Fanfare for the Common Man

Deep in your heart you know whether or not you want to experience a Wilderness Quest. Already you feel the ancient stirrings within you. The time has come. You must go into the wilderness, to the breast of Mother Earth, and seek vision, understanding and strength for yourself and for your people.

Steven Foster and Meredith Little, from the introduction to The Wilderness Quest handbook

In a few short weeks I embark on my vision quest on Dartmoor. Rebecca, who will be guiding the group of us who will be questing together, recently sent me a detailed handbook to help me with my preparation. On the first day of my holiday I tuned the radio to Classic FM, settled into my voluminous camping chair and opened the book for the first time. As I read the first few sentences of the handbook’s introduction I experienced fear and panic at the enormity of what I have committed to do. “Four days and nights alone on Dartmoor with no food and no fellowship? What am I getting myself into? I’m not ready for such an epic undertaking! It’s too much responsibility!” Questions and doubts surrounded me and attacked my resolve, revealing my commitment for what it was; lily-livered and half-hearted.

At that moment, from the radio, the mournful sound of a solo trombone pierced my anxious reverie, followed by the deep, reverberating clash of a bass drum. “Bom BOM!!” I was immediately transported to another place and remained there for the three minutes or so that the piece of music lasted. The moment was deeply synchronous. Rarely has a piece of music resonate with my feelings so powerfully. If a vision quest is a Hero’s Journey (and there’s no doubt that it is) here was a piece of music to inspire the reluctant hero within me, in a way that took me right back to my childhood in the 1980’s, to how I felt as a ten year old watching movies like Superman, Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Thanks to these stories, throughout my adult life my sleep has often been blessed with superhero dreams. I’ve been Spider Man, Superman, Luke Skywalker and The One from The Matrix. On one memorable occasion I was even The Incredible Hulk. I wonder what Carl Jung would’ve made of that one.

This awesome, overblown, universally recognisable and somewhat ridiculous piece of classical music was Fanfare for the Common Man, composed in 1942 by Aaron Copeland, who was inspired to write the piece by a speech by U.S. vice-president Henry A. Wallace which proclaimed the dawning of the “Century of the Common Man”. You can listen to it here…

We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God’s sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they’d allowed to wither in themselves.

Robert R. McCammon

A part of me feels foolish to share these romantic dreams and flights of fantasy in this way, because I’m revealing the heroic fantasies of the ten year old boy who still lives inside me. Another part of me is entirely unapologetic. This is the part that believes completely in the wisdom contained in this Robert McCammon quote I talked about in a recent post. I realise that by owning up to my “childish” fantasies about being a hero, as opposed to feeling ashamed of them and keeping them hidden, they may move from the domain of my shadow out into the light where, on some level, there may now be the possibility of them becoming a reality. I can become a hero in my own ordinary, everyday, adult life: I can find within me the courage to do what I believe needs to be done. Maybe I can start having some truthful, painful conversations with friends, family and colleagues about the things that are really important to me. Perhaps I can sit for four days and nights in the wilderness without food and come back with a vision to share with my community.

11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

1 Corinthians 13:11

I’m beginning to appreciate that it’s all about developing a different, more honest relationship with my capacity for magical thinking. We all have a significant capacity for magical thinking. This aspect of ourselves can be potent and/or problematic depending on how willing we are to see it for what it is; non-rational, non-dualistic thinking which naturally belongs to the Child part of our psyche. The Bible quote above was always one of my favourites because I was so proud of the way I left home at eighteen and became independent. I put away childish things far too quickly and enthusiastically and so I threw the baby out with the bath water. All those magical beliefs lingered on, pushed into the shadow part of my psyche where they became orphaned and alone and subsequently prevented me from doing the thing I most wanted: to grow up and properly become an adult. In his book The Sibling Society, Robert Bly argues convincingly that we have increasingly become a society of adolescents, developmentally stunted by the diminishment over the last 300 years of our ability to initiate our young people into a culture with healthy values and boundaries. Or as Martín Prechtel puts it, the problem is not that we’re failing to initiate our young people, it’s that we don’t currently have a culture that’s worth initiating them into.

Magical thinking was what got Donald Trump into the White House. He magically believed he could make America great again and so did the tens of millions of Americans who voted for him. It was much the same situation with Adolf Hitler. I think this demonstrates that anything is possible, for good or ill, when we utilise our impressive capacity for magical thinking. I don’t think I’d be able to go through with this vision quest if I weren’t thoroughly entertaining this part of my psyche. My preparation has included (amongst other more “serious” activities) watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy on three consecutive evenings this week.

After months of procrastination, I finally committed to doing the quest during a telephone conversation with Rebecca at the beginning of the summer. As we chatted I was fiddling with a piece of chalk I had absentmindedly picked up. As I spoke the words, “Yes, I commit to the quest”, I wrote the word “NO” on my wooden desk without being aware of what I was doing. Without the capacity to “magically” believe I can find within myself the courage to meet the challenges which frighten me, to face my personal demons and the monsters of this world, the part of me that always wants to say “No!” will always win the argument.

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring