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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