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The Overprotected Kid


A trio of boys tramps along the length of a wooden fence, back and forth, shouting like carnival barkers. “The Land! It opens in half an hour.” Down a path and across a grassy square, 5-year-old Dylan can hear them through the window of his nana’s front room. He tries to figure out what half an hour is and whether he can wait that long. When the heavy gate finally swings open, Dylan, the boys, and about a dozen other children race directly to their favorite spots, although it’s hard to see how they navigate so expertly amid the chaos. “Is this a junkyard?” asks my 5-year-old son, Gideon, who has come with me to visit. “Not exactly,” I tell him, although it’s inspired by one. The Land is a playground that takes up nearly an acre at the far end of a quiet housing development in North Wales. It’s only two years old but has no marks of newness and could just as well have been here for decades. The ground is muddy in spots and, at one end, slopes down steeply to a creek where a big, faded plastic boat that most people would have thrown away is wedged into the bank. The center of the playground is dominated by a high pile of tires that is growing ever smaller as a redheaded girl and her friend roll them down the hill and into the creek. “Why are you rolling tires into the water?” my son asks. “Because we are,” the girl replies.

It’s still morning, but someone has already started a fire in the tin drum in the corner, perhaps because it’s late fall and wet-cold, or more likely because the kids here love to start fires. Three boys lounge in the only unbroken chairs around it; they are the oldest ones here, so no one complains. One of them turns on the radio—Shaggy is playing (Honey came in and she caught me red-handed, creeping with the girl next door)—as the others feel in their pockets to make sure the candy bars and soda cans are still there. Nearby, a couple of boys are doing mad flips on a stack of filthy mattresses, which makes a fine trampoline. At the other end of the playground, a dozen or so of the younger kids dart in and out of large structures made up of wooden pallets stacked on top of one another. Occasionally a group knocks down a few pallets—just for the fun of it, or to build some new kind of slide or fort or unnamed structure. Come tomorrow and the Land might have a whole new topography.

Other than some walls lit up with graffiti, there are no bright colors, or anything else that belongs to the usual playground landscape: no shiny metal slide topped by a red steering wheel or a tic-tac-toe board; no yellow seesaw with a central ballast to make sure no one falls off; no rubber bucket swing for babies. There is, however, a frayed rope swing that carries you over the creek and deposits you on the other side, if you can make it that far (otherwise it deposits you in the creek). The actual children’s toys (a tiny stuffed elephant, a soiled Winnie the Pooh) are ignored, one facedown in the mud, the other sitting behind a green plastic chair. On this day, the kids seem excited by a walker that was donated by one of the elderly neighbors and is repurposed, at different moments, as a scooter, a jail cell, and a gymnastics bar.
An excerpt from The Land, a documentary by Vermont-based filmmaker Erin Davis
The Land is an “adventure playground,” although that term is maybe a little too reminiscent of theme parks to capture the vibe. In the U.K., such playgrounds arose and became popular in the 1940s, as a result of the efforts of Lady Marjory Allen of Hurtwood, a landscape architect and children’s advocate. Allen was disappointed by what she described in a documentary as “asphalt square” playgrounds with “a few pieces of mechanical equipment.” She wanted to design playgrounds with loose parts that kids could move around and manipulate, to create their own makeshift structures. But more important, she wanted to encourage a “free and permissive atmosphere” with as little adult supervision as possible. The idea was that kids should face what to them seem like “really dangerous risks” and then conquer them alone. That, she said, is what builds self-confidence and courage.


The playgrounds were novel, but they were in tune with the cultural expectations of London in the aftermath of World War II. Children who might grow up to fight wars were not shielded from danger; they were expected to meet it with assertiveness and even bravado. Today, these playgrounds are so out of sync with affluent and middle-class parenting norms that when I showed fellow parents back home a video of kids crouched in the dark lighting fires, the most common sentence I heard from them was “This is insane.” (Working-class parents hold at least some of the same ideals, but are generally less controlling—out of necessity, and maybe greater respect for toughness.) That might explain why there are so few adventure playgrounds left around the world, and why a newly established one, such as the Land, feels like an act of defiance.

If a 10-year-old lit a fire at an American playground, someone would call the police and the kid would be taken for counseling. At the Land, spontaneous fires are a frequent occurrence. The park is staffed by professionally trained “playworkers,” who keep a close eye on the kids but don’t intervene all that much. Claire Griffiths, the manager of the Land, describes her job as “loitering with intent.” Although the playworkers almost never stop the kids from what they’re doing, before the playground had even opened they’d filled binders with “risk benefits assessments” for nearly every activity. (In the two years since it opened, no one has been injured outside of the occasional scraped knee.) Here’s the list of benefits for fire: “It can be a social experience to sit around with friends, make friends, to sing songs to dance around, to stare at, it can be a co-operative experience where everyone has jobs. It can be something to experiment with, to take risks, to test its properties, its heat, its power, to re-live our evolutionary past.” The risks? “Burns from fire or fire pit” and “children accidentally burning each other with flaming cardboard or wood.” In this case, the benefits win, because a playworker is always nearby, watching for impending accidents but otherwise letting the children figure out lessons about fire on their own.

Kids once took special pride in “knowing how to get places” alone, and in finding shortcuts adults normally wouldn’t use.

“I’m gonna put this cardboard box in the fire,” one of the boys says.

“You know that will make a lot of smoke,” says Griffiths.

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” he answers, and in goes the box. Smoke instantly fills the air and burns our eyes. The other boys sitting around the fire cough, duck their heads, and curse him out. In my playground set, we would call this “natural consequences,” although we rarely have the nerve to let even much tamer scenarios than this one play out. By contrast, the custom at the Land is for parents not to intervene. In fact, it’s for parents not to come at all. The dozens of kids who passed through the playground on the day I visited came and went on their own. In seven hours, aside from Griffiths and the other playworkers, I saw only two adults: Dylan’s nana, who walked him over because he’s only 5, and Steve Hughes, who runs a local fishing-tackle shop and came by to lend some tools.

Griffiths started selling local families on the proposed playground in 2006. She talked about the health and developmental benefits of freer outdoor play, and explained that the playground would look messy but be fenced in. But mostly she made an appeal rooted in nostalgia. She explained some of the things kids might be able to do and then asked the parents to remember their own childhoods. “Ahh, did you never used to do that?” she would ask. This is how she would win them over. Hughes moved to the neighborhood after the Land was already open, but when he stopped by, I asked how he would have answered that question. “When I was a kid, we didn’t have all the rules about health and safety,” he said. “I used to go swimming in the Dee, which is one of the most dangerous rivers around. If my parents had found out, they would have grounded me for life. But back then we would get up to all sorts of mischief.”
Like most parents my age, I have memories of childhood so different from the way my children are growing up that sometimes I think I might be making them up, or at least exaggerating them. I grew up on a block of nearly identical six-story apartment buildings in Queens, New York. In my elementary-school years, my friends and I spent a lot of afternoons playing cops and robbers in two interconnected apartment garages, after we discovered a door between them that we could pry open. Once, when I was about 9, my friend Kim and I “locked” a bunch of younger kids in an imaginary jail behind a low gate. Then Kim and I got hungry and walked over to Alba’s pizzeria a few blocks away and forgot all about them. When we got back an hour later, they were still standing in the same spot. They never hopped over the gate, even though they easily could have; their parents never came looking for them, and no one expected them to. A couple of them were pretty upset, but back then, the code between kids ruled. We’d told them they were in jail, so they stayed in jail until we let them out. A parent’s opinion on their term of incarceration would have been irrelevant.

I used to puzzle over a particular statistic that routinely comes up in articles about time use: even though women work vastly more hours now than they did in the 1970s, mothers—and fathers—of all income levels spend much more time with their children than they used to. This seemed impossible to me until recently, when I began to think about my own life. My mother didn’t work all that much when I was younger, but she didn’t spend vast amounts of time with me, either. She didn’t arrange my playdates or drive me to swimming lessons or introduce me to cool music she liked. On weekdays after school she just expected me to show up for dinner; on weekends I barely saw her at all. I, on the other hand, might easily spend every waking Saturday hour with one if not all three of my children, taking one to a soccer game, the second to a theater program, the third to a friend’s house, or just hanging out with them at home. When my daughter was about 10, my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years.

It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation. Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70s—walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap—are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting. One very thorough study of “children’s independent mobility,” conducted in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods in the U.K., shows that in 1971, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to 9 percent, and now it’s even lower. When you ask parents why they are more protective than their parents were, they might answer that the world is more dangerous than it was when they were growing up. But this isn’t true, or at least not in the way that we think. For example, parents now routinely tell their children never to talk to strangers, even though all available evidence suggests that children have about the same (very slim) chance of being abducted by a stranger as they did a generation ago. Maybe the real question is, how did these fears come to have such a hold over us? And what have our children lost—and gained—as we’ve succumbed to them?


In 1978, a toddler named Frank Nelson made his way to the top of a 12-foot slide in Hamlin Park in Chicago, with his mother, Debra, a few steps behind him. The structure, installed three years earlier, was known as a “tornado slide” because it twisted on the way down, but the boy never made it that far. He fell through the gap between the handrail and the steps and landed on his head on the asphalt. A year later, his parents sued the Chicago Park District and the two companies that had manufactured and installed the slide. Frank had fractured his skull in the fall and suffered permanent brain damage. He was paralyzed on his left side and had speech and vision problems. His attorneys noted that he was forced to wear a helmet all the time to protect his fragile skull.

The Nelsons’ was one of a number of lawsuits of that era that fueled a backlash against potentially dangerous playground equipment. Theodora Briggs Sweeney, a consumer advocate and safety consultant from John Carroll University, near Cleveland, testified at dozens of trials and became a public crusader for playground reform. “The name of the playground game will continue to be Russian roulette, with the child as unsuspecting victim,” Sweeney wrote in a 1979 paper published in Pediatrics. She was concerned about many things—the heights of slides, the space between railings, the danger of loose S-shaped hooks holding parts together—but what she worried about most was asphalt and dirt. In her paper, Sweeney declared that lab simulations showed children could die from a fall of as little as a foot if their head hit asphalt, or three feet if their head hit dirt.

A federal-government report published around that time found that tens of thousands of children were turning up in the emergency room each year because of playground accidents. As a result, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1981 published the first “Handbook for Public Playground Safety,” a short set of general guidelines—the word guidelines was in bold, to distinguish the contents from requirements—that should govern the equipment. For example, no component of any equipment should form angles or openings that could trap any part of a child’s body, especially the head.

To turn up the pressure, Sweeney and a fellow consultant on playground safety, Joe Frost, began cataloguing the horrors that befell children at playgrounds. Between them, they had testified in almost 200 cases and could detail gruesome specifics—several kids who had gotten their heads trapped or crushed by merry-go-rounds; one who was hanged by a jump rope attached to a deck railing; one who was killed by a motorcycle that crashed into an unfenced playground; one who fell while playing football on rocky ground. In a paper they wrote together, Sweeney and Frost called for “immediate inspection” of all equipment that had been installed before 1981, and the removal of anything faulty. They also called for playgrounds nationwide to incorporate rubber flooring in crucial areas.

In January 1985, the Chicago Park District settled the suit with the Nelsons. Frank Nelson was guaranteed a minimum of $9.5 million. Maurice Thominet, the chief engineer for the Park District, told the Chicago Tribune that the city would have to “take a cold, hard look at all of our equipment” and likely remove all the tornado slides and some other structures.

At the time, a reader wrote to the paper:  Do accidents happen anymore? …  Can a mother take the risk of taking her young child up to the top of a tornado slide, with every good intention, and have an accident?

Who is responsible for a child in a park, the park district or the parent? … Swings hit 1-year-old children in the head, I’m sure with dire consequences in some instances. Do we eliminate swings?

But these proved to be musings from a dying age. Around the time the Nelson settlement became public, park departments all over the country began removing equipment newly considered dangerous, partly because they could not afford to be sued, especially now that a government handbook could be used by litigants as proof of standards that parks were failing to meet. In anticipation of lawsuits, insurance premiums skyrocketed. As the Tribune reader had intuited, the cultural understanding of acceptable risk began to shift, such that any known risk became nearly synonymous with hazard.

Over the years, the official consumer-product handbook has gone through several revisions; it is now supplemented by a set of technical guidelines for manufacturers. More and more, the standards are set by engineers and technical experts and lawyers, with little meaningful input from “people who know anything about children’s play,” says William Weisz, a design consultant who has sat on several committees overseeing changes to the guidelines. The handbook includes specific prescriptions for the exact heights, slopes, and other angles of nearly every piece of equipment. Rubber flooring or wood chips are virtually required; grass and dirt are “not considered protective surfacing because wear and environmental factors can reduce their shock absorbing effectiveness.”

“Reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development,” says Joe Frost, an influential safety crusader.

It is no longer easy to find a playground that has an element of surprise, no matter how far you travel. Kids can find the same slides at the same heights and angles as the ones in their own neighborhood, with many of the same accessories. I live in Washington, D.C., near a section of Rock Creek Park, and during my first year in the neighborhood, a remote corner of the park dead-ended into what our neighbors called the forgotten playground. The slide had wooden steps, and was at such a steep angle that kids had to practice controlling their speed so they wouldn’t land too hard on the dirt. More glorious, a freestanding tree house perched about 12 feet off the ground, where the neighborhood kids would gather and sort themselves into the pack hierarchies I remember from my childhood—little kids on the ground “cooking” while the bigger kids dominated the high shelter. But in 2003, nearly a year after I moved in, the park service tore down the tree house and replaced all the old equipment with a prefab playground set on rubber flooring. Now the playground can hold only a toddler’s attention, and not for very long. The kids seem to spend most of their time in the sandbox; maybe they like it because the neighbors have turned it into a mini adventure playground, dropping off an odd mixing spoon or colander or broken-down toy car.


In recent years, Joe Frost, Sweeney’s old partner in the safety crusade, has become concerned that maybe we have gone too far. In a 2006 paper, he gives the example of two parents who sued when their child fell over a stump in a small redwood forest that was part of a playground. They had a basis for the lawsuit. After all, the latest safety handbook advises designers to “look out for tripping hazards, like exposed concrete footings, tree stumps, and rocks.” But adults have come to the mistaken view “that children must somehow be sheltered from all risks of injury,” Frost writes. “In the real world, life is filled with risks—financial, physical, emotional, social—and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development.”

At the core of the safety obsession is a view of children that is the exact opposite of Lady Allen’s, “an idea that children are too fragile or unintelligent to assess the risk of any given situation,” argues Tim Gill, the author of No Fear, a critique of our risk-averse society. “Now our working assumption is that children cannot be trusted to find their way around tricky physical or social and emotional situations.”

What’s lost amid all this protection? In the mid-1990s, Norway passed a law that required playgrounds to meet certain safety standards. Ellen Sandseter, a professor of early-childhood education at Queen Maud University College in Trondheim, had just had her first child, and she watched as one by one the playgrounds in her neighborhood were transformed into sterile, boring places. Sandseter had written her master’s dissertation on young teens and their need for sensation and risk; she’d noticed that if they couldn’t feed that desire in some socially acceptable way, some would turn to more-reckless behavior. She wondered whether a similar dynamic might take hold among younger kids as playgrounds started to become safer and less interesting.

Sandseter began observing and interviewing children on playgrounds in Norway. In 2011, she published her results in a paper called “Children’s Risky Play From an Evolutionary Perspective: The Anti-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences.” Children, she concluded, have a sensory need to taste danger and excitement; this doesn’t mean that what they do has to actually be dangerous, only that they feel they are taking a great risk. That scares them, but then they overcome the fear. In the paper, Sandseter identifies six kinds of risky play: (1) Exploring heights, or getting the “bird’s perspective,” as she calls it—“high enough to evoke the sensation of fear.” (2) Handling dangerous tools—using sharp scissors or knives, or heavy hammers that at first seem unmanageable but that kids learn to master. (3) Being near dangerous elements—playing near vast bodies of water, or near a fire, so kids are aware that there is danger nearby. (4) Rough-and-tumble play—wrestling, play-fighting—so kids learn to negotiate aggression and cooperation. (5) Speed—cycling or skiing at a pace that feels too fast. (6) Exploring on one’s own.

This last one Sandseter describes as “the most important for the children.” She told me, “When they are left alone and can take full responsibility for their actions, and the consequences of their decisions, it’s a thrilling experience.”

To gauge the effects of losing these experiences, Sandseter turns to evolutionary psychology. Children are born with the instinct to take risks in play, because historically, learning to negotiate risk has been crucial to survival; in another era, they would have had to learn to run from some danger, defend themselves from others, be independent. Even today, growing up is a process of managing fears and learning to arrive at sound decisions. By engaging in risky play, children are effectively subjecting themselves to a form of exposure therapy, in which they force themselves to do the thing they’re afraid of in order to overcome their fear. But if they never go through that process, the fear can turn into a phobia. Paradoxically, Sandseter writes, “our fear of children being harmed,” mostly in minor ways, “may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.” She cites a study showing that children who injured themselves falling from heights when they were between 5 and 9 years old are less likely to be afraid of heights at age 18. “Risky play with great heights will provide a desensitizing or habituating experience,” she writes.


We might accept a few more phobias in our children in exchange for fewer injuries. But the final irony is that our close attention to safety has not in fact made a tremendous difference in the number of accidents children have. According to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which monitors hospital visits, the frequency of emergency-room visits related to playground equipment, including home equipment, in 1980 was 156,000, or one visit per 1,452 Americans. In 2012, it was 271,475, or one per 1,156 Americans. The number of deaths hasn’t changed much either. From 2001 through 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported 100 deaths associated with playground equipment—an average of 13 a year, or 10 fewer than were reported in 1980. Head injuries, runaway motorcycles, a fatal fall onto a rock—most of the horrors Sweeney and Frost described all those years ago turn out to be freakishly rare, unexpected tragedies that no amount of safety-proofing can prevent.

Even rubber surfacing doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference in the real world. David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University, analyzed U.K. injury statistics and found that as in the U.S., there was no clear trend over time. “The advent of all these special surfaces for playgrounds has contributed very little, if anything at all, to the safety of children,” he told me. Ball has found some evidence that long-bone injuries, which are far more common than head injuries, are actually increasing. The best theory for that is “risk compensation”—kids don’t worry as much about falling on rubber, so they’re not as careful, and end up hurting themselves more often. The problem, says Ball, is that “we have come to think of accidents as preventable and not a natural part of life.”

The category of risky play on Sandseter’s list that likely makes this current generation of parents most nervous is the one involving children getting lost, or straying from adult supervision. “Children love to walk off alone and go exploring away from the eyes of adults,” she writes. They “experience a feeling of risk and danger of getting lost” when “given the opportunity to ‘cruise’ on their own exploring unknown areas; still, they have an urge to do it.” Here again Sandseter cites evidence showing that the number of separation experiences before age 9 correlates negatively with separation-anxiety symptoms at age 18, “suggesting an ‘inoculation’ effect.”

In all my years as a parent, I’ve mostly met children who take it for granted that they are always being watched.

But parents these days have little tolerance for children’s wandering on their own, for reasons that, much like the growing fear of playground injuries, have their roots in the 1970s. In 1979, nine months after Frank Nelson fell off that slide in Chicago, 6-year-old Etan Patz left his parents’ downtown New York apartment to walk by himself to the school-bus stop. Etan had been begging his mother to let him walk by himself; many of his friends did, and that morning was the first time she let him. But, as just about anyone who grew up in New York in that era knows, he never came home. (In 2012, a New Jersey man was arrested for Etan’s murder.) I was nearly 10 at the time, and I remember watching the nightly news and seeing his school picture, with a smile almost as wide as Mick Jagger’s. I also remember that, sometime during those weeks of endless coverage of the search for Etan, the parents in my neighborhood for the first time organized a walk pool to take us to the bus stop.

The Etan Patz case launched the era of the ubiquitous missing child, as Paula Fass chronicles in Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America. Children’s faces began to appear on milk cartons, and Ronald Reagan chose the date of Etan’s disappearance as National Missing Children’s Day. Although no one knew what had happened to Etan, a theory developed that he had been sexually abused; soon The New York Times quoted a psychologist who said that the Patz case heralded an “epidemic of sexual abuse of children.” In a short period, writes Fass, Americans came to think child molestations were very prevalent. Over time, the fear drove a new parenting absolute: children were never to talk to strangers.
But abduction cases like Etan Patz’s were incredibly uncommon a generation ago, and remain so today. David Finkelhor is the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and the most reliable authority on sexual-abuse and abduction statistics for children. In his research, Finkelhor singles out a category of crime called the “stereotypical abduction,” by which he means the kind of abduction that’s likely to make the news, during which the victim disappears overnight, or is taken more than 50 miles away, or is killed. Finkelhor says these cases remain exceedingly rare and do not appear to have increased since at least the mid‑’80s, and he guesses the ’70s, although he was not keeping track then. Overall, crimes against children have been declining, in keeping with the general crime drop since the ’90s. A child from a happy, intact family who walks to the bus stop and never comes home is still a singular tragedy, not a national epidemic.

One kind of crime that has increased, says Finkelhor, is family abduction (which is lumped together with stereotypical abduction in FBI crime reports, accounting for the seemingly alarming numbers sometimes reported in the media). The explosion in divorce in the ’70s meant many more custody wars and many more children being smuggled away by one or the other of their parents. If a mother is afraid that her child might be abducted, her ironclad rule should not be Don’t talk to strangers. It should be Don’t talk to your father.

The gap between what people fear (abduction by a stranger) and what’s actually happening (family turmoil and custody battles) is revealing. What has changed since the 1970s is the nature of the American family, and the broader sense of community. For a variety of reasons—divorce, more single-parent families, more mothers working—both families and neighborhoods have lost some of their cohesion. It is perhaps natural that trust in general has eroded, and that parents have sought to control more closely what they can—most of all, their children.
As we parents began to see public spaces—playgrounds, streets, public ball fields, the distance between school and home—as dangerous, other, smaller daily decisions fell into place. Ask any of my parenting peers to chronicle a typical week in their child’s life and they will likely mention school, homework, after-school classes, organized playdates, sports teams coached by a fellow parent, and very little free, unsupervised time. Failure to supervise has become, in fact, synonymous with failure to parent. The result is a “continuous and ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play and explore in their own chosen ways,” writes Peter Gray, a psychologist at Boston College and the author of Free to Learn. No more pickup games, idle walks home from school, or cops and robbers in the garage all afternoon. The child culture from my Queens days, with its own traditions and codas, its particular pleasures and distresses, is virtually extinct.

In 1972, the British-born geography student Roger Hart settled on an unusual project for his dissertation. He moved to a rural New England town and, for two years, tracked the movements of 86 children in the local elementary school, to create what he called a “geography of children,” including actual maps that would show where and how far the children typically roamed away from home. Usually research on children is conducted by interviewing parents, but Hart decided he would go straight to the source. The principal of the school lent him a room, which became known as “Roger’s room,” and he slowly got to know the children. Hart asked them questions about where they went each day and how they felt about those places, but mostly he just wandered around with them. Even now, as a father and a settled academic, Hart has a dreamy, puckish air. Children were comfortable with him and loved to share their moments of pride, their secrets. Often they took him to places adults had never seen before—playhouses or forts the kids had made just for themselves.

Hart’s methodology was novel, but he didn’t think he was recording anything radical. Many of his observations must have seemed mundane at the time. For example: “I was struck by the large amount of time children spend modifying the landscape in order to make places for themselves and for their play.” But reading his dissertation today feels like coming upon a lost civilization, a child culture with its own ways of playing and thinking and feeling that seems utterly foreign now. The children spent immense amounts of time on their own, creating imaginary landscapes their parents sometimes knew nothing about. The parents played no role in their coming together—“it is through cycling around that the older boys chance to fall into games with each other,” Hart observed. The forts they built were not praised and cooed over by their parents, because their parents almost never saw them.

Through his maps, Hart discovered broad patterns: between second and third grade, for instance, the children’s “free range”—the distance they were allowed to travel away from home without checking in first—tended to expand significantly, because they were permitted to ride bikes alone to a friend’s house or to a ball field. By fifth grade, the boys especially gained a “dramatic new freedom” and could go pretty much wherever they wanted without checking in at all. (The girls were more restricted because they often helped their mothers with chores or errands, or stayed behind to look after younger siblings.) To the children, each little addition to their free range—being allowed to cross a paved road, or go to the center of town—was a sign of growing up. The kids took special pride, Hart noted, in “knowing how to get places,” and in finding shortcuts that adults wouldn’t normally use.

Hart’s research became the basis for a BBC documentary, which he recently showed me in his office at the City University of New York. One long scene takes place across a river where the kids would go to build what they called “river houses,” structures made from branches and odds and ends they’d snuck out from home. In one scene, Joanne and her sister Sylvia show the filmmakers the “house” they made, mostly from orange and brown sheets slung over branches. The furniture has been built with love and wit—the TV, for example, is a crate on a rock with a magazine glamour shot taped onto the front. The phone is a stone with a curled piece of wire coming out from under it.

The girls should be self-conscious because they are being filmed, but they are utterly at home, flipping their hair, sitting close to each other on crates, and drawing up plans for how to renovate. Nearby, their 4-year-old brother is cutting down a small tree with a hatchet for a new addition. The girls and their siblings have logged hundreds of hours here over the years; their mother has never been here, not once, they say, because she doesn’t like to get her toes wet.

In another scene, Andrew and Jenny, a brother and sister who are 6 and 4, respectively, explore a patch of woods to find the best ferns to make a bed with. Jenny walks around in her knee-high white socks, her braids swinging, looking for the biggest fronds. Her big brother tries to arrange them just so. The sun is shining through the dense trees and the camera stays on the children for a long time. When they are satisfied with their bed, they lie down next to each other. “Don’t take any of my ferns,” Jenny scolds, and Andrew sticks his tongue out. At this point, I could hear in my head the parent intervening: “Come on, kids, share. There’s plenty to go around.” But no parents are there; the kids have been out of their sight for several hours now. I teared up while watching the film, and it was only a few days later that I understood why. In all my years as a parent, I have never come upon children who are so inwardly focused, so in tune with each other, so utterly absorbed by the world they’ve created, and I think that’s because in all my years as a parent, I’ve mostly met children who take it for granted that they are always being watched.

In 2004, Hart returned to the same town to do a follow-up study. His aim was to reconnect with any kids he had written about who still lived within 100 miles of the town and see how they were raising their own children, and also to track some of the kids who now lived in the town. But from the first day he arrived, he knew he would never be able to do the research in the same way. Hart started at the house of a boy he’d known, now a father, and asked whether he could talk to his son outside. The mother said they could go in the backyard, but she followed them, always staying about 200 yards behind them. Hart didn’t get the sense that the parents were suspicious of him, more that they’d “gotten used to the idea of always being close to their children, and didn’t like them going off.” He realized that this time around, he could get to the children only through the adults; even the kids didn’t seem that interested in talking to him alone; they got plenty of adult attention already. “They were so used to having their lives organized by their parents,” he told me. Meanwhile, the new principal at the school said he didn’t want Hart doing any research there, because it was not directly related to the curriculum.

At one point Hart tracked down Sylvia, one of the girls he’d filmed at the river house. “Roger Hart! Oh my God, my childhood existed,” she screamed into the phone. “It’s just that I’m always telling people what we used to do, and they don’t believe me!” Sylvia was now a suburban mom of two kids (ages 5 and 4), and she and her husband had moved into a new house 30 miles away. When Hart went to visit Sylvia, he filmed the exchange. Standing outside in her backyard, Sylvia tells him she bought this house because she wanted to give her own children the kinds of childhood experiences she’d had, and when she saw the little wooded area out back, her “heart leapt.” But “there’s no way they’d be out in the woods,” she adds. “My hometown is now so diverse, with people coming in and out and lots of transients.” Hart reminds her how she used to spend most of her time across the river, playing. “There’s no river here,” she tells him, then whispers, “and I’m really glad about that.” There will soon be a fence around the yard—she mentions the fence several times—“so they’ll be contained,” and she’ll always be able to see her kids from the kitchen window. As Sylvia is being interviewed, her son makes some halfhearted attempts to cut the hedges with a pair of scissors, but he doesn’t really seem to know how to do it, and he never strays more than a few inches from his father.

When Hart shows Jenny and Andrew the film of themselves playing in the ferns, they are both deeply moved, because they’d never seen a film of themselves as children, and because for them, too, the memories had receded into hazy unreality. They are both parents and are still living in that New England town. Of all the people Hart caught up with, they seem to have tried the hardest to create some of the same recreational opportunities for their own children that they’d had. Jenny bought a house, with a barn, near a large patch of woods; she doesn’t let her sons watch TV or play video games all that much, instead encouraging them to go to the barn and play in the hay, or tend the garden. She says she wouldn’t really mind if they strayed into the woods, but “they don’t want to go out of sight.” Anyway, they get their exercise from the various sports teams they play on. Jenny gets some of her girlish self back when she talks about how she and the boys pile up rocks in the backyard to build a ski jump or use sticks to make a fort. But Jenny initiates these activities; the boys usually don’t discover them on their own.

Among this new set of kids, the free range is fairly limited. They don’t roam all that far from home, and they don’t seem to want to. Hart talked with a law-enforcement officer in the area, who said that there weren’t all that many transients and that over the years, crime has stayed pretty steady—steadily low. “There’s a fear” among the parents, Hart told me, “an exaggeration of the dangers, a loss of trust that isn’t totally clearly explainable.” Hart hasn’t yet published his findings from his more recent research, and he told me he’s wary of running into his own nostalgia for the Rousseauean children of his memories. For example, he said he has to be honest about the things that have improved in the new version of childhood. In the old days, when children were left on their own, child power hierarchies formed fairly quickly, and some children always remained on the bottom, or were excluded entirely. Also, fathers were largely absent; now children are much closer to their dads—closer to both their parents than kids were back then. I would add that the 1970s was the decade of the divorce boom, and many children felt neglected by their parents; perhaps today’s close supervision is part of a vow not to repeat that mistake. And yet despite all this, Hart can’t help but wonder what disappeared with “the erosion of child culture,” in which children were “inventing their own activities and building up a kind of community of their own that they knew much more about than their parents.”
One common concern of parents these days is that children grow up too fast. But sometimes it seems as if children don’t get the space to grow up at all; they just become adept at mimicking the habits of adulthood. As Hart’s research shows, children used to gradually take on responsibilities, year by year. They crossed the road, went to the store; eventually some of them got small neighborhood jobs. Their pride was wrapped up in competence and independence, which grew as they tried and mastered activities they hadn’t known how to do the previous year. But these days, middle-class children, at least, skip these milestones. They spend a lot of time in the company of adults, so they can talk and think like them, but they never build up the confidence to be truly independent and self-reliant.

Lately parents have come to think along the class lines defined by the University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau. Middle-class parents see their children as projects: they engage in what she calls “concerted cultivation,” an active pursuit of their child’s enrichment. Working-class and poor parents, meanwhile, speak fewer words to their children, watch their progress less closely, and promote what Lareau calls the “accomplishment of natural growth,” perhaps leaving the children less prepared to lead middle-class lives as adults. Many people interpret her findings as proof that middle-class parenting styles, in their totality, are superior. But this may be an overly simplistic and self-serving conclusion; perhaps each form of child-rearing has something to recommend it to the other.

When Claire Griffiths, the Land’s manager, applies for grants to fund her innovative play spaces, she often lists the concrete advantages of enticing children outside: combatting obesity, developing motor skills. She also talks about the same issue Lady Allen talked about all those years ago—encouraging children to take risks so they build their confidence. But the more nebulous benefits of a freer child culture are harder to explain in a grant application, even though experiments bear them out. For example, beginning in 2011, Swanson Primary School in New Zealand submitted itself to a university experiment and agreed to suspend all playground rules, allowing the kids to run, climb trees, slide down a muddy hill, jump off swings, and play in a “loose-parts pit” that was like a mini adventure playground. The teachers feared chaos, but in fact what they got was less naughtiness and bullying—because the kids were too busy and engaged to want to cause trouble, the principal said.
In an essay called “The Play Deficit,” Peter Gray, the Boston College psychologist, chronicles the fallout from the loss of the old childhood culture, and it’s a familiar list of the usual ills attributed to Millennials: depression, narcissism, and a decline in empathy. In the past decade, the percentage of college-age kids taking psychiatric medication has spiked, according to a 2012 study by the American College Counseling Association. Practicing psychologists have written (in this magazine and others) about the unique identity crisis this generation faces—a fear of growing up and, in the words of Brooke Donatone, a New York–based therapist, an inability “to think for themselves.”

In his essay, Gray highlights the work of Kyung-Hee Kim, an educational psychologist at the College of William and Mary and the author of the 2011 paper “The Creativity Crisis.” Kim has analyzed results from the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking and found that American children’s scores have declined steadily across the past decade or more. The data show that children have become:

less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle.
The largest drop, Kim noted, has been in the measure of “elaboration,” or the ability to take an idea and expand on it in a novel way.

The stereotypes about Millennials have alarmed researchers and parents enough that they’ve started pushing back against the culture of parental control. Many recent parenting books have called for a retreat, among them Duct Tape Parenting, Baby Knows Best, and the upcoming The Kids Will Be Fine. In her excellent new book, All Joy and No Fun, Jennifer Senior takes the route that parents are making themselves miserable by believing they always have to maximize their children’s happiness and success.

In the U.K., the safety paranoia is easing up. The British equivalent of the Consumer Product Safety Commission recently released a statement saying it “wants to make sure that mistaken health and safety concerns do not create sterile play environments that lack challenge and so prevent children from expanding their learning and stretching their abilities.” When I was in the U.K., Tim Gill, the author of No Fear, took me to a newly built London playground that reminded me of the old days, with long, fast slides down a rocky hill, high drops from a climbing rock, and few fenced-in areas. Meanwhile, the Welsh government has explicitly adopted a strategy to encourage active independent play, rather than book learning, among young children, paving the way for a handful of adventure playgrounds like the Land and other play initiatives.

Whether Americans will pick up on the British vibe is hard to say, although some hopeful signs are appearing. There is rising American interest in European-style “forest kindergartens,” where kids receive little formal instruction and have more freedom to explore in nature. And in Washington, D.C., not far from where I live, we finally have our first exciting playground since the “forgotten playground” was leveled. Located at a private school called Beauvoir, it has a zip line and climbing structures that kids of all ages perceive as treacherous. I recently met someone who worked on the playground and asked him why the school board wasn’t put off by safety concerns, especially since it keeps the park open to the public on weekends. He said the board was concerned about safety but also wanted an exciting playground; the safety guidelines are, after all these years, still just guidelines.

But the real cultural shift has to come from parents. There is a big difference between avoiding major hazards and making every decision with the primary goal of optimizing child safety (or enrichment, or happiness). We can no more create the perfect environment for our children than we can create perfect children. To believe otherwise is a delusion, and a harmful one; remind yourself of that every time the panic rises.

As the sun set over the Land, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a gray bin, like the kind you’d keep your recycling in, about to be pushed down the slope that led to the creek. A kid’s head poked out of the top, and I realized it was my son’s. Even by my relatively laissez-faire parenting standards, the situation seemed dicey. The light was fading, the slope was very steep, and Christian, the kid who was doing the pushing, was only 7. Also, the creek was frigid, and I had no change of clothes for Gideon.

I hadn’t seen much of my son that day. Kids, unparented, take on pack habits, so as the youngest and newest player, he’d been taken care of by the veterans of the Land. I inched close enough to hear the exchange.

“You might fall in the creek,” said Christian.

“I know,” said Gideon.

Christian had already taught Gideon how to climb up to the highest slide and manage the rope swing. At this point, he’d earned some trust. “I’ll push you gently, okay?” “Ready, steady, go!,” Gideon said in response. Down he went, and landed in the creek. In my experience, Gideon is very finicky about water. He hates to have even a drop land on his sleeve while he’s brushing his teeth. I hadn’t rented a car on this trip, and the woman who’d been driving us around had left for a while. I started scheming how to get him new clothes. Could I knock on one of the neighbors’ doors? Ask Christian to get his father? Or, failing that, persuade Gideon to sit a while with the big boys by the fire?

“I’m wet,” Gideon said to Christian, and then they raced over to claim some hammers to build a new fort.




If It Be Your Will

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will
If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing
If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well
And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light
In our rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will
If it be your will.


“Loving your neighbor is more important than religion.” (Mark 12:33)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich BonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who opposed the state-controlled German Evangelical Church under Adolf Hitler. He and others founded the Confessing Church which became the center of German Protestant resistance to the Nazi regime. Bonhoeffer was a leading spokesman of the new church.

After the start of World War II, Bonhoeffer joined in the underground resistance movement in opposition to Hitler. He believed that true discipleship demanded political resistance against a criminal state. He was increasingly involved in the work of groups committed to the overthrow of the government, and eventually to the assassination of Hitler.

In March 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned. In July 1944 an attempt was made to assassinate Hitler. It failed disastrously, and hundreds of political prisoners were executed afterwards. Bonhoeffer was eventually hanged at the Nazi concentration camp at Flossenbürg on April 9, 1945 only a few days before the end of the war. He was 39 years old.

letters and papers from prison

In a letter written from a Nazi prison on April 30, 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer described his thoughts about the state of Christianity.

“You would be surprised, and perhaps even worried, by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to… What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, for us today.”

Bonhoeffer questioned the long-held assumption that human beings are religious or spiritual by nature—that in every time and every place people have felt the need to express their religious urges in some way. Christians often assumed that their particular expression of religion was the truest and highest form. But in light of the horrors of the Second World War, perpetrated by people on all sides who claimed to be religious, could this proposition still be true? If so, Bonhoeffer speculated, what does it really mean to be religious?

a religionless Christianity?

Bonhoeffer saw a time coming in which religion would prove to be fundamentally irrelevant.

“We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious’…

“And if therefore man becomes radically religionless—and I think that is already more or less the case (else, how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any ‘religious’ reaction?)—what does that mean for ‘Christianity’?”

Photo of Hitler and the bishopsBonhoeffer had watched the German Evangelical Church fall under Nazi control, headed by a bishop appointed by Hitler. He watched as Christians in Europe and America turned their heads and looked the other way while horrible evils were committed. Traditional Christianity—the church of Constantine—had proven to be morally bankrupt and incapable of dealing with the evils of the modern world. The mainstream churches in the so-called “Christian nations” proved to have no prophetic voice. They had instead become chaplains for their nations’ political policies and war machines.

The religious practice of Christianity had become personal and private and was divorced from social ethics and politics. If religious institutions had willingly transformed themselves into servants of the state, was there another possibility for Christianity in the world?

“Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity—and even this garment has looked very different at different times—then what is a religionless Christianity?”

What would Christianity look like when it is stripped bare? Bonhoeffer began to struggle with what remains when the typical traits of a religion—clergy, rites, holy things, beliefs, and morality—are eliminated. How would that redefine Christianity?

Photo of burning crossWhat bothered Bonhoeffer was that a person could confess doctrinally correct beliefs, observe its moral codes, and follow the accepted behaviors and practices of the Church, while simultaneously committing unspeakable horrors. We have witnessed the same thing in the American South—the “Bible Belt”—where harassment, persecution and lynchings of African-Americans was a norm for “white Christians.”

How is it possible that the practice of Christianity can become divorced from loving our neighbors in any real sense? How is it that religious practice—including word and sacrament—can leave a person ultimately unchanged at the core of his or her being? Typical Christian religious practice does not guarantee a transformation of the heart nor does it necessarily provide a personal experience with God. For many Christians, religion is a “secondhand” experience, simply passed on by family, culture and tradition.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed that a religionless Christianity would be limited to two things:prayer and righteous action among humanity.


In regards to prayer he said,

“The Christian needs to be alone during a definite period of each day for meditation on scripture…and for prayer…even during times of spiritual dryness and apathy. It matters little what form of prayer we adopt…or how many words we use.”

For Bonhoeffer, intercessory prayer (praying on behalf of others) was important because in praying he experienced a powerful sense of empathy and solidarity with the people he brought before God. In prayer, Bonhoeffer said, “I move into the other man’s place. I enter his life…his guilt and distress. I am afflicted by his sins and his infirmity.” Bonhoeffer believed that this sense of identity with the other is the necessary motivating force that would lead us to “act upon and affect the lives of men and women throughout the world.”

Now, many Christians daily pray for God to change conditions in the world. Their prayers sound as if they are reminding God what God’s job is (bring peace among warring nations, bring healing to the sick, be with those who suffer, etc.). They want to put everything in God’s hands.

This kind of prayer often allows the petitioner to sit passively aside, waiting for God to act, ignoring the reality that we are God’s hands, feet, and voice in the world. God worksthrough us and as us in the world. It not appropriate to ask God to do things in the world independent of us.

Our prayers should instead ask for empowerment to do these things ourselves. We should pray that we will have the courage to take actions against war, that we will take the time to comfort the sick with our own presence, that we will work to create systems of justice that will alleviate poverty and hunger, and that we will dedicate our lives to transforming our communities, nation, and the world to reflect God’s essence of life, love, compassion and justice.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer prayed so that he, acting as one of God’s agents, would be motivated to change things in the world himself. He realized that instead of us waiting for God to act, God waits for us to act. And prayer on behalf of others is the means by which we stir up the compassionate response that drives us to take action.

righteous action

This leads us to Bonhoeffer’s second dimension of religionless Christianity—righteous action among humanity. The word ‘righteous’ may need some clarification because the common understanding of righteousness is (1) being morally right, or (2) being right with God. These moralistic and relational understandings can sometimes lead the Christian to a sense of superior self-righteousness which is certainly not what God desires. Bonhoeffer was not talking about the moralistic quality of the doer, he was talking about the nature of the deed. Bonhoeffer was referring to a more holistic biblical understanding of righteousness which is ‘standing up for what is right.’ Doing what is right and just. Righteousness means seeking justice in human society.

The terms ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’ are often linked in biblical texts. That is because they are synonymous, redundant terms. In the Bible, the word for justice also meansrighteousness. The Greek word dikaios and the Hebrew word tzedaka both have this dual meaning. Righteousness implies a personal individual dimension, while justice implies a social dimension, but they both have the same objectives—acting on behalf of those suffering from injustice and violence.

Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity therefore has these two elements: (1) identifying with those who suffer (through intercessory prayer) and (2) acting in solidarity with them, or on their behalf, to achieve justice in an unjust world. In Bonhoeffer’s words: “All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.”

a new language

Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed that someday, a time will come when Christians will once again be called to proclaim the word of God so that the world will be transformed and renewed by it.

“It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming—as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with men and the coming of his kingdom… Till then the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair, but there will be those who pray and do right and wait for God’s own time.”

I think that Bonhoeffer was saying that the language of the church had become so intricately connected with its Constantinian captivity that it had lost its power and authority in the modern world. In its complicity with evil, in its blessing of the status quo, it had lost its prophetic voice. In his time, the language of the church had become aligned with the political and religious right. In our day, we experience the same phenomenon. How can one claim the name ‘Christian’ in America today without bringing along all of the negative baggage of the Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches?

The ancient message of Jesus has become muted and distorted both in our sanctuaries and in the public arena. His words and actions no longer shock us and overcome us. Jesus has become domesticated by the church into a harmless and irrelevant figure. But, says Bonhoeffer, there is hope that one day that may change. A new language will some day emerge to proclaim the reign of God, and says Bonhoeffer, it may be “quite non-religious.”

the religion of Jesus

In the life of Jesus, we can clearly see the two dimensions of religionless Christianity—prayer and righteous action. The gospels describe Jesus continually moving between these two polarities. He often withdraws to the wilderness or to a quiet, lonely place to meditate and pray alone. And then he jumps back into the life of the world with healing actions and a bold prophetic voice. Prayer and righteous action were the key features of the religious life of Jesus.

It will perhaps surprise many to say that the model for a religionless Christianity is Jesus himself. Jesus did not intend to found a new religion. Christianity as we know it was not his objective. His life, teachings and actions were focused on creating a new kind of personal and community life in the midst of the old. He set out to transform human life in the midst of a great empire and to challenge those forces that oppress and divide people in every society. This is the journey he invites us to join. This is where Jesus is leading us.

starting at the beginning

To begin the journey with Jesus we must start over again. We need a whole new perspective—about the identity of Jesus, about his mission, and about his message. We must let go of all our preconceived ideas about Christianity, let go of our religious dogma, and let go of the church’s conventional wisdom. We must reclaim the Jesus of history—the human Jesus in the context of the first century and in the context of empire. We must begin at the very beginning. God calls us to open our minds like a newborn child. Look, listen, and learn with new eyes, new ears, and a radically transformed paradigm of life, religion, and reality.

"Give up ypur good Christian life and follow Jesus." - Garrison Keillor“Follow me,” says Jesus. Walk with me toward the vision I am proclaiming—the revolutionary reign of God.



This is an article from the following website:

The Following Jesus web site is a project of the Mustard Seed School of Theology, which may be the smallest school of biblical studies and theology in the world. (We don’t award degrees, so please don’t ask!)

The goal of this project is to discover ways to be a faithful follower of Jesus in a postmodern world. It explores what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “religionless Christianity”—faith as a way of life, not as a system of beliefs and doctrines or institutional rites and rituals. The Mustard Seed School hopes to share the radical social and political ideas of Jesus as an antidote to the religious orthodoxy of the church adopted under the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.

Jesus explained that the reign of God was like a mustard plant—a fast-growing weed that invades well-cultivated and protected gardens and that spreads with chaotic growth. It is the uncontrolled spread of radical ideas like nonviolent resistance, distributive economic justice, radically inclusive community, and a situational ethics of compassion—that has the creative power to transform the world—and may even transform the church.

Kurt StruckmeyerThe content of the Following Jesus web site was created by Kurt Struckmeyer who was captivated by the world-shattering ideas of the Sermon on the Mount in his teens and who has been a lifelong student and teacher of the historical Jesus and the reign of God.




Ep. 6: Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth — ‘Masks of Eternity’

In the final episode of The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers and mythologist Joseph Campbell discuss commonalities in every culture that create a need for God, and the symbolism of circles in life and literature. In this clip, Campbell talks about the common experience of God across cultures.

Released in 1988, The Power of Myth was one of the most popular TV series in the history of public television, and continues to inspire new audiences.


JOSEPH CAMPBELL: We want to think about God. God is a thought, God is an idea, but its reference is to something that transcends all thinking. I mean, he’s beyond being, beyond the category of being or nonbeing. Is he or is he not? Neither is nor is not.

Every god, every mythology, every religion, is true in this sense: it is true as metaphorical of the human and cosmic mystery.

He who thinks he knows doesn’t know. He who knows that he doesn’t know, knows.

There is an old story that is still good — the story of the quest, the spiritual quest, that is to say, to find the inward thing that you basically are. All of these symbols in mythology refer to you — have you been reborn? Have you died to your animal nature and come to life as a human incarnation? You are God in your deepest identity. You are one with the transcendent.

BILL MOYERS: The images of God are many. Joseph Campbell called them “the masks of eternity,” and said they both cover and reveal the face of glory. All our names and images for God are masks, Campbell said, they signify that ultimate reality, which by definition transcends language and art.

A myth is a mask of God, too, a metaphor for what lies behind the visible world. As teacher, scholar and writer, Joseph Campbell spent his life in the study of comparative religion. He wanted to know what it means that God assumes such different masks in different cultures. We go east of Suez and see people dancing before a bewildering array of fantastic gods. When those people come here, well, Campbell told the story of the young Hindu who called on him in New York and said, “When I visit a foreign country, I like to acquaint myself with its religion. So I bought myself a Bible and for some months now have been reading it from the beginning. But, you know, I can’t find any religion in it.”

Campbell, who became president of the American Society for the Study or Religion, was at home in the sacred scriptures of all the world’s great faiths. He found comparable stories in them: stories of creation, of virgin births, incarnations, death and resurrection, second comings, judgment days. Quoting one of his favorite Hindu scriptures which he translated from the Sanskrit, he concluded that “truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names.”

Joseph Campbell began his journey into this literature of the spirit after his imagination was excited by a visit to the Museum of Natural History in New York when he was just a boy. We met there a few months before his death and talked through a long evening, about the masks or eternity.

Is there something in common in every culture that creates this need for God?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, I think anyone who has an experience of mystery and awe knows that there is a dimension, let’s say, or the universe that is not that which is available to his senses. There’s a wonderful saying in one of the Upanishads, “When, before a sunset or a mountain and the beauty of this or that, you pause and say, ‘Ah, that is participation in divinity.’” And I think that’s what it is, it’s the realization of wonder. And also the experience of tremendous power, which people of course living in the world of nature are experiencing all the time. You know there’s something there that’s much bigger than the human dimension.

And our way of thinking in the West largely is that God is the source of the energy. The way in most Oriental thinking, and I think in most of what we call primitive thinking, also, is that God is the manifestation of the energy, not its source, that God is the vehicle of the energy. And the level of energy that is involved or represented determines the character of the god. There are gods of violence, there are gods or compassion, there are gods that unite the two, there are gods that are the protectors of kings in their war campaigns. These are personifications of the energy that’s in play, and what the source of the energy is. What’s the source of the energy in these lights around us? I mean, this is a total mystery.

BILL MOYERS: Doesn’t this make of faith an anarchy, a sort of continuing war among principalities?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: As life is, yes. I mean, even in your mind, when it comes to doing anything, there will be a war. A decision as to priorities, what should you do now? Or, in relationship to other people, there will be four or five possibilities of my way of action. And the notion of divinity or divine life in my mind would be what would determine my decision. If it were rather crude, it would be a rather crude decision.

BILL MOYERS: But is divinity just what we think?


BILL MOYERS: What does that do to faith?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, it’s a tough one about faith.

BILL MOYERS: You are a man of faith-


BILL MOYERS: You’re a man of wonder and…

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yeah, I don’t have to have faith, I have experience.

BILL MOYERS: What kind of experience?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, I’ve experience of the wonder, of the life, I have experience of love, I have experience of hatred, malice — I’d like to punch the guy’s jaw, and I admit this. But those are different divinities, I mean, from the point of view of a symbolic imaging. Those are different images operating in me.

For instance, when I was a little boy and was being brought up a Roman Catholic, I was told I had a guardian angel on my right side and a tempting devil on my left, and when it came to making a decision of what I would do, the decision would depend on which one had most influence on me. And I must say that in my boyhood, and I think also in the people who were teaching me, they actually concretized those thoughts.

BILL MOYERS: They did what?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: It was an angel. That angel is a fact and the devil is a fact, do you see; otherwise, one thinks of them as metaphors for the energies that are afflicting and guiding you.

BILL MOYERS: And those energies come from?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: From your own life. The energy of your own body, the different organs in your body, including your head, are the conflict systems.

BILL MOYERS: And your life comes from where?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, there you are. From the ultimate energy that’s the life of the universe. And then you say, well, somebody has to generate that. Why do you have to say that? Why can’t it be impersonal? That would be Brahman, that would be the transcendent mystery, that you can also personify.

BILL MOYERS: Can men and women live with an impersonality?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes, they do all over the place. Just go east of Suez. In the East, the gods are much more elemental.

BILL MOYERS: Elemental?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Elemental, less human and more like the powers of nature. I see a deity as representing an energy system, and part of the energy system is the human energy systems of love and malice, hate, benevolence, compassion. And in Oriental thinking, the god is the vehicle of the energy, not its source.

BILL MOYERS: Well, of course the heart of the Christian faith is that these elemental forces you’re talking about embodied themselves in a human being in reconciling mankind to God.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes. And the basic Buddhist idea is that that is true of you, as well, and that what Jesus was a person who realized that in himself, and lived out of the Christhood of his nature.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think about Jesus?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: We just don’t, know about Jesus. All we know are four contradictory texts that tell us what he did.

BILL MOYERS: Written many years after he lived.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: But I think we know what Jesus said. I think the sayings of Jesus are probably pretty close. But when you read the Thomas gospel, the Gospel According to Thomas, which was dug up there in that, with those other gnostic texts, it has all the flavor of one of the synoptics, Matthew, Mark or Luke, except that it doesn’t say quite the same thing.

There’s one wonderful passage, it’s the last one in the gospel, actually. “When will the kingdom come?” Now, in Mark 13, I think it is, we hear that the end of the world is going to come. That is to say, a mythological image, that is, the end of the world, is taken as a reference to an actual, physical, historical fact to be. When you read the Thomas gospel, Jesus says, “The kingdom of the father will not come by expectation; the kingdom of the father is spread upon the earth and men do not see it.”

So I look at you now in that sense and the radiance of the presence of the divine is known to me, through you.

BILL MOYERS: Through me?


BILL MOYERS: A journalist?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Jesus also says in this text, “He who drinks from my mouth will become as I am, and I shall be he. “He’s talking from the point of view of that being of beings which we call the Christ, who is the being of all of us. And anyone who lives in relation to that is as Christ. And anyone who incarnates, or rather brings into his life the message of the Word, is equivalent to Jesus. That’s the sense of that.

BILL MOYERS: So that’s what you mean when you say, “I am radiating God to you.”

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: You are, yes.

BILL MOYERS: And you to me.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And I’m speaking this seriously, yes.

BILL MOYERS: Oh, I take it seriously. I happen to believe the same as you without being able to articulate it as you do. I do sense that there is divinity. The divinity is in the other.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: So you are the vehicle, you are as it were radiant of the spirit. And that’s…why not recognize it?

BILL MOYERS: I’ll tell you what the most gripping scripture in the Christian New Testament is for me. It says, “I believe. Help thou my unbelief.”

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I believe in what?

BILL MOYERS: I believe in this ultimate reality, and that I can experience it, that I do experience it, but I don’t have answers to my questions. I believe in the question, Is there a God?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I had a very amusing experience, which might be well worth telling. I was in the New York Athletic Club swimming pool, and you know, you don’t wear your collar this way or that way when you’re in a swimming pool. And I was introduced to a priest, “This is Father So-and-so, this is Joseph Campbell.” I’m a professor, he’s a professor at one of our Catholic universities. So after I’d had my swim, I came and sat down beside, in what we call, you know, the horizontal athlete situation, and the priest is beside me. And he said, “Mr. Campbell, are you a priest?” I said, “No, Father.” He said, “Are you a Catholic?” I said, “I was, Father.” He said, and now he had the sense to ask it this way, “Do you believe in a personal God?” I said, “No, Father.” And he said, “Well, I suppose there is no way to prove by logic the existence of a personal God.” And I said, “If there were, Father, what would be the value of faith?” “Well, Mr. Campbell, it’s nice to have met you.” And he was off. I really felt I had done a jujitsu trick there.

But that was a very illuminating conversation to me. The fact that he asked, “Do you believe in a personal God?” that meant that he also recognized the possibility of the Brahman, of the transcendent energy.

BILL MOYERS: Well, then, what is religion?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, the word religion means religio, linking back, linking back the phenomenal person to a source. If we say it is the one life in both of us, then my separate life has been linked to the one life, religio, linked back. And this becomes symbolized in the images of religion, which represent that connecting link.

Mandala painted by Kristine Mann while in analysis with Carl Jung.BILL MOYERS: Your friend Jung, the great psychologist, says that the most powerful religious symbol is the circle. He says, “The circle is one of the great primordial images of mankind, that in considering the symbol of the circle, we are analyzing the self.” And I find you, in your own work throughout the course of your life, coming across the circle, whether it’s in the magical designs of the world over, whether it’s in the architecture both ancient and modern, whether it’s in the dome-shaped temples of India or the calendar stones of the Aztecs, or the ancient Chinese bronze shields, or the visions of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, whom you talk about, the wheel in the sky. You keep coming across this image.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes, it’s an ever-present thing. It’s the center from which you’ve come, back to which you go. I remember reading in a book about the American Indians, called The Indian Book, by Natalie Curtis, it was published around 1904, her conversation with a chief. I think it was a chief of the Pawnee tribe. And among the things he said was, “When we pitch camp, we pitch the camp in a circle. When we looked at the horizon, the horizon was in a circle. When the eagle builds a nest, the nest is in circle.” And then you read in Plato somewhere, the soul is a circle. I suppose the circle represents. totality. Within the circle is one thing, it is encircled, it’s enframed. That would be the spatial aspect, but the temporal aspect of the circle is, you leave, go somewhere and come back, the alpha and omega. God is the alpha and omega, the source and the end. Somehow the circle suggests immediately a completed totality, whether in time or in space.

BILL MOYERS: No beginning, no end.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, round and round and round. The year, well, this is November again, you know, and we’re about to have Thanksgiving again. We’re about to have Christmas again. And then not only the year, but the month, the moon cycle, and the day cycle. And this is we’re reminded of this when we look on our watch and see the cycle of time, it’s the same hour, the same hour but another day, and all that sort of thing.

BILL MOYERS: Why do you suppose the circle became so universally symbolic?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, because it’s experienced all the time. You experience it in the day and the year, just as we’ve said, and you experience in leaving home, going on your adventure, hunting or whatever it may be, and coming back to home. And then there’s a deeper one also, that mystery of the womb and the tomb. When people are buried it’s for rebirth, I mean, that’s the origin of the burial idea, you’re put back into the womb of Mother Earth for rebirth.

BILL MOYERS: And Jung kept returning to that theme of the circle as being the sort of universal symbol.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, Jung used it as a pedagogical device, actually, what he called the mandala. This was actually a Hindu term for a sacred circle.

BILL MOYERS: Here is one of the pictures.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s a very elaborate mandala. You have the deity at the center, with the power source, the illumination source, and these are the manifestations or aspects of its radiance. But in working out a mandala for oneself, what one does is draw a circle and then think of the different impulse systems in your life, the different value systems in your life, and try then to compose them and find what the center is. It’s kind of discipline for pulling all those scattered aspects of your life together, finding a center and ordering yourself to it. So you’re trying to coordinate your circle with the universal circle.

BILL MOYERS: To be at the center.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: At the center. The Navaho have that wonderful image of what they call the pollen path. And when you realize what pollen is, it’s the life source. And it’s a single, single path, the center, and then they were saying, “Oh, beauty before me, beauty behind me, beauty to the right of me, beauty to the left of me, beauty above me, beauty below me, I’m on the pollen path.”

Navaho pollen path

So the little cosmos of one’s own life and the macrocosm of the world’s life are in some way to be coordinated. Well, for instance, among the Navaho Indians, healing ceremonies were conducted by way of sand paintings, which were mostly mandalas, on the ground and then the person who is to be treated moves into the mandala. There will be a mythological context that he will be identifying with, and he identifies himself with that power. And this idea of sand painting with mandalas and used for meditation purposes appears also in Tibet in the great Tantric monasteries outside of Lhasa. For instance, Rgyud Stod, they practiced sand painting, cosmic images and so forth indicating the forces of the spiritual powers that operate in our lives.BILL MOYERS: Now, what do you make or that, that in two very different cultures, the same imagery emerges?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes, well, there are only two ways to explain it, and one is by diffusion, that an influence came from there to here, and the other is by separate development. And when you have the idea of separate development, this speaks for certain powers in the psyche which are common to all mankind. Otherwise you couldn’t have — and to the detail the correspondences can be identified, it’s astonishing when one studies these things in depth, the degree to which the agreements go between totally separated cultures.

BILL MOYERS: Which says something about the commonality of the species, doesn’t it?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, yes, that was Carl Jung’s idea, which he calls the archetypes, archetypes of the collective unconscious.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean by archetypes?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: An archetype is a constant form, a basic fundamental form which appears in the works of that person over there, and this person over here, without connecting them. They are expressions of the structure of the human psyche.

BILL MOYERS: So if you find in a variety of cultures, each one telling the story of creation or the story of a virgin birth or the story of a savior who comes and dies and is resurrected, you’re saying something about what is inside us and the need to understand.

One can say that the images of myth are reflections of spiritual and depth potentialities of every one of us. And that through contemplating those, we evoke those powers in our own lives to operate through ourselves.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s right. One can say that the images of myth are reflections of spiritual and depth potentialities of every one of us. And that through contemplating those, we evoke those powers in our own lives to operate through ourselves. There was a very important anthropologist — he’s the one with whom my works begin, you might say, my studies — Bastian in Germany, end of the last century and first part of this. He was a world traveler and recognized very soon that there were certain motifs that appeared in all of the religions and all of the mythologies of the world. Such an idea, for example, as a spiritual power, that’s an archetypal image that appears everywhere. And he called these “elementary ideas.” But they appear in very different forms and different provinces and at different times, and those different forms are costumes he called ethnic or folk ideas. But within the ethnic idea is the elementary idea, and it is those elementary ideas that Carl Jung then began studying and called “archetypes of the unconscious.” When you say elementary idea, they seem to come from up here. When you say archetypes of the unconscious, they come from up here, and they appear in our dreams, as well as in myths.BILL MOYERS: So when one scripture talked about being made in his image, in God’s image, it’s being, it’s being created with certain qualities that every human being possesses, no matter what that person’s religion or culture or geography or heritage.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: God would be the ultimate elementary idea of man.

BILL MOYERS: The primal need.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And we are all made in the image of God, okay? So that is the ultimate elementary idea or archetype of man.

BILL MOYERS: I feel stronger in my own faith, knowing that others had the same yearnings and were seeking for the same images to try to express an experience that couldn’t be costumed in ordinary human language.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: I feel much more kinship with all those who follow other ways, because it seems…

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: This is why clowns are good.


JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Clown religions, because they show that the image is not a fact, but it’s a reflex of some kind.

BILL MOYERS: So does this help explain the trickster gods that show up at times?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: They’re very much that, yes. Some of the best trickster stories are associated with our American Indian tales. Now, these figures are clownlike figures, and yet they are the creator god at the same time, very often. And this makes the point, I am not the ultimate image. I am transparent to something. Through me, through my funny form, and mocking it, and turning it into a grotesque action, you really get the sense which, if I had been a big sober presence, you get stuck with the image.

BILL MOYERS: There’s a wonderful story in some African tradition of the god who’s walking down the road, and the god has on a hat that is colored red on one side and blue on the other side. So when the people, the farmers in the field go into the village in the evening, they said, “Did you see that fellow, that god with the blue hat?” And the others said, “No, no, he had a red hat on,” and they get into a fight.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes. He even makes it worse by first walking along this direction, and then turning around and turning his hat around, so that again, it’ll be red and black or whatever and then when these two chaps fight and are brought before the king or chief for judgment, this fellow appears and he says, “It’s my fault, I did it. Spreading strife is my greatest joy.”

BILL MOYERS: And there’s a truth in that…

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: There sure is, yes.

BILL MOYERS: Which is?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: No matter what system of thought you have, it can’t possibly include boundless life. And when you think everything is just that way, the trickster comes in and it all blows, and you get the becoming thing again. Now, Jung has a wonderful saying somewhere that, “Religion is a defense against a religious experience.”

BILL MOYERS: Well, you have to explain that.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, that means it has reduced the whole thing to concepts and ideas, and having the concept and idea short-circuits the transcendent experience. The experience of deep mystery is what one has to regard as the ultimate religious experience.

BILL MOYERS: Well, there are many Christians who believe that to find out who Jesus is, you have to go past the Christian faith, past the Christian doctrine, past the Christian church. And I know that’s heresy to a lot of people, but…

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, you have to go past the image of Jesus. The image of God becomes the final obstruction. Your God is your ultimate barrier. This is basic Hinduism, basic Buddhism. You know, the idea of the ascent of the spirit through the centers, the chakras, as they call them, or lotuses, the different centers of experience. The animal experiences of hunger and greed or just the zeal of reproduction or the physical mastery of one kind or another, these are all stages of power. But then when the center of the heart is reached, and the sense of compassion on another person, mercy and participation, and I and you are in some sense of the same being this is what marriage is based on there’s a whole new stage of life experience opens up with the opening of the heart.

And this is what’s called the virgin birth, actually, the birth of a spiritual life in what formerly was simply a human animal, living for the animal aims of health, progeny, wealth and a little fun. But now you come to something else: to participate in this sense of accord with another, or accord with some principle that has lodged in your mind as a good to be identified with, then a whole new life comes. And this is in Oriental thinking, the awakening of the religious experience.

And then this can go on even to the quest for the experience of the ultimate mystery, that is, the ultimate mystery can be experienced in two senses, one without form and the other with form. And in this Oriental thinking, you experience God with form here, this is heaven, that’s the identification with your own being, because that which God refers to is the ultimate mystery of being, which is the mystery of your being as well as of the world, so it’s…this is it.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain what the psychologist Maslow calls “peak experiences,” and what your friend James Joyce called epiphanies. I love that word, epiphany.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Oh, well, they’re not quite the same, but…


JOSEPH CAMPBELL: The peak experience refers to actual moments of your life when you feel that this has told you something, something has come through in your experience of your relationship to the harmony of being. It can come…my peak experiences, I mean, the ones that I knew were peak experiences after I had them, all came in athletics.

BILL MOYERS: Which was the Everest of your experience.


BILL MOYERS: Which one was it, was it when you were running at Columbia?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes, of course. And I ran a couple of races that were just beautiful, and the whole race, I knew I was going to win and there was no reason for me to know I was going to win, because I was touched off anchor in the relay with the first man 30 yards ahead of me, and I just knew, knew, it was a peak experience. Nobody could beat me today. That’s a kind of being in full form and really doing it. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything in my life as competently as I ran those two races. And those consequently were the experience of really being at my full and doing perfect job. I don’t think I’ve ever had anything like that, quite, that I really came up to anything quite that way.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think you, Joseph Campbell, have to…it has to be physical?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: No, but it can be a peak experience there are other kinds of peak experiences, which I know were superior to those, but those are the ones that when I read Maslow and read of peak experience, I just know that those were peak experiences.

BILL MOYERS: What about James Joyce’s epiphanies?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Now, that’s another thing. This has to do with the esthetic experience. Joyce’s formula for the esthetic experience is that it does not move you to want to possess the object, that he calls pornography; nor does it move you to criticize and reject the object, that he calls didactics, social criticism in art and all that kind of thing. It is the holding the object, and he says you put a frame around it and see it as one thing, and then seeing it as one thing, you become aware of the relationship of part to part, the part to the whole and the whole to each of the parts. This is the essential esthetic factor rhythm, the rhythm, the rhythmic relationships. And when a fortunate rhythm has been struck by the artist, there is a radiance. That’s the epiphany. And that is what would be the Christ coming through, do you understand what I’m saying?

BILL MOYERS: The face of the saint beholding God.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And it doesn’t matter who it is. I mean, you could take someone who you would think of as being a monster, that is an ethical judgment on the life, and this is transcendent of ethics, no didactics.

BILL MOYERS: But see, that’s where I would disagree with you, because it seems to me in order to experience the epiphany, that which you behold but do not want to possess must be beautiful in some way. A moment ago, when you talked about your peak experience, running, you said it was beautiful. Beautiful is an esthetic word.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yeah, that’s right.

BILL MOYERS: And how can you behold a monster?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I tell you, there’s another emotion associated with art which is not of the beautiful, but of the sublime. And what we call monsters can be seen as sublime. And they represent powers too great for the mere forms of life to survive. Prodigious expanse of space is sublime. This is a thing that the Buddhists know how to achieve in their temples. Particularly when I was in Kyoto, I was there for seven glorious months.


JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yeah, visiting some of the temple gardens. They are so designed that you’re experiencing something here, and then you break past a screen and a whole new horizon opens out. And somehow with the diminishment of your own ego, the consciousness expands. This is the experience of the sublime. Another experience of the sublime is not of tremendous space, but of tremendous energy and power. And I have known a couple of people who were in central Europe during the saturation bombings that were conducted over those cities, and there was the…you just have the experience of the sublime there.

BILL MOYERS: I once interviewed a veteran of the Second World War, and I was talking to him about his experience at the Battle of the Bulge, with the assault of the Germans about to succeed. And I said, “Well, as you look back on it, what was it?” And he said, “It was sublime.”

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And so the monster comes through there.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean by monster?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, by a monster I mean someone who breaks all of your standards for harmony and for ethical conduct.

BILL MOYERS: Is there a story in mythology that illustrates the sublime in the monster?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, the god of the end of the world, Vishnu, at the end of the world is a monster. I mean, good night, he’s destroying the world, first with fire and then with a torrential flood that drowns out the fire and everything else and nothing’s left but ash, the whole universe has been wiped out. That’s God.

BILL MOYERS: Well, the Christian millennialists talk of the rapture.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, read Chapter 13 in Mark.

BILL MOYERS: Which says?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s the end of the world. You see, these are experiences that go past ethical judgments. Ethics is wiped out. Our religions, with the accent on the human, as I mentioned a little while ago, also stress the ethical. God is good. God is horrific the end of the world? There’s an Arab saying that I read somewhere in The Arabian Nights that the angel of death, when the angel of death comes it is terrible; when he has reached you, it is bliss.

Now, in the Buddhist systems, particularly as we get them from Tibet, the Buddhas appear in two aspects; there is the peaceful aspect and there is the wrathful aspect of the deity. Now, if you’re clinging to your ego and its little world and hanging on, and the deity wants to open you, the wrathful aspect comes. It seems to you terrible. But if you are open, and open enough, then that same deity would be experienced as bliss.

BILL MOYERS: Well, Jesus talked of bringing a sword, and I don’t believe he meant that in terms of using it against your fellow [man], but he meant it in terms of opening the ego, I came to cut you free from the blinding ego of your own self-centeredness.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: This is what’s known in Sanskrit as Viveka, discrimination, and there is a Buddha figure called Manjushri, who will be…who’s shown with a flaming sword over his head.


JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And what is the sword for? It’s to distinguish the merely temporal from the eternal. It’s the sword that distinguishes that which is enduring from that which is merely passing. The tick-tick-tick of time shuts out eternity, and we live in the field of time. But what is living in the field of time is an eternal principle that’s inflected this way.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the eternal principle?


BILL MOYERS: Which is?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, we call it God, but that personifies it, do you see. That’s…

BILL MOYERS: It is the experience of eternity.


BILL MOYERS: The experience of the eternal.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: As what you are.


JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I would say, that’s…

BILL MOYERS: That whatever eternity is, is here right now.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And nowhere else, or everywhere else. If you don’t experience it now, you’re never going to get it. Because when you get to heaven, that’s not eternal, that’s just everlasting. Heaven lasts a long time; it’s not eternal, it’s everlasting.

BILL MOYERS: I don’t follow that, now.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: The eternal is beyond time; the concept of time shuts out eternity.

BILL MOYERS: Time is our invention.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Our experience, yeah. But the ultimate, unqualified mystery is beyond human experience, it becomes inflected. As they say, there is a condescension on the part of the infinite to the mind of man, and that is what looks like God.

BILL MOYERS: So whatever it is we experience, we have to express in language that is just not up to the occasion.


BILL MOYERS: It’s inadequate.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s what poetry is for. Poetry is a language that has to be penetrated, it doesn’t shut you off, it opens, it’s the rhythm, the precise choice of words that will have implications and suggestions that go past the word, is what has to happen. And then you get what Joyce calls the radiance, the epiphany. The epiphany is the showing through of the essence, what Aquinas called the quidditas, the whatness. The whatness is the Brahman.

BILL MOYERS: Why do you think it is there is in so many people this deep yearning to live forever, to secure my place in heaven?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: When you realize what heaven is, I mean, in the works of such persons as Thomas Aquinas, it is the beholding of the beatific image of God, which is a timeless moment, you know, time explodes. So again, eternity is not something everlasting, and you can have it right here now in your relationships. I’ve lost a lot of friends, and my parents and all, and a realization that has come to me very, very keenly is that I haven’t lost them, that that moment when I was with them had an everlasting quality about it that is now still with me. What it gave me is still with me. And there’s a kind of intimation of immortality in that. Do you see what I mean?

Now, there’s a wonderful work of Schopenhauer’s; he says, “When you reach a certain age,” and he wrote this when he was in his 60s or so, “and look back over your life, it seems to have had an order. It seems to have had been composed by someone. And those events that when they occurred seemed merely accidental and occasional and just something that happened, turn out to be the main elements in a consistent plot.” So he says, “Who composed this plot?” And he said, “And just as your dreams are composed by an aspect of yourself, of which your consciousness is unaware, so your whole life has been composed by the will within you.” Then he says, “Just as those people whom you met by chance became effective agents in the structuring of your life, so you have been an agent in the structuring of other lives, and the whole thing gears together like one big symphony,” he says, “everything influencing and structuring everything else.” And he said, “It’s as though our lives were the dream of a single dreamer, in which all the dream characters are dreaming too, and so everything links to everything else, moved out of the will in nature.”

That’s a beautiful idea. It’s an idea that occurs in India, in the image of what’s called the “Nee of Indra” or the net of gems. Where it’s a net of gems where every gem reflects all the other ones. And they also have the idea of a spontaneous and simultaneous arising. Everything arises in relation to everything else, and so you can’t blame anybody for anything; it’s all working around. It’s a marvelous idea. It’s as though there were an intention behind it, and yet it all is by chance. None of us has lived the life that he intended.

BILL MOYERS: And yet we all have lived a life that had a purpose. Do you believe that?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I don’t believe life has a real purpose. I mean, when you really see what life is, it’s a lot of protoplasm with an urge to reproduce and continue in being.

BILL MOYERS: Not true. That’s, not true, you…

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, now, wait a minute. Just sheer life can’t be said to have a purpose, because look at all the different purposes it has all over the lot. But each incarnation, you might say, has the potentiality and the function of life is to live that potentiality. Well, how do you do it? Well, again when my students would ask, you know, should I do this, should I do that? Dad says I should do this, and my answer is, follow your bliss. There’s something inside you that knows you’re in the center, that knows you’re on the beam, that knows you’re off the beam. And if you get off the beam to earn money, you’ve lost your life.

BILL MOYERS: So it is not the destination that counts, it’s the journey.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes. There is a wonderful old man, I think he’s, still alive, in Germany, the Graf Karlfried, Karlfried Graf Durckheim. And he says, “When you’re on a journey and the end keeps getting further and further away, then you’ve realized that the real end is the journey.” That’s not bad. This is it, this moment now is the heavenly moment, and…

BILL MOYERS: I like the idea that Eden was not: Eden will be.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Eden is. “The kingdom of the father is spread upon the earth, and men do not see it” I mean, Eden is.

BILL MOYERS: There’s some image of Shiva, the god Shiva surrounded by circles of flames, rings of fire.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s the dance of the world, the dancer whose dance is the universe. And in this hand he has a little drum that goes tick-tick-tick. That is the drum of lime. The tick of time, which shuts out eternity, and we are enclosed in that. In this hand there is a flame, which burns away the veil of time and opens us up to eternity. And in his hair is a skull and a new moon, the death and rebirth at the same moment, the moment of becoming.

BILL MOYERS: That’s a powerful image for any life, not just…

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, the goal of your quest for yourself is to find that burning point in your point, that becoming thing in yourself, which is fearless and desireless, but just becoming. This is the condition of warrior going into battle with perfect courage. That’s life in movement. A plant growing, I think of grass, you know. Every two weeks a chap comes out with a lawn mower and cuts it down. Suppose the grass were to say, well, for Pete’s sake, what’s the use? It’s the coming into being that’s it, and that’s the life point in you, and that’s what these myths are concerned to communicate to you.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I’ve always interpreted that powerful, mysterious statement, “The Word was made flesh,” as the eternal principle finding itself in the human journey, the human experience.


BILL MOYERS: Now, I don’t know what the Word is, and I don’t even know what flesh is, but I know that there is that experience of epiphany, when you meet what you don’t know and understand it.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yeah, and you can find it in yourself, too, the Word in yourself.

BILL MOYERS: Where do you find it, if you don’t find it in yourself?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, right. Goethe says, “All things are metaphors.” Alles vergangliche ist nur ein gleiches.” Everything that’s transitory is but a metaphorical reference. That’s what we all are, and to see the Word, getting back to that, your radiance that we spoke of before comes out here again now.

BILL MOYERS: But how does one worship a metaphor, love a metaphor, die for a metaphor?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, that’s what people are doing all over the place. That’s what people are doing all over the place, dying for metaphors. And when you really realize the sound Aum, the sound of the mystery of the Word everywhere, then you don’t have to go out and die for anything, because it’s right there all around, and just sit still and see it and experience it and know it.

BILL MOYERS: Explain “Aum.” That’s the first time you’ve used that.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, “Aum” is a word that, what can I say, represents to our ears that sound of the energy of the universe, of which all things are manifestations. And “Aum”, it’s a wonderful word, it’s written A-U-M. You start in the back of the mouth, Ah, and then, Ooh, you fill the mouth, and M-m-m, closes it, the mouth. And when you have pronounced this properly, all vowel sounds are in that pronunciation: “Aum”. And consonants are regarded simply as interruptions of “Aum”, and all words are thus fragments of “Aum”, as all images are fragments of the form of forms, of which all things are just reflections. And so “Aum” is a symbol, a symbolic sound, that puts you in touch with that throbbing being that is the universe.

And when you hear some of these Tibetan monks that are over here from the Rgyud Stod monastery outside of Lhasa, when they sing the “Aum,” you know what it means, all right That’s the zoom of being in the world. And to be in touch with that and to get the sense of that, that is the peak experience of all. “Ab-ooh-mm.” The birth, the coming into being, and the solution to the cycle of that. And it’s just called the four-element syllable. What is the fourth element? “Ah-ooh-mm,” and the silence out of which it comes, back into which it goes, and which underlies it.

Now, my life is the “Ah-ooh-mm,” but there is a silence that underlies it, and that is what we would call the immortal. This is the mortal, and that’s the immortal, and there wouldn’t be this if there weren’t that.

BILL MOYERS: The meaning is essentially wordless.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes. Well, words are always qualifications and limitations.

BILL MOYERS: And yet, Joe, all we puny human beings are left with is this miserable language, beautiful though it is, that falls short of trying to describe…

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s right And that’s why it’s a peak experience to break past all that every now and then, to realize “oh, ah,” I think so.

See all features related to Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth.

Learn about The Power of Myth 25th Anniversary Edition DVD and visit theJoseph Campbell Foundation website. Downloadable audio and CDs of The Power of Myth are also available at Highbridge Audio.

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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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April 2016



On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory