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Why Myth Matters

No one is myth free

People have always loved good stories.  We all are puzzled and looking for direction in coping with life's mysteries, so stories of life’s meaning have been told and embellished through generations.  Gifted storytellers, shamans and artists, sensitive to the creative voice, have brought forth inspired tales full of metaphors, symbolic or representative of abstract ideas that are difficult to talk/think about.

When our path in life is rocky and we struggle to find a way forward, we need a story about a hero's journey.  When life is lonely, we resonate to stories that tell  of a loving god. When we make mistakes, we find hope in stories of forgiveness from our sins. From stories like these myths are born.  According to Joseph Campbell, who spent his entire career studying myth, myths are metaphorical stories not to be taken as factual.  "Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life".  They are meant to evoke profound awareness, to ponder and question the mysteries of living.

We hold our myths at the heart of our identities.  All religions are myths but all myths are not religious.  Differences and disagreements about myths were the reason why many immigrants came to America.  The freedom to define reality in terms of your own myth or religion is central to Americans.  It is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution but big problems arise when these metaphorical stories are taken as literal truths.

Today many people think that all myths are religious.  Many believe that religions have done more harm than good and we would all be better off without them. They look at all the bad/crazy things done in the name of religion and they say, "enough"!  Why give special status or respect to those who claim as absolute truth stories that are strange, magical and often downright weird?   They think that the deference given to religion is too easily abused by the corrupt, the power seekers and the misguided.

 Repelled by the failings of religion, some make the argument that they are myth free and don't need these metaphors at all.  Only measurable facts/science can be trusted and believed.  There is no need for mythical interpretations of our human experience.   It is tempting to imagine that we are rational beings, but people's secular, day to day, beliefs about the world are often myths, too. You probably can think of examples, there are so many of them; tea partiers, gun rights advocates, atheists, labor unionists, nursing mothers, people who do/don't believe in global warming and many others get all "holier than thou" and dogmatic about their sacred cows.

Objectivity is not a human strong point.  Even in science where objectivity is essential,  conclusions are sometimes distorted by preconceptions and misinterpretation. Everyone has a unique perspective derived from their time, place and experience.  Ideas that were accepted as fact in other times and places often seem ludicrous to us.  Do we have reason to believe that we are the first generation in the history of the world to be free of delusion and error? We each bring our own personal history, aspirations, dreams, and fantasies to bear in creating our worldview.   Whether we are able to acknowledge, define or express it, we have mythical perceptions of the world. 

Metaphoric/mythic stories give meaning and direction to our lives. Buddhist Philosopher, Alan Watts said, "A myth is an image in terms of which we try to make sense of the world."  The trouble starts when people take the metaphors literally and dogmatically, and they loose sight of their real value as guideposts. When zealots are unbalanced by belief that their story is the Truth, they attack, divide, and diminish non-believers.  When we look at the various forms of misunderstanding and distrust causing divisions in human life, we see at their heart a basic problem in our understanding of myth.

Mythical orthodoxy and literalism divide us.

United States is a seriously mythological country.  We have deeply held myths about our founders and our heroes, our Constitution, our system of Justice, and about our Rights and Freedoms.  Our national myths lie at the heart of our understanding of what it means to be American. As Joseph Campbell said, "Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.” 

Upheavals that began in the 1950s and 1960's, brought rapid changes in the area of openness in the church, in civil rights and women's rights, and in sexual liberation.  These changes upset many people's myths.  Some people felt that their sacred traditions and truths were threatened.  Many were ready to fight to return to the world as it had been, as they believed it was meant to be. Others were disillusioned and jettisoned belief in mythical systems that seemed anachronistic and flawed and sometimes evil.  Almost no one was comfortable with the way things were going.  The challenges to our myths had stirred up a lot of confusion and dissension.

Forces of reaction to these changes mobilized strongly.   Over the last 40 years, many right leaning groups from Right to Life, the Heritage Foundation in the 70's, and up to the Tea Party, have grown strong and vocal in pushing back against anything they see as threatening to their mythic vision of a straight, white, christian, male dominant America.

Their success has led to their increase and to reaction from the left. The changes in the media environment including cable TV and Talk Radio have created a business opportunity championing the competing mythic views. Popular addiction to the drama of our clashing myths has made a lot of money for businesses like talk radio, FOX News and MSNBC who use it to fill the 24 hour news cycle.

 Our ideological/mythical opposites are being so thoroughly demonized that we can barely see the humanity of those who are not on our side.  The fear and anger are eroding goodwill and good humor to the point where those seeking a middle ground have difficulty finding a place to stand.  It seems that we must be pigeonholed as Conservative, Liberal, Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Socialist, Capitalist, Communist, Red States and Blue, etc.  Identification with a myth/metaphor seems to be all that we need to know about a person.  The stereotyping as entertainment has brought us to a point of frustration and alienation.

Can humility and humor heal us?

The deadly seriousness of the contending perspectives sometimes shocks me. George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who have been cast as devils by their opponents, are obvious examples of mythical thinking in our lives. When someone is demonized, they can be shunned. We no longer need to look for ways to work with them. It can be helpful to reflect some ironic humor toward this seriousness.  As John F. Kennedy said, "There are three things which are real; God, Human Folly and Laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension so we must do what we can with the third."  Recently, when having lunch with her nieces, my dear, sweet, good Catholic aunt who is over 80, said that she thought that Obama was the anti-Christ.  My quick-witted sister replied that she had always felt the same way about George W. Bush and then we all laughed.  What might have been an uncomfortable, alienating moment ended in a little humor.

In the battle for the moral high ground, humility and humor are too frequently lost.  While proponents of narrow orthodoxies may intend to better human life, those who cannot see the humor and/or irony in their metaphors just make things worse. As the proverb says, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions".  One of the main tenants of any worthwhile creed/myth/world view would be to make us aware of the narrowness of our perspective. We need to look for ways to be forgiving and see the humor in human limitations.  We need to be especially aware when we, ourselves, drift into sanctimonious folly.   It is easy to laugh at others but we need to learn laugh at ourselves, too.  I love the quote from American essayist, Agnes Repplier, "Humor distorts nothing, and only false gods are laughed off their earthly pedestals."



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