Dissatisfaction with the status quo gave birth to our nation, and has been part of our heritage every since. Fifty years ago this summer, this undercurrent burst into the loud and colorful limelight as 100,000 people gathered in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury with mottos like Timothy Leary’s, “Tune in, turn on, drop out.”
I was a high school kid in San Jose, wearing torn jeans and love beads, reading the literature of discontent by authors such as Thoreau, Sinclair Lewis, and Nathanial West. After Saturday excursions to the head shops on Haight Street, with their incense and posters of Lakshmi and Ganesh, I bought a copy Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a book I still have, and one which, fifty years later, I more or less understand, because doing so became one of the core priorities of my life.
“We are all outlaws in the eyes of America,” sang Grace Slick, and in the explosion of new music, art, literature, and the ideas of change embodied in The Whole Earth Catalog, there was a sense of expansion, a sense that we could stop the war, and we could leave the world of ticky-tacky houses, and create a nation where Peace and Freedom would reign as supreme values.
We didn’t understand our own shadows. We didn’t knew that Charles Manson was roaming the Haight during the summer of ’67, winning friends and influencing people with techniques he had learned from Dale Carnegie’s book, which he studied in prison. We didn’t know that “Do your own thing” was a double-edged sword, and that we would see bitter fruits of that motto fifty summers later.
When I turned 40 in 1990, I was halfway through a Masters program in Psychology, which I’d entered in part because in the wake of the Summer of Love, I’d discovered Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Tolkien, and I couldn’t get enough of that stuff. And also because, the ethos of “Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll” doesn’t really work very well.
Yet when in that course of study, we came to look at the psyche’s defense mechanisms, most of us thought repression was a bad thing, inhibiting self-expression and individuation. I gotta do my own thing, man!
“Don’t be so fast to put down repression” said the instructor. “It’s one of the glues that holds a culture together.”
I’ve thought of this statement many times since then, never more so than when I read a woman’s letter to the editor in the local paper sometime in the mid-nineties, reporting on an incident she’d seen at a local multiplex. For whatever reason, no one was behind the concession counter, so some of the patrons clambered over the counter, help themselves to popcorn and drinks and then dash into the theaters.
That’s not quite what we meant by “Do Your Own Thing,” but it’s a pretty telling, canary-in-the-coal-mine kind of snapshot of the kind of societal breakdown parading through our streets this summer.
One of the four major functions of a living myth, according to Joseph Campbell, is “the sociological function,” which teaches us the norms of living together. “Thou shalt not kill,” for instance. Other roles are more dicey – gender and class roles for instance. These get rigid as times change, and are then modified by pioneers or movements, or in extreme cases, by revolutions if leaders are really stupid and tell their starving masses to eat cake.
Perhaps with enough acts of popcorn theft, large and small, because we feel entitled and we want what we want and we want it now – perhaps the kind of president we have was inevitable. Sooner or later, just as inevitably, he’ll go.
What will we do then? Will we be sickened enough by current events to turn in another direction together? What does a culture do when it’s fragmented by so many contradictory stories that Campbell’s sociological function of myth has completely broken down? What will it take to restore a genuine sense of “us” in our national life, a sense that we’re all in this together? The most obvious and frightening answer is a shared disaster.
Ironic to realize that the youthful idealism that brought us the Summer of Love, and two years later, the high water mark at Woodstock, carried the seeds of its own demise, partly because of the self-righteous sense of “us and them” that still drives our national life. And yet, it is profoundly valuable to review those youthful ideals, that sense of a better world within reach. Without such dreams, we are left with little better to do than rail at each other on social media.
“It’s been a long time coming,” sang Crosby, Stills, and Nash. “It’s going to be a long time gone.” It will come around again, sooner or later, but the question is, how long a time will that be?