Vision Spirits Sanction Optimism

The discovery that two events, symbols, thoughts or texts, while so utterly separated by time and space that they could not “really” be connected, seem, nevertheless, to be the same or to be speaking directly to one another raises the possibility of a secret interconnection of things that is the scholar’s most cherished article of faith.

Jonathan Z. Smith, “The Bare Facts of Ritual”

With this observation, the famous historian of religion touches on my favorite aspect of scholarship: seeing connections in disparate things. While Smith was commenting on the subtle connections at the heart of both ritual and scholarship, I am often reminded of such coincidences when one thing mysteriously leads to another, forming a train of novel thought which excites.

This happened to me after reading How the Power of Positive Thinking Won Scientific Credibility, in which Hans Villarica interviews psychologist Micheal F. Scheier. Scheier’s 1985 study, “Optimism, Coping, and Health: Assessment and Implications of Generalized Outcome Expectancies,” demonstrated that dispositional optimism is variable and healthy, leading to a range of better outcomes across life domans. A raft of subsequent studies have confirmed these findings. In evolutionary terms, it appears that dispositional optimism is adaptive.

When I read about Scheier’s studies, I was just finishing Two Leggings: The Making of a Crow Warrior, an extraordinary book that transports us into world of the Wyoming-Montana Crow just before their buffalo hunting way of life disappeared. Although many books attempt to take us there, few succeed. Most were written by anthropologists who conducted interviews many years after the fact, and while these ethnohistories are culturally comprehensive, they are short on biographical and personal detail. They give us general ethnographic pictures that don’t really bring people or culture to life. Historians often do better with this but too often focus on big people and events, making it hard to imagine what Plains peoples were doing, saying, and thinking on a daily basis. Two Leggings does this.

The story behind the book, which reads like a historical novel, is remarkable. In 1918, businessman William Wildschut moved to Billings, Montana near the Crow Reservation. He soon got to know several elders and became particularly interested in Two Leggings (1847-1923), a fairly typical Crow warrior-hunter who never became an important or famous chief. Over the next few years, they often met with Wildschut recording the details of Two Leggings’ life. When finished, Wildschut deposited nearly 600 pages of rough and detailed notes at the Smithsonian, where they languished until Peter Nabokov discovered them in the 1960s. Realizing the value and potential of the notes, Nabokov painstakingly worked the material into a coherent life-story told from the first person perspective.

Two Leggings was an ambitious man born into a culture that strongly encouraged male ambition, whether on the hunt or warpath. Ambition, however, was not enough — one obtained success and rose to prominence not by deeds alone, but through deeds that were directed and validated by spiritual help and guidance. If the spirits bestowed gifts through visions, one could be confident — or optimistic, that success was to be had. If the spirits were neither generous nor favorable, confidence would plummet.

Not lacking personal ambition, Two Leggings throughout his life sought spiritual assistance and validation, though with only limited success. This seriously affected his confidence, and at times he was less than optimistic about his prospects. Due to lack of success with the spirits, a minor sense of dread pervades his life. He watches others seek and receive spiritual sanction. In nearly all cases, these fortunate ones set forth with boundless optimism, sure in the fact they were doing the right thing and would be successful doing it. In many cases, they were. All the major chiefs had strong visions and powerful spirit helpers.

I can’t help but think that here we have a unexpected connection. Scheier’s psychological studies on dispositional optimism surely says something about Crow and other Plains Indians cultures. Because it is healthy to have confidence, and one gains confidence through visions and signs, I see this as one of those connections of which Smith speaks.

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4 thoughts on “Vision Spirits Sanction Optimism

  1. J. A. Le Fevre

    Now this is what I’m talking about (in part, at least). Great post.
    Tread softly, though – ‘seeing connections in disparate things’ sounds terribly like systemizing to me!

  2. Cris Post author

    As you can probably discern by now, I don’t have an agenda other than truth. I realize that is a bad word in some circles, but if anything Is What It Is, then truth (small “t”) is it. So while I can tell an evidence based story about supernatural beliefs as possible adaptation, I’m not doing so in the service of an agenda called theism.

  3. Andrew

    Intriguing connections. If I were a Jungian I might push for interpreting the conjunction of events as a ‘synchronicity’.

    “one gains confidence through visions and signs”

    Could it also be said one gains determination and conviction? The persistence to achieve pursued ends.

  4. J. A. Le Fevre

    Andrew: I see in this a reflection of (and reaction to) how the mind jumps around a lot, and how it is segmented into specialized zones.
    To complete any complex or long term task, you need first to remember it, then to maintain some level of focus. You need repetition, to engage multiple senses and you need to construct multiple references, preferably to other familiar objects or experiences.
    A poem, a song or chant are far more memorable than dry prose. Throw in spectacular and supernatural: Super heroes, super villains, super beasts – gods and demons. Now throw in artistic representations (figures, drawings, talismans, monuments etc.) and, of course dance (a most ancient yet still engaging ritual).
    The more you as a leader or as a community at large can wrap a task with such mind focusing techniques, the more your community will achieve.
    Jung had a talent for poetic descriptions of the mind we evolved with.
    Cris: It is your reluctance to recognize the pattern in the data that frustrates me. Harboring an agenda is only one of many ways to make a mistake (of course, jumping too quickly to conclusions is one as well).

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