“Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt.”
~ Roman poet Juvenal
Of course, the other thing that doesn't happen as long as we're entertained by "bread and circuses" is any challenge to or break in the status quo.
The Status Quo and Its Impact
The status quo is a Latin term meaning the “existing state of affairs, especially regarding social or political issues.” It is the prevailing norms, habits, beliefs, and ideas of a time or a place. It is a force of energy backed by decades, generations, maybe even a millennium of custom, tradition, and belief. It reinforces the hierarchies and social classes of a society and helps to validate and perpetuate social constructs such as racism, classism, patriotism, and other such false divisions and hierarchies, giving a platform for discrimination, inequality, and dehumanization.
The status quo goes by many other names and terms, including:
- The way things are
- The usual routine
- Business as usual
- Keeping things the same
- Maintaining the current state
- No change in sight
- Sticking to the norm
- Things staying put
- Nothing out of the ordinary
- No major shake-ups
On a personal level, alignment with the status quo keeps us in relationships, jobs, and other life situations that have stopped, or have never, been healthy, supportive, or representative of who we are. Given a choice between change and the status quo (the devil we know), many of us choose the latter. But when life pushes a little harder on us until we have to leave, most people agree that the loss, failure, breakdown, falling apart, or whatever other term we might give it, was exactly what they needed to not just move them further along the path, but propel them into an entirely new world.
In myths and fairy tales, "falling apart" is the initiatory step in a larger rite of passage.
But in our modern life, whenever we're on the verge of falling apart, our knee-jerk reaction is to pull ourselves together. First, because there is little societal permission to have a breakdown—not even after a miscarriage, a divorce, or a death. And secondly, because the self-help/self-improvement teachers and books we might look to for support instead tell us how to raise our confidence, boost our self-worth, and tear down obstacles.
In the face of these overwhelming influences, the alternative—stopping to feel intense emotions, letting in the crush of heartbreak, or acknowledging our pain—hangs the threat of ostracization over us.
So, we do what’s expected. We get back up, we pretend we’re fine. But what we're missing when we merely patch ourselves up is the opportunity for these breakdowns to become initiations that turn us into stronger, wiser, more aligned versions of ourselves.
Because of these strong influences, radical transformation doesn't happen often or to very many of us. Cultural revolutions are even rarer, as the power of the status quo is both addictive and (lucrative for a powerful few).
The Urgency for Radical Transformation
But the status quo does not serve up fairness, equality, and healing. Instead, it has brought us a kaleidoscope of colliding crises: climate catastrophe, species extinction, food/water shortages, economic inequality, creeping authoritarianism, alarming increases in migrant populations, rampant gun violence and a rise in hate crimes, the collapse of institutions and norms, and so much more. It’s no longer refutable: our world is unwinding and undoing.
Nature is aware of this phenomenon. All our earthly creatures sense it, too. Many of us feel and acknowledge the collapse around us and seek alternative approach to the old coping mechanism. Clinging to ideas of “normal,” desperately trying to maintain the status quo; engaging in increasingly violent and dangerous polarization and extremism; or escaping, retreating, and falling into apathy are no longer acceptable.
Trying to force the return of “normal” is not an option, and it’s not desirable even if it were—not for individuals, not for the world. Nor does it do us any good to divide our world into heroes and villains, justifying horrific acts with religious beliefs (“god’s chosen ones'') or dehumanization of the “other.”
Alchemy: The Path of Transformation
It makes much more sense—and is far more natural—to remember that all creation, and thus all cultures, creatures, relationships, and lives move through life cycles. And that in these life cycles, an ending is integral to a new beginning. And nothing understands these cycles like the ancient art and science of alchemy.
Alchemy is known as the Royal Art. Though mysterious and often secretive, Dr Carl Jung was the first to see deeper into this oft-dismissed science. Where some see a fool’s errand to attempt to change lead into gold, Jung saw in alchemy a metaphor and a model: how to break down what’s become “leaded” in our lives (heavy, useless) and transform it into gold (wisdom, life lessons).
Alchemy is the progenitor of modern-day chemistry, but there are important distinctions.
In a chemistry experiment, the chemist’s role is as a steward and observer of a process that is happening “out there.” Their thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and inner world paradigms are of no consequence. The chemist will be the same person before and after the experiment. This is an analogy for wanting to make change in the outer world, but not allowing ourselves to get personally entangled, making us little more than furrow-browed bystanders.
With alchemy, the alchemist, along with their thoughts, beliefs, and inner world paradigms, is the primary ingredient that will be melted down, stirred up, and subsequently regenerated in the crucible. Therefore, the alchemist is not the same person before and after the experiment any more than a butterfly is a caterpillar after its metamorphosis. Instead of demanding, hoping, or waiting on the world to change, the alchemist courageously and willingly gives themselves over to changing themselves in their pursuit of changing the world.
Thus, in a world that is falling apart, we cannot practice chemistry. This is a time to resurrect the wisdom of alchemy, for it can remind us of what our modern way of life has caused us to forget: what is here is elsewhere; what is not here is nowhere. Meaning: we shape our world from our collective inner beliefs and values. We transform our world through transforming ourselves.
If we are to have any hope of birthing a new world from this dying one, a world more enlightened, more whole, and more connected, filled with beings of integrity and wisdom with no tolerance for cruelty and deceit, alchemy is the path we must set ourselves upon.