Where Have All the Wise Men Gone?
The Two Great Stories of the World
Go Toward the Roar
The Hidden Hope of the World

Where Have All the Wise Men Gone?

We live in a time of great forgetting. It's not just that people live longer and short-term memory loss becomes inevitable over time. We reach for a familiar name, but it is temporarily out of our reach. Having parked a car so many times, we forget exactly where we parked it this time. We enter a room only to forget why we crossed that threshold and what we were looking for.

There is no tragedy, no great loss in that. Some forgetfulness is natural, just as eyesight weakens over time. Yet nature, in its wisdom, may see the whole thing differently. After 40 or 50 years a person has seen enough of this world and the point may no longer be just looking at life or observing what is going on. After enough time has passed, the issue is not the simple loss of sight, for the point has become the need to develop a genuine vision for life.

The loss of common sight might serve to precipitate deeper insights about life and about death, another event that nature requires. As we "grow older," we are supposed to also grow deeper and thereby become wiser. Those who continue to grow as they grow older are able to develop long-term vision where most become blinded by near-term needs and common neediness. Growing older happens to everyone, but growing wiser happens to those who awaken to a greater sense of meaning and purpose in life.

Similarly, the inevitable loss of short-term memory that accompanies aging is not intended to be a complete loss. Losing one's immediate grip on certain details can be related to gaining a greater grasp of the long-term issues that affect both culture and nature. The first kind of forgetting misplaces things in the moment, but the great forgetting involves a loss of memory regarding the gift of life itself and a lack of living wisdom that helps make both individual and collective life meaningful.

In traditional cultures, the elders are expected to remember the essential things that everyone else keeps forgetting. After "growing up," a person is supposed to grow down and become rooted deeper in the ground of being, like an old tree that draws from ever deeper resources. In traditional cultures, the elders were considered to be a valuable resource without whose guidance the whole society could lose its way.

Yet in modern life, instead of people growing "older and wiser," people can simply grow older and older. People can live longer and longer without becoming any wiser for it. When there is no genuine growth in growing older, aging can become all about loss. The longer people live the more of life they seem to lose. Instead of developing wise and seasoned "elders" who can help others find meaningful ways to live, modern societies are in danger of producing "olders" who blindly seek ways to hold onto life at any cost.

This can be seen as the problem of the olders vs. the elders. Traditionally, elders carry a greater vision of life because they develop insight into their own lives. The elders are those who found threads of purpose and meaning amidst the illusions and delusions of life. Amidst the inevitable troubles of life, the bubble of the "closed ego" bursts and a deeper, wiser self is born. Such psychological maturity involves a shift from a self-centered life to one of genuine meaning and of greater service to others.

Yet, in a culture where older folks are in the majority and people tend to live longer and longer, there seems to be an increase of fear as well as a loss of wisdom about life and about death. There seems to be a lack of knowing elders who can recall essential things in midst of the great crises troubling both nature and culture. What is the point of living longer if it doesn't mean becoming wiser and being more able to serve something beyond one's little-self?

Aging can involve various levels of memory loss. Alzheimer's disease is a tragic condition for individuals and for entire families. I am not wishing pain or suffering on anyone; however, there is something of a psychological ailment involved, a sense that more and more people are falling out of the story of life even before the end is in sight.

Can the increasing loss of memory be a collective symptom trying to call attention to the deeper issues of sustaining culture and helping nature? Is it possible that the real social security crisis is about recollecting the deeper reasons for living one's life, rather than simply collecting compensation for surviving it? Can life itself be trying to provoke an effort at recalling the deep memories and imagination that form the true inheritance of human kind?

An old idea suggests that the only ones more idealistic than young people are the elders. It's not that the elders naively believe that the great ideals of humanity, peace and justice, healing and compassion, are simply attainable. Rather, the idea is that without a commitment to such ideals a culture simply collapses into political infighting and economic warfare. The gridlock in the nation's capitol may be an increasing national shame, but the grid lock on American imagination may be a greater tragedy in the making.

While the political parties fight over who might be the "adult in the room," there is a desperate need for elders in communities throughout the country. Whereas the '60s were characterized by change brought on by a youth revolution, the current morass may only be changed by an elder awakening. The revolution waiting to happen in this country may involve an awakening to the necessity of the role that elders can play in the great crises facing both culture and nature.

Issues like poverty and joblessness, climate change and sustainability require long-term visions combined with self-sacrifice and genuine courage. Elders are not elected, so the short-term thinking characteristic of ideological politics and winning elections can be superseded. Since the elder part of us accepts the inevitability of death, decisions that truly serve the future become more possible.

Genuine wisdom relaxes hostility, settles common fears and makes inner balance and longer vision more possible. When older folks fail to recommit to the great ideals that sustain the deepest values of human life, they tend to feel more fearful and anxious while also becoming more cynical and self-involved. When older folks act with genuine courage and vision, young people feel encouraged to find and follow their dreams.

Another old idea suggests that a culture falls apart when the dreams of its youth are rejected and the visions of its elders are neglected. This country is moving closer to the kind of lack of vision and lack of wisdom that precipitates such a fall.

The Two Great Stories of the World
Recently, I have been on panels where people lament how the troubles of the world seem increasingly intractable. I've heard environmentalists suggest that evolution may have reached a dead end with regard to the human species. I've heard pained audiences decry political parties as well as social movements. I have found myself responding with ancient proverbs such as: "The great person allows universal imagination to work through them."

It's as if something quite old and truly resilient is required to face the dire array of modern problems, for most of modern life is arranged to take us away from ourselves. Not just from advertising suggesting that what we lack can be purchased, nor from the ever-growing number of clever distractions, but we also learn to abandon ourselves amidst expectations that the answers to crucial problems and solutions to great dilemmas must come from the world outside us.

Amidst radical environmental problems and massive changes throughout culture, it becomes easy to forget that there are two great and enduring stories found on Earth. One is the tale of the world writ large, the ongoing drama of creation and of destruction. The other involves the continuous and surprising story that arises from the dreams and longings, the inborn gifts and necessary frailties hidden within each individual soul.

We are not accidental citizens of a world gone wrong, not merely faceless members of an age group or statistical, biological blips without inherent meaning. Humans are living stories, each imbued with an inherent message and a meaning trying to find its way into the world. Each soul a living thread in the tale being woven as we speak, being shaped as we dream, being made anew each time we step more fully into the story trying to live through us.

No new idea and no old belief system can simply solve the dilemmas currently facing both nature and culture. Things have gone too far for that. Yet we abandon ourselves unnecessarily when we turn away from the stories already woven within us. We rescind the ancient and immediate heritage of living imagination that is laced into the body, cell by cell, and set within the bones of our collective memories. Neither wisdom nor genius, neither heroism nor love can be found except where the individual soul awakens.

Humans inherit a "narrative intelligence" capable of grasping the great dramas of this world. It can be only found by awakening to an inner story trying to live through us. As the world around us becomes more uncertain and less predictable, the inner story may be the only place to turn for any hint of security. The word security shares roots with "secret" as well as "cure." The way to affect the great drama of this world is to discover and live the story secretly seeded within one's soul.

The answers that sustain life and reveal meaning amidst the confusion come from within. The essential cure for what ails us hides within us. Until we know what story we came to life to live, we can't know how to aid the ongoing story of the world. This world is made of stories, each individual tale a part of an eternal drama being told from beginning to end, over and over again. As long as all the stories don't end at once, the world will continue.

Go Toward the Roar

For decades I have worked with severely "at-risk" youth; some who willingly put their lives at risk, and others who find themselves at risk for reasons beyond their control. Of course, all youth are at risk to some degree, as each young person must risk themselves in the world to learn who they are at the core of their life. Now, amidst growing fears and uncertainty about the future, young people sense that everything around them is at greater risk. Young people, who are supposed to be the "future of the world," can find themselves fearing that the world has very little future to offer them.

Whether it be educated youth considering the increasing dangers of climate change or less privileged ones who feel the bite of poverty and the growing disparity between rich and poor, modern youth grow up amidst threats of natural disaster, nightmares of terrorism and bewilderment at the ineffectiveness and lack of courage of those who seem to have the most power. Increasingly, I hear young people asking how to act in a world that seems to be coming apart at the seams.

Having found my own way through the world by studying myths and stories, I tend to answer with old tales that show how people have survived great troubles and the spread of fear many times before. Too much fear can lead to unnecessary panic as well as a paralysis of imagination. An old story can help contain the fear and reduce the tendency to panic and run away from life's inevitable risks.

This old teaching story comes from the great African savannahs where life pours forth in the form of teeming, feeding herds. As the herds eat their way across the plains, lions wait in the tall grass nearby, anticipating the chance to prey upon the grazing animals. In preparation, they send the oldest and weakest members of the pride away from the rest of the hunting pack. Having lost much of their strength and most of their teeth, the roar of the old ones is far greater than their ability to bite.

The old lions go off and settle in the grass directly across from where the strong and hungry lions wait and watch. As the herd enters the area between the hunting pack and the old lions, the old ones roar mightily. At the sound of the roaring, most of the herd panics. Blinded by fear, they turn and flee from the seeming source of danger. As they rush wildly in the opposite direction, they run right to where the strongest lions wait in the tall grass for dinner to arrive.

"Run towards the roar," the old people used to tell the young ones. When faced with great danger in this world, run towards the roaring, go where you fear to go, for only there will you find some safety and a way through danger. Trouble that is faced when it first appears can be the roar that awakens a person's deepest resources. In times of trouble or tragedy, a person either steps into life more fully or else slips into a diminished life characterized by fear and anxiety.

The modern world has begun to roar in a big way and fear has become the dominant emotion amongst people of all ages. Old folks fear that they will lose health care and retirement benefits; those in their prime earning years fear that they can't earn enough or could lose their jobs at any moment; and young people fear that there is no place for them in this fearful world where the whole thing could seemingly end at any moment.

Clearly, there are real fears and wild uncertainties in this rapidly changing world. There are many people waiting and willing to exploit the fears of others. And, the tendency to panic as part of the herd can suddenly strike anyone. Everyone feels some fear when panic is in the air. Yet, fear can also be a guide that clarifies what needs to be risked for a greater life to be found. That's what I tell young people when they ask what to do as the world around us becomes increasingly riddled with great uncertainty and blind reactions.

Don't get caught in the blind fears that grip the herd. When the world roars at you, it is time to go where you fear to go. The real risk in this life has always been that of becoming oneself amidst the uncertainties of existence. On this earth everything we are given can also become lost. The notion that life should be safe or even that retirement should be secure misses the point of fully living the story seeded in one's soul from the beginning.

The old soul in the human psyche knows that the whole thing has hung by a thread all along. Not that there aren't real fears, but that those who are older are supposed to draw wisdom from surviving the trouble in their own lives. Those "old enough to know better" are not supposed to panic and foolishly add to the roaring of the world.

Those looking for security in the midst of radical change become easy pickings for those trying to benefit from the roaring troubles of this world. Those who believe that life should be predictable or that their security should be guaranteed wind up caught in the teeth of blind anger or debilitating fear. As an Irish poet once said, "A false sense of security is the only kind there is."

In the end, what we fear will not go away, for it indicates what we must go through in order to live more fully. As an old African proverb advises: When death or danger finds you, let it find you alive! Whether it be an individual, a community or a country, when faced with tragedy or fearful uncertainty we either enter life more fully or else begin to accept a smaller way of being. In the end, or when the end seems near, genuine security can only be found by taking the risks that lead to a greater sense of life and a more inclusive and encompassing way of being in the world.

The Hidden Hope of the World

The promise of America has long been based upon high hopes for a future that will surpass the present and redeem the past, as well. Yet, recent polls indicate the mood of the country is growing ever darker, both less hopeful and more cynical.

Corruption at high levels of banking and business along with scandals in politics and in the media cause people to lose trust in the very institutions intended to protect their rights and freedoms. The persistent loss of jobs and callous threats of abandoning the poor, the sick and the elderly cause people to lose hope for meaningful change. There also exists an instinctive sense that the fixed ideologies and hardened attitudes that dominate politics cannot possibly solve the wild array of dilemmas facing modern society. In the face of endless wars and intractable problems, Americans, often seen as the most hopeful and futuristic people in the world, are rapidly becoming hopeless.

In many ways, it is the nature of hope to become lost. Most hopes turn out to be false hopes based upon wishful thinking and false expectations that cannot survive encounters with harsh reality. The problem isn't simply that people lose hope, but that hope turns into its opposite: despair. The problem is that people tend to cling to naïve hopes for too long and avoid despair at any cost. The problem is that people often fall from the heights of expectation and entitlement into the depths of futility and total resignation from life. In America, the "tipping point" between hope and despair may already have been reached as more and more people become cynical about change and bitter about the blatant betrayals of public trust.

Yet despair, so often avoided by innocents and cynics alike, is not simply a blind alley or a dead end. The territory of despair becomes the deeper ground and darker earth from which our most enduring visions of life arise. Not simply the "light at the end of the tunnel," nor a sudden solution from the outside, but the light hidden inside the darkest hours of life. Any hope for this increasingly hopeless world might have to be found inside the currents of despair that accompany the endless news reports of cultural unraveling and environmental disaster.

From the view of the soul, facing an overwhelming array of troubles is an old story. While the facts can never tell the whole story, a genuine myth is a story for all times. At this time, we seem to be revisiting the ancient tale of Pandora's Box, where the lid came off and all the troubles of life flooded into the world at once. In older versions of the story, it wasn't Pandora who caused the trouble in the first place, but her notoriously short-sighted husband who caused all hell to break loose.

Pandora, whose name means "all gifted and all giving," had married Epimetheus, the less-famous brother of Prometheus. Prometheus means "far-seeing" and it was he who foresaw that humans would need the element of fire to survive and to develop culture. However, Epimetheus means "unable to see ahead" and "only able to see something after it has happened." In older tales, it was the impulsive and uninformed brother of Prometheus who lifted the lid and only began to see the extent of the damage after all the troubles were loosed upon the world.

We are the descendants of both mythical brothers, and ever since Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave humans access to technology we have been "playing with fire." And we suffer a kind of blindness whenever we decide long-term issues with short-term ideas and a lack of genuine vision. Epimetheus seems to be very present again, in the form of political blindness and short-term thinking that makes an already troubled situation become increasingly perilous.

Politicians, narrowly focused upon winning the next election or dominating the "24-hour news cycle" blindly decide issues that have long-term effects for everyone. Bankers, who should know better, risk all stability for immediate gain. The media class becomes able to see only one story at a time, and much of the electorate votes along narrowing lines of seeming self-interest, even sending people out to govern who declare that they don't believe in government.

Those afflicted with blind beliefs and profound short-sightedness seem to have risen to the top again in the form of willful ideologues and single-issue groups. Ideologies and fixed beliefs are by their nature short-sighted and uninspired. Even in the best of times they are a poor substitute for genuine vision; in the hard times they become an excuse for brutal disregard of whoever might see things differently. The widespread loss of vision combined with willful self-interest can cause everyone to lose all hope in this world.

Yet in the old myth, Hope hid under the lid as all the pains of life were released. It's as if all the ills and ailments, all the scandals and betrayals and the rampant skullduggery must be faced before the hidden hope of life can be found again. It's as if things must become hopeless before a deeper sense of hope can return from the depths of the human heart. This "second level of hope" includes a darker knowledge of the world and a sharper insight into one's own soul. As the pioneering American philosopher William James wrote: "... the recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder strata of character, are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making, and directly perceive how events happen, and how work is actually done."

There is a second level of hope found, not by clinging to old dreams or by denying despair, but by surviving it. When life becomes darkest the eye of the soul begins to see. "Hope springs eternal" when people begin to see beyond the parade of facts and the litanies of ideologies and learn to trust the deeper values of individual life as well as the underlying truths of human culture. Great crises are not solved by simply conserving assets, but by finding inner resources that were hidden from sight.

The sense of connecting to the underlying spirit of life and the hidden resiliency of the individual human soul is the source of genuine hope. The second level of hope is based in creative imagination that appears when people honestly stay in the tension of opposing ideas long enough that a surprising third way forward appears. The second level and deeper meaning of hope depends upon the deep power of the human soul to imagine and therefore to create, renew and innovate. When all hope is lost and all seems headed for disaster, it is genuine imagination that is missing and needs to be found again.

©2011, Michael Meade

Michael Meade, D.H.L., is a renowned storyteller, author and scholar of mythology, anthropology and psychology. He combines hypnotic storytelling, street-savvy perceptiveness, and spellbinding interpretations of ancient myths with a deep knowledge of cross-cultural rituals. He has an unusual ability to distill and synthesize these disciplines, tapping into ancestral sources of wisdom and connecting them to the stories we are living today.

He is the author of "Fate and Destiny: The Two Agreements of The Soul," "The World Behind the World," "The Water of Life: Initiation and the Tempering of the Soul"; editor, with James Hillman and Robert Bly, of Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart; and editor of "Crossroads: A Quest for Contemporary Rites of Passage." Also an audio tape with Clarissa Pinkola Estes,, Ovarios Y Cojones: Labyrinths of Memory and Danger within Women and Men. Meade is founder of Mosaic Multicultural Foundation, a nonprofit network of artists, activists, and community builders that encourages greater understanding between diverse peoples. They have published Voices of Vets: A bridge back to the world. Poems from veterans and their families For more information visit www.mosaicvoices.org or email

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