Things fall apart

My first thought, at hearing of the 18th school shooting in the United States since the beginning of 2018 was to sigh, Oh no, not again! But an eloquent and powerful piece of spoken poetry by IN-Q brought me to tears and past the political skirmishes, desperate to understand what is going wrong.

Of course the lack of proper gun control in the US and the grip the NRA has on the legislative process are the direct cause of this continuing horror. Of course, as many of my friends are saying these days, social media is exacerbating the alienation of a generation of lost youth. But these are just symptoms, not the root of the problem. And the US may show dystopian modern society at its worst, but I believe that the disease also infects Europe, China, Africa, and, indeed, most modern cultures.

Joseph Campbell points out, in his essay The Impact of Science on Myth (included in Myths to Live By), that modern society is losing itself in an arid desert of rationality. The major religions of the world made the mistake of taking their myths and rituals literally and claiming the right to impose their unique set of moral values on all people. The advancement of science fortunately disproved these literal interpretations. But the modern scientific world has ignored the universal character and psychological importance of myth and ritual, thereby throwing the baby away with the bathwater.

We have seen what has happened to primitive communities unsettled by the white man’s civilization. With their old taboos discredited, they immediately go to pieces, disintegrate, and become resorts of vice and disease.

Today the same thing is happening to us. With our old mythologically founded taboos unsettled by our modern sciences, there is everywhere in the civilized world a rapidly rising incidence of vice and crime, mental disorder, suicides and dope addictions, […], murder, and despair.“ Joseph Campbell

What we are witnessing in recent years is a flywheel effect. Each generation is influenced by the emptiness and moral decay of the generation before them. Of course, there are exceptions to this increasing degeneration. They are our hope for the future.

There have been very good attempts to fill in the gap: humanitarianism, transcendentalism, and some forms of modern spirituality. But modern spirituality is often an example of the way old forms are simply mimicked and left empty of the consequences of ‘personal development’ on society. (I must, however, mention activists like Joanna Macy and the Spiritual Ecology movement as positive exceptions to the rule.)

How will we modern, highly evolved, scientifically savvy human beings learn to ground ourselves, to grow up with a sense of belonging to the world, with an inner compass of right and wrong?

(And, by the way, it’s time the US got serious about gun control.)


  1. You are on to something…..teaching kids to know and understand their environment is a step in the right direction! Love the world you are living in. Thanks. Maddie

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful contribution to this most recent heart-wrenching drama and the underlying causes. When I led vision quests for graduating seniors, it was an in an effort to create rites of passage, grounding as you say, that is too often missing in this world, The way the late teens responded, and the value they place on the experience, even years later, confirms your theory. Thanks again, Madeleine!

    • How wonderful that you led vision quests for graduating seniors! That is exactly the sort of thing we need. As I narrate in my book, my own vision quest was pivotal to my life, even if it did come at a much later age. That is the sort of ritual that invariably grounds us.

  3. Mary-Lou Gillette

    Thank you for bringing such clarity to what is happening to us. I agree with every word you have put forth here! I pray every night for the safety of our grandson, only ten years old, who walks to school every day with friends, all accompanied by watchful parents who deliver them into what they trust will be a safe classroom. Today, even the very youngest students will most likely hear from others what has happened in Florida. I want to ask my son, “How to do explain this to your son? How can you reassure him that his school is safe?” What will it take to change a country where guns are protected and children’s lives are not? We are in despair here!

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