Brothers and Sisters Are We

I just finished a thought-provoking book called The Sibling Society,* written by Robert Bly, a poet and translator. The main premise of the book is that American society and culture are on a downward trend, and the author illustrates his point using examples from poetry and classical mythology from all over the world.** Bly argues that modern humans, because of their cultural and social environment, are no longer becoming true “adults,” but that they are stuck in a permanent adolescent stage, hence leading to a society of squabbling siblings instead of a world where mature communication and honest intellectual debate abound. (Personally, in this age of unstructured online debate, I think that world has largely passed us by.)

Bly draws heavily on mythology, poetry, and symbolism to make his points, which I found a little strange. Usually a book like this would be populated with statistics or some other form of concrete evidence, not an odd broad-brush observation that all boys are the guardians of their mother’s bedroom or that all girls have a some degree of an Electra complex. I understand that the author’s point is that these ancient stories hold eternal truths about human nature, and we would do well to learn from these lessons rather than dismiss them as unsophisticated because they happen to be “old.”

The author also makes the commonly heard claim that the devaluation of the two-parent family has resulted in a crumbling society. With both parents having to work full time to make ends meet, the children are sent to daycare, where they are essentially raised by their peers and adults who are not their parents. In this environment, the children may not absorb the lessons that their parents would like for them to learn. The author also mentions the other oft-repeated claim that because of divorce and “deadbeat” dads, children are growing up without true father figures, which is another cause of social decay and degeneration into this “sibling society.” Of course, to make these claims today would be to ignore an entire generation of children*** who have grown up in these situations and have turned out to be fine, productive members of society. But perhaps in the author’s view, society is so broken that even a person who appears to be a fine, productive cog in the machine is missing something subtle that is essential to true maturity, and with succeeding generations of people who are all missing this crucial piece, society has continued to fall apart.

I have come to believe, mostly through second-hand accounts and my limited life experience, that adulthood is not something that you magically step into when you reach certain milestones, like turning 18 or graduating from college or having a child. I always thought of an “adult” as someone who plays by the rules, keeps his priorities in order, contributes to society, and is able to reason with others and not dissolve into a blind rage if something doesn’t go his way. In a sense, I’ve believed that nobody is really an “adult” or knows what an “adult” is; we’re all just pretending.

Bly concludes that an adult is a person who is, among other things, “able to organize the random emotions and events of his or her life into a memory, a rough meaning, a story.” He also notes, “It is the adult perception to understand that the world belongs primarily to the dead, and we only rent it from them for a little while.” The author is a proponent of what he calls “vertical thinking,” which is looking upward to the spiritual realm and possessing “spiritual intellect,” from which the world’s great poetry and stories have been created, rather than “horizontal thinking,” which is looking from side to side at earthly things like the daily grind of a soul-sucking job; the ephemeral pleasure that can be found in sex, drugs, video games, and television; and nihilism without any belief in the existence, let alone permanence, of the human soul. The author argues that because, in our sibling society, we have no true parents and reject or fail to recognize authority, we cannot think vertically enough to realize that there might in fact be something greater or more enduring than us. We do not see poetry and art and great music as ways of reaching spiritual heights because there is no spirit.

This book gave me so much food for thought that I could probably write another blog post. I didn’t agree with all of the author’s claims, and in a way, I felt that the book was a little too short (240 pages) to fully develop all of his points, but the presentation of the issue and the “evidence” put forth to support the thesis were unique and fascinating.

*The book was published in 1996, so it is technically outdated, although similar books are being published today that make essentially the same claim. “The sky is falling” is a common cry in all generations.

**Examples include “Jack and the Beanstalk,” the origin of the Hindu deity Ganesha, and a Swedish story about a bride-eating snake.

***I assume that the “children” the author refers to are members of the Millennial cohort, who are now roughly 18 to 30 years old.

2 thoughts on “Brothers and Sisters Are We

  1. I’m always dubious about broad claims like this, which is not to say that there aren’t valid points here. But the older generation complaining about the younger generation’s lack of maturity goes back as far as, well, people, as you point out. (Or it goes at least as far as there was spoken language.Before that, it was probably conveyed with hand gestures and eye rolls.)

    You can go back to the 1920s, for example, and read complaints about the younger generation with their bathtub gin, libidinous dancing, and so on.

    The whole thing sounds very US-centric, too. There are a lot of other countries out there, some of which have VERY different problems to contend with.

    “..a world where mature communication and honest intellectual debate abound.”

    I can imagine my mother asking when exactly this golden age was. Certainly not in her lifetime, and she’d be a hundred if she was still alive.

    “Bly concludes that an adult is a person who is, among other things, ‘able to organize the random emotions and events of his or her life into a memory, a rough meaning, a story.'”

    Um, I think that’s the definition of a writer. 🙂


    1. It was supposed to be about a uniquely U.S. phenomenon, but the author was using world literature to explain it, which was odd to me.
      So I guess writers are the only “adults in the room.” Makes me feel better. 🙂


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