March 7, 2018

Fr. Richard Rohr shared the following

Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World (New World Library: 2008). Learn more about Plotkin and his work at

Robert Bly, The Sibling Society: An Impassioned Call for the Rediscovery of Adulthood (Vintage: 1997).

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Soul, the Natural World, and What Is (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2009), MP3 download

Bill Plotkin, a friend, author, depth psychologist, and wilderness guide, offers a helpful model called the “Soulcentric Developmental Wheel.” [1] He describes eight stages of the spiritual journey of transformation. He says that most of mainstream Western society is at the third stage, which is highly egocentric and narcissistic. As a culture, we tend to be preoccupied with our own comfort, entertainment, and security.

This is what we might expect of adolescents, but when people my age are still spending most of their lives focused on themselves, our civilization is surely in an arrested development. This is clearly seen in our politics, and even, I am afraid, in much of our clergy, who reflect our narcissistic culture rather than lead it forward. Robert Bly rightly called it a “sibling society.” [2] One of the foundational reasons for this widespread immaturity is that we have lost contact with the givens, with the natural world.

Enter Robert Bly, much revered author of the popular book on contemporary manhood, “Iron John,” who, in this new book, compellingly explains and exposes the forces that have so eviscerated authority in our culture that maturity has become an issue in the campaigns of the potential leaders of the Free World.

The “sibling society” is Bly’s metaphor for a world where “adults regress toward adolescence” and “adolescents . . . have no desire to become adults”; where admiration for elders has disappeared, tradition has eroded, ancestors have been forgotten; where the family is being destroyed everywhere, by everyone; where children’s brains are addled by daycare and TV; where adolescents, lost and self-destructive, dwell in bastions of boredom called high schools; where parents, particularly fathers, have abdicated their archetypal roles; where mass culture provides not elders but movies about infantile “grumpy old men”; and where respect for ancient myths and tribal ritual has been replaced by the cynical self-centeredness of “do your own thing.”

In other words, Bly views us as a bunch of squabbling siblings who tolerate no one above us and who have no concern for anyone below us. We must bring everyone to our own level, because we have lost the “vertical gaze,” i.e. the need (or willingness?) to look up and admire someone, whether it be parent or president.

Bly deserves our respect for the courage and insight with which he faces the deeper, darker truths about American culture. His tough, unflinching denunciation of what is puerile and profane in our culture is much needed. But now that this distinguished poet has broadened his scope from men’s psychology to the entire course of Western civilization, his biases often overshadow his brilliance. Nowhere is this more obvious than when he closes Chapter One with the question: “How did we move from the optimistic, companionable, food-passing youngsters on that field in Woodstock to the self-doubting, dark-hearted, turned-in, death-praising, wised-up deconstructionist audience that now attends a grunge music concert?”

Building on this double cliche, Bly marshals a dazzling array of sources from Rumi to Ronald Reagan to prove that this bleak view is the gospel truth. Whatever subject he touches–from the passage of NAFTA to the behavior of Newt Gingrich, from corporate downsizing to the Internet–is cited as evidence of the chaos and confusion of a kingdom without a king.

By the time Bly reaches his epilogue, he seems to sense the one-sided quality of his argument. . If so, he never finds it. Instead, he portrays everything through the same bitter, despairing lens.

He characterizes Generation X, the so-called “Day-Care Generation,” as utterly aimless. (Apparently he does not know that, according to a 1995 report by Independent Sector, the leading organization of charities in the United States, a record-setting 70% of 18- to 24-year-olds volunteer in community service.)

He asserts that computers “lead to a further drying up of conversation with adults.” (Does no one engage in intergenerational dialogue on the Net?)

He argues that in the “sibling society,” we have lost touch with sacred myths and stories. (Then who is reading Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth,” Clarissa Pinkola-Estes’ “Women Who Run With the Wolves,” Jean Houston’s “The Mythic Life”?)

He states flatly that “television is the thalidomide of the 1990s.” (Does that include Bill Moyers’ celebrated PBS interview with Bly?)

Commenting on Americans’ ever-more-youthful appearance, he makes the puzzling argument that it is evidence of our inability to mature. (Must we now feel apologetic for looking young?)

A few pages before the end of the book, Bly finally tells us what he believes an adult is: “A person not governed by what we have called pre-Oedipal wishes, the demands for immediate pleasure, comfort and excitement. . . .”

This is a demanding, if hardly new, standard that many of us often fail to meet. But Bly imposes it with such self-righteousness that he inadvertently draws attention to the fact that his own writing does not meet this standard.

Also on this topic.  First Published September 1, 2003 Review Article 

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