“There are two ways of trying to create a good life. One is by punishing evil, and the other is by actively promoting virtue.” ~Christopher Boehm
“Punishment and trance are a great deal more comfortable and familiar than aliveness.” ~Anne Lamott
The world seems like a sloppy, unfriendly, chaotically backwards place. My body caves into itself as my insides contract, my own heart a heavy weight, sinking past my toes into the earth herself.
“Mom, what is going on? Everyone seems so…weird,” my daughter says. I wait for the words to come that could even come close to expressing my thoughts. My eyes lock on the floor in front of me. I wait. My thoughts hide in deep cracks and crevices, invisible but felt, utterly inaccessible. I wait.
“Mom, you’re doing that sigh thing again.” The sigh that means I simply can’t get out what I want to say. The long fingers of Fear grasp and escape with my thoughts that might rock relationships, connections, community. Silence is what it wants. Uncertainty. Division.
I am reminded of a legend from the Great Lakes Region of the US and Canada: the Wendigo. Stories and descriptions vary, but the common thread is that the Wendigo is a giant, cannibalistic, malevolent, supernatural monster who is seen as the embodiment of gluttony, insatiable greed, and excess. Stories about the Wendigo caution against such behaviors, encouraging moderation and cooperation.
In some myths, the Wendigo is described as a giant with human characteristics. Whenever the Wendigo would eat another person, it would grow in proportion to what it just ate. Thus, it could never be full…a gluttonous being emaciated from starvation, never satisfied after killing and consuming. The more it eats, the more it starves. In other traditions, the Wendigo is seen as a spirit who possesses humans, causing them to become overpowered by greed, thus turning into Wendigos themselves. The more it wants, the more it possesses.
I can see this belief mirrored today by the term “Wendigo Sickness,” attributed to humans and corporations who destroy the environment, create chaos in communities with their greed and racism, and believe that cannibalizing the life-force of others (including animals and other forms of life on earth, as well as the earth herself) is a logical and morally correct way to live.
I believe that many are in this Wendigo Sickness state. The ever-consuming monster, with a heart of ice, no lips, and yellow teeth. It uses its long arms and fingers to pull land, resources, money and power into its gaping mouth. Wars start because of its insatiable hunger for more, more, more. It eats the life force of our neighborhoods and its people, instilling fear and division, distrust of cultural groups, to question matters of faith, to blame and punish. It eats trees and rivers, mountains and meadows, chewing through the earth to reach oil and precious metals and stones. It wades into the seas and drinks our clean waters, stomps on our coral reefs, and dines on whales and dolphins and precious ecosystems. It craves the life force of humans (the metaphorical flesh); it wants to eat them up and spit them out, to use them as stairs in their climb to gain money, power, possessions, fame.
The Wendigo is sick, cut off from its roots, entangling us in its net. It has led us to believe that we are separate from each other and our environment. It has infected us with its self-serving ego to supremacy. We consume far more than we need to, simply because we want to feel powerful and important. The Wendigo’s sickness perpetuates as our young children interact with our culture and society.
This is what I feel I’m up against. How do you fight something that is a spirit, a thought form, a monstrous creature? How do you keep yourself from turning into one? Will our innate goodness outweigh our selfish human nature? Are we predisposed to act cooperatively, or will our competitive, violent selves keep us divided, fighting each other in wars, calling each other enemies, killing each other in our streets?
Madness. All madness of the ever hungry Wendigo.
But, there is something I can do. Something to disrupt and undermine the Wendigo agenda.
I can tell stories. And listen to the stories of others.
How can this be of any help? Because understanding each other – empathizing with someone – is an act of giving. It is an act of reverence which has no choice but to inspire interconnectedness and community. Altruism is a by-product of such actions. And the Wendigo hates all of these things.
Stories help us find the balance between remembering and creation. The words fly from the mouth, carrying pollens of understanding, compassion, willingness. We open into the knowing that we sit across from ourselves, with common goals, challenges, circumstances, faults, and dreams. We may disagree at times, yet somehow we find the pathway that allows us to hold those differences gently – sometimes firmly – and we continue to move forward. The words educate us…allow us to walk for a time as someone else, dipping into the past which has informed and honed this person we see before us. And sometimes we are surprised at the values and bright attitude this person carries, especially after a life rife with struggle. Or that a person who seems to have everything can be utterly alone and unhappy. Or that, underneath the niceties, a person can hide darkness.
Stories help us remember higher values. Struggles that led to success, the value of courage, sticking with something even though the urge to quit bashes us in the chest. Times of great love and patience. Awe at the world despite all of its messiness. Victories. Rising above hatred. Treating each other well.
Stories remind us of pain…death, illness, arguments. Things broken, bashed, unglued. Things coming apart, falling away, destruction, dust. Things we don’t have and wish we did. Heart hurts from unkind words or actions. Dirty environments.
Our stories show us that we are capable of deep love, kindness, patience, and compassion…yet also of selfishness, aggressiveness, violence, and brutality. Right now, our stories seem to have centered around the latter: divisiveness nationalism; hateful rhetoric; racism and unjust judicial systems; separateness from the earth and each other; war; fear of the other; “my faith is the only true faith”; everyone is out to get us; we can’t do anything about it; we need more more more – all feeding the Wendigo.
But it’s all part of human nature, you say. We will never get rid of the Wendigo because we will always have this urge to consume, to be selfish, you say.
I believe something different.
I believe it’s possible to interrupt these Wendigo tendencies through story. I believe that story builds pathways that strengthen the higher qualities we inherently own: a moral compass, our conscience, selflessness, love, consideration of others, cooperativeness, compassion, social reciprocity, altruism. I think we will always grapple with our own darkness…yet our courage to honestly look these spaces in the face is what tends to shift the stories we create in our lives.
Telling our stories creates understanding, which then creates compassion and empathy for ourselves and others. This act of giving undermines the Wendigo. When we sit with another and share our lives, when we write in our journals, when we tell our children about their ancestors, when we create our memoirs or personal essays, we undermine the Wendigo. When we understand someone by listening to their stories, it short circuits our tendency to blame or assume and hate, which undermines the Wendigo. When we are courageous enough to look ourselves straight in the eye and have tea with our shadows, our outer stories change, which undermines the Wendigo. When we come to a place of being with each other as fellow humans on this earth walk, holding our differences with a kind of reverence and awareness, the Wendigo becomes mist, blown about by winds.
This is what I will tell my daughter.