me thirty years to finally concede that yes, political change is important. I was skeptical as a black nationalist, and later as a Marxist, with how so many people kept trying to use the American political system to create real change. It still bothers me.

But I now can say unequivocally that, yes, political change is important. However, you cannot rely solely on political change. That was and is the folly of so many movements for social, economic and racial justice. We have to change so much more than the politics; we have to change the symbols, the myths, the language, the art, the music, etc. We have to change the very soul of our culture. And to change or rather to work on the soul of a culture is by definition, a radical act.

We have confused ourselves by relying on our own faulty memories. We think, for example, that women won the right to vote via an amendment to the constitution or that slavery was abolished due to government proclamation. We think the Voting Rights act or the Civil Rights Act or Title Nine or Roe v Wade were the harbingers of major cultural shifts. We think we lost the ERA. We are mistaken.

The Soul of a Nation

The Soul of a Nation

The real battle for the soul of the nation occurred in areas unrelated to political reform. It happened in the workplace, in the union hall, in the office, at the cinema, in our homes and in our bedrooms. The victories at the voting booth, within the courst, in the state houses and in congress were simply milestones.

They are more like mile markers along the journey of cultural evolution.

And this is something folks on the right understand far better than we do, the real battle, the real struggle is always cultural. One who controls the symbols, the myths and the language controls the economic, social and political realities of a country, tribe or organization.

Only a few centuries ago a healer was a woman, and a garden was where we raised our food. Middle age was for most folks the mid-twenties and woman had their first child by age 15. A tan meant you worked outside and fat people were considered wealthy. But now if you check in with these cultural symbols we find different messages and meanings. The culture has changed.

But often we humans lag behind cultural changes; and surprise-surprise, we often resist change. The resistance is both natural and ultimately helpful in the long run. Some changes we make during periods of stress need to be resisted till we turn the corner and attain some perspective. But some changes are necessary and require us as a society to take a leap of faith.

Even those of us who think of ourselves as welcoming of change, resist the very changes we bring about. And this is important to remember. Since as mammals we fall back out of habit or instinct to what we consider as the tried and the true. We have to be willing to do more than support a change, we must embrace it at all levels. Otherwise, as we are beginning to discover, any change for the better can be reversed, almost overnight, if we are not paying attention.

And that is what we are facing in this country, right here and right now. We are all watching in a kind of stunned silence, as a century of progress seems to be withering away. We are like the next victim in those horror movies. You know the ones where you feel like yelling at the screen, “Wake up, he is standing right behind you!”

But we cannot wake up, no matter how hard we pinch ourselves, no matter how many letters, blogs , emails or signatures we collect. We seem to be walking in slow motion directly into the path of the disaster, right into the clutches of the menacing beast.

Why is that? And more importantly, what can we do about it?

How Culture Changes

How Culture Changes

First we need to understand how change occurs in our human history, how it manifests and how it becomes integrated into our psyches – how it becomes ingrained in our group soul. How did gardens change from food into decoration? How did healers turn into doctors and get a sex change in the process? How did the mid twenties become extended childhood and how did we change the meaning of child bearing age? How did a tan become enviable, while fat became sloth and a disease?

Some of what seems new is actually ancient, for example in Greece, soft flesh was considered womanly, so it was considered manly to be slim, muscular and athletic. A fat man was a womanly man, thus softness and fatness became associated with the abject, the lowly and the despised. So the question is not why is fat now despised, but when did it become necessary for women to reject their own bodies? And why?

And while people discuss teenage pregnancy as if it is a modern scourge, a century ago, women routinely began having their children at equivalent ages. When did the age a girl became a mother become such a moral issue?

We need to realize that some of the norms we are trying to change may in fact hearken back to sources we are unaware of like the prejudices of ancient Greece or even ecological necessities of a wandering tribe with a high mortality rate.

We need, it seems, to have not only a larger view of change but a longer view as well. We need to understand the mythic level of some of the changes we are proposing as well as ones we are resisting.

And we also need to grasp that even as we work hard to bring about change, we may actually resist the same change in our every day lives.

I roll my eyes with everyone else when the right blames feminists for somehow making it harder on women to have children and stay home to raise them. But how many of us decided to not have children because it was too hard or had children and find ourselves facing seemingly constant pressure to choose between their needs and our own. The real issue is why is it so hard to raise children in this culture?

I know of so many women, feminist to the core, waiting for mister right to come along. I myself keep falling madly in love with any man who will carry my heavy bags, or fix items in my home. And I have met more than a few men who although working with incredibly talented women all day still find it surprising and a little unnerving when a woman he is dating earns more than he does. Why is it so hard to break habits born out of mores none of us actively embrace?

No, we are not collectively wishing for a return to the fifties, what we are doing is being human and wrestling at a personal level to integrate a cultural change that happened on our watch. And the right, to their credit, is trying to capitalize on that discomfort to turn back the clocks.

Because the changes we seem to be still fighting for have happened at the political level, but they are not yet fully integrated at the personal and at the mythic levels. And it is at those levels that the right is making in-roads and we are starting to lose ground. They are using mythic language to invoke the symbols and images of our unconscious fear, apprehension and resistance to cultural change. And we are affected by these symbols even as they outwardly appall us. We are like deer in the headlights responding to these mythic messages.

Steering at All Levels

Steering at All Levels

Have you ever watched a ladder truck race out with their sirens howling on their way to a fire? Have you ever noticed the guy in the back with his own steering wheel? They need that second steering wheel in order to maneuver around corners and through traffic. It is the same with cultural changes; culture does not turn on a dime. We have to work at all levels to bring about change: the personal, the political and the global or mythic level.

Consider the environment, as an example; we have made incredible progress at the mythic level. In fact, one of the reasons some folks contend we started the Iraqi war was to force the issue of Alaskan oil drilling. Environmental protection is so embedded within the American psyche nowadays; the only way to get past it is by evoking scarcity and the threat of terrorism. Now we could always hope that scarcity would help us in promoting alternative fuel sources, and it has. But we need to continually steer this change at all levels.

And one-way is to stop making SUVs the enemy.

Why do folks buy SUVs? Because it is today’s station wagon. Didn’t you ever ride in a station wagon as a child? It was a place to put all your children, your stuff and had horsepower to boot -- not a bad deal. The SUV is, at a mythic level, today’s version of the pioneers’ wagon. You cannot fight a symbol with that much mythic juice.

We need to instead find ways to make public transportation and high mileage vehicles and hybrids the mythic choice. What would be a better mythic level tactic? Well, consider your own habits. Why do you drive less, drive a high mileage car and ride share as much as you can? Oh, you have made these choices right? So you already know first hand why anyone else would choose similarly?

It always starts at the personal level. Examine the mythos within your personal decisions that reflect the changes you want to see in the world. And express that image, symbol or myth within the public sphere. Poets, musicians, artists and filmmakers express the mythic, and we, as activists, must learn to do it too.

Another example, how do you resolve conflicts with your neighbors, your co-workers, drivers in traffic, and within your home? If you don’t understand how or you do not actively engage in conflict resolution in these spheres, how on earth are you going work for peace in the Middle East or anywhere else for that matter?

From The Personal to The Mythic

From The Personal to The Mythic

The bottom line is this. If you want to enact radical change at any level, it begins in the personal sphere and reaches its fruition in the mythic.

So here is the game plan:

We can wake up from this nightmare. It is never too late to make a difference. Within the language of myth, all space is here and all time is now. This is important because we live in the here and now. The personal is not just political it is also mythic.
©2006 Katrina Messenger

So try this game plan out.

Pick an area you are working on politically. Identify the mythic level of the status quo. Translate the political change your envision into the personal level and identify the mythic level of the wanted change. What are the new symbols you can use?

If you like, you can post your thoughts and new ideas into the comments area.