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Reflections on the Soul of Washington, DC: An Interview With Thomas Moore

On July 4th the nation will celebrate its 239th Independence Day. Around the country citizens will celebrate with fireworks and barbeques, vacation getaways, and more somber ceremonies to honor the nation's veterans. But Independence Day is important in another way: as a time to contemplate the deeper meaning of America. In the following interview with psychotherapist Thomas Moore, bestselling author of Care of the Soul, he reveals the deeper symbolism contained within our American myths and symbols of freedom and independence, especially as they are reflected in the monuments and memorials of the nation's capital--a place Moore describes as "sacred." The following is an excerpt from that interview as it appears in my new book, America on the Couch: Psychological Perspectives on American Politics and Culture. (Lantern Books).

Pythia Peay: Can you explain what "soul" means to the layperson?

Thomas Moore: Generally speaking, the spirit is the "upper half," the part of us that is looking for transcendence, or to evolve, grow, or improve. Whether a city or a person, it's an orientation toward the future, the eternal afterlife, or those universal values that are above individual circumstances. But the soul is always particular: it's about family roots, memory, and the past. Spirit is more interested in planning, and the soul is more interested in remembering. The soul works through mood, emotion, reverie, and dreams: all those things are proper to the soul.

So, soul also has a lot to do with those invisible currents that are in the background of everything that's going on. And one thing that's always going on in the background is the history of a place.

PP: Washington, D.C. would be even more significant from a soul perspective, then, because it's the city of our national memory. It's also rich with images around democracy and the story of the country's beginnings.

TM: Exactly. The monuments and memorials are extremely important, not just for the city, but for the nation. When I travel throughout the states -- and it doesn't matter what's going on politically -- I find that people feel very deeply and strongly about Washington. The people who have power and money will come and go, but the memorials will remain. So to me, Washington is one of our nation's treasures, and its primary job is to act as a guardian for the nation's memory.

PP: I have to admit that sometimes the city feels more like a tourist destination than one of our nation's sacred treasures.

TM: I wouldn't call those visitors "tourists." They're clearly pilgrims. People are not going to D.C. as tourists the way they would visit another city. [But] what these tourists are doing as they tour the monuments and the city is an aspect of civil religion: it's honest to goodness deep, deep, soul religion. That's different even from the spiritual dimension of religion.

PP: So how would this apply to Washington, D.C., and what would a "soul" and a "spirit" approach to the nation's capital feel like?

TM: The spirit part is to make everything function well, and to be efficient. . .With spirit, there's a tendency to be educational and to explain everything, rather than letting people have the simple experience of the images and the memories they evoke.

A soul approach would be to visit an old building, for example, and go into a room where an old document was signed, without having to listen to someone give a lecture about it... So when someone is standing in front of a monument, or is in some historic room or building, they need to allow their imagination time and quiet.

PP: D.C. is so rich with statues and images carved into its buildings. Is there a particular figure that to you embodies something of the soul of the city?

TM: The art of weaving things together is a very traditional image of soul. The Goddess Athena, who was the patroness of Athens, and who is the patroness of all cities, was a weaver: I see Athena in all of the buildings, and particularly in the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol. Being able to weave together cultures and personalities and all sorts of peoples and religions--that is the work of Athena, and that is the work of the city and of the government. So she is the patroness of the soul of the city: not the running of it, but the weaving.

PP: When we think of Dallas, we think of cowboys and Stetson hats and cattle. When we think of Los Angeles, we think of Hollywood. What comes to mind when you think of Washington, D.C.?

TM: When I come to Washington, I feel as if I'm in a whirlpool, or a vortex. In Washington there's the sense that this is the place where the country and the world holds together. It's a city where you're not just thinking of the place itself, you're thinking of the rest of the country and the world in a way that I don't feel anywhere else. When I'm in D.C. there's that sense that people everywhere are looking to the city for their wellbeing: by that I mean peace, justice, and the democratic ideals. That's what all those institutions, the exalted language carved on the monuments and the great documents that are kept there, are really all about.

The average person in Nebraska or California doesn't have to think about that kind of life and death stuff as much... Even the monuments and memorials are about wars and battles and great figures, so the city raises us to a level of great reflection. Other places don't have the opportunity -- or the burden -- of having to think about these matters.

PP: It's interesting that you use the word burden. Often people living in the Washington area feel it's kind of a heavy place to be, even if they're not in politics. I know I feel physically lighter when I leave the city.

TM: When Lincoln was president, the weight he felt almost stooped him over physically... But the soul is always found in the underworld, among the heavier things like depression and suffering. I think that to be able to carry that burden and not defend against it would be the sign of a mature society in the city of Washington.

There is no way to live in Washington without being affected by what goes on there. That city is a place in the dream life of people in cities and capitals around the world: Washington, D.C. has a place in their imagination, more prominently than other places in this country. So I don't think you can be a citizen of that city without carrying the weight of that projection.

PP: One of the recurring themes that often comes up around the city's future is the conflict between the old and the new, and the desire to break free of the past. So there's a tension; periodically people talk about changing the image of the city... and making it a city of the future, and not the past.

TM: Please save us from that! However, I understand the flight from the past--especially if it's full of painful memories. I lived in Dallas many years ago, and at one time there was a movement to tear down the Texas Depository Building, because it was such a blight on the image of the city. In fact, the building was a painful burden for the city, because there were so many bad memories associated with it around President Kennedy's assassination. But it was still important to keep it as a landmark.

PP: Why?

TM: Well, imagine if a person came into therapy and said I want to forget about all the bad things that happened to me in the past and start from scratch all over again. Any decent therapist would say that person is headed for trouble because we have to own our own life: it's part of becoming a mature person.

PP: Do you mean in the sense that we can learn from the mistakes of the past?

TM: No. It's that our character is made from the suffering and experiences of the past. To pretend that those experiences are no longer relevant is a repression of the past. So to say, "Let's move on and become a new city" is also a repression of the past. It's not really moving ahead -- it's an aggressive thing to do; it's anti-soul, and it's a movement against the past. It can lead to nothing but trouble.

PP: Of course, America is founded on leaving the past behind. We left Europe, and then we left the east coast for the Midwest, and the Midwest for California.

TM: That's the country's strength; but it has a big shadow. In everything we do--every country does this, but we do it to absurd lengths -- we continue to try to be new and to get rid of the past. But in a part of our national psyche, we're still fighting the Revolution, and we're still trying to shed the old king! So we have to learn to see ourselves as part of a long spectrum. We can demonize the past and all the mistakes that have been made. But that kind of abrupt movement away from the past is an adolescent kind of behavior that doesn't want anything to do with all that "old stuff."

PP: But what's interesting is that our national memory and national history celebrates revolution. It's as if that abrupt break from the "old country" is what our very identity as Americans is based on. So we immediately run into a paradox.

TM: My first thought to what you said is that we have all these cities [and states]--New London, New York, New Boston, New Hampshire -- that are both new but that also echo back to the old country... So even though some people rebelled against England in forming the country, at an underlying level the connection remained there anyway. And if we identify with the rebels and romanticize the Revolution, which we tend to do, we're only talking about half of the story. Hardly anyone talks about the violence of the Revolution, or the people who were killed in the process, as if there might have been another way to separate from the Fatherland. That kind of reflection on the Revolution would be more sobering; we wouldn't want to go out and celebrate that all the time.

PP: What do you feel about the Vietnam Memorial?

TM: It's very effective, because it's not representational. The names on the wall mean the memorial is about the individual, rather than the group: soul is local and individual, as opposed to universal. It's a place that favors a kind of walking meditation; it invites people in because it doesn't explain or tell them what to do. So it's where visitors can make up their own rituals, which they do daily by placing objects and crying at the wall.

PP: What about the monuments and memorials that are built around Lincoln or Jefferson or George Washington?

TM: These images aren't just representations: they're presences. There's a big difference between representing something and making a presence. When a monument is done well and carefully with some depth to it, a certain spirit of personality comes through and is present. A monument is really "working," for instance, when we see the crowds that are drawn to it, and how the people are behaving. When we see people being quiet in the presence of a place, or crying or talking softly to each other, or coming up with their own rituals, for instance, then we know that there is a real presence there that allows a person to be there with their own soul.

PP: Do you have certain rituals of your own when you visit the capital?

TM: I come with some regularity, and often stay at some older hotel that's right in the center of town. I want to be in a place where there is memory, even in a building. I also go for long walks, and make a circle around the White House. I meditate and go around the Capitol very thoughtfully, feeling the presence of what the place is, where it is in the world. I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility, and an increased sense of my place in the world.

PP: People often talk about "power" as part of the myth of D.C. But you seem to describe it as more "power-full."

TM: Right: it's full of power, but not in the way we might say that a person has great power.... In my view, Washington is the spiritual center of the country. I don't mean that in terms of a church or beliefs. I mean that in the very real sense of a religious way of being. Those who work and serve there could be compared to priests and priestesses. I think politicians get into trouble because they think of themselves as managers, and they view the whole operation as purely secular -- but it isn't. To have the role of leader and to be someone who decides these great issues of democracy and government: that is a religious role. They're speaking for the spirit of democracy, which is much greater than themselves or their personal philosophies.

PP: By using the word religious, do you mean something different from church-related religiosity?

TM: What I'm suggesting is that what holds our nation together is beyond any individual's power to control... So the only way democracy is going to work is if politicians realize that they're serving something that's beyond their individual power. It's also important that they accept the "rituals" of politics. The special robes worn by the Supreme Court Justices, and the ceremonies when the President enters the Capitol building: these vestiges of the past in our modern-day society are hints that what government and politicians are doing have profound religious dimensions. If we don't recognize these rites and roles as sacred, then our government and politics will turn into a personal operation, and that's where it falls apart. The monuments and stories of our Founding Fathers and the founding of the country are mythic. These are our heroes, and this is our American mythology.