We often talk about Dionysos as the God of freedom, the one who comes to liberate us from our chains whether they are personal inhibitions, psychological addictions, societal convention or even physical bondage.
There are many ways that he works his wonders in our lives, but one of the most important is also, in some respects, the simplest: he reminds us that we’ve got a choice. Think back on the bulk of his myths: what’s he usually doing? Trying to get people to seriously think about their lives and what they want out of them, to show them that they don’t have to settle for what’s been given to them or follow certain predetermined roles because that’s what everyone expects them to do. He urges people to take responsibility for their actions, to realize that they’ve got the power to change things, to look at things in a different light.
King Midas couldn’t conceive of anything more valuable than gold until Dionysos showed him otherwise. Akoites couldn’t imagine any way out of violence and thievery until Dionysos revealed to him the power of dreams. Hephaistos and Hera were trapped in a cycle of violence and recrimination until Dionysos intervened. Ariadne thought herself worthy of death for the crimes of her past until Dionysos woke her up on Naxos. Countless women believed that they could be nothing more than wives and mothers until Dionysos got ahold of them. And he even tried to reason with his bitterest enemies. How many times does Dionysos come before Pentheus, humbling himself and pleading with him to turn aside, to let go of his wrath and delusions and choose the path of peace instead? The same course of action was taken with Lykourgos and the daughters of Minyas, though it didn’t do them any more good than it did Pentheus.
That’s because we humans are stubborn and stupid and blind and cling to our misery even as it destroys us. We do this because although misery isn’t exactly comfortable, it is familiar and unchallenging. Freedom is scary because it opens the doors of possibility into realms full of strangeness and uncertainty. Maybe something worse lies in store for us if we walk through those doors. Maybe we’ll be confronted with trials greater than we can handle. Maybe it’ll take us far from home and everything we’ve ever known. Maybe it’ll end up transforming us into people we’d hardly recognize any more – or like. Maybe we’ll see that there’s nothing to all the excuses and empty stories we’ve told ourselves to justify our stagnation and unhappiness and then we’ll actually have to start taking responsibility for our actions and the contents of our lives. Maybe … but is all of that necessarily such a bad thing? Don’t you want to be in charge of your life? Don’t you want to know that if you fail or succeed it’s because of what’s in you and not a result of what others have done to you in the past or because of all those nebulous, intangible forces stacked against you?
When it comes down to it most people don’t have any idea how truly free they are. Unless someone’s keeping you locked away in a basement somewhere there’s not a damned thing stopping you from picking up and starting your life over from scratch somewhere else. Seriously. Tomorrow you could decide to move all the way across the country to Florida, change your name, change your hair, get a bunch of tattoos and become an exotic dancer, leaving your job, your life up to this point, your family and everyone who’s ever known you behind for good. There’s nothing stopping you from doing that or anything else you could dream of – except yourself. I know because I’ve already done it twice in my life and for all I know I may end up doing it again.
Granted, that sort of radical transformation may not be for everyone and even my own recreations weren’t quite on that level. And I’m not saying it’d be easy, by any means. In fact, for most of us it’d be damn hard, full of unimaginable sacrifices and pain, with only a slim chance of actually succeeding. (Besides, no sensible person actually wants to live in Florida.) But the fact remains, it can be done. And if there’s nothing stopping a person from making a change of that magnitude then there’s nothing stopping you from making the changes in your own life that you feel are necessary. You don’t like the career you’ve got? Start over. So what if you’re fifty? Aischylos wrote his best plays when he was eighty. Sure, the economy’s tough and there may not be a whole lot of money or security in making artisan furniture or illustrating children’s books or whatever your calling happens to be, but do you really want to spend the rest of your life chained to a desk performing tedious, mind-numbing work that eats away at your soul? The sooner you get started the more time you’ll have to grow yourself a new career and even if it’s not exactly what you dreamed of certainly you can find something more in keeping with your goals and personal values. In the end, it’s your life – what are you going to do with it?
Or take another situation. There are a lot of folks who feel bound to the people in their past, even though those people are cruel, indifferent or toxic to them. There’s nothing in the world that forces you to keep talking with them if you don’t really want to. But they’re co-workers! Then talk to them as much as the conditions of your employment require and ignore and avoid them the rest of the time. But they’re friends of friends! A true friend will understand and not force you to socialize with someone whom you don’t get along with. If it’s unavoidable, then find new friends and social environments to hang out in. But they’re the only friends I’ve got and I don’t want to be alone! What’s so scary about being alone? We’re born that way, we leave the world that way, each night when we sleep we enter the world of dreams alone. If you aren’t comfortable with your own company, can’t find ways to entertain yourself and meaningfully fill your time on your own, then you aren’t going to be happy anyway, even if you’re constantly surrounded by a crowd. But they’re family! So what? We all share blood if you go far enough back, and otherwise “family” is just a concept. It’s an important one, to be sure, but if they’re actively harming you in some way you’re not obligated to remain in touch with them. Your own health and happiness have to come first. And you can always create a new family of people you like, people who nourish you, support your interests, and enrich your life. They may not have your DNA but they’re family in every way that matters.
And even more importantly we must take full responsibility for our actions. How often have you seen a person caught in a vicious cycle of escalating violence and blame? Person A did something shitty to Person B so B retaliates by doing something even worse and so on and so forth until they’ve dragged everyone else into it and no one is entirely sure why they’re fighting any longer, just that their side is in the right and it won’t be stopping any time soon. It’s easy to laugh at this sort of madness – and weep when we see it played out on the geopolitical stage every night on the news – but the truth is many of us are ensnared in this sort of thing without even realizing it. It’s imperative that we do, however, and that we take personal responsibility in this and all such situations. Hate and violence are choices. So are love and peace. You choose to keep the old wounds fresh and create new ones – or you choose not to. Any time you find yourself thinking “I have to feel or act this way,” or “this is what I was taught, it’s all I’ve ever known” or “if I don’t do ___, someone else will do ___ to me” it should give you a profound pause. You’re not thinking at that point, you’re just following the programming in your brain, reacting instead of acting. And if you’re okay with being a robot, that’s fine. But Dionysos expects something bigger and better of us. Maybe you can’t stop the cycle. You definitely can’t control how another thinks or acts. But you do have control over yourself and the choices you make and that’s all that you’ll be held accountable for in the end. You have the choice to end your part of it here and now – or to keep it going. And no one else can take that away from you.
Related to this, of course, are the choices we make about what we do with our bodies and what we put into them. Every time that you take a swig of alcohol, every time you take another drag of that cigarette, every time you eat something you know is bad for you, every time you put off exercising, or get into bed with someone you don’t really care for … you are making a choice. Maybe you’ve got a bad past or shitty genetics that predispose you to these behaviors and cloud your judgment, but each and every time you do it you’re consciously making a decision. Your past isn’t some tangible person holding a gun to your head saying, “Do this or I’ll splatter your brains all over the wall!” The people who fucked you over before aren’t pouring the glass down your throat. It’s just you, alone with your choices and the consequences of those choices.
I could go on and on but I’m sure you get the point. Nothing ever has more power over us than we’re willing to give it. There will always be consequences for our choices, and sometimes those consequences can be greater than we’re prepared to deal with. But the flip side of the coin is that when we realize that we are making a choice and taking responsibility for our decisions, we know what we’re getting into and that it’s our choice, something we can endure if we feel it’s worth it – or not, if we don’t feel it adds up. I may not follow every dream I’ve got. Living as a mad-poet on the streets is romantic but I’m not interested in the realities of poverty, hunger, danger and disease that come with it. So instead I’ve chosen to pursue other dreams, dreams that are more realistic and attainable and won’t inevitably lead to my destruction. Dreams that are a balance between freedom and security. I also do other things I know I probably shouldn’t – but I do them because I choose to, not because I have to. I own my choices and take full responsibility for what happens as a result of them. It never comes as a surprise when the consequences catch up with me. I may not like it, but I knew going in it was at least a possible outcome. I don’t blame other people or my history for the decisions I make. I know that I’m not just sleep-walking through life, doing only what’s programmed into me. I’m living the way I’ve decided to and accepting everything that naturally follows from those choices. And if I don’t like the consequences, I change my actions or I live with them, intentionally.
And that, to me, is the heart of having a Dionysian lifestyle. The only victim he tolerates is a sacrificial one – the bloodier the better!