The Myth of Return, and Grief

The possibility of return holds a powerful grip on the human psyche and in our mythology (by which I mean foundational stories we tell about ourselves).  The two most prominent biblical examples of return I can think of involve The Garden of Eden and Jerusalem.  The first portrays a pristine original human condition – a garden of innocence and abundance that was lost in our collective coming of age through the eating from the tree of knowledge.  The second took hold after the Judeans’ exile to Babylon and the destruction of their holy city Jerusalem.  Hebrew prophets and various Psalms give voice to the longing to return to Jerusalem.

The myth of return runs strong in our national politics as well.  The former President’s motto to “Make America Great Again” implied there was a time of greatness in our history to which we must return if we are to preserve our nation.  It tapped into a current many of us weren’t aware was, and still is, there.  Even our current President’s “Build Back Better” campaign nods to the idea that there is something lost to build back.  President Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine is essentially a Make Russia Great Again campaign, looking back a full millennium to Kyiv as the original seat of the Russian Orthodox Church and spread of Rus influence.

In the last couple years there have been times I have caught myself longing for a return to normal and having to remind myself that normal wasn’t all that great.     

The myth of return is an incredibly powerful framing for groups of people to organize their energy and focus their resources.  When it gets mixed in with ego, narcissism, and power, it is a deadly force. 

I wonder if this contagion is rooted in our inability or lack of will to confront grief and loss.  To healthily move beyond past glory (as defined by one group) or child-like innocence or tranquility, we first must come to terms with its death, which brings us to humility, which brings us into a transformed relationship with the present and future.  In this sense, grief work at all levels can be a nonviolent antidote to all the ways the myth of return is abused.