Issue 075
January, 9, 2023

Archetypes Revisited

Who makes us who we are? The people nearby.

New Year, same ‘ole newsletter. This is still Roden and I am still Craig Mod. This is all still funded by memberships and book and print sales. The skies are blue, the air crisp, Mt. Fuji looming in all its many loomy ways, and electric bike rides along the coast are never better than in the opening salvo of a new year here in Kanto.

I’ve been thinking about archetypes again.

Let’s get the definition straight. To do that I’m going back to our trusty 1913 Webster’s, which is often more interesting than modern dictionaries:

Ar′che-type (är′kē̍-tīp), noun [L. archetypum, Gr. ἀρχέτυπον, fr. ἀρχέτυποσ — stamped first and as model; ἀρχε = ἀρχι + τύποσ stamp, figure, pattern, τύπτειν to strike: cf. F. archétype. See Arch-, pref.]

  1. The original pattern or model of a work; or the model from which a thing is made or formed.
  2. (Coinage) The standard weight or coin by which others are adjusted.
  3. (Biological) The plan or fundamental structure on which a natural group of animals or plants or their systems of organs are assumed to have been constructed; ex., the vertebrate archetype.

I love this: Stamped first and as a model, the model from which a thing is made. When I think of archetypes I think of childhood, when you’re first exposed to what can be in the world. Where limits or boundaries are set. As a child, the people (stamped-out by their parents) around you define the edges of the wider universe. If you’re lucky, those boundaries are nearly boundless (or at least transparent), and you’re encountering — via environment (growing up in, say, Tokyo proper) or people (committed mechanics, scientists, horologists, academics, craftsfolk, elementary school teachers, artists, a devoted full-time parent or grandparent, etc) — positive examples of how to expand your life and life force to the edges of what they know. They serve as the model, to the mind of a child: stamped from air, fait accompli. One hopes these archetypes are moral, operating with strong ethical compasses, taking no shortcuts, lighting a modality that inspires the kid to explore and make sense of the world.

Archetypes need not always be within arm’s reach, and can arrive at any stage in life, of course. An example of how I use people I don’t know as models: George Saunders. His Story Club is the apotheosis of goodness and community building. I read his missives when I need to remember what kindness feels like, and how empathy can be present in even the simplest of sentences. I don’t know George (George, if you’re reading: Hey, come, let’s go for a walk!) but he puts enough of himself out into the world to shed light on paths and choices that aren’t what I consider or considered intuitively possible. A good model, a generous model, helping to stamp out a better version of — I’m sure — countless readers, myself included, sentence by sentence.

The standard by which others are adjusted: I found it incredibly painful to leave my hometown. Not because I didn’t want to (I had wanted to leave for as long as I had memory, felt the pulse of a larger world palpably beating with great seduction) but because — based on my experience — coming from a lower-middle-class town doesn’t set you up to “thrive” in the “real” world. I tested well enough to sneak my way into “world class” universities (the first in my family to do so), but when I arrived it was pure shock — the prevalent “standard” by which all those around me had been “adjusted” was unrecognizably beyond the realm of my experience. The general wealth was overwhelming. The claims of these other students upon the world, magnified by their hubris, was something I had never seen. My response was one largely of anger and frustration — anger at everyone around me (“look at all these entitled dingdongs”) and then myself (“god, I don’t deserve to be here). Later I’d come to realize it was anger at the systems that failed to set a kid up for success in the larger world. The main feelings: Inadequacy, of being an imposter, of not having the “DNA” required to be in these exalted places — places “clearly” high above my “station” in life.

As a kid I saw alcoholics and blue collar workers stuck in tiny loops, in varying states of struggle and confusion. My adoptive father — a guy I saw once a week for just a few hours — taught me one thing in the entirety of his life: The floor of the movie theater is the garbage. I must have been five or six. Look, he said as he threw half a ketchup-smeared hotdog onto the floor, The floor is the garbage. Someone will come and clean it up at the end of the movie.

THE FLOOR IS THE GARBAGE. These are not (usually) the people that make the laws that govern the world. My father hadn’t the slightest idea of how garbage worked (this wasn’t an “entitled” toss of a hotdog), let alone the world itself, let alone how to unlock its mysteries, to be delighted, to be metacognizant, to present anything to a kid other than anti-patterns. I want to go back and shake that skinny, flatulent man and say, laughing, Dude, the floor is not the garbage. Hold onto that shit and throw it out properly. Impart upon him some modicum of pride or value. But this adoptive father of mine had no positive archetypes of his own, was born into and of his own scarcity — an alcoholic dad, bereft, who himself unlocked few mysteries, contributed mainly violence to childhood. Archetypes like Russian dolls — this is how trauma and ignorance is carried insidiously, slyly forward through generations.

The world wasn’t shaped by my dad or his dad. In the framework of contemporary America, at best guys like them scrabble and scrabble hard. A banal truth: The world is mostly shaped by wealth, more so than ever as technology enables individuals to act with the power of city-states. These mega-wealthy establish sinecures based largely on proximity, signaling, sycophancy, rarely talent. The more you meet those with extreme wealth, the more their veneration feels like a collective hypnosis, a global boiled-frog bamboozlement. We venerate this wealth in part because our education system is a failure of imagination, fails to provide better metrics, fails to impart that certain abstract qualities beat out USD bucks in a bank account most any day. Heartbreaking, the whole thing. Nothing separates a talented but fucked Baltimore kid from a Bill Gates aside from quality of archetypes — archetypes often directly linked to systemic opportunity inequities.

So, like I say, I’ve been thinking about archetypes — doubly-so because I just ran a SPECIAL PROJECTS end of year “board meeting.” I run these board meetings to force myself to look back and take stock of what I’ve done in the last six or twelve months. But I also run them to set a positive (I hope!) example for a younger version of myself that had no durable archetypes. At twenty I was angrier than ever. Much of that anger was assuaged through alcohol. This is what you do when you feel like you’re drowning just walking down the street — you try to drink yourself into the concrete itself. So when I run a board meeting I am often thinking: What did I need to know back then? (And not even know I needed to know.) And how can I impart to someone who may be like I was, these current insights? How can I provide permission (which is, fundamentally, what an archetype does — it provides permission) to that cursed version of myself, to say: Hey, there’s another way in the world. Abundance is out there. And: I get it. You have a right to be angry and this sucks but there’s a way forward, trust me. To demystify that path (a long path) and grant some level of permission to walk it.

This all sounds way more highfalutin than I ever intended it to be, but it’s true. This is what goes through my head when I run those board meetings. Folks who come from grounded, stable backgrounds full of an abundance of positive archetypes often have no awareness of the gift into which they were born. Sometimes I meet folks in their early twenties who are so beyond the pack in terms of emotional intelligence it knocks me back on my heels. (Dylan Field of Figma fame comes to mind. We’ve spent oodles of time together, but I met him when he was 18 and immediately thought: Good job, parents.) They — these young adults — become my archetypes for what’s possible.

When a child is provided a foundation, a troop of positive archetypes, everyone they encounter is elevated. This is worth repeating: Everyone is elevated by children who are allowed to succeed as children, surrounded by humans trying their best to light the way. I feel like I’m losing my mind, sometimes, looking at how certain countries lack basic laws to protect or elevate kids. Why is this so difficult to understand? The greatest (and most obvious) investment you could ever want for society is for kids to be taken care of. Folks from broken places — where the failures of a neighborhood, failures of legal frameworks, failures of equity are transmuted into a sense of personal failure — rarely have the means (emotionally, financially) to find a way out of that quagmire. They get stuck, find it easier to reach for opioid palliatives than contend with applying their cursed station to a larger canvas or break out of seemingly unbreakable cycles of trauma.

That photo way up at the top is of Luigi, a man of love and joy and talent. I took it in Tuscany last summer, perched as we were above the nearby fields, just as I was about to eat the simple meal he had prepared. Outside the frame sit wildly talented people. Folks operating at huge scales, rigorously, having risen on their own terms, and projecting — in their many ways — archetypes positively affecting millions. Folks I’m constantly learning from.

Which is to say: In recent years I’ve come to acknowledge the improbability of where I am in the world and how I got here. I pay more in taxes than my father ever made in salary. My background is one balanced on the razor’s edge of pervasive systemic cursed-ness with just enough support from one or two key people to have been nudged over some opaque meniscus barrier into the beyond. I’ve then spent the last twenty years feeling both utterly alone and lost (After all, who back home could help me plot a course on a map they had never seen?), navigating the world through intuition, hacking out a small place in certain niches, and using each tiny success to pull ever-more inspiring humans into my orbit.

I was twenty-seven when I knocked out the “GF1 Field Test” and “Books in the Age of the iPad.” Suddenly, I saw an accelerated path forward. The more I wrote and committed to writing, the more I found myself surrounded by people I admired. Not just in the at-a-distance George Saunders (or Ursula K. Le Guin, or Annie Dillard) way, but in the up-close, next-to-me-as-we-walk kind of way. I was overwhelmed with the sense of richness of those I found entering my orbit. This then became my metric for success: The number of rigorous and successful mentors and archetypes I brushed against. And from that: The easier it became to believe in my self-worth.

Self-worth, the unexpected corollary of having positive archetypes in your life. Surround a kid with good people, and they will feel valuable, valued. Don’t do that — teach them only that the floor is the garbage — and believe me, that kid will feel worthless for a long time coming. This might sound nuts, but I didn’t begin to recognize my own “tangible self-worth” until my late 30s. (And even now, still struggle to remember my value in the world.) I share this mainly as a curious data point for others.

Back to our definitions: Archetype — The plan or fundamental structure on which a natural group of animals or plants or their systems of organs are assumed to have been constructed; ex, the vertebrate archetype. Archetypes as vertebrae themselves. You can feel archetypes shape the backbone of communities, societies. Archetypes as self-perpetuating, self-organizing machines of mimicry and amplification.

I’ve (accidentally, bumblingly) found the fastest way to “level up” my own “quality” of self (that is, to self-elevate into a higher plane of Good Archetypicalness, to strengthen my own backbone) is through parenting. I had the tremendous privilege of being a father figure to a kid for a few of these previous years, and nothing made me “better” or more “mature” or more “inspired to crack open the world” for someone than interacting with this kid. The experience is difficult to capture in words; parenting truly is a bizarre short circuit of the brain, like a wormhole into otherwise inaccessible portions of the mind. In this way, parents who have an abundance of life force and time and mental space are “blessed” in the literal meaning of the word — that is, they are promoted, like gods to their children, and have the power to establish the healthy parameters of life and possibility. There were weeks where it’d just be me and this kid, and the conversations we had — lord, talk about expanding. I felt the edges of my own universe fly out as I witnessed the kid’s own sense of spaciousness swell in their eyes. Given a single day I could teach this tiny human more than my father did in his entire life. No one has ever added more of a sense of value or self-worth to my life than this child. Five years ago, nothing in this paragraph would have made sense to me.

On the flip side, what did and still does make sense: Parents who struggle in a sea of scarcity, who worry for every dollar, who see children only as a burden, a weight around the neck, can’t help but perpetuate that chain of trauma, of anti-patterns, of smallness of being. Not because of their own failures but because of the failures of systems in which they’re embedded.

In that letter to a reader years back, I concluded:

“It’s OK to prune friends. Be ruthless. Both in getting away from those who bring you down, and in trying to get closer to those who inspire.”

For those of us born into varying levels of scarcity, whose self-worth may have been maimed by systemic down-and-outness, we have a tendency to reach for the same, the broken, the known poisoned palliatives, because sameness is comforting. The paradox of trauma: It becomes what you know and what you know becomes a security blanket.

Slowly, over time, that trauma can be mitigated (if not nullified) through collecting good people like Pokémon cards.

If you’re a parent, go hug your kid, make them feel valued by bringing even better friends into the fray. I look at the children of some of my buds and marvel at their abundance — not in material terms but in terms of variety and positivity of the kinds of people to which they’re exposed. A wild parade of amazing humans doing incredible, creative things, taking no shortcuts, lighting the better path with each encounter. I can’t wait to see who these little dorks become.

the model from which a thing is formed;
the standard by which others are adjusted;
the plan or fundamental structure on which life has been constructed

The model can be recast, the standard redefined, the set of vertebrae rebuilt. This is my goofy mantra for 2023.

Because: For decades the floor of the movie theater may be the garbage, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.