I’m still listening to Joseph Campbell, and I have to say I’m very confused. At times he seems to be saying, life is great, everything is great, find and follow your bliss and you will be happy. At other times he says if you want to know what happens when a culture loses its mythology, read the New York Times. He talks about people in ancient times or in recent but non-Western cultures who willingly, with joy, accepted ritual sacrificial torture and death as true heroes. Then he says that the death and destruction wrought by our own society shows that we’ve lost our way. I think there’s a bit of false nostalgia in what he says, because it’s my contention that all those societies were violent, wasteful, unwise with resources, cruel, misogynistic, and a real mess. Read The Third Chimpanzee if you don’t believe me. Look at the record of macrofaunal extinction. Look at how the Native Americans systematically destroyed the environment, killed one another, changed the world, despite their beautiful later philosophy.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m just not getting the full picture yet, or maybe Campbell really is just contradictory. “Do I contradict myself?” Whitman said, “Very well, then, I contradict myself ,I am large, I contain multitudes.”
When questions such as these, of meaning and interpretation, of journeys and destinations, come up, I think of a young baseball player. He is ten years old. His team trails by 2 runs and it is the bottom of the final inning. There are 2 outs and one runner stands on second base. The ballplayer squeezes the bat handle, then swings. The ball connects and flies away. The joy and poetry of movement and effort are alive in his motion. He is alive, as alive as he’s ever been, alive in this moment of bat connecting with ball. The ball soars over second base and lands squarely in centerfield. The baserunner streaks around third and heads home. The centerfielder scoops and throws toward home plate and our batter, now rounding first base, sees his chance and dashes for second. But it’s a trap; an alert infielder cuts off the throw, throws behind our hero, and he is trapped. Trapped between first and second, with the game on the line.
Our batter, now abecome a runner, heads for second base, knowing the ball, the final out, the death of all opportunity, lay behind him. He knows what is coming, too. The ball flies past his ear and lands in the glove of the shortstop. Our hero reverses ground, heads back to first, but the ball is there first, and he must reverse yet again. Back and forth he goes, his game, his very life, the very life of his team, on the line.
We, of course, are in the stands. We see the journey. We know that the outcome of a game between two teams of ten-year-olds matters not at all. Perhaps, we think, we shouldn’t even keep score. It is about building skills, ethic, character. The destination doesn’t matter. Not to us.
But to our hero, destination is everything. The journey is thrilling, yes, the joy of hitting the ball, the satisfaction of seeing it land untouched in center. The terror of being picked off first and the desperation of reversing, again and again, between the bases.
Were he a Buddhist, our hero might stop, allow himself to be tagged out. It wasn’t meant to be. For after all, only by giving up the struggle can we find true bliss. But if he did so, willingly, then the game would be over. Literally and forever over, for who would play the game if all understood that the destination is no different from the place we are right now, at this very moment? And yet the game is beautiful, a beautiful thing that is beautiful only because the participants realize only dimly, if at all, that they are dying men playing a game only to hide for a while the pain of dying. They play not for the journey but for the destination, and so it must be, or else the game stops. Rage, rage against the dying of the light!
Finally our hero slips, turning too quickly or not quickly enough. He is tagged out, and the game ends. While the opponents celebrate, our hero bursts into tears, right there between 1st and 2nd. His joy turned to pain, his loss so real, so solid, that it weighs on him. Why play the game at all if it leads only to pain? Because it is all we can do. Because tomorrow is another game. Tomorrow is another chance to reach 2nd.