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We Happy Few

Members of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) striking for better working conditions, c. 1970. CC 2.0.

A few weeks ago, on October 25th, we observed St. Crispin’s Day. I recognize that it’s probably an exaggeration to say “we” observed it. This feast day was removed from the Roman Catholic Church's universal liturgical calendar following Vatican II, so it’s probably more accurate to say that there are some Church historians among us that were aware of it, and more to my point, some Shakespeare scholars and enthusiasts as well. But I think it’s a nice jumping off point for a discussion regarding the importance of fellowship, the theme for this month’s MythBlast series.

Generally, fellowship is what we call the act of meeting and sharing with others the important events of our lives, offering advice or aid, and pursuing shared goals or aims. Perhaps more importantly, it is a way of being seen, of creating a sense of belonging, of coming to know oneself through one’s relationships to others. And what’s more, the bonds of fellowship are strengthened when one’s group finds itself in the midst of a crisis. Take, for instance, Shakespeare’s King Henry V and the moving speech he makes before the Battle of Agincourt:

…Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,

But he’ll remember with advantages

What feats he did that day: then shall our names.

Familiar in his mouth as household words

Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remember’d;

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Henry V, Act IV, Scene iii

Shakespeare leaves no doubt that the bonds of love and brotherhood are forged in adversity, and such a love binds us in fellowship, fosters self-respect, and is made stronger for having survived hardships.

Similarly, here’s Joseph Campbell remarking in Myths To Live By on the brotherhood created by being in extremis with others:

And I have lately had occasion to think frequently of this word of Schopenhauer as I have watched on television newscasts those heroic helicopter rescues, under fire in Vietnam, of young men wounded in enemy territory: their fellows, forgetful of their own safety, putting their young lives in peril as though the lives to be rescued were their own. There, I would say—if we are looking truly for an example in our day —is an authentic rendition of the labor of Love. (138)

It’s important to point out that the battle in which one engages in order to form these bonds of fellowship needn’t be waged in a war. It’s enough that we accept the burdens of being human while facing the daily challenges of living and the inescapable struggle for dignity, for freedom, peace, and for understanding. These challenges may arouse and reinforce our bonds of fellowship just as securely as any experience of warfare. The most important battle remains, in fact, the battle within ourselves to overcome the personal ego and recognize that what I traditionally identify as me—a distinct, self-directed, independent self—is a fundamental misunderstanding of existence and being.

The primary task of the hero is to overcome the personal ego, and if that can be accomplished, one quite naturally turns to the pursuit of relieving other’s suffering. This may be understood, in Joseph Campbell’s way of thinking, as the boon that the returning hero shares with the community. Such a boon not only relieves the suffering of others but also creates sharing, nurturing relationships—in a word, fellowship. The egoist (one could just as easily use the word Tyrant) approaches others and the world with the question, “What can you give me?” The true hero approaches life armed with the question, “What can I give you?” In ancient Greece, the symbolon was understood to be the concrete token of a gift and had the function of transmitting the whole history of the giver into the recipient which then continued to live on in the receiver. It is as if through giving, we discover the secret to eternal life!

Finally, it seems to be a basic truth that, if human beings are to enjoy good physical and mental health, we need to be in the company of others, we need to feel that we belong to something larger than ourselves. Simply stated, we need fellowship. As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, it is so important to find places where we may be seen. Not to be seen through, which only elicits shame, nor seen with envy or admiration which generally leads to narcissism, but rather, to be seen into, which is a genuinely soulful, heartful experience for both the seer and the seen. Yet no seeing, however deep, can reveal the indisputably real–and whole–individual all at once in any given moment. (by real, I mean a true and authentic version of oneself). But we can see the fragments, the twinklings, the essences, or the dynamics of the real at work in a life, and over time, through the remarkable recombinatory nature of memory we fashion a more and more complete picture of a person, and we eventually come to see and know the whole being. To remain unseen is a terrible wound to the psyche, and may even be a factor in severe mental disorders. Campbell discusses how madness can share in the images of myth:

My own had been a work based on a comparative study of the mythologies of mankind, with only here and there passing references to the phenomenology of dream, hysteria, mystic visions, and the like. Mainly, it was an organization of themes and motifs common to all mythologies; and I had had no idea, in bringing these together, of the extent to which they would correspond to the fantasies of madness. According to my thinking, they were the universal, archetypal, psychologically based symbolic themes and motifs of all traditional mythologies; and now from this paper of Dr. Perry I was learning that the same symbolic figures arise spontaneously from the broken-off, tortured state of mind of modern individuals suffering from a complete schizophrenic breakdown: the condition of one who has lost touch with the life and thought of his community and is compulsively fantasizing out of his own completely cut-off base. (283, emphasis is mine)

For better or for worse, the multiformity of life in our respective communities inevitably informs and shapes our thoughts and actions. Ideally, the fellowship we keep helps us find and understand ourselves more deeply and extend the boundaries of our concerns beyond our own immediate interests to those of our fellows, and even to the world itself. Anaïs Nin wrote that “Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” (The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934) We must be conscious and intentional in seeking fellowship, because those affiliations will determine the worlds to be born from us, and give form to our own becoming.



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