An’ here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice.

–Bob Dylan, ‘Memphis Blues Again’ (1965)

On Not Waiting for Superman

Michael Meade, mythologist and storyteller, says there are three layers of human interaction:

“If the First Layer of human interaction is the common ground of manners, kind speech, polite greeting, and working agreements; if the Third Layer is the area of deeply shared humanity, the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of all people, of the underlying, fundamental oneness of human love, justice, and peaceful coexistence; then the Second Layer is the territory of anger, hatred, wrath, rage, outrage, jealousy, envy, contempt, disgust, and acrimony. It is the Via Negative, the field of Conflict, the plain of Discord, the hills of Turmoil. And, the Second Layer always exists between the First Layer and the Third.”

You can find this quotation and a more complete explanation in Meade’s poetry anthology, co-edited with Robert Bly and James Hillman, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart.

I use this model in my leadership work frequently because it so ably defines the quest, common to human communities, to reach the Third Layer. As important, it does so in a way that ennobles the Second Layer — that painful passage through the darkness of genuine conflict and negative emotions. Meade’s work suggests that conflict is inevitable if we want to really experience and act on the deeper human universals, the rich values worthy of guiding relationships, from one-on-one partnerships to a whole society. His model shatters the illusion that somehow we reach the ground of a better world without experiencing the worst of it, without an exhausting struggle, maybe even a vicious fight with each other over the nature of reality. He reminds us that the struggle is worthwhile because it reveals the cornerstones of what it means to be human.

The struggle is what we do, it’s what we have to do, and all the First Layer pretending in the world will not let us escape from the demand to discover again the absolutes we are meant to share. The Second Layer is unquestionably torturous: chock full of our insecurities and illusions, inhabited by scapegoats and causes for blame, loaded with power struggles and wars in which all sides are “right” and “good” within the limits of their thinking it is so. The Second Layer is a tightly knotted cloth of threats to our status, our sense of certainty, our autonomy, our desired relationships, and sense of fairness, to use David Rock’s SCARF model to describe what is at stake: our familiar and most preferred identities.

Snow and Trees

Further, Meade points out that just because we’ve touched the universals before does not mean we can easily find them again. We must go through the Second Layer repeatedly. He writes,

“Here’s the bad news: The Third Layer is constantly moving its location; it’s not to be found today where it was yesterday. We can go through the motions, exactly repeating everything that previously got us to the state of peace, love, bliss; and we get nowhere. We return to places where we fell deep into love and find the view obscured by a new factory; the romantic restaurant has been replaced by a fast-food joint. We bow in all directions, say the prayers just as before, but there’s no sense or sight of god; we come up empty. The Third Layer is mysterious, unpredictable, leaves no forwarding address.”

It’s clear our current political strife is part of a Second Layer phenomenon and we can legitimately ask: is it really 1984, as many would claim? Well, in some way it surely must be — the metaphor is too apt. We are directly experiencing that “never ending fight” about just what we mean by “truth, justice, and the American Way.” In using the catch phrase of a superhero — one who stands for good — I in no way want to diminish where we are in the real struggle, nor am I tacitly encouraging a slide into any passive form of fantasy and moral relativism.

To the contrary, it is clear we have a long fight on our hands and in the most public way possible. We will have to collectively find our way through the darkness, the anger and broken illusions, right back to discerning whether truth exists anymore among the biases and the lies, and if so why truth is so vital anyway. We have to find out what justice means — again and from the core — and learn new ways to defend its value. And we’ll have to find out if there is something, anything, especially important about this “American Way.” We urgently must rediscover that, before we help burn down the world in the name of giving evil a chance. This is our “superhero” work, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, the hour is late and the danger is high. And I believe this is the exact episode in which the powers we’ve projected onto our superhero from the 1930’s must finally be reclaimed. We can wait no longer. It’s us stepping into the phone booth now, nobody else, in order to defend a Third Layer value called decency — which is what Superman stood for, right?

So I say, let’s have a really big fight — a meaningful and powerful one, one that really gets to the essence — about the nature of decency as human beings and how to truly self-govern in its name.


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  • Becky Coleman wrote:

    The stunning thing about our cosmos is the ability to see it, at all. We are part of long chains, shattered and joined, rejoined and dissolved. I see the layers placed a bit differently, with the first (the social contract) being sandwiched between discord and accord. We may have fooled ourselves into thinking we don’t have a lurking suspicion about every ‘other’ we meet, but even a friendly and curious soul like me prefers the grease of polite behavior to provide time to evaluate risk/benefit.
    It is possible that truth isn’t particularly attractive and is why we seem to need the social contract, which has fallen to a low ebb in the last decade or two. It may be that concentrating on polite speech and behavior, first, would reinvigorate dialogue and convincing rhetoric.

  • Becky~

    That’s very thoughtful and especially apropos of the time. I think most would like to get through the conflict with a minimum of genuine threat. Any efforts to establish “good will,” which I see as one key purpose of the First Layer, may be helpful, as I wrote in an earlier post.

    A question for me, given the levels of fear and interpersonal attacking, is what “universal” are we attempting to find at the Third Layer? Aung San Suu Kyi has suggested that violence all too often works us to exhaustion before we are actually willing to talk and listen to each other. We don’t create the treaty before the war, only after, when there are more than enough scars to go around and many lives have been wasted.

    The degree to which we are now dealing with “alternative truths,” which Roger Stone is in favor of because “at least people now have a choice,” suggests that on all sides we have to come to terms with the self-created distortions and mistrusts that sound like truth, but aren’t. But perhaps even deeper down, it isn’t about truth at all, but some fundamental value that’s escaped us, like core decency, regard for the dignity of people, or the possibility of human care for one another. I read an article this morning, “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich” that made my gut churn because of how disastrously isolated wealthy doom prognosticators appear to be, and how unwilling to use their (considerable) money and whatever intelligence they possess to help society rather than run from it.

    All I can see at the moment, however dark that may seem to be, is that people are not yet willing to work together to repair the broken bucket or clean out the spring. There’s more pain to come, maybe a lot of it, before that readiness will come forward.

    Thank you so much for dropping by, Becky. Always good to have the conversation with you.


  • byron murray wrote:


    Many years ago when we first met you encouraged me to read Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. I did and then I had to travel quite a bit so I bought the Bill Moyer’s interviews with Joseph Campbell that appeared on PBS. I think we are all looking for heroes and want our leaders to be heroic. We have failed somehow to really see what has been our individual challenge – to be heroic ourselves. To come out of the desert and turn over the tables of the money changers (to use a metaphor). It is time. Each of us can do something locally in our communities that can affect that change. Thanks

    We have not even to risk the adventure alone
    For the heroes of all time have gone before us

    The labyrinth is thoroughly known
    We have only to follow the thread
    of the hero path

    And where we have thought to find an abomination
    we shall find a god

    And where we have thought to slay another
    We shall slay ourselves

    Where we have thought to travel outward
    we will come to the center of our own existence

    And where we have thought to be alone
    We shall be with all the world

    – Joseph Campbell

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