American Happiness and the Jester Archetype Blog Series Blog Two

Monday, July 31, 2023

By Carol S. Pearson


I wish I knew how

It would feel to be free

I wish I could break

All the chains holding me

I wish I could say

All the things that I should say

Say 'em loud, say 'em clear

For the whole round world to hear

--Billy Taylor, composer; Nina Simone, singer, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free  


Blog Two: The Jester, Freedom, and Community

For Americans, happiness is assumed to include freedom, and when we feel trapped or too settled, we naturally become blue. Millions who historically have been treated as second-class citizens remain limited by systemic economic and legal barriers as well as prejudice, and many by living hand to mouth or on the streets. However, even here, the Jester emerges in the form of singing the blues. All of these Americans aspire to simply have the freedom and opportunities others already possess. However, in a Seeker/pioneer, Lover/settler nation, even those who are doing well enough get bored easily, feeling trapped by the very things they thought they wanted: that job, that house, that neighborhood, etc. In the early 1960s, when more and more people moved to suburban neighborhoods (which was a triumph for greater equality of opportunity), the song Little Boxes, by Malvina Reynolds, hit the top of the charts, describing these quickly built houses as all looking the same, just as all the people in them were the same. 

Conformity reigned!

The Jester emerged with greater fervor when American life seemed as though it were so staid, orderly, and role defined as to be not only boring but oppressive; happiness was identified as having greater freedom from all that. Although many older people now look back nostalgically to the 1950s, it was a conformist or even oppressive time, with the government obsessed with anti-communist witch hunts, as exemplified by the Army-McCarthy hearings, and anti-hero literature full of despair about the emptiness of life. Both the left and the right sought out narratives to encourage greater freedom, with each initially being led by Jester sons, and later daughters, beginning a shift to unseat patriarchy as our social order.

Patriarchy means rule by the fathers—as leaders of the government, businesses, organizations of all types, and family units—who then define the roles for others and the contributions they are to make or not make. In the U.S., the fathers in power were white, just as, in the main, they still are. In many ancient myths, sons literally kill their fathers to take over, although often they continue to exercise patriarchal power in similar ways.

Psychologists also have described a boy growing up and taking on responsibilities as symbolically killing his father, even though his father might live into old age.

During the Fifties and beyond, American sons led the way in rebelling against their patriarchal social “fathers” with a Jester flourish, first just wanting to free themselves from limiting roles. On the right and the left, their desires linked the Jester's craving for happiness within America’s Seeker mythology, but in different ways. 

On the left, we had the Beat Generation (hitting the road, writing poetry, experimenting with mind-altering drugs, seeking to expand consciousness), followed by the Hippies (starting communes, proclaiming “love not war,” seeking a more genuine experience beyond materialism). Many experimented with ideas and practices from Native American and other religions, especially yoga and various forms of meditation. Rejecting the demonization of the body, the young launched a whole slew of musical forms that were shocking to many, along with dancing in freer and more sexually provocative ways. With this also came more relaxed attitudes about sexuality, and now even gender. Then, America's many liberation movements also introduced into the dominant culture freedom to express one's authentic nature, as well as to borrow freely from ways of behaving modeled by formerly suppressed groups. In this process, the impact of the norms of the past became viewed as oppressive and amoral.

Change is challenging to many and can bring with it elements that seem free but have their shadows. For example, drug addiction became a major social problem, more men took no responsibility for the children free love generated, and many people feared that so much license was destroying the moral fiber of our country. And all of these movements toward greater individual and group freedoms offered new versions of the American Seeker story that did not always lead to the Lover happy ending. As singer Janice Joplin belted out, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose/Nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free.”[1]

On the political right, the yearning for freedom got inspiration from cowboy TV shows, which in the 1950s offered a romanticized version of life on the range that was a competing form of Seeker happiness. There were a few cowgirls, but mainly this was a masculine story, stressing rugged individualism. Numerous John Wayne movies provided a heroic masculine image that some believe even influenced how Evangelical Christianity views Jesus. This Jesus de-emphasized love and turning the other cheek. As Kristin Kobes Du Mez writes in Jesus and John Wayne,“ evangelicals have worked to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism―or in the words of one modern chaplain, with ‘a spiritual badass,’” leading to how some today see President Trump as a “savior.” [2]

Cultural myths have a way of influencing reality, even when based on fiction. The wild west myth portrayed in movies and on TV was a place where "law and order" did not come from the government but, if it was present at all, from vigilantes, armed with guns, who went after those they considered outlaws. For example, the heroic figure of the Lone Ranger and his trusted sidekick, Tonto, save the day, but they do not settle down. They just move on. Cowboy movies may promote a psychology that assumes the veneration of guns as the means toward conflict resolution. As the Lone Ranger turns to ride off, he leaves a silver bullet, which the crowd, filled with gratitude for his saving them, will keep as a sacred treasured object forever.

From the archetypal pattern in these myths, a new style of conservative began to emerge, no longer imagining themselves as the moral law and order majority. Instead, more and more asserted their freedom by refusing to wear masks or take vaccines to avert a pandemic, viewing access to fire arms as a primary right, and more than a few advocating vigilante actions such as the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol. As a result, mass shootings are increasingly common, guns are the major cause of childhood deaths, and books are being banned. In Gunsmoke, Miss Kitty was transparently a madam in the first few episodes (the archetype of the whore with the heart of gold), though later her profession was only hinted at. This may have prepared for a president who has talked about women as there for the taking by men who are stars. 

While the left was gradually challenging the fundamentals of patriarchy, the right was fighting to cling to it while also reimagining it, not as governed by Ruler fathers but instead by liberated cowboy macho sons.Nevertheless, our country is still run, in the main, by billionaires as the aristocracy of our time (whether mentally mature or adolescent) who increasingly own the media sources from which we gain our sense of what is true and what is not. At the same time, technology, attitudes, and natural processes are in flux, changing reality for everyone.

When this is combined with the challenges of living in a globally interdependent economy, freedom has begun to feel more like chaos than happiness. The urge for freedom reinforced the basic belief that if everyone just pursued their self-interest—a fundamentalism of capitalism— all would be well. As late as 2018, the World Bank and world business and political leaders agreed that free market capitalism would alleviate poverty, especially in poorer nations. In addition, it would foster world peace. Now, in 2023, the World Bank warns that not only were these promises wrong, but poverty is also worse, and Putin’s war has disrupted economics and the world order. [3]

As personal and social attitudes changed, our shared context also shifted. No longer are things too set and calm, as they seemed in the 1950s and beyond. Instead, they are turbulent and chaotic, even more so as we know that systems that reinforce ideas held in common are being revealed not to be true. Individuals, families, organizations, businesses, and our government are having difficulty functioning partly because of the conflict between two versions of freedom, at the same time that what was the shared consensus is crumbling beneath us, along with the systems that have held them in place.

At both the personal and societal levels, we need to balance the joy of personal freedom with the contentment of being settled, responsible, and loving one another. A recent report by a Harvard University longitudinal study of Americans over time concluded that the most reliable form of long-term happiness comes from having close relationships with others.

This may mean that we are now in a different time than the Fifties and beyond where America’s Seeker sacred story has taken us to its happy resolution in settling down and building community, and with this, the archetype of the Lover. If we are forever seeking something more, something better, we do not even pause to treasure what we have. Our people are lonely. The Lover in the context of romance, family, and friendship as well as workplace, community, and, yes, political relationships could offer us a sense of belonging and mattering to others.

Yet the Lover offers its own challenges. In the 1950’s, it led to conformity. So what story is needed today in a society so fragmented that it verges on chaos? Such times do call upon Dionysus, the Jester of Greek mythology, who was the god of dancing, wine, joy, and chaos. Dionysus was an androgynous god who invited women to the woods to dance wildly to escape the chains of their limiting roles. How right for a time when gender is viewed more and more as fluid and where individuals fight against having their lives defined by traditional roles. Perhaps incorporating the wild feminine to balance patriarchal culture might serve as a metaphor for how Americans, across party lines, could relate to one another. In ancient indigenous societies, dancing together alleviated conflict, even taking Warrior energies and transforming them into Dionysian ones. Perhaps Dionysus as the lord of the dance could help Americans metaphorically shimmy together as if on a shifting. slippery dance floor, where everyone needs to watch out for everyone else, because if one falls, we all may well, too. 


[1] Me and Bobby McGee, by songwriter Kris Kristofferson.

[2] Kristen Kobs duMez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright, 2021.

[3] Patricia Cohen, “Why It Seems Everything We Knew About the Global Economy Is No Longer True.” The New York Times, Sunday, June 18, 2023.


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