Engaging the Other

Interview by Eileen Stryker

Engaging the Other Interview Transcript

This interview was conducted following the conference, “Engaging the Other:  The Power of Compassion” held October 26 – 29, 2006 at the Radisson Plaza Hotel and Suites in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  The Fetzer Institute, a conference sponsor, asked Eileen Stryker to capture some of the conference learning of interest through interviewing select conference presenters. Interviews were audio taped and transcribed, then edited by Dr. Stryker and the person interviewed.

Sam Keen, PhD is a noted author and philosopher. He co-produced an award-winning PBS documentary “Faces of the Enemy”, was the subject of a Bill Moyers television special: Your Mythic Journey with Keen, and for 20 years served as contributing editor at Psychology Today magazine.  In his keynote he premiered the newly expanded update on his seminal work Faces of the Enemy – including The Art of Enemy Making, The New Enemy, and Beyond Enmity – which examines the techniques of propaganda used to teach us “to hate all the people our relatives hate.”  His books include: Faces of the Enemy, To Love and Be Loved, Hymns to an Unknown God, Fire in the Belly: On Being A Man, Inward Bound: Exploring the Geography of Your Emotions, and Your Mythic Journey.  His website is: http://samkeen.com/

(This biographical sketch is taken from the “Engaging the Other” Conference Web page: http://www.cbiworld.org/Pages/Conferences_ETO_PresenterBios.htm.)

Eileen Stryker:  In this interview I would like to touch on three themes:  1) the Fetzer Institute’s mission to foster the awareness of the power of love and forgiveness in the emerging global community; 2) the conference theme of compassionate engagement of the Other; and 3) how your own life and work intersect.  What questions or concerns set you on the path that led you to your current work?

Keen:  Well that’s a big question.  I have been asking questions since I was four years olds.  I have basically a philosophical turn of mind and being, so in that sense the great mythical questions have always been the ones that have concerned me.  To put it historically, when my own conservative Christian beliefs collapsed, I had to look around for what I believed.  What was the myth that I was living?  At that point I began this experimentation that led to the creation of the field of personal mythology, where I took the great questions of mythology — Where did you come from?  Where are you going? Who are your enemies? Who are your friends? —  and used them to interrogated my own life.  I also did that in seminars – with Joseph Campbell for  many years.  So I have always been interested in the difference between the stories that are imposed upon us by our society (which is really what myth means:  imposed stories, or the cultural software inserted into us when we are born) and those stories we tell ourselves — our autobiography that we create.  That has always been the fundamental template of the way I have worked.

I have looked at various kinds of myths.  First, I looked at the myth of love in The Passionate Life.  Halfway through The Passionate Life I began to ask the question, “Why is it that we are such an unloving species?” and it occurred to me that we are systematically trained to suspect and hate others –it is not accidental.  Then I asked myself the obvious question, “How do we do that?”  The answer popped out — propaganda is training in hate.

I began to collect all kinds of propaganda and went all over the world.   Out of that came the book:  Faces of the Enemy.  This book was an effort to get at the ways we are trained to dehumanize other people and suspect them.

Then, from that, came the book on men:  A Fire in the Belly.  What’s the mythology that forms men in this society?  In The Passionate Life, I began to suspect that we are asking the wrong questions about love.  If you want to become good at love you don’t do affirmations, you try to find out all of the ways you are an unloving person – closed, prejudiced.  Make a study of your shadow and you will become more loving.  Try to become more loving and you will probably just become more sentimental.

Stryker:            How does the latter compare with Marty Seligman’s focus on positive psychology?  He’s not talking about love exactly; he is talking about happiness.  But I don’t think he advocates engaging the shadow…

Keen:  No, he doesn’t.  The two people in the field of psychology who have been working on this are myself and Phil Zimbardo.  I stopped in at the American Psychological Association Annual Meeting a couple of years ago when Phil Zimbardo was the president and, while I didn’t hear it, he had apparently just given an address in which he talked about my work in Faces of the Enemy.  He’s done all the work on how we dehumanize people.  Someone said to me, “Well, why are you and Phil Zimbardo so interested in evil.”  I replied, “It’s the only growth area in psychology.”

So if you want to put it that way, I don’t believe in positive psychology.  I say that positive psychology sort of “accentuates the positive, eliminates the negative, and doesn’t mess with mister in-between.”  I am much more in the mystical tradition and the mystical tradition says, “go deep, go down ”.

The heroic journey does not say think positive thoughts.  Joseph Campbell, who was such a great cartographer of the hero’s journey said:  In the ordinary world you are taught to love the people in your family and in your own tribe and to be ready to go to war with others.  The hero is the one who leaves the ordinary world and goes down into the depths.  That is the greatness of psychotherapy as well as the great mythical traditions.  You have to go into the place of your own darkness and your own negativity.  You have to go down into the dark night of the soul.  You do not get enlightened by thinking positive thoughts.  You do it by being willing to confront your own darkness and then, out of that comes the rebirth.  Crucified, dead, buried, descended into hell. You don’t rise from the dead for three days, or three years.

Stryker:  Can you speak to what that means for Fetzer’s mission?

Keen:  I don’t know that much about their mission.

Stryker:  Well, here are the words:  “to foster awareness of the power of love and forgiveness”.

Keen:  Oh, isn’t that sweet?  That’s very nice.  Why, that should be put on a Hallmark card. Way too sentimental~!

Stryker:  I’m wondering whether you are saying …

Keen:  I believe deeply in what Paul Tillich said, “Love, power, and justice travel together or they get distorted.”  As soon as you talk about love and forgiveness and don’t put that other part of the triad there – of justice — then you are dealing with sentiment; you are not dealing with love in any muscular sense.  So if you want to promote love, you first promote justice and equality and you promote the power of the Other.  Love does not exist in unequal relationships (well, it does between parent and child).  Love also has to want power for the other and want justice for the other.

There is an interesting book I have never read.  On the cover is says, “Caring enough to Forgive.”  You turn it over and on the other side it says, “Caring enough not to forgive.”  So forgiveness also involves some sense of justice.  Forgiveness isn’t a sentiment and there can be premature forgiveness that doesn’t require restitution or doesn’t require the repentance of the other person.

Stryker:  You just trigged many thoughts in my mind.  Are you saying that meaningful love — or for that matter, engagement of another — comes from knowing one’s shadow at one’s deepest depth?

Keen:  Yes.

Stryker:  That it springs from that place or it has much less meaning, if any?

Keen:  The book Passionate Life was really an investigation of love.  When someone says “love”—ask them what they are talking about.  The way that a child loves a parent and a parent loves a child is very different.  A child’s love is obviously terribly, terribly dependent upon the parents and the adults who are taking care of it.  I talk about five stages of love: 1) the child, 2) the rebel, 3) the adult, 4) the outlaw, and 5) the lover.  Love means something very different in each stage of the spiritual journey.

Consider for instance, the second stage, the rebel stage, which roughly starts when people are two years old then goes into adolescence.  To begin with, adolescence was a creation largely of the Western world; other cultures did not have adolescence.  Adolescence allowed us to become different than our parents –to dream a new dream. Thus, love for an adolescent is all wrapped up with rebellion and experimentation—the very things that drive most parents crazy.,  Most people after adolescence go into adulthood.  Then love means doing your duty, fulfilling your responsibility.  It usually means one wife or one husband and investing in the community and all of that, which is a good thing to do.  But then, for many people, there comes a break, a spiritual crisis, when they realize that they have been living and loving in the way that was prescribed by their community.

For instance, if I am just a good adult and a good citizen I have gone along with the policies of my government even when they meant preemptive war or something like that and I haven’t really complained about that because they are the ordained authorities.  And then the crisis comes at the point where I realize, “Hey, wait a minute, who am I really?”  And I begin to ask those far ranging questions:  “Who am I? What do I really want?  What are my values?  What am I willing to sacrifice for?”

That’s what I call going into the outlaw stage.  The outlaw stage in some sense is very selfish because I have lost myself in the body politic in being an adult and now I have to find out who I am.  We go into what I call into the lover’s stage when we begin to ask: “How am I connected to other people? Who is the “we” of I?  To what community do I belong?”  The answer is not that I belong to the American community.  To go into the stage of compassionate love is to cease to be a patriot and to become a member of, as the Buddhists say, “the commonwealth of all sentient beings.

Stryker:  To what extent are those stages gender- or geography-bound?  Do you know?  I’m thinking n particular, in terms of gender bound about the separation and connection pieces.

Keen:  They are and they aren’t.  Somebody talked about the epistemological privilege of the victim.  It’s a big mouthful but what that means that if a person is a victim in a society they are going to see through society a lot earlier than those that are on top.  Like I always say, “the last person in the world to know what was going on in American society was probably a wealthy white male from an Ivy League college who became a stockbroker.  If you want to know the hypocrisy of a society, ask a one-eyed, poor, black Lesbian.

Stryker:  Preferably homeless.

Keen.  Sure.  Throw that in.  But they (the marginalized) very often go into the outlaw stage much earlier.  They are the ones who see through the hypocrisy of a society, they are the ones who protest, they are the ones who say it is not that way, they are the ones who say, “the emperor has no clothes.”  In that sense, there is a strange privilege that goes with being among the dispossessed and that is the opportunity to see the hypocrisy of a society. There are also, of course, enormous burdens that go with it.

Stryker:  I love that phrase, “Epistemological advantage of the victim.”

Keen:  Yes.  They see. They know.  When we say, “Liberty and justice for all,” people in the Mississippi Delta say, “What are you talking about?”

Stryker:  So what advice would you give The Fetzer Institute about their mission?  My experience of Fetzer’s practice around their mission is that it varies with respect to the extent to which they bring in justice and power in their concept of love.

Keen: I don’t know a lot, but from what I have seen over the years, it is a bit soft.  I always try to tell people when I work on this that when someone says, “I love you,” ask them, “Just what exactly do you mean by that?  To what are you committed when you say that?”  I have a very, very powerful device to make people think when they do something like that.

If I were to come to Fetzer and do a seminar with them, I’d say, “Okay, you are for love and forgiveness.  This whole seminar, any time you use the words “love” or “forgiveness,” you owe me $100.  You cannot use those words.  Now tell me what you are committed to.  If you cannot change the language then you are caught in another form of orthodoxy.

So if people say “love,” I’d say, “No, you can’t say that.  We know that’s a mishy mashy word.  The best and the worst things done by human beings have been done when the flag of love flying over them.  So what do you mean?  And when do you mean it?”  Reflection on the nature of love is still relatively unknown.  We throw around words like philia, agape, and caritas, but it is funny, we don’t examine even the relationship between them very much.  I remember it used to drive me crazy in the theological community when I taught there that they would always talk about agape in a hushed voice.  And I said, “Well, there’s more than that.  How would you like your wife, husband, girlfriend or boyfriend to love you with agape?  I’d like them to have a little more eros toward me.”  You would probably have to give me something more specific to comment on because I don’t. . .

Stryker:  I understand.  I don’t think we need to go further down that road; I think your point is clear.

Keen:  My wife has done some of the Parker Palmer seminars – clearness committees – and they sound really good to me.  I don’t really know what other kind of work Fetzer actually sponsors.

Stryker:  I think that puts you in the great majority of people in the world.

Keen:  The great majority has not read my books, either, so obviously they won’t be enlightened.

Stryker:  But the question is, “Can they be in love?”

Keen:  Can they be in love . . . you know, love is a funny thing.

Stryker:  They can probably be in love without reading your books.

Keen.  Of course, but I have to make a living, so read my books and give them to your friends for Christmas. But don’t expect instant sainthood.  You know the damnedest people turn out to be the great lovers.  There are a lot of rough old guys and rough old gals that are really good at it.

Stryker:             Yup. . .  Did you have opportunities to engage Others during the conference?  The theme was engaging the Other, so I mean in that sense of Others.

Keen:  No. I have to say I really didn’t.  I arrived on Thursday, did my presentation on Friday, and then had to leave.  My mother is very ill and my family was gathering in Ann Arbor.

But the answer of “Engaging the Other” I have done a lot of that.  I went to the Soviet Union in the 1980s.  I was instrumental in the first and probably only conference any government has ever done on the image of the enemy.  It is reputed that Gorbachev got the line, “I am going to take the image of the enemy away from the United States” from my work.  The U.S.A./Canada Institute published that stuff and Arbotov, who was his advisor, had given it to him.  I was in Nicaragua during the revolution and if my visa comes through, I am going to Iran in two weeks.

Whenever we talk about the enemy, it is always in grim terms.  We never talk about falling in love with the enemy.  That’s why I am going to Iran because I know there is a lot to be loved there:  the Persian culture, the beauty of that, and what I hear about the hospitality.  We have to go beyond this sort of toleration and respect to give ourselves a chance to concretely fall in love with people and cultures.  One of the problems is that Americans don’t have passports.  I’ve heard the figure 14%; I saw one the other day that said 27%.  It’s probably higher now because you need a passport to get into Mexico.  Love comes from proximity and touch.  I don’t think we love in the abstract.

Stryker:            So when you hear the term “the Other”, I heard you go to “the enemy” — which is the extreme Other — is that consistent with your thinking?  Is that indeed what you hear?

Keen:  Not really.  My first book, one that I feel is still central to my thinking, is about the idea of wonder.  To be in the world where you do not take others for granted is also to wonder in their presence.  Wonder is not a sweet little emotion.

I always go back in my thinking to Rudolph Otto’s great book The Idea of the Holy.  In it he says, “Whenever we encounter the holy there are going to be ambivalent emotions.  The holy calls forth a sense of awe and even of terror as well as of desire.  Mystery is fascinating and also challenging.

Stryker:  It evokes fear, as well as love.

Keen:  Exactly.  No, no, no, no. It’s not fear as well as love; it is that love also involves fear.  To really open yourself to another person is an awesome thing. The kind of longing that Rumi and the great metaphysical poets talk about — the longing for God; the longing for the beloved, also contains within it the fear of giving yourself to the beloved or to God because you will get swallowed up.

In the old phrase, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God.”  And D. H. Lawrence wrote about this so well in terms of love.  Don’t think it’s all sweetness and light to love somebody; it isn’t.  The more deeply you love, for instance, the more vulnerable you become.  What if they die?  This person you love is not replaceable on the wholesale market.  You are opening yourself to the possibility of great pain.  It’s not if, but when somebody dies.  That’s the “tremendum” of love.  The fascinans is easy—the fascination part where we’re drawn to them.  But the other . . . Whenever you cease trying to control somebody and really find yourself loving them unconditionally, it is surrounded with that sense of . . . It’s a little bit like, in the old testament, the ark of the covenant.  Look out, boy there is high-powered electricity here.

Stryker:            So what is your reaction to Ruchama Marton from Jerusalem?  In the panel you shared about fear, she said she is not so interested in love between peoples; she is much more interested in respect because where there is great love there is potential for great hatred.

Keen:  I think that is right.

Stryker:  You talked about when you are in love you are not only open to great pain and great joy but love also means giving away or sharing power.  She talked about respect in that mode.  Her definition of respect is sharing power with others.  In that regard, her country, Israel, does not respect the West Bank and Gaza.

Keen:  Well, I would put it differently; that’s not what respect means to me.  Respect means to me re specto; look again; keep looking; it’s really the same as to wonder; to open up; to say, “I’ll look again.  I’ll go through my prejudices.”  Respect is one thing and justice is the other.  I think the line goes something like this.  First of all, empathy; empathy is not sympathy; it is not emotional, it is intellectual; it is imagination.   Be willing to imagine yourself in the other person’s situation.  And from empathy there may grow compassion.  Compassion is a feeling; now you have a feeling of the other and from that there should grow justice.  If you have justice then you may begin to see that other person and know them enough to begin to be interested.  Then you might be able to fall in love with somebody. But that’s down the line.

Stryker.  Earlier you were saying that the “I” who is doing and feeling all those things will do so more deeply to the extent that they have examined their own shadow and gone to their own depths.

Keen:  I did write a book about love, To Love and Be Loved, where I talk about the sixteen different components of love.  You only have all sixteen of them, I think, in one kind of love: marital love.  I was even willing to say heterosexual because the possibility of a child is there.  You have fifteen of them in friendship; one you don’t have in friendship is the procreative; actually you don’t have the erotic so much, either, not sexual eros.  Then you can go on down the line to where there are many fewer of the components of love in some kinds of love.  Whereas giving somebody justice doesn’t require love; giving somebody justice doesn’t require that you like them; it doesn’t require intimacy at all; it doesn’t require dialogue – any of those things.  In that sense, there is sort of a hierarchy.When the new testament says, “Perfect love casts out fear.”  I say, “Yes, that’s true.  But that’s only perfect love.  I’m not at that stage of perfection.  What do you have this year for imperfect love?”

Stryker:             What is the role of the divine, God, ineffable, if any . . .

Keen:  What is the role of the divine . . .

Stryker:  in life?

Keen:  Let’s see. . . in 25 words or less. . . Okay.  Here’s my answer:  a) not at all; b) everything; c) neither a nor b.  But really, I think you have to be very careful about that.

Stryker:  I’m asking from the place of Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters?  I think one of the things he is talking about is having God be part of our conversations.

Keen:  Well, I think that’s true for me, too.  I have trouble just translating phrases like God loves me.  Exactly what do I mean by that?  I am Tillichian, I guess, at this point, I guess.  God is the ground of my being.  God is that mystery out of which I come and into which I go.  God is also that mystery in which evil is encountered.  I can get in touch with love,  gratitude, the gratitude for my life, and the gratitude for others’ lives.  My primal feeling is of great thankfulness that I got a chance to exist and that I got a chance to exist as me.  And there are other people I am very glad got a chance to exist.  There are a few people that I’d rather hadn’t had that chance, but I had nothing to say about it.

To me, the question of God is a fundamental and abiding question.  I have tried to take the medicines that I prescribe for others.  I try not to use the traditional language, religious language, and I try to do that not because I do not believe in what that language was doing, but because I believe that language has become stale and prevents us from thinking.  I believe there is a way that you take questions of the Other and take questions of nature and take questions of our obligation to live reverentially and you surround them with a kind of silence.

I believe that almost all of the great old religious words need to be said and then you have a long pause.  And I believe that the Jews are essentially right in saying that we should use the word God once a year, probably.  It should not be bandied about because, as we know, you start bandying it about and God becomes the transcendent justification for hating others.  So you have to be very careful about the use of that word because it is a symbol.  Tillich used to say God is a symbol for God; that being the case, use it delicately, use it seldom, use it indirectly.  Like Emily Dickenson says, “Tell it slant.”  Kierkegaard always used to say, “All real religious communication is indirect.”  I have tried to practice that art.  So if I write about faith or something I can do by talking about flying trapeze and about the leap of faith of going from the flyer to the catcher.  I really started that with the essay, “Reflections on a Peach Seed monkey or Storytelling and Death of God.” in To a Dancing God.

Try to tell the story; try to talk out of the experience.  So many of the depth experiences that religion points to are pretty wordless; that is why we use poetry.  I published one little article on this in Spirituality and Health called “The Ludicrous Names of God.”  I have two parallel things and I just love to do with people, but almost no one will do it.  The first is linguistic asceticism: For a month dont use the word God or any of the other charged religious words.  This way you have to create metaphors that beat around the bush—the burning bush.. Stryker: Yes, I remember.

Keen. I also wanted the magazine to start a pyramid letter in which you send a letter with ten names for God and give the instruction for them to add ten new names and send the letter to ten friends. In six months we would have 43 million new names for God, more or less.  Each time you use a new metaphor, you see something differently.  I am deeply, deeply affected by Norman O’Brown’s book Love’s Body and the belief that all religious language is deeply, deeply metaphorical and that means we should play with it, not work at it.

Stryker:  Are you still engaged with the questions that began you on the journey?

Keen:  Sure

Stryker:  What questions interest you right now?

Keen:  Is it possible to save the world from the doom toward which it is inevitably moving?  I was doing an article on doomsday for the “Bulletin of Atomic Scientists” and I read a very powerful article that said, “Look, we’ve got it all wrong.  The apocalypse is already happening.  It’s a stealth apocalypse.  The four horsemen of the apocalypse are:  Nuclear proliferation and weapons, global warning and destruction of the environment; destruction of meaning and I forget the fourth.  We don’t have any communal will to deal with these in a way that is effective, given the enormity of the problem.  The apocalypse is well underway.”  I believe that is true. I do not believe the economic system or technology will pull us out.  I do not see enough cooperation among nations to keep us from developing ever more terrible weapons.  I do not see enough justice and sharing in the world to keep us from immense poverty, terrorism and unrest.  So that is the question: Can we?  And of course I have all my personal questions – what am I going to do about it?

I have been doing a seminar recently called, What’s Next? Reviewing and Revisioning Your Life. I think most people right now are very anxious and are very caught up in the question of what is next for me?  What is next for us?

Stryker:  And do you think that is a mirror or reflection or embedded in the larger state of the world?

Keen:  Oh yeah, We in America have had a radical change from being a society that believed  we would create an alabaster city undimmed by human tears.  We were on the side of progress and the future.  We were invulnerable; we weren’t going to suffer.  After 9-11, we experienced a state of almost complete anxiety that we turned into fear by focusing on terrorism and the terrible threat of terrorism,  and we’re going crazy.

Stryker:  You also mentioned that at the conference and both there and now, my reaction is, “Really?”  Do you really think that people were so naive before 9-11 that they thought it could never happen here?

Keen:  I don’t think it is naïve; I think that it is part of the myth.  That is where myths catch us.  If you ask smart people to consider it, they would say, “Well, I don’t know.”  But myth functions at a much deeper level.  For example, let’s look at the myth of the Marlboro man, which is very, very, very central to our mythology of rugged individualism which we also carry over into our corporate mythologies.

Stryker:  That’s a masculine myth; I never could identify with the Marlboro man.

Keen:  It is a masculine myth, but big deal; the masculine myths run the country.

Stryker:  I don’t mean it’s trivial because of that.  O contraire.

Keen:  That’s right.  The society is structured along the lines of the masculine values.  That’s what corporations are; businesses are; it’s the whole model.  It’s not that the others aren’t important – they’re immensely important – but they were never dominant.

Stryker:  For me the 9/11 question is very personal because it makes me feel very out of whack with the rest of the country.  When I watched the planes on television hit the towers where I used to work, all I could think of was, “Okay. Now we’re part of the world.”

Keen:  That’s right.  That’s exactly right.  That’s even the way I put it; I said, “Now we’ve gone from ‘We’ll have an alabaster city on the hill undimmed by human tears’ to Buddha’s first noble truth, “Life is suffering.”  And we’re not going to avoid it.  Absolutely.

Stryker:  It was just hard for me to believe that people had felt that invulnerable as a country prior to that.

Keen:  I think these things creep in on us very slowly.  I think anxiety is gradually beginning to build because of the ecological disaster.  I think there was a kind of crystallization with Al Gore’s movie.  People are saying, “Oh my God.  We better redo the threat index.”  On the big threat index, terrorism is way down the line.  If the terrorists killed as many people as the American medical establishment – I saw this morning that there are 190,000 killed in hospitals by having the wrong medications.  People say, “Are you afraid of going to Iran?”  I say, “Not near as much as going through Oakland at night or going to the hospital.”

Stryker:  Thank you, I feel accompanied now.  That wasn’t the original intent of this interview but . . .

Keen:  That’s a big comfort, isn’t it?

Stryker:  It is.  It is very much.

Keen:  The night is dark and we are far from home, but at least we’re together on this.