Thomas Merton proposed in his 1965 book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander that a widely accepted U.S. myth was that “America is the earthly paradise.”
“When a myth becomes a daydream, it is judged, found wanting, and must be discarded. To cling to it when it has lost its creative function is to condemn oneself to mental illness,” Merton wrote. “I do not say we must learn to live without myths (such an idea is dangerous self-deception: it is itself a false myth, or a daydream), but we must at least get along without evasions. When a myth becomes an evasion, the society that clings to it gets into serious trouble.”
Merton asks if the myth had become an evasion – a daydream, and was the present (1965) social crisis, such as race relations and delinquency, a judgment of that public daydream. Regarding social crisis, I wonder if our core concerns have moved much from those of 1965? What about the myth?
Merton acknowledged, and I doubt anyone would argue, that the U.S. did hold “paradise” status not only in its natural beauty and abundant resources, but also in its promise of possibility and potency as a new start for those braving the perilous ocean passage in hopes of escaping “a Europe grown old in wickedness” and of beginning anew, leaving “one’s sins and one’s past in the Atlantic.”
For centuries, America’s westward expansion brought new frontiers and new paradise possibilities, keeping the “America as paradise” myth alive.
However, Merton reminds us that on the back side of the frontier paradise was a growing nation and a people creating a history – a history of not so paradisiacal incidents, of “innocent excesses,” of sin.
Unlike Europe, with a history so ancient it could not be remembered, America was perceived to be so “young” that it was plagued with a past that could be remembered, explained or justified.
American episodes and practices of broken agreements, oppression, mistreatment and malfeasance, whether toward Native Americans, African American slaves or, later, European immigrants, were regarded by many as “clear, well meant, and sincere,” Merton observed, rather than what they truly were: acts of official deceit, duplicity and sin.
Even so, as long as there was another frontier, those adhering to the myth saw the possibility of a new beginning with no history or sin.
As a 10 year old with absolutely no understanding of the politics, I dubbed John F. Kennedy “my man,” as I watched the youthful, charismatic, presidential candidate passionately promising a “New Frontier” if elected in 1960.
Merton proposes that the idea of “frontier” had become the national symbol of adventure and “clear-eyed innocence,” and Kennedy’s labeling his domestic agenda as a “New Frontier” was a “a pathetic overtone,” aiming to keep alive and capitalize on the power and pull of the American paradise myth.
We know that in 1960 there were no more frontier paradises remaining in America. They had all been explored, settled and closed forever.
Granted, American society in 1960 was clamoring for change and ripe for revolution regarding many issues – civil rights, women’s rights and social services, to name only three — but in no way was there a frontier with the hope or promise of something brand new.
The best available options were tweaking and revising – making deletions, additions or adjustments to – governing policies, laws and practices already in place. A process far from the adventure and allure of a legitimate frontier.
Has the American paradise myth become an evasion – a means of avoiding the critical questions that need be pondered for any hope of resolving our societal ills?
I hear the slogan “Make America Great Again,” and I ask, what does that mean? Is it the latest iteration of the American paradise myth? Are we clinging to it and, consequently, in “serious trouble” as a result? Is it contributing to our mental illnesses?
According to Merton, a self-acclaimed “guilty bystander,” the U.S. citizen has “consistently refused to accept his expulsion from ‘Paradise.’ He [sic] has insisted that he is what he has always dreamed he was – gentle, kind, fair, noble, courteous, yet simple, with the clear-eyed simplicity of the frontiersman.”
Merton observed in 1965 that the myth has become an evasion, and we as a nation are culpable, for “the beautiful story we are telling ourselves is now no more than an ordinary lie.”
Just as it was in 1965, it is a hard truth today. It is evident, America, we are no longer in “paradise.”
I wonder if there is any hope for a brand-new start in resolving our individual and collective societal ills?
If there is, could it possibly be in a willingness to enter, explore, acknowledge and inhabit our own personal, internal frontier – the mystery, the beauty, the darkness, the wonder – of our heart and souls and then share our discoveries with one another?
Retired after 38 years in education and counseling, the last nine of those as school counselor serving a campus of 650+ third, fourth and fifth graders. When not traveling, she fills her days with community, charitable and civic work, along with occasionally writing for The Tyler Loop and blogging at Pilgrim Seeker Heretic, affirming the sacredness of life and the sacrament of relationships.