Craig Chalquist, PhD
What does action in the world by non-heroes look like? What if we replaced arguing, shaming, and moralizing with storytelling, empathizing, and inspiring?
Beyond the Heroic
I am a descendant of heroes. My ancestors fought in the American Civil War, raised their bows to liberate Scotland, sallied forth as Vikings, burned Rome to the ground. My families (both birth and adoptive) include Army Rangers, Marine skydiving instructors, decorated Navy officers and marksmen, even an aunt who fought fires and once flew a helicopter upside down. My birth mother smuggled, carried a gun, and survived a plane crash. She pulled that gun on my father once. He disarmed her but was less inclined to argue with her afterwards.
Unlike my relatives, I am not a hero. But as I entered my late twenties, something shifted, as though my little patch of the sentient world wanted me to understand heroism better.
I helped lift an injured driver from a smoking car wreck. During a bomb scare I ran back into an evacuated building to find a missing elderly colleague; we emerged a few minutes after the bomb was supposed to have gone off. I pulled an ex-girlfriend out of a seaside cave three seconds before an avalanche obliterated it. How many times I’ve administered first aid I do not know.
For six years I worked with men who had gone to jail or prison for violent crimes. Part of my job was to talk them out of further violence, which I did, spending one Christmas Eve working with an armed man in fatigues while the police waited anxiously outside my office. My clientele included batterers, rapists, the occasional hitman, military personnel in trouble with the law, a former Viet Cong sniper, at least one Hells Angels enforcer, and a founding member of the Crips.
In my late thirties, things shifted again, drivers stopped crashing nearby, guns did not point at me anymore, and my life became much calmer. I then felt at liberty to explore what Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s Journey more reflectively, from outside the circle. My ponderings included a certain dismay that direct action so seldom made for lasting change. I had helped many people and saved some lives, which was gratifying, but the conditions that had brought affliction and injustice remained.
With my admission into the Pacifica Graduate Institute Depth Psychology Program, I began to wonder how what I learned there could bring some good into the world. A question began to form that would not take shape until years after graduation: What opportunities for fomenting social change awaited retired heroes, non-heroes, and formerly heroic activists who sought a different path?
A second question took shape as I taught depth psychology and mythology to more and more activists: the real heroines and heroes who protect the rights we still enjoy. As deeply as I respected what they achieved, I couldn’t see myself doing it. In spite of that earlier turbulence, I am, at heart, a quiet person. Additionally, activism of the abrasive, finger-pointing, sign-waving, accusatory sort turned me off. (In many situations it’s also counterproductive. Who reconsiders their actions after being insulted or talked down to?) I am convinced of the value of civility and respect.
So what was a quiet person to do?
The Enchantivist Alternative
In 2015 and 2016, I taught an online class through Pacifica called Deep Storytelling and Archetypal Activism. Dr. Steven Aizenstat, founding president and chancellor of Pacifica, had coined “archetypal activism” to describe the move from reflection to action in the world as prompted by an initial dream connecting these two realms of experience.
For example, one participant in Dr. Aizenstat’s DreamTending workshops dreamed of a certain old church about to be torn down in his home town. He rallied the citizens and saved the church. Beginning with dreams and work with myth and imagination, participants in my online class fashioned a variety of projects, from a leadership mentoring circle for engineers to a nutritional program for children, all story-based. Survivors of the class created the Storytelling and Archetypal Activism group at Facebook.
Enchantivism describes the many ways we make lasting change by reenchanting our relations with ourselves, each other, and our ailing but still-beautiful planet. Being an enchantivist requires no shouting or preaching, although at need it can supplement more conventional and confrontational forms of activism and reform. The quiet can use it so long as they possess a lively imagination, a deep care for life on Earth, and a willingness to plant stories in the space of fertile soil between real and ideal. An enchantivist by vocation is a transrevolutionary.
Because “enchantivism” is a relatively new coinage, many have done and are doing it without being aware of the term. A few examples:
- Nichelle Nichols was praised for playing Star Trek’s Uhura by Martin Luther King Jr. Black watchers wept with joy to see themselves represented in a future community of explorers.
- Jacqueline Suskin saved a stand of redwoods by writing poems for the CEO of the logging company preparing to cut them down. Later, she helped design for him a permaculture dwelling.
- Thyonne Gordon uses nature walks to recharge her storytelling, consulting, and community advocacy work: “What if we paralleled nature and focused on purposed giving for the time we have instead of wallowing in what was?”
- Devdutt Pattanaik retells Hindu myths as part of increasing diversity awareness in educational and business settings worldwide.
- Generations of women have been inspired by the feminist science fiction and fantasy works of Ursula K. Le Guin.
- Environmental activists have taken heart from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Although enchantivism does not require a public audience, these examples share a bridging of reflection and action that begins in fantasy and moves into personal and cultural transmutation through a change of story. We speak of “transmutation” because transformation, a popular but vague word, can refer to superficial change, as when you put on a hat to transform your appearance. Transmutation refers to deep, alchemical, lasting change of the type C.G. Jung referred to when he wrote that the big problems in life are not worked through, but outgrown.
An inspiration-based storytelling approach also triggers less push-back. With the elevation of the Trump mafia into the White House we see just how strong reactionary forces can be. It is never enough merely to oppose racism or sexism: the racist and the sexist need reeducating, as I saw from years of work in group. The same applies to the violent.
Powerful, the focus on how things could be. Although quite clear on injustices, MLK did not say, “We’re a bunch of victims.” He said he had been to the mountaintop and seen, and by saying this, he moved mountains. He denounced racism, violence, poverty, and warfare—and while doing so gave us a visionary glimpse of the Beloved Community. Never one to stay only with what went wrong, he dared to imagine how things could go right.
In its own quiet way, enchantivism draws on the power of imaginative vision through telling and retelling of old myths, fairy tales, reborn legends, surfacing fantasies, and personal accounts. Unlike lecturing or debating, storytelling invites us into a shared imaginal landscape, leaving its interpretation, if any, to the listener. It seeks common ground by collecting visions of times and places that can delight us. In story, the activist and corporatist, rebel and cop, artist and financier come together in a commons of image and language as fellow humans dwelling in more-than-human terrain.
The enchantivist approach recognizes the importance of stating facts but sees clearly that this will not suffice to change actions or worldviews, especially when the facts bounce off an entrenched story tenaciously held. Only a better story movingly told can overcome that. Not louder words or cleverer arguments. As Le Guin expresses it:
It is by such statements as, ‘Once upon a time there was a dragon,’ or ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’—it is by such beautiful non-facts that we fantastic human beings may arrive, in our peculiar fashion, at the truth.
Octavio Paz believed that poetry constitutes “the secret religion of the modern age.” Perhaps enchantivism, which embraces the poetic and the mythopoetic, offers a psychospiritual path of reflective action and community-gathering independent of religious belief. Certainly it gives those who do it an abiding sense of purpose: a sustaining resource in a time of violent confusion.
In the end, which will gain more traction for transmutation: moralistic demands, chilly facts—or the irenic summons of inspiration?