The Story is a Lie
“Before this time men lived upon the earth apart from sorrow and from painful work, free from desire, which brings the Death gods in. But now the woman opened up the cask and scattered pains and evils among men…”
The myth of Pandora (sometimes referred to as the Creation of Pandora or Pandora’s Box) isn’t Pandora’s story at all. It’s a story about Pandora, told by others. We never hear her voice. We know nothing about her motivation. All we know is that she is responsible for all of the evil in the world.
Pandora. The first Scapegoat. The first “Other”. Did we create Shame for her? Or did we create her to shame ourselves, hold a mirror up to our own fear-driven prejudices?
The myth is undoubtedly corrupt. “Pandora” (“All-Giver, All-Gifted, All-Endowed”) is one of the ancient surnames of Gaea, the Earth-as-Mother. The infamous “box” is a mistranslation (pithos to pyxis) of a word that meant “jar”. And not just any jar. A large jar, sometimes as large as a small person, used for storage of wine, oil, grain, honey… or, ritually, as a container for burying a human body. A source of plenty. A space that gave forth life and received death. A womb.
Do we really think that only evils came out of that jar? That out of the undifferentiated, womb-state of deathless (and thus lifeless) “paradise”, Pandora brought us anything other than life? All gifts. But she has lived throughout time as our scapegoat, the one we blame for the parts of life we don’t like, not remembering (or not wanting to remember?) that they are the price of the parts of life that we love.
The myth is undoubtedly corrupt, but this is the version that has lasted, has made its way down to us over the eons. Myths arise to meet a need, and we keep them as long as that need continues, so what do we need from this slandered, scape-goated, simplistically evil (or duped, or just thoughtless, the result is the same) Pandora?
We asked that question. And the answer surprised us.
The story is a lie, she said. Let me out of this box. This box, this trap, this prison built with stories that, knowingly or unknowingly, are lies. The walls of this box are strong and ugly. The box is big and solid. Daunting. But hopelessness is the seductive song it sings. Look closely, there are cracks. There is hope, on the other side of that edifice. Find it. Begin the work of pulling down this wall. Let me out. Let all the Pandora’s out.
And we looked around, and we saw Pandora’s everywhere. Everything is a story we tell, but stories, unless we are very careful, can deny humanity. Stories can turn human beings into ciphers, into symbols, into cardboard mannequins with labels that say BIGOT or BLEEDING-HEART, that say SEXIST or MAN-HATER. Prudes and Perverts, the Sanctimonious and the Sinful, Proselytizers and Blasphemers – these are characters, plot-devices, roles to play. They aren’t people.
We can’t tear down walls using the same methods by which they were constructed. The cracks in an edifice designed to deny humanity are human beings themselves. We need to work for what we believe in, yes. And some things are just not tolerable. But we can take action against actions without taking action against people.
So we wove a spell. We called together a community of brave souls, old friends and new. We spent a weekend opening our hearts – to each other and to the world – and it was excruciating and it was unspeakably beautiful and it was powerful and painful and scary and needful.
I am so proud of the work we did. This is already a long post. But it’s going to be longer because not only do I want to tell you about that work, I need to tell you about that work. Because the telling is a part of the spell. And because it was the work of many, I will tell it in all of our voices, and invite the others who were with us to add their own, in the comments. Let’s keep raising our voices together, Pandora, holding onto the vision that is being born.
On Friday, in a space made sacred by energy and intention, we sank into our own individual experience as Pandora, as the Other. We stepped deep into the body-memory of being the one the stories speak of, the stories that are lies. Remember just one time, one time when you were the object of a story you knew to be untrue. When that story constricted you, kept you small, kept you down, kept you from… when that story defined what you could do and what you could not. You hurt me, say the voices. You betrayed me. You were thoughtless. You were greedy. Let me tell you who you are, say the voices. And the you they tell is not someone you recognize.
Then, into that place of remembered entrapment came another voice. What do you need? To escape, to heal, to open that box… what do you need?
Lucinda: I find the sacred space of community-created ecstatic, embodied ritual to be a place where I can do personal work without explanation or apology. The container, held by a group of people committed to and passionate about the work, feels like a comforting safety net. There is a strong sense of being held and allowed the experience of my process. I also enjoy a measure of anonymity as my experience blends with the group. Working this way, alongside others having their own personal experiences within the context of the group, I am encouraged to go deeper, to find roots that are hard to connect with on my own.
Our ritual Friday night was like that for me. I haven’t visited family-of-origin stories for awhile. As we began the chant (I am NOT someone else’s story! Let me tell my own!)* threads of old stories snaked their way into my consciousness. As the group energy brought the chant to a cacophony, I found myself practically shouting “I WILL TELL MY OWN!” I felt defiance rise to replace feelings of powerlessness, pride replacing shame, determination overwhelming old feelings of not being good enough. My sense of being different and separate-from were replaced by the joy of being embraced by my community.
This is what our work is about. This is why I do it, why I help facilitate these events. My “Help” prayer is answered, and I say “Thanks!” and “WOW!”
Laurie: With both the terrible pain of being “othered” and the seeds of possible release anchored in our bodies, we began Saturday morning by breathing and moving together to synchronize our energies and open ourselves to the work ahead. Why do we inflict this terrible pain on each other? That was the question of the early part of the morning. Why and how do we create Pandora?
Elizabeth: I had a thought before the weekend that one of the reasons we as humans put people in boxes or “other” them is because our brains are hardwired to do this. It kept us safe back in the early days when humans lived in caves or in nomadic clans. Knowing who we were and who was “other” kept us alive. It provided a safe place to live and a way to share resources. What if part of the problem is like so many things the brain is hardwired for, our brain hasn’t caught up to things as they are now? We don’t need to do all this “othering” for the sake of our survival in the way that we used to. The challenge may be how to rewire this in our brains.
Lucinda: Working with the Pandora story has been very helpful to me as a resident of Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown and the subsequent social justice movement literally at my door. Friday evening we recalled the pain and frustration of having stories told about us that aren’t ours. Referencing that on Saturday, I realized the power I have when the tables are turned and I am the one telling stories. The tendency to separate our selves from groups and individuals by creating dividing lines of “us and them” seems to stem from needs, perhaps to feel better than or at least okay about ourselves, to provide ourselves with a scapegoat for all that is wrong with our world, to defend actions that don’t fit our values, and a myriad other reasons. It is clear that the ancient roots of ethnocentricity as a mechanism for our species survival is no longer needed, and maintaining that mentality creates an atmosphere of great damage.
Laurie: In the second part of the morning, we practiced radical compassion. We were asked to write words that were intolerable to us on pieces of paper that were placed in a bowl in the center of the room. I won’t empower those words by repeating them here, but they were the slogans and catch-phrases and rationalizations and philosophies we each found hurtful, inexcusable, infuriating, terrifying. Then, one by one, we each read someone else’s hateful words into the circle, practicing seeing the humanity in the person speaking, rather than focusing on the speech itself.
River: There were a couple of exercises that were more personally challenging for me than others. One such exercise was when we attempted to practice seeing humanity in people saying some pretty horrible things that we vehemently disagreed with. The idea was that hearing these words from people we already respect and care about would make it easier to get there. (I couldn’t get there.) Even though many of the participants are people I have known and loved for years, I was unable to get past my anger when I heard the shaming words of rapists, racists, and bigots. Words have power, and these words made my fists tighten and my heart clench, and any shred of compassion I might have had just shut down. It was an eye-opening exercise, and gave me quite a bit of information about the work I need to do internally in order to be more effective externally.
Laurie: The last thing we did before lunch (and after a good energetic brush-down after holding such a dark space) was to explore something that I heard once, and that has rung in my head ever since. Compassion is the knowledge that we are yoked to the suffering of another. I call it hard-ass compassion. Not sweet, not fluffy, not pretty. Passion, to suffer. Com, with. And so we did some hard-ass compassion practice. Bringing to mind an individual, or an avatar of a type of individual that scares or angers us, we infused a 2-foot length of chain with the energy of that person and “yoked” it to our wrists. We wore those chains throughout the lunch break, as a constant awareness of the real, uncomfortable way we are connected to everyone, even those we fear or despise.
We also began the process of constructing the Altar of the Other. In the center of the room were cardboard boxes, markers and crayons, scotch tape, paper and pens, and the scraps of paper from the earlier exercise, still carrying their painful, provocative words. We taped those pieces of paper to the boxes and covered the boxes with the words and phrases and fears of those we “other”. This became an ongoing, day-long process.
After lunch we took off our chains and made our deepest, most personal confessions about what we had learned of our own complicity throughout the morning.
Elizabeth: It is easy for me to name and identify how other people take away a person’s or a group’s humanity. Racists, bigots, misogynists, religious discrimination, these all easily come to mind when I think of how “others” put themselves above someone else. I often can find myself pointing out the evils of racism, sexism, classism, religious discrimination and the like. What I do far less often, if at all, is own how I also take part in this. During a session this weekend we challenged each other to name the ways we each do this. Admitting I do it too and saying just how I do it was hard, really hard. When I remember that session, the feelings of exposed vulnerability come rushing back. Saying these things out loud and letting people I know and respect hear me admit to these thoughts and feelings was awful. I don’t like to admit to myself let alone others that I too have racist thoughts, sexist thoughts, all kinds of “ist” or “ism” thoughts.
As the session continued I witnessed brave people risking vulnerability and sharing their own ways of “othering” people. We were taking hard steps together to begin to shift very old patterns. Admitting our own complicity was a challenging but positive shift. It made room for us to begin to take the steps necessary to stop our own tendency to “other”. Awareness and ownership are big first steps.
It was a step. A hard step, but a very large step toward something new. Towards making a change. Towards healing.
Lucinda: I admit it has been far too easy for me to overlook the racism around and even within me. I thought that I was doing enough by choosing to live in a racially and socio-economically diverse area, and by being kind to those I encounter. Although my intentions have been good and my actions have not directly harmed, I have not been paying enough attention. My habits are to participate in largely “white” activities, including choices around where I shop and socialize. As I begin to do the work of connecting with the full diversity of the community around me, and taking my own stories off of others, I become more open-hearted and the lines of difference blur.
Laurie: In the late afternoon, we explored ways to begin to heal. We built a “line in the sand” from the chains that had been infused with the energy of the “other” and stood across from each other, in pairs, practicing speaking as that “other”, practicing listening. Then we made signs describing the world we wanted to see, the energy in the room rising and rising, until we paraded outside, around the building and out to the street, waving our signs and yelling our slogans and creating, I imagine, a very confusing (though joyful) spectacle to the cars passing by.
Before dinner, we set our intention for the magical working to come: To begin to dismantle the box of collective stories that deny anyone’s humanity.
Jason: Someone should go into the center, I thought.
Before ritual Saturday night, the space was held by some beautiful singing and music. The community was gathered in a circle, and as is usually the case, a number of people were up and moving, dancing, preparing themselves for the work to come. Tonight, though, everyone was around the very edge of the circle – moving more deliberately than usual, or so it seemed to me.
So I walked in, up to the altar we had created for our work. It was constructed of cardboard bricks arranged into a box, and the bricks were covered with the words of “othering”, of dehumanizing. The words that I would never dream of saying out loud, that none of us would dream of saying out loud. Words that, I’m ashamed to admit, I sometimes think. Not all of them, mind you, but some of them. Too many. The words covered the bricks, the box, the altar. If marker on cardboard can be said to have an energy, it was nothing I wanted anything to do with.
Well, crap. Now I see why everyone else had the good sense to stay away from here.
I crouched in front of the altar, and forced myself to look, to read. To try and feel my way past the ugliness and to the pain and fear that must live underneath that ugliness. Perhaps to hold a little compassion even as we prepared to dismantle that altar, tear apart those messages, and consecrate them with our shared energy and will.
A confession: I didn’t get very far at all with the compassion part. Even knowing that these words were written by people I know and love, and that the words weren’t really ours, I couldn’t truly get beyond them. Our shared ritual that night, perhaps more than any other for me, showed me just how much farther I have to go.
Laurie: That ritual, for me, unfolds in memory in a series of visual flashes and physical and emotional sensations, not in words. The terrible, heavy energy of that altar. All the hopelessness and fear that stood in the way of any intentional movement toward it. And then the defiant energy beginning to build. Hands reaching slowly to pull one box away, and then another. Revealing light inside. Candles. An increasingly bare, clean center of the sacred space. And then cardboard tearing, two or three people working together to rip away those harming words. Some pieces flying in the air, some laid reverently at the edge of the circle, some thrown on the ground. The floor was littered with torn cardboard and paper. The chains coiled around the candles on the altar transformed into words. Hope. Joy. Into a spiraling shape of transformation. And then the energy building, and building. Some of us holding the container at the edges, some whirling through the space, coming in closer and closer, closing around the altar, sending that energy of dismantling and healing, of cracking open, of beginnings, out into the world.
Lucinda: In order to dismantle the boxes that I put others in, I must engage with them as individuals, strive to understand their experience, put myself in their place. And most of all to stand up against injustice in real time. I am grateful to have been in an atmosphere of real learning and barrier-breaking change this past weekend. And I realize how privileged I am to have the opportunity for such growth.
Laurie: Sunday morning we gathered one last time to set intentions for continuing the work on our own, back in our daily lives, and to have those commitments witnessed. In one of those brilliant “accidental” convergences of circumstance and insight that those of us who do magical work in community perhaps take a little too much for granted, Pandora’s Box was transformed into a Hope Chest – a symbol of acting in hope, rather than just hoping for action. Our organizers and hosts hand-collaged small Hope Chests for each of us, that we filled with our intentions and took home. Mine is sitting next to me as I write this.
River: During our closing session I mentioned that the most powerful moment I was taking home from the weekend was actually a series of several moments. I saw so much bravery happen throughout the weekend. It’s hard to believe that we only had about sixteen hours together. In that short amount of time, we went to some very challenging places, said hard things, admitted hard truths, attempted to be compassionate when compassion was hard to find, tried to see the humanity in someone through a filter of anger, wept at suffering and clung to hope. When I felt like I had hit my emotional wall and wanted to quit, all I had to do was look around the room and see someone else who was engaged, and it was enough to inspire me to keep going. What a blessing to be among such courage, and it’s an honor I don’t ever want to take for granted.
Elizabeth: Writing about the work we did together has been much harder than I anticipated. I wanted this weekend to be about doing something. I wanted to be able to take an action towards change when so often in my daily life I feel alone and impotent. I can fall into thinking that I can’t make a difference, that I am just one person. That feeling came back again as I was writing this. Shame began to creep in. The world once again felt like it was crushing me. Then I remembered that I didn’t do it alone. We did it together. We created a container that held us while we did this sacred work.
May I remember that I am not alone. May I remember that we do this work together. May I remember to continue to do the work.
*The chant Lucinda mentions was written for this weekend. It’s called Air Will Hear Me and you can listen to it on our chant page.
This post was written by Laurie Dietrich