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The Secret Cause

Incoming storm at Big Bend National Park, Texas. Gary Nored, 2015. Creative Commons.

Each month, we explore a theme through weekly MythBlasts, curated works, quotations, etc. This month's theme is Our Global Community.

It’s hard to ignore the fact that human life on this planet has been changed by COVID-19, but of course we all know it is not for the first time, nor is it the last. In a January 27th, 1920 letter to Oskar Pfister, Sigmund Freud wrote: “This afternoon we received the news that our sweet Sophie in Hamburg had been snatched away by influenza pneumonia, snatched away in the midst of glowing health, from a full and active life as a competent mother and loving wife, all in four or five days, as though she had never existed.”

Freud went on to say that even though they had been worried about Sophie, “it is so difficult to judge from a distance. And this distance must remain distance; we were not able to travel at once, as we had intended, after the first alarming news; there was no train, not even for an emergency. The undisguised brutality of our time is weighing heavily upon us.” What compassion and sympathy Freud’s words evoke in me, not just for Freud, but for those of us experiencing similar losses in the present. In his book, Thou Art That, Joseph Campbell writes, “What is central to our considerations is found at that level that rises above that of mere self-preservation. There arises the awakening of compassion, the opening of the human quality in our relationships with both friends and strangers.” (21) Compassion is among the most important resources we have right now. 

Campbell invokes the Waste Land of the “hideously wounded” Grail King to speak to the circumstances of living that inspire compassion: “The Waste Land is that territory of wounded people—that is, of people living inauthentic lives, broken lives, who have never found the basic energy for living, and they live, therefore, in this blighted landscape.” (23) The virus-blighted landscapes of contemporary life present us with a powerful invitation to explore our own inauthentic, broken, or desperate lives as our sources of distraction and entertainment are curtailed and while our illusions of safety and invincibility are shattered by a global pandemic. I am reminded of the line in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland: “A crowd flowed over the London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many.”

Moving on, getting back to normal, opening up the economy, recovery, are diversions that avoid the scarcely answerable existential and philosophical questions raised by terror and loss. We want answers, we want to understand the causality at work, we want to find the expressway leading away from the Waste Land. We want to deal with the instrumental causes of the pandemic because we are too shaken, too appalled, to accept its secret cause.

We say the cause of the threat to humans is the novel coronavirus, infected bats or pangolins in Wuhan, the pneumonia it causes, or underlying health conditions in its victims; these are certainly instrumental causes, but Campbell advocated for exploring the “secret cause” of things. Articulating his thoughts on this, Campbell suggests that terror “is the emotion that arrests the mind before whatsoever is grave and constant in human suffering and unites it with the secret cause. What does that mean? That is the key to the whole thing: the secret cause.” (Thou Art That, 31) So, what then, is the secret cause? 

Campbell goes on to explain that

The secret cause of your death is your destiny. Every life has a limitation, and in challenging the limit you are bringing the limit closer to you, and the heroes are the ones who initiate their actions no matter what destiny may result. What happens is, therefore, a function of what the person does. This is true of life all the way through. Here is revealed the secret cause: your own life course is the secret cause of your death.(Thou Art That, 35)

Death is really a secondary matter to Campbell, primarily because we all are destined to die and how we die is not as important as how we live. When you decide to say yes to your life, yes to everything that animates you, yes to what you’re passionate about, yes to what drives you and makes your life significant, when you say yes to all that, careless of how much resistance or push-back you get from the world, you’re following your bliss. Campbell isn’t suggesting that one be reckless, ignore accepted science, or court danger needlessly; he is simply acknowledging that following one’s bliss necessarily exposes one to some sort of suffering. It’s not really that complicated: no suffering, no bliss. In fact, Aeschylus teaches us about the relationship between pathos and mathos, suffering and learning, and tells us that we must “suffer, suffer into truth.” (Agamemnon, 98)

When we accept life’s invitation to live this way, walking the pathway to bliss, Campbell convincingly declares that death “is understood as a fulfillment of our life’s direction and purpose.” (Thou Art That, 35) Perhaps it’s not the virus that frightens us; perhaps it’s the chilling realization that we could die having never really lived that terrifies us. And if so, it’s an important realization to have because it’s never too late to heed the call to adventure, especially those adventures awaiting us within. It’s a question of “do I dare?” Like the J. Alfred Prufrock of another T.S. Eliot poem, do I dare disturb the Universe?

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