Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cycles of Myth and the Long Time Scale

The human psyche wasn't built to think in a long time frames.

While it has the ability to do so, because of our intellectual capacities and our memory, the fact is that it evolved to deal mostly with the immediate. Time frames over hundreds and thousands of years simply aren't meaningful to human beings; they are, that is, theoretically meaningful, but they don't have any immediate effect on survival from day today. The long time scale is not a part of our ordinary psyche. It lies in the realm of the extraordinary; that is, outside the boundaries of our own lives. No matter how we parse it, it brings us to the edge of the unknown, and drops us off there as time marches off into territories where we can never follow.

Only man is, so far as we know, capable of having such thoughts.

This has both phenomenal and noumenal implications. The awareness of both short and long-term thinking are necessary in terms of biological survival; but they affect our emotional, our spiritual, life as well—those parts of us that don't yield so easily to the cold probe of the intellect.

We need short-term thinking in order to know what to do in the next minute, or hour, or day. This ensures survival in the moment. But precisely because of our ability to impact the environment and our overall surroundings over millennia— after all, we are the species that evolved complex culture as the means of passing technology on — long-term thinking is absolutely necessary.

Nature, which serves higher purposes we can't be quite aware of under ordinary circumstances, understood this, and produced mechanisms in order to provide the psychological underpinnings for a long-term thinking. We know these underlying thought structures as religions; as mythologies. Their mutually supportive traditions of storytelling and the positioning of man in eternally recurring cycles of event and experience are the mechanisms that position man in the landscape of time.

This is important because man needs to know where he is not only from the point of view of his immediate surroundings, but where the culture—where the tribe, the species—will be 1000 or even 10,000 years from now. Our romantic attraction to Native American traditions, for example, is because they see the big picture — they understand the long scale of time. The long scale of time, passed down through myth and tradition, connects us to the landscape, and to the natural environment we are currently in the process of destroying.

The advent of the so-called "modern" psyche, with its increasing and ever-accelerating emphasis on the short-term, on soundbites and fractured attention spans, is in the process of destroying this mechanism. 

With it are going most of the natural systems that keep us alive.

Human beings, in a word, have forgotten where they are. Both the philosophies and economics of modernism are in the process of destroying that which created them; and Western societies are unable to see this. 

The terrible violence we see emerging from tribal societies is almost certainly an immune system reaction from the planet to this distraction of the awareness of the long scale of time. They are, without a doubt, a terrifying thing; but we must imagine for a moment the desperation that births them, which is a misguided, last ditch attempt to defend essential and vitally important traditional cultures from the destruction of the long time scale of myth and religion. 

We don't see our behavior, in any set of circumstances, as connected to survival mechanisms for the species; yet all of them are. Even, as paradoxical as it may seem, terrorism. We may not understand that until we consider that the body will kill its own cells if it identifies them as containing pathogens. Cultures act in much the same way; right or wrong, these mechanisms aren't a unique aberration of the psyche. They mirror well known inner processes on a different scale, and in a different way.

In order to survive, it's vitally necessary to know where we are; and only the cycles of myth and a deep, religious understanding can bring us to that place. These traditions have an emotional, not intellectual, appeal; and it is precisely this appeal to the emotions that makes them work for human beings. The intellect is clever, but it doesn't have enough force to reach into the depths where the real decisions are made.

This is why we ignore the cycles of myth and tradition at our peril. They are not just romantic tales; they are deeply tied to our understanding of our long-term presence in this landscape, this habitat, that supports us. 

Both the inner and the outer habitat are bound together by the soul; and we must know this if we wish to live, on any scale of time.

May your soul be filled with light.

Note to readers: this post is also found at my new bio-blog, the microbial octave, which features posts on man and the environment.

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