5 American Myths that Help Keep Us Stuck as a Nation

[Howard’s note: As time passes, Steve’s posts become more relevant.]

Friedman, in the second chapter of Failure of Nerve focuses on the dynamics of chronic anxiety driving families, organizations and nations into a regressive process devolving into greater chaos, immaturity and a frenetic focus on symptoms. He observes that the lack of awareness or outright denial of the emotional processes that are driving our symptomatic behavior is the trigger that begins the “slide back into the swamp.”

We are inundated daily with our 24 hour news cycle by opinions and theories about what is “wrong” with America. Politicians clamor for the high ground of offering a solution while promising a quick fix. Meanwhile the real, painful and extensive work of examining the emotional processes that produce “what’s wrong” with America eludes us.

The question isn’t “What do we see that is wrong?” The question is “What continually blinds us?” What is it that obfuscates us so? What blinds us from our blindness?

I think there are a number of “American myths” that repeatedly resonate in our culture that trip us up every time with the illusion that we are able to accurately see. This list of myths does not originate with me. But as far as I know, I’m the only one that sees them as destructive.

Myth #1 – The Wisdom of the Rustic

This myth resonates with “common sense” and resists complexity. The right answer, the right course of action appears not from intelligence or rigorous education. It can be found in a rocking chair on the porch.

Though intelligence can be misguided, there is in reality little virtue in ignorance. Yet our culture worships it and trusts it. If you doubt this, just listen to Sarah Palin for 2 minutes. Sound bytes and quick fixes make perfect sense. This myth not only keeps us stuck as a national “family” it drives us backwards.  This for me is illustrated perfectly by the fact that 60% of all college graduates do not recognize the well-supported phenomenon of evolution.

Myth #2 – The Possibility of Success

This is the Horiatio Alger story. This myth believes that a person can start out with nothing and can realistically expect to be a rich man some day. This is useful in keeping workers on the treadmill while dangling the American Dream in front of them for 30 years until their energy and youth are spent.

This myth convinces us to keep up the insanity of continuing to keep doing what isn’t working. It has to work one of these times, right? If you don’t believe this myth is prominent in our culture just look at the popularity of the lottery – the tax for people who don’t understand (or believe) statistics.

Myth #3 – The Value of Scars

Someone who has been through the fire and survived has increased credibility in our culture.  The truth is often the fact that the wounded can be broken and less qualified as a result of their wounds.

If this myth has value it is the way it offers encouragement to enter into the hard tasks of life despite the struggle. However, this myth is seldom invoked prior to the struggle. There is no value in future scars, only those which are past.

Myth #4 – The Coming of the Messiah

This is the myth that the right man (or woman) will appear at the right time to deliver us from our pain and lead us into utopia. Its focus is external in terms of solutions. It leads to the lack of self-reflection and abdication of personal responsibility for the creation of our problems and the ultimate way through them. It focuses on the other.

Myth #5 – Presence of a Conspiracy

Of all the myths, this is the one that I, personally, find most seductive. Anything becomes more believable when it is framed as a conspiracy. It is indeed, part of our nature to look for patterns and explanations for what we observe. Yet much of life is random and more things happen by chance than we care to ponder.

The Myth of the Presence of a Conspiracy lingers not only in the manipulations of extremists, con men and politicians, but also in the market place. Articles and books about with titles like “What Your Doctor (or Government, etc.) doesn’t want You to Know.” Enough said.


So how best can we do the work, Friedman advocates to begin our journey out of the regressive swamps in which we find ourselves? Whether we are addressing our national, corporate or familial inertia, we would do well to examine our treasured myths and how we are seduced by them, using them as shortcuts around and diversions from the hard work of owning the role our emotional processes play in the way we frame our reality and in the choices we make. Only then can we begin to live rationally, objectively and consciously.

Peace and Courage,

Steve Geske

2 thoughts on “5 American Myths that Help Keep Us Stuck as a Nation”

  1. The Red River of the North is flooding again. The Army Corps of Engineers has designed an understandably controversial diversion project in response to the need for protecting the cities of Fargo-Moorhead.
    Opponents of the plan who live near, and would be affected by the project are, unstandably, voicing their protests.
    Among the criticims is, “The Army Corp is made up of idiots!” “Common sense”, they say, “tells us the plan is stupid and unworkable”.
    I call this arrogant ignorance. The affect is to block creative efforts at figuring out how the plan might actually work.

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