The King is dead; long live the King

The King is dead; long live the King

Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. In this essay from 2011, Amy Carpenter-Leugs considers what we desire in government leaders and in ourselves.

Dear King and Queen,

How we miss you. Not a certain king or queen in particular—not a Louis or George or Victoria or Isabella—not a real person with colitis and bad teeth and possibly tyrannical tendencies, but you, that image that lives in us.

We want to see your majesty in waking life: the kind ruler in a shining crown who helps us resolve our disputes, who keeps us safe, who restores justice and who uses the kingdom’s shared wealth and power with careful discernment, always considering “the least of these.” Your hair grays with the weight of your responsibility; you listen carefully to your advisors, your partner, and your people; you have a record of finding creative solutions without falling into rash mistakes.

How often have I written letters to my representatives and signed petitions in search of your highness, looking to find your best qualities in democracy? Perhaps not so different are the times I’ve read fairy tales to my boys (or watched them in movies or played them out in video games or imaginative play). These are the tales that begin, “In a kingdom not so far from here, the old king was dying.  His three sons (or three daughters) were sent on a journey to find…” And so begins the adventure of discovering the new order, the new governing principles, the new ruler. The fairy tales are full of symbolic solutions that mystify as they satisfy—helpful animals, silver feathers, a way to take the mundane straw of life and spin it into gold. As we all lean over the book together, I see in my boys’ parted lips and I feel in my hearth-like cheeks our desire for this place, this journey, this promise of a new king or queen.

I was raised and have mostly lived as a liberal with a wide-open vein, bleeding out for those who suffer. I have learned over time a healthy respect for the clash and possibility within the beast of capitalism, the mercurial creative flash that may create new growth or may raze a village. As it is for every heir living in today’s divided nation, it has not been an easy journey. All my attempts at bridge-building, at working to see things from many points of view, at mediation and moderation, negotiation and understanding…well, it doesn’t seem that my bridges endure in the face of fiery tempers and the collective floods of emotion.

Perhaps the problem has been that in focusing on outer conflicts, I have not been aware of the contradictions within my own governing principles.  As Camille Paglia writes:

Modern liberalism suffers unresolved contradictions. It exalts individualism and freedom and, on its radical wing, condemns social orders as oppressive. On the other hand, it expects government to provide materially for all, a feat manageable only by an expansion of authority and a swollen bureaucracy. In other words, liberalism defines government as a tyrant father but demands it behaves as nurturant mother.

A tyrant father, a nurturant mother. How often have I heard my own my strident voice in discussions, and not considered it was the plaintive voice of a child? Perhaps I am confusing my search for these archetypes in my life with the more practical concerns of governing. Maybe the next time I want desperately to win a political argument I should go read a fairy tale instead.

Then again, perhaps weaving archetypes and governance is an intricacy of the human psyche. Perhaps we are all projecting our larger-than-life desires on politics—our desire for peace, alternating with our desires for power, for wealth, for justice, for freedom, for equality—contradictions among all of them, and all of them necessary in their own way.

The word “govern” traces its roots back through the Latin gubernare to the Greek kybernan: to steer or pilot a ship—a ship that must stay afloat above the dark and deep waters of the unconscious, our unknown origins. We need these waters, which lap at the edge of our government: without them there would be no journey, yet always present is the risk of sinking.

At the end of his life, Carl Jung believed that if the world was to avoid self-destruction, it was not government or movements or “-isms” that would save it. It would be, he believed, the work of a few committed individuals tempering the water from the nebulous sea of images and desires. It would be those few individuals willing to pull back their projections from politics, to face them squarely as part of themselves.

In a similar vein, Helen Luke writes that the world will continue only by the efforts of those individuals willing to focus on doing the next small thing in their lives; doing it with all their heart and soul; and doing it for the ones they love. The only way to transform the inflated sense of power that comes from dealing with the large in the world is by humbly and humanly focusing on the small.

I do not know if Jung and Luke are right, but I like their suggestion that solutions come from unexpected places. Their proposed solutions have feel of a fairy tale, the kind where the hero helps a small and helpless fallen bird and receives a silver feather that seems useless until the next step of the journey is revealed.

So, dear King and Queen, I will, like Jung did until his death, continue to vote, to read, to participate. But I will also take that small next step. I will turn down the urgent voices on the television; I will notice that my son’s hair in the right light catches a bit of gold, and that when he slams the door to his room, he is effectively protecting his territory, emotional and otherwise. I will find fairy tales in food pantries and at bird feeders. I will notice my own love of power, the times I’d like to push into another so I can feel myself full on, and maybe sometimes I will find another way.

Somewhere in the midst of the very next thing, in a place I may never see and among people I may never meet, perhaps a silver feather will be found, and though it will not make the news reports and will be only a dropped napkin at the state dinner, a few of the latent kings and queens of our democracy may whisper a small but steady sound of rejoicing.