FACING THE DRAGONS

dragon Our local educational station TVO has been broadcasting a remarkable series of programs called Big Ideas, featuring lectures by speakers like Camille Paglia, George Steiner and Jean Baudrillard. Yesterday’s program featured Jordan Peterson talking about Facing the Dragons. He began by telling the children’s story There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon , written and illustrated by Jack Kent.

In a nutshell, the story is about a little boy who wakes up to find a small dragon on his bed. He pets and plays with the dragon until his mother insists there is no such thing, and from then on the dragon is ignored until it becomes as large as the house, and ends up running down the street with the house on its back. Finally the family acknowledges the dragon really exists, and it quickly shrinks back to kitten size. In case the message was too subtle, the final words from the little boy are “I guess it just wanted to be noticed”.

Peterson goes on to describe the two ways in which people react to the unexpected. If it is perceived as a threat, the reaction is anxiety and fear. If it perceived as an opportunity, the reaction is hope. In both cases, it is necessary to acknowledge the dragon, to confront or explore, and finally to change, to adapt to the new reality. To do nothing is to invite the dragon to get larger, like an unpaid bill or a task put off too long. To do something requires you to take personal responsibility.

It’s a poweful message about the danger of procrastination, of burying one’s head in the sand, and of leaving it up to others to take action. At a personal level, such behaviour can lead to divorce or to suicide. At a national and global level, it can lead to civil war, dictatorship, environmental disaster, unimaginable cruelty and the abrogation of personal rights and freedoms.

There are a lot of people vigorously denying the existence of dragons today, in their families, in their communities, and on the world stage. Liberals are denying the crises on the home front and the tinder keg in many countries worldwide, fooling themselves that it will get better if they just wait it out. Conservatives are denying the utter failure of their draconian measures like “three-strikes laws” and foreign military adventures to lessen the threat to peace and security one iota either at home or abroad. Clowns like environmental holocaust-denyer Lomborg are embraced for concocting fictions that tell us we’re not to blame, it’s not our fault. Religious wingnuts are embraced for telling people to turn their backs on the historical social activism of the church and instead wait for some deus ex machina to solve the problem for them.

Meanwhile, the dragons are just getting bigger and bigger…

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14 Responses to FACING THE DRAGONS

  1. Rob Paterson says:

    Hi DaveI just returned from Florida where I spent 2 hours travelling through the dry Everglades. More and more of the water is used in Agriculture and for human use. The Dragon is that once the aquifer is drawn down to the threshold it will fill with sea water and there will be no more water. But they can’t see this. I wonder why so few people panic about small thngs – that there children will be abducted – but cannot put two and two together for the quiet but real threats. Wht are we so blind?

  2. Adrian says:

    I’m an old hand at procrastination, and I’d say you’re right on target here, Dave. Acknowledging an issue, engaging it and adapting to meet it — that’s a process, requiring continuing engagement and attention. It can be painful. Avoidance, at least in the short term, is easy; you’re not risking anything, so you can’t lose. Sure, the dragon’s just made off with your house, but since you didn’t take personal responsibility, you can feel nice and blameless about it.On another level, there’s also the complexity and simultaneity of modern phenomena. Unavoidably, addressing one issue can mean ignoring others. Religions — and, for that matter, totalizing ideologies such as Marxism — seem to offer a handy interprekit, useful for situations ranging from the intimate to the global. The better option, I figure, is an expansion of consciousness, but that’s no piece o’cake either.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Rob: I think it’s Darwinian. We are the way we are because that’s what led to human survival for three million years, the first 99% of our existence on Earth. For all that time, our fear instinct impelled us to take action (flight, attack) in response to concrete things that we could do something about immediately, and hence was useful. But 30,000 years ago we created a new highly-specialized, socially interdependent, agricultural culture, and our brains started to focus more on abstract matters like logic, politics, economics, science, and ethics. That mental exercise made us capable of imagining and recognizing many new fearsome and threatening things, things that we could not do anything about immediately. I’ve argued elsewhere that the result of this is a form of massive mental illness, adrenaline “blown fuses”. Hence, we now worry needlessly about little and even imaginary things. As for why we don’t worry enough about the big things, I think we do, at a very instinctive level. But we also believe that there’s nothing we can do about the big things, so we try to avoid thinking about them, and we run to religious leaders and pseudo-scientists for relief: We seek salvation, forgiveness, peace of mind that our huge, artificial, out-of-control society cannot provide us in more real and productive ways. As TS Eliot said, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Adrian: I greatly admire those that choose expansion of consciousness over denial. It takes incredible courage, and I really can’t blame those that find it all so overwhelming that they just ‘close down’ their consciousness, limit it to things they can control. To take responsibility for everything that’s wrong with this world, and to expand one’s consciousness to realize just how much is wrong, must seem to most people a form of masochism. Alas, until and unless enough of us take that responsibility, it’s not going to get any better.

  5. Marie Foster says:

    For lots of us there is just not enough time in the day to get involved. When I was a kid my Dad was the only one who worked in our family. There was ample time for us to just hang out and discuss politics and the issues of the day. We got involved, joined our hands together and made an impact.Now, I see so many people with their noses to the grindstone coming home to empty hours of TV to fill the time that they do have for rest.It seems to me that the problems are just so darned overwhelming, so impossible to solve, so bought by the monied interests that the ‘little person’ does not stand a chance.No matter. I am retired now. I can become an activist again in my own way and hopefully work if not to save the world then to make something somewhere a bit better than it was when I got here..

  6. The Raven says:

    I call it the “save the whales” effect. Sure, saving whales is a good idea. So is protecting our old-growth forests. So it’s no wonder you don’t have that much trouble getting 200,000 impassioned people out on the street, screaming, yelling, and being egged on by high-profile activist-types to shut down the war machine. Meanwhile, the people living in cardboard boxes continue to poke through the garbage, communities of runaway teens go on selling their bodies for drugs and food, and Mr. Gangsta wannabe misses his target on a driveby and nails a 5 year-year-old girl. But I’m not wringing my hands, and I’m not saying anyone’s priorities are misplaced, and I’m not lecturing anyone about responsibility. Because I’m never going to go out looking for a homeless person to bring home for Thanksgiving dinner – and I doubt any other readers will, ever. The sullen-eyed youth would flip you off, and knife you for giggles if you didn’t have backup. And the “bling-bling” set have cracked the code on stimulating the r-cortex, but don’t respond well to Mr. Greenpeace in the REI, Inc., sleeveless down vest invading the neighborhood with good intentions. So people find their own comfort level of balancing bourgeois guilt against holier-than-thou smugness. Hard to blame them. – R.

  7. Rayne says:

    I think the reasons are all cited above by the commenters:Rob -> we worry about our kids because they’re within our control; an acquifer is a shared resource and is not;/ Adriam -> we need a change of consciousness to see the shared resources as something we can control, in spite of the illusion of size in spite of the blinders of religion, politics and science;/ Mom -> we are tapped out emotionally, physically; we need to change from reactive to proactive before we become more fatigued by what lies ahead;Raven -> disillusionment and disengagement, disenfranchisement run rife, making our immediate world more appealing than a broader cosmology;/ So? how do we change a mindset, consciousness, cosmology at societal level? That is the nature of the challenge. It will not happen from only one direction — bottom up, or top down. We need to have both if we will make real traction in a reasonable period of time. As I see it, the bottom isn’t organized enough to change the direction of the top. The bottom will have to get its act together, and fast.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Marie: As the old saying is, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Of course we’re all busy, but if something is seen as urgent and important, we find a way to get it done. I think the sense of hopelessness, of it being larger-than-life, contributes most to the paralysis that keeps most people from doing anything more than worry quietly about the dragons.

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Raven: I’m not buying the cynical laissez-faire line from you on this one. I bet you’re a volunteer, and that you wring your hands a lot — that comes through in your writing. The lesson of the story isn’t that everyone must take responsibility, just that they have to do so if they want or expect things to get better. And that that is hard, but worth it.

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Rayne: You’re exactly right on the top-down-and-bottom-up issue. The Democratic nominee in ’04 is probably the most important decision we’ve seen in a generation, because if he/she can connect with the bottom-up, we’ll have traction, but if not, we’ll have disengagement.Interesting you mention the personal vs. communal property issue, and how we take responsibility for the former but not the latter. I need to think about this — topic for another post, perhaps.

  11. Marie Foster says:

    In talking with lots of younger people, many do not even know we have ‘communal’ lands. Seems that this is an issue that is overlooked in our public school curriculum? Canada has public lands too, right Dave? I wonder if there is a map somewhere that shows them clearly so that people can be made aware of just what is at stake if we commercialize them.

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    I think the only countries that have no ‘communal’ lands are those where all the land is ostensibly communal. A Lands for Life Charter like this one might be what you need to combat Bush on this issue.

  13. Marie Foster says:

    Nice link… I have posted it on my site.

  14. midi says:

    Nice link… I have posted it on my site.

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