I was too young to really be aware of what was happening the year that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were both assassinated. In the spring and summer of 1968, I was not yet eight years old, and my concerns had more to do with school, friends, and AM radio than the civil rights movement and national politics.
But reading The Metaphor Maker by Patricia Adams Farmer has allowed me to experience as an adult that era when the U.S. was embroiled in the Vietnam War and hopes were high that Bobby Kennedy would be the one to rescue the country from the insanity we were living.
In the book, Madeline’s world was turned upside down with the death of her brother in the war, but the solace she found working in Eve’s tea shop was the respite she needed to heal from this devastating wound. Being surrounded by loving friends and reconnecting with her former counselor Ben in southern California fueled her to once again work for change in the world by campaigning for Kennedy.
As Kennedy’s motorcade wove through Los Angeles earlier in the day he was killed, we were right there with Madeline as she reached for his hand, palpably feeling the surge of excitement and energy that he brought to the presidential race. But in a split second, all of her hopes and dreams – and the dreams of much of the country – collapsed under fire from Sirhan Sirhan’s gun.
Think about it. In less than five years Americans watched as JFK’s “Camelot” crumbled; then Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Jr, and, finally, Bobby. If we listen closely we may still hear the lid slam down on the coffin of hopes carried by people who were hungry for an America without racism, without poverty, and without war. Bobby Kennedy’s body hit the floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and so began America’s plunge into national despair. Just a few years later, with “Tricky Dick” Nixon’s Watergate scandal, that despair became partnered with a cynicism that I think we’re still mired in.
How do we recover from such despair? How do we keep moving forward under the weight of such devastating realities, especially when those realities never seem to change in any real way? What can one individual do?
A helpful perspective may come, I think, from Joseph Campbell, best known for his PBS interview series with Bill Moyers entitled “The Power of Myth.” Campbell’s work in comparative mythology focused on the “hero’s journey” archetype. He felt that we must all take that journey, both men and women, so as to become people with vitality, with what Patricia Adams Farmer calls fat souls, if you will. Campbell said,
The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there’s no doubt about it. The world without spirit is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules, who’s on top, and so forth. No, no! Any world is a valid world if it’s alive. The thing to do is to bring life to it, and the only way to do that is to find in your own case where the life is and become alive yourself.
He felt that the best response one could have to the heart-wrenching realities of life was to “participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.” He wasn’t naïve; he knew exactly the struggles and pain we face right alongside the joys and love we experience. But he also knew that, as Jesus said, “the poor would be with us always,” there would always be pain and sorrow walking right alongside the love and joy, and so we may as well go full-bodied, and full-hearted right into the fray.