Sometimes a memory hits me out of the blue.
It’s the year 2000, and I’m sitting in a Mexican dive bar and restaurant, a block off of Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. I’m steadily working my way through a pack of cigarettes and a few too many margaritas, in deep conversation with a friend from work.
I tell him that I won’t be satisfied with my life unless I’ve done something big and important, something that makes the world a better place. He laughs good-naturedly at this, and asks me why. Isn’t it enough to work hard, have a family and raise them well in a nice home? This is good enough for him, he tells me.
I’m a little envious of his low standards, even as I find myself piously looking down on them. Not good enough, I tell him. I have to do more.
“More” was a vague concept that never really got more detailed. I dreamed of quitting my job in PR and doing something more worthwhile. I thought a lot about teaching overseas. I fantasized about adopting children from impoverished countries.
Instead, I moved to California and started my own company. I tried to create a positive work environment, and I donated money to charities that promoted women’s career opportunities and girls’ education. Instead of adopting children, I had two of my own. In many ways, my life has looked a lot like the one my friend described, the one I was so dismissive of when I was in my early 20s.
At the time, I didn’t understand that my need to save the world came from a sense of inadequacy and a desire to prove my own self-worth, with a dose of white savior complex added in for good measure. Those discoveries would take another decade and a half to sink in.
The memory of that conversation returned to me recently on one of my morning walks around my neighborhood. The world looks a lot different than it did in 2000, and the stakes seem so much higher now. I can barely tolerate the echo chamber of Facebook anymore. I hate seeing the lines being drawn in the sand, the absolute refusal to listen to anyone with a different viewpoint. And I can only take so much of the news before I sink into rage and hopelessness, which doesn’t seem to be helping anyone, either.
Instead, I’ve been reading about social justice. I’ve been learning how the feminist movement has changed since I left grad school nearly 20 years ago. And I’ve been reading about how spiritual communities and personal transformation can be places to hide from the harsh realities of the world. Once again I’ve been thinking about how I can contribute to a better world, and questioning what my contribution should be.
This is a harder question to sit with now. For one thing, I’m much more aware of how I’ve been unconsciously aiding the perpetuation of an unjust system by being an active participant in it. It’s a lot easier to write a check to a charity than turn the microscope back on myself and my daily life.
I thought I had things all figured out. When the DF showed up in my life a couple of years ago, my sense of purpose seemed crystal clear: I knew I had a responsibility to bring Her wisdom back to the forefront.
Every time I tune into the news, though, the doubt creeps in. What do ancient spiritual traditions that predate written records have in common with this messy, unbelievably cruel world we inhabit today?
Quite possibly nothing – which, I’m realizing, is exactly why they may be relevant and useful to our current predicament.
There is nothing in our culture today that exists outside of the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” to use the term coined by feminist theorist and activist bell hooks. We cannot find any corner that hasn’t been tainted by it, including and especially our spiritual traditions.
In her book Radical Dharma, Reverend angel Kyoto williams notes this very challenge when employing Buddhist methodology to provide liberation from systemic racism; this methodology was still “forged within the very same constructs it seems to undermine: orientations toward divide and conquer, competition over cooperation, power over rather than with us and them,” writes williams.
This is one reason why I find looking backwards to our ancient origins to be so intriguing. Have we ever lived outside of a repressive patriarchal system? Has there ever been a time when we as human beings were not hell bent on hierarchy and elevating the rights of one group at the expense of others? Have we ever resolved our differences without violence on a massive scale? The historical record of our goddess worshipping ancestors indicates that the answer is yes, which gives me hope. If we’ve lived differently before, we can learn how to do it again.
Granted, the research that’s been done on ancient goddess worshipping traditions has still been conducted within the same societal framework we’re in now, and it’s mostly been conducted by white women, which limits its lens. But what the hell – it’s a place to start.
Sometimes it feels like everything is coming apart at the seams. Polls consistently indicate that trust levels in our government, our news media, our financial institutions and our healthcare system were already at at historic lows even before the last presidential election. If we can’t trust anyone, who do we put our faith in?
Ourselves, says the DF. She has taught me that our relationship with the Divine is inherently personal. We need no institution to tell us what to do, and we need no savior outside of ourselves. Instead, we need to get quiet and begin really listening to the Divinity that lives within each of us.
She has also taught me about the power and beauty in darkness. The DF is the great void, the blackest of nights. It is in this darkness where the light is born. Our moments of personal and cultural darkness are also ripe with promise. The challenge is to lean into the darkness with courage, and trust that there is light waiting to emerge. For me, this means believing that we were all made to live in these times, and are completely capable of navigating them with heart and bravery.
The winter solstice, the darkest night of the year, has been celebrated for thousands of years – not because of the darkness, but because it marks the return of the light. This reflects another powerful lesson I’ve learned from the DF – honoring the cyclical, circular nature of life.
The circle, or spiral, began appearing in conjunction with ancient Goddess worship more than 20,000 years ago. Archeologist Marija Gimbutas described it as a symbol of regeneration. It appears on Neolithic pottery, covering the bodies of female statues, and features prominently in the art of Minoan Crete, a highly advanced, goddess-worshipping culture that flourished around 1500 BC.
The spiral not only reflected the cyclical rhythms of nature – birth, death, rebirth ; it may also have signified a completely different experience of time, one in which human beings were not immune from these cycles of nature, as we tend to think of ourselves now.
“What we call the beginning is often the end, and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from,” writes T.S. Eliot in his poem Little Gidding. This does not mean we don’t mourn what has died or appears to be dying. Instead, the DF has taught me to step away from the news, put my feet on the ground and take a deep breath – recognizing that all of life is ruled by natural rhythms. The perceived loss of something always creates space for new possibilities. Always.
This may seem like an easy way to dismiss terrible shit by simply saying “bad things will happen,” but I don’t see it that way. There’s no inflection point in a circle, no room for efforts based on ego or savior complexes. Recognizing the natural rhythm of life also puts me and my contributions in their proper place – in the context of a deeply interconnected web of life that is so, so much bigger than me.
In the end, perhaps this is the biggest lesson I’ve learned that the chain-smoking, 24-year-old version of me didn’t know all those years ago: the world is not mine to save. All I can do is bring the best version of myself to meet the needs of this particular moment. The DF will show me the way.