Taming the wolves

Among the better-known Native American tales is a conversation between a grandfather and his grandson. The elder explains to the younger that two wolves live inside of each of us. One is ferocious, harmful and vengeful. The other is gentle, loving and steadfast. They are, the grandfather explains, perpetually at war with one another. With the curiosity so typical of the young, the lad inquires, "Grandfather, who will win the war?" With the insight so typical of an authentic elder, the old man replies, "The one that you feed."

This archetypal drama is playing out before our very eyes as the presidential campaign progresses. Any psychologist will tell us that it is the hidden and repressed parts of our unconscious that are so very dangerous because they can push us around without our even knowing it. The purpose of "talk therapy," is to bring this unconscious content into our awareness so that we will no longer be controlled by it, acting in ways that we later regret. One could liken it to a taming of the ferocious wolf.

Nowadays, however, something peculiar and even dangerous seems to be happening. The harmful wolf is being invited into the open not for the purpose of taming, but rather for purposes of creating a climate which allows the harmful wolf in all of us to vent and even carry out our rage regardless of "political correctness," or mutual respect and courtesy. A therapist friend tells me that raw instinct of this sort without the dose of caution a healthy superego provides, is very dangerous indeed. Some among us have named this phenomenon: "redefining the laws of politics." Others are aghast, observing that different political philosophies need not make us "smug and mean," as New York Times columnist Frank Bruni observed.

A friend told me she was having coffee in a local store when she overheard a conversation between two employees. One said to another in a very loud voice, "I am going to kill Obama." The second looked surprised and remained silent. It seems some of us are simply following the politicians in giving the vengeful wolf free range. And there is plenty of this out there now.

Surely though, the international situation is no better. The Monastery of St. Elijah, a 6th century Christian monastery in Iraq, has been leveled by the so-called Islamic State group, leaving anyone with a shred of cultural sensitivity heartbroken. Accounts of not only beheadings but also crucifixions, some of children, are also being reported. The Taliban in Pakistan is slaughtering students at schools and universities. And on and on we could go.

Reader, beware! Situations of the sort we are currently experiencing in this country (and around the world for that matter) have a unique propensity to make us become what we hate. Yes, our intolerance of intolerance can make us intolerant. Our aversion to hatred can make us hateful. Our disdain of ignorance can make us disdainful.

If you have ever been the object of another's negative projections, you know how difficult and painful it can be to extricate yourself from that venomous energy which creates a vortex of pain all around. The best of psychologists tell us there really is only one thing we can do and that is stay strongly centered in our true selves.

Just what are we to do with all of this? How can we help tame the ferocious wolf?

A poem of Rumi's comes to mind: "Sit, be still, and listen / for you are drunk / and we are at the edge of the roof."

And we are all drunk: from an over- abundance of rage, hate, and ignorance in the atmosphere. The vengeful wolf has walked us to the edge of the roof. So what might happen if we sit, and be still; sit, be still and listen? Listen to what? What might we hear or experience differently?

Recently I had the good fortune to sit with a very wise and holy man. I spoke about all that is happening in our own country and the world. He listened patiently and then responded, "Come into the presence of the living God about whom nothing can be said." And then he added poignantly, "Don't think it. Breathe it."

If we were to experience through the very act of our breathing, the living God about whom nothing can be said, how might we move back from the edge of the roof? What might this do to our heart-felt consternation and even fear about all that is happening? How might it impact the wolf-filled rage, hate and ignorance that seem to be prowling all around us?

Author, hermit and mystic, Cynthia Bourgeault, has recounted the practice of Abba Arsenius, one of the desert fathers. To honor the Sabbath he went outside every Saturday evening, stood with his back to the setting sun, and raised his arms in still and silent supplication. He went back inside only when the first rays of the rising sun bathed his face. This is a haunting image.

While not too many of us would be free to engage in the actual practice of Arsenius, we could create a space in our hearts and imaginations for it. Bourgeault named it being a "cosmic sentry."

Can you see yourself in your mind's eye with arms outstretched praying for the welfare of our country and the wider world? Can you visualize yourself doing this as you sit waiting at a red light, or in a grocery store line, or in a doctor's office? Might this practice begin taming the ferocious wolf, as well as our own consternation and fear? How might it walk us all back from the edge of the roof?

Much has been conjectured about that line in the creed in which we profess that Jesus descended into hell. Recently some scholars are thinking that what Jesus did in fact was to "descend" into ultimate hate and despair and absorb and transform it, not by any specific act, but rather by witnessing to it or, more simply said, by being present to it with love.

Perhaps this is in the end, the only food fit to feed the ferocious wolf, for love alone will tame.

No doubt this is a Herculean task but it seems to be the one history has put before us.

[Margaret Galiardi, is a Dominican Sister from Amityville, New York, whose passion is the contemplative integration of justice and peace for people and planet. She is a “lover of the wild,” a spiritual director and workshop and retreat leader who has lectured nationally on the New Cosmology and the Christian Story. She spent a year living with the Trappistine monks in their monastery on the Lost Coast of Northern California in the Redwood Forest.]