A Contemplation of Heroes, Toilet Paper, John Wayne, and John Ford.

Paramahansa Yogananda told a story of two families, one Hindu and one Muslim, who were neighbors during the violence that preceded Indian independence in the late 1940’s. Food was scarce due to rioting, but the mother of the Hindu family got hold of a bag of rice. When she realized her neighbors had nothing to eat, she took half the rice to the Muslim family before lighting her own stove. When we were young, many of us aspired to that kind of heroism. Now we hoard toilet paper.

In all fairness, this is a manufactured crisis, driven by our online yellow press with so many pictures of empty paper good shelves that anyone paying attention might conclude that they better get some extra. But the TP story brings up one of our culture’s major living room elephants – our worship of individualism. Me first. I gotta be me. Do your own thing.

When I studied counseling psychology, we had a unit on “cross-cultural differences,” to learn not to project our biases onto people from other cultures or sub-cultures where identity rests as much on family and community membership as it does on our northern European focus on individuation. Without such training, we would have been ready to put labels like “enmeshed” and “codependent” on anyone who didn’t regard “self-development” as the pinnacle of psychological development.

Fun Fact: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM, the bible of mental health or its lack in our culture grew out of a study commissioned by the Marine Corps after WWI. They sought a personality test to filter out those who were most at risk of shell shock. In other words, our mental health norms in this country  are based on the attributes of a good combat soldier. Think about that for a while…

Another counseling topic during the early 90’s, was “John Wayne-ism,” essentially a code word for toxic masculinity, the out-of-touch-with-feelings, I’ll-do-it-myself, “I won’t be beholden’ to anyone” modeThere is always some truth in stereotypes, and this one is pervasive in our culture. In America, any time “freedom” comes up for discussion, the ghost of John Wayne is near.

A fascinating article in the December, 2017 issue of the Atlantic, How John Wayne Became a Hollow Masculine Icon, reveals how much of Wayne’s screen persona was the creation of director, John Ford, who appears to have bullied Wayne to become ever more macho, because of his own insecurity!

When John Ford first spotted John Wayne in 1928, the latter had no desire to act in movies – he was a football player, working for extra cash as a prop boy and an extra in the studios. But Ford recognized something, and their long collaboration began in earnest with Stagecoach, 1939, one of the greatest American westerns ever made.

John Wayne and Claire Trevor in John Ford’s “Stagecoach,” 1939.

They collaborated in 22 more movies, but Stephen Metcalf, author of the Atlantic article said: “From Stagecoach through Liberty Valance, their last Western together, Ford rode Wayne so mercilessly that fellow performers—remarkably, given the terror Ford inspired—stepped in on Wayne’s behalf.” Once, during the filming of Stagecoach, Ford said, “Can’t you walk, instead of skipping like a goddamn fairy?”

John Wayne’s onscreen presents a post WWII image of masculinity that no living man, including Wayne himself, could ever live up to. Much of it apparently derived from Ford’s insecurities. In one of their last movies, and one of their greatest, The Searchers (1956), Wayne’s persona becomes something even stranger and more mysterious, something we might accurately call an archetypal image of The Outsider, someone who’s very being prevents him from ever being part of a family, a community, or a tribe, let alone a relationship.

Martin Scorsese said Ethan Edwards, Wayne’s character in The Searchers, “is a cousin to Melville’s Ahab.” Ethan spends 10 years obsessively searching for his niece, who was taken by Comanches. When he finds her and brings her home, there is celebration as the family gathers inside their home. But Ethan waits outside on the porch, arms crossed in a gesture of loneliness. He does not cross the threshold, and no one invites him in. He turns and almost seems to fade into the desert before the door, that opened at the start of the movie, shuts on him for good. “He’s a ghost,” Scorsese said, and “genuinely scary.” He’s a living sub-personality that is part of the makeup of every American.

 

In relation to the core plot of The Searchers, a young white woman kidnapped by Indians, it’s interesting to note that during the early years of this country, large numbers of settlers chose “to become Indians – by running away from colonial society to join Indian society, by not trying to escape after being captured, or by electing to remain with their Indian captors when treaties of peace periodically afforded the the opportunity to return home.”  Few, if any Indians ever chose to join white European society! (“The White Indians of Colonial America” by James Axtell, Jan., 1975).

We have to be careful not to over-romanticize native American culture as our mainstream culture falls apart. From the early 19th century on, views of native peoples have swung between the poles of “murderous savage” – Ethan’s view – and the “noble savage,” that we find everywhere from American romantic painting to Haight Ashbury.

“Earthen Spirits” by Robert Blakelock, ca. 1880’s.

Even so, we can recognize that the homelessness, hunger, inequality, and intolerance we see in mainstream culture today did not exist in tribal culture. Indigenous tribes did not tolerate behavior that jeopardized the wellbeing of the community.

In our culture, we see plenty of it, most often in the name of “freedom.” Some of it, like out of shape guys in camouflage marching around with AR-15’s strapped to their backs, is just sad and stupid. Other behaviors, like recent spring breakers ignoring the warnings of medical experts, will prove fatal.

There seem to be just two ways for individuals and cultures to learn difficult lessons – through wisdom or through disaster. Our country is firmly on the road to the latter. Much will be swept away, both things that are good and many that are not.

Future historians will likely debate the causes of the fall of the American Empire for as long as they have pondered the fall of Rome. Fortunately, we do not have to understand the causes of our multiple crises to look for better ways to respond to them. Even now, people of good will are re-evaluating their ideals and choice of heroes.

Much as we loved him, it’s time to let Ethan Edwards finish his solitary ride into the sunset.

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, Bodh Gaya, India.

 

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