All my life I’ve loved hero’s journey stories.
I watched Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers in The Power Of Myth when I was just ten years old, grew up dreaming of being Luke, Leia and Han, actively studied rites of passage rituals for over a decade– I devoured that narrative and loved it.
But something clicked in me at a dinner party, I guess almost two years ago now. It was an uncomfortable realization for myself and I suppose for the others at the table watching it unfold. I imagine it was a bit like coming upon a friendly household pet engaged in a primal horror – a beloved family dog gnawing the carcass of a freshly killed squirrel, an otherwise docile cat with a face covered in blood as she licks the bird entrails from her fur.
The scene: We’re at the home of dear friends. They are artists. Progressives, like us. They have an out-of-town guest staying with them, someone we should meet. He’s a self-described storyteller in the creative tech industry. A marketer. Progressive, like us. He’s travelling the world while working because he is, as they say, #locationindependent with a #laptoplifestyle because he’s living #lifebydesign. Or something like that.
We are all white. We are all young middle age. We are all very privileged in many ways.
We talk about the traveller’s work. He seems to be giving us a TEDTalk on the need for redemption or the quest for redemption or the redeeming power of redemption or something.
We all have a need for redemption, he says confidently with a healthy dollop of sincerity and a scoop of compassion for good measure.
Actually, he seems to be giving me this talk. He seems to be speaking squarely at me as though I need convincing, as though my body is displaying resistance.
Perhaps it’s because I have a face like Jim Carrey when it comes to my opinion. My bullshit detector is directly connected to my forehead, eyes and mouth. As I age, the wrinkles of my face are becoming permanently affixed to Whaaaaa???
It’s not him, though, it’s me. See, I have this disorder that makes me allergic to white guys saying “we” and “all” and “need” as they speak for me and everyone else. It flares up whenever universality is invoked and my face gets all weird. My face is especially sensitive to white guys pontificating about collective welfare and especially when they frame it as redemption.
But this is becoming two different posts. I’ll save the “white guys and their very special obliviousness” post for some other time. Yes, white guys have a right to speak. Yes, white guys trying is better than white guys not trying.
But I believe white guys should spend quite a bit more time talking amongst themselves and specifically calling in their own before they seek to teach the rest of us about the needs of the collective. HOWEVER. I’ll resist that rant today and try to do justice to Redemption.
Here’s my thought:
The romanticism of Redemption in the Western culture is rooted in and perpetuates imperialist capitalist patriarchal white supremacy as a form of protection from being held to account.
In psychology, there’s a thing called Narrative Identity. Basically, inside our minds we tell ourselves the story of our life. We are the protagonist and everyone else is a character and the events that happen are plot points. We reconstruct our past, perceive our present and imagine our future along a traditional story arc so we tend to edit our story to make it (and our identity) more congruent.
In the story of our Redemption, we are forced to sacrifice or even be sacrificed. Yet through this selfless act, we grow and thus are able to not only recover but elevate ourselves to a higher state of understanding. Our status as deserving protagonist is restored. The community celebrates us once again.
Can you see where I’m going here?
If every archetype has the potential for both light and shadow attributes, what can we suppose the shadow attributes of Redemption might be?
The easy ones for starters: arrogance, self-righteousness, self-centredness, self-aggrandizement, and a tone-deaf indifference to any resistance to the attitude of “manifest destiny”.
But the darker aspects of the Redemption shadow are what concern me more.
We need to get right down to the root and understand what “redemption” even means.
We’re not talking about a religious notion of redemption where salvation from sin is the goal. We’re talking about a secular or cultural notion of redemption. If language is one of the roots of culture, let’s then look at the root of redemption.
The etymology of redemption is the Latin redimere, meaning ”to buy back”. Redemption in this understanding is the action of regaining something in exchange for payment.
It means you clear a debt.
You PAY it off.
Who determines how much is owed? The one from whom you took.
That’s how it’s supposed to work.
But the Redemption Narrative, like so many things, is horribly disfigured by kyriarchy. (For those new to the lingo, kyriarchy is an academic word that encompasses imperialism, patriarchy, capitalism, white supremacy – basically all the systems of oppression – all rolled into one concept. It’s not a word I use a lot because I prefer plain language, but it will save me some typing and you some reading).
Within these frameworks, Redemption is something you can get on credit.
So we tell the story that we can overcome personal failings by doing general good, without actually asking victims what might be needed to fully pay for damages. We don’t ask because we know and fear the answer.
If you hurt a person or damage society, the price of redemption might be quite high. In fact, some things may never be redeemable.
Ergo, no redemption for you.
But kyriarchy can’t have that. It must have you believe that your generative good works are worth something, are improving things, are leaving the world better than you found it because that’s how we insulate ourselves from responsibility – by shifting away from specifics towards a generalized sense of progress.
When we have committed specific harms and respond by doing general good works, we are in no way paying back our debt. This is not redemption.
When a rapist goes to jail (I know – it’s a far fetched example but stick with me)…A rapist commits specific harm to both a person and society, so when they go to jail society can sleep better at night. It also signals how we feel about rape, and so incarceration could be considered a general good.
But it in no way repairs the damage done to that person, the victim, since the trauma lives on as mistrust, fear, anxiety, and difficulty creating strong bonds with others (among other things), and the same can be said about trauma within the social fabric. So jail is not redemption. The debt is not actually paid, despite our platitudes.
Conversely, when we’ve committed general harm and respond by doing a specific good, that is still not redemption.
When we buy iPhones made of conflict minerals, we are not redeemed by taking our old model to the electronics recycling depot.
When we recycle our glass bottles we feel great about ourselves but it in no way offsets the fact that we flew to Mexico for vacation.
When we participate in a Women’s March, we are not absolved of our role as white women in the oppression of women of colour.
When men write essays about dismantling patriarchy, it in no way repairs the emotional lives of the women they have mistreated.
When people make the claim that “we all deserve redemption”, it is a lie because some things cannot be redeemed.
Some things cannot be redeemed.
And in many cases, people enamoured with the notion of redemption have not undertaken the specific actions of repayment – which may require lifelong action, by the way – of de-aggrandizement, uncentering themselves, humbling themselves through truth-telling and accepting social ostracization, until such time as the person or community they’ve harmed invites them back into the fold.
In other words, they haven’t paid their debt.
They’ve gotten Redemption on credit, through the promise that their heightened self-awareness is going to pay off for everybody else one day. Until that day comes, the rest of us get to watch and wait and listen to their stories of how things are.
But my friends, Redemption is a dangerous notion.
Redemption Narrative gives privilege an “out”.
Redemption is the credit card of social change – it’s not real currency and it costs more in the end.
Let me say that again. Like all credit plans, redemption costs more in the end.
We must celebrate reform instead.
Re-form: to change back into a shape.
Reform is change and change requires action; it is painful, it is slow, it is stumbling, awkward, halting, and fails to live up to expectations throughout most of the process.
In the Narrative Identity framework, a Reform Narrative would probably be a different kind of story (oh yes, there are many more stories than the Redemption narrative – yes there is more than the Hero’s Journey).
The Reform Narrative is more concerned with Meaning Making.
It’s a more gruelling path, for sure. That story involves a lot of tension. Is it the tension that helps make meaning? Or is it the search for meaning that creates tension? We don’t really know for sure.
What we do know is that Reform, particularly within a kyriarchal society, is suuuuuuper hard and most definitely not celebrated. Reform is a rejection of the “tribe”. Reform is considered “judgey”. Reform implies that there’s something wrong with cis hetero patriarchal white supremacist hierarchies.
In Western culture, people would rather be gloriously redeemed experiencing no actual change, than ignominiously reformed undertaking actual change.
But when we accept that the Redemption Narrative perpetuates the absolution and impunity of really bad things that harm people both specifically and generally, that’s what we’re left with: Reform.
It all comes down to grief, as both an experience and a skill.
When we get better at grief, maybe we will be able to quiet our urgent pleas to move forward together – maybe we will be able to acknowledge that we might need to be left behind for a while so that others may heal.
When we get better at grief, maybe we will mature from our urge towards comfort and sit with the pain of responsibility instead.
When we get better at grief, maybe we will improve at paying down the debts of our privileges.
When we get better at grief, maybe we will stop hurting others with our need for our own redemption.