Trickster’s Time


by John E. Mack, M.D.

The New York Times | Op-Ed
November 30, 2000

In his remarkable new book, Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde shows us that many cultures know — by different names — a rebellious, god-like figure that brings about fundamental change. He is called Hermes in ancient Greece, Coyote among the Indians of the American plains and Monkey in the Buddhist world.

Trickster is providence’s representative — a kind of savior sent when a society is in crisis and no longer serving the needs of its people.

We seem to be living in the kind of historical moment when Trickster does his work. Perhaps he staged our political stalemate to enable new possibilities to emerge. For behind the wrangling of lawyers, the bickering of officials and the jockeying for advantage by the two major parties and their candidates is this reality: Our nation’s most urgent problems have yet to be successfully addressed.
The prosperity both parties crow about is a hollow boom in which many find no attention or caring: Children go without adequate health care in this wealthiest of all nations; the numbers of homeless betray our shame; the plight of struggling farmers goes largely unattended.

The frozen moment in political time we are witnessing now is enabling some to see that the stakes are far greater than any differences between the two parties or their candidates. Adults who had given up on a system that seemed to have little for them are beginning to think about questions of governance. Children in classrooms are being stimulated to become politically aware citizens.

Things will have to change. As the discoveries of physics, biology and other scientific disciplines reveal the profound interconnectedness of all life, our social institutions, as always, lag behind. Now it seems this nation is being offered an opportunity to renew itself, to rediscover its promise as a land where all have the chance of living healthy, fulfilling and interesting lives.

I suspect we may be headed toward something more collaborative, more authentically inclusive. But we cannot know what will emerge. Uncertainty is one of Trickster’s creative tools.

© 2000 John E. Mack, M.D.


The Trickster At Work (original draft)

by John E. Mack, M.D.

November 14, 2000

In his remarkable new book, Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde shows us that every culture knows by different names a rebellious, god-like, figure that brings about fundamental change. He is called Hermes in ancient Greece, Coyote among the Indians of the American plains and Monkey in the Buddhist world. Trickster is providence’s representative. He acts as a kind of savior when a society is in crisis and is no longer serving the needs of its people. Needless to say, the established powers in the culture perceive the trickster as a trouble maker and try desperately to thwart him.

The Trickster finds the vulnerable places, shaping a new world, creating as if from scratch. Human beings themselves cannot be tricksters, for we are dealing here with larger forces. But Trickster works through individuals, who become instruments of transformation. They speak of matters the old leaders would prefer to ignore. Ralph Nader presses for social justice and a life-sustaining environment, and “spoils” the election for Al Gore in Florida. Even Pat Buchanan adds to the crisis by admitting that some who voted for him did not intend to.

We seem to be living in the kind of historical moment when Trickster does his work. Indeed, it even seems as if he staged our political stalemate to enable new possibilities to emerge. For behind the wrangling of lawyers, the bickering of officials and the jockeying for the high ground by the two major parties and their candidates is the inescapable fact that our way of choosing those who would lead our government has failed. A two party system that may once have stood for fundamental differences in values and programs has become a sham in which survival goes to the richest. Few of us have someone who truly represents viewpoints or needs. The slogans of difference — over size of government, social programs and military preparedness — have been chanted so monotonously that we have entered the kind of trance state that Fearless Leader created so he could take over the country until Rocky and Bulwinkle stopped him.

Just a glance at that map of the United States, now so indelibly imprinted upon our consciousness, showing vast stretches of red in the center and blue around the edges, reveals that we are a country divided more by regional voting habits than substantive differences. We crow loudly about our prosperity, but it is a hollow boom in which many of us find no attention or caring. Children go without adequate health care in this wealthiest of all nations; the numbers of homeless betray our shame; and the appalling rate of suicide among failing farmers goes virtually unnoticed.
The paralysis we have witnessed, the frozen moment in political time, has enabled everyone to see that the stakes here are far greater than the differences between the two parties or the candidates themselves. Adults who had given up on a system that seemed to have little for them have been getting involved. Children in classrooms all over the country are being stimulated to become politically aware citizens.

I, for one, have welcomed this stalemate, for it has revealed the profound flaws in the way we elect our national leaders. It does not threaten our democracy, but shows its strength. Two years of campaign sound and fury have signified very little. The system is broken; no tinkering by all the horses and men of the kingdom can fix it. Things will have to change. We are daily flooded with suggestions and predictions, but we cannot know what will emerge. I suspect it will, eventually, be something more collaborative, more authentically inclusive. Uncertainty is one of Trickster’s creative tools.

The discoveries of physics, biology and other scientific disciplines are revealing the profound interconnectedness of all life. As always our social institutions lag behind. But the divisiveness upon which our political system and the media thrive is becoming a kind of anachronism. It seems to me that this blessed nation is being offered a remarkable opportunity to renew itself, to rediscover its promise as a land where all citizens have the chance of living healthy, fulfilling and interesting lives. I hope we don’t miss it.

  • John E. Mack, M.D. was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

© 2000 John E. Mack, M.D.
This editorial was written in response to the “tie” Presidential election of 2000 involving Al Gore and George W. Bush.


  Subject Area: Political Worldviews

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