Telling Ourselves New Stories

Tattoos, like other forms of art within our society, are a way of making connections with others and statements about personal identity.  When gang members go straight, they often have one or more tattoos reminding them of their past.  A Denver Post article recently profiled a tattoo artist, Chris Klein, who donates his services to cover gang tattoos with new images.  One of the article’s readers commented that talking about “former” gang members is not really accurate because their crimes have lasting repercussions in the community long after they leave the gang.  Another commenter suggested that a new tattoo could be a first step toward a future of counseling gang-influenced young people to turn away from crime.  Although the latter post was meant as a rebuttal of the first, I’d say that both are accurate observations.

On Mark Stairwalt’s recommendation, I’ve started reading a book by James Hillman and Michael Ventura, colorfully titled We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—and the World’s Getting Worse.  Hillman studied under the legendary psychoanalyst Carl Jung in the 1950s and went on to become the founder of a school of thought known as archetypal psychology.  He criticized conventional attitudes toward therapy because (among other shortcomings) the focus is on fixing what are seen as the problems of individuals, without regard to whether changes in the social environment might be more appropriate, and without considering the broader context of cultural myths and expectations.

As Hillman sees it, fantasy is an essential part of our lives.  All of us constantly put together narratives in our minds from one moment to the next, telling ourselves stories to make sense of our experiences.  While these stories may seem like a new reality to us, they originate in the experiences of our ancestors and in the specific patterns, or archetypes, that our culture recognizes as ways of existing in the world.  The evil gang member destroying the community is one such archetype.  The repentant ex-offender humbly making amends to the society he has wronged is another.  Many different narratives come into play during the course of a person’s life; but like tattoos that have been covered with new ink rather than removed, our previous stories remain part of us forever, even when we construct new mental images to take their place.

As discussed in Monday’s post here on Shift regarding independence and supports, there are multiple cultural narratives addressing what it means to be autistic; and although they have been much disputed on the Internet and elsewhere, they’re not necessarily incompatible with each other.  A generation ago, it was commonly believed that autism was a rare condition and that every autistic person would need a lifetime of constant assistance.  A more recent view—another archetype—describes autism as a spectrum made up of large numbers of people who are active participants in the community.

How can we reconcile these views, so often regarded as opposites?  I’d advise looking farther back in history, to a time long before any of the modern world’s concepts of autism existed.  Our tribal ancestors simply took it for granted both that everyone would participate in the community and that everyone would need assistance from the community throughout their lives.  These concepts were seen not only as entirely consistent with each other but as essential to the tribe’s well-being.

Andrew Lehman suggests that our perspective on autism could benefit from a closer look at the child-rearing practices of aboriginal matrifocal cultures, where young children spend large amounts of time with many adults.  The children take part in the tribe’s rituals and cultural activities, including art, storytelling, and dancing.  They feel the rhythms of their community on a deep and meaningful level because they have been part of it from their earliest days.  More understanding of these cultures could lead us to discover, as Hillman would have it, that the new stories we seek to guide us have been part of our ancestral consciousness all along.

on 06/23/10 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | No Comments | Read More

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