[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer. This is the second installment.]
V. The “BC Bubble” and the Hero’s Journey
If there is a moral ideal as hallowed in the Western tradition as human rights, it would be the Christian ideal of neighborly love. We tend to interpret this as, at least, not hurting people and not taking their stuff, and at most, being nice. We typically take the first part as the easy one. Of course we love ourselves! The challenge, we assume, is loving others. But as is usual with Jesus, things are not what they seem, and true wisdom is the opposite of conventional wisdom. The real challenge is loving ourselves, which is only possible through seeing ourselves as we truly are—as vulnerable, suffering, dependent, flawed, mortal, human. We tend to regard our “humanity” in abstract, or perhaps even biological, terms—as a class or species we belong to. But our recognition of our own humanity is actually an intimate affair, something spied far from the madding crowd.
Pope Francis expressed his understanding of this deep truth in his response to the question, “Who is Jorge Bergoglio?” His reply: “I am a sinner.” We tend to put saints and popes and heroes on pedestals, but they’re all flawed, too. In his study of the Argentinian dictatorship, The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War, Federico Finchelstein writes,
In contrast with many other Latin American countries, the Catholic Church was one of the main backers of the junta [in Argentina]…. The basis for this alliance rested on a notion accepted by most Argentine bishops at the time: any condemnation of human rights violations was a threat to the homeland and God…. The intimacy between God and the military nation was emphasized at the time, and Pope Franics, who as Father Bergoglio was the most important Jesuit in the country, never spoke out against this.
Even the best of us are in constant danger of the primordial avoidance. Our egos block us both from a genuine encounter with the neighbor, and a genuine encounter with ourselves. When we pile on additional layers of culture, nationality, religion, class, etc., the wall thickens even more. What maintains superficial bonds with the few undermines deeper bonds with the many.
At Boston College, it is customary to refer to the “BC bubble.” Apparently, the bubble is now portable: I hear students, faculty, and administrators report that for many of the popular study abroad destinations, such as Spain, BC students tend to clump together and, on weekends, skip around to other cities, bringing, in effect, the comforting connections of home abroad. While it is natural to want to maintain connections to the familiar, we should ask what is lost by bringing too many buffers, too many life-preservers, too much of the familiar to cling to that it saps the power of the adventure.
The mythologist Joseph Campbell liked to talk about what he called the “Hero’s Journey.” He believed that at the heart of all great stories—myths, epics, fairy tales, fictions—was a universal pattern. This basic archetype, the “monomyth,” has a threefold structure: 1) departure, 2) initiation, 3) return. Departure is the call to adventure, where the hero is drawn or casts herself into the unknown, a dark underworld, a zone of great power and great danger. There she encounters challenges that evoke qualities of her character and unlock parts of herself she didn’t even know were there. The descent is disorienting, and she must resist the temptation to retreat back to the light-world of the surface. But if she persists, she meets a great trial that, if survived and completed, initiates her into a new order, gives her deep insight, new eyes, a fresh perspective on herself and where she came from. Only from the bottom of the ocean can she finally see the surface. This hard-won pearl in hand, she returns home, sharing her wisdom with the community. Without that plunge into the unfamiliar, she would not have really gone anywhere. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. As Campbell liked to say, “If you’re falling, dive.”