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  • Writer's pictureAlice J Stewart

Dragons, Part 2

Last time we talked about how dragons are a metaphor for collective trauma in communities. We talked about how this could be an individual or collective power like a king or regime. And we mentioned that a dragon could also be a collective set of beliefs and behaviors that are powerful and manipulative and harmful to the community.

Next time we will dig deeper into beliefs and behaviors. This week, let's look at some basic socio-political power.

When humans began to gather more permanently and divide up roles in society, we created some "us" and "them" within "ourselves." Hunter-gatherers, so far as we can tell, don't do this. Once we get over a certain population - between 50 and 150 people (and many other variables go into this) - we begin to segment. Maintaining cohesiveness between our segments is one of the most impressive human inventions.

Much of our mythology, stories, scriptures (from all religious traditions), modern media, and literature address the problem, suggest some solutions, and describe spectacular failures. There is a tension between segments, between "in" and "out," between "us" and "them," and if we counted up the amount of ink spilled on this topic, it would fill an ocean.

What I want to point out today, in particular, is the tendency to shift power "up" and how that can correlate with "badness." Let's use an example.

One of the classic examples of this is how a small group of Spaniards conquered the great Aztec empire. There are loads of reasons - nothing is ever simple - but one reason the Aztec empire fell was that it was too top-heavy. All the power, wealth, privilege, and decision-making agency was at the top. The foundation upon which the empire rested was weakened. It was relatively simple for the Spanish to pick off the hierarchical society's top layer and take over the rest.

We can see this pretty much everywhere. It's a common thread in history. Eliminating power, wealth, privilege, and decision-making agency from any one segment of society is unhealthy. Still, it's a real trick to figure out how to share these things well between segments. Every segment wants more and feels threatened by the others. We also know that each segment relies on the others if we are a cohesive and healthy whole. This is the tension, and we will always feel the pull back and forth between the two needs of differentiation and cooperation.

A symbolic dragon may swoop in and take over the "top." The dragon at the top of the Aztec empire was replaced by the Spanish dragon, for example. In feudal times, the upper crust practically literally stood on the serfs' necks, and the latter may well have seen the former as dragons.

The Black Death, which is NOT a dragon because it's a force of nature (see our last discussion), served as an opportunity to correct this imbalance in Europe. It loosened up property that loosened up power, which loosened up decision-making agency. The "middle class" was born in economic, social and political areas, creating more segments to society than polarization and a too-top-heavy situation.

Over the last few hundred years in the West, we see the pendulum swing between top-heavy and multiple segments (social diversity, distributed power). Many of our social institutions developed during and after the European plague years and consequent social upheaval: the university, banking, parliamentary (later constitutional/democratic) political developments, urbanization and the family structure, and the Protestant Church. Universities and some of the oldest mainline protestant denominations retain remarkably prominent structures and symbol systems from the earliest days of that shift.

In our denominations, we have inherited the tension and unresolved issues of 500 years ago. We have also inherited a tendency to struggle for balance where all segments have power, wealth, and decision-making agency.

Where have we become top-heavy? Where have we invited dragons? (Remember we're defining a dragon as a metaphor for collective trauma where something powerful and manipulative and often subtle sneaks upon us and sucks at us until we are weakened while being threatened with something worse.)

I'm not suggesting there are problems. There may not be. But a pandemic is an excellent time to see the fault lines, the stress fractures. Do you see any? Where are the dragons?


Photo by Marv Watson on Unsplash

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