intermission: a word about myths


Language as life, life as myth

Language can put you in a powerful frame of mind and depending on how you use it you can see your life with new eyes. We certainly look at our children differently when they start to speak.

Jim Rohn, a motivational speaker brilliantly explains the power of language by asking his audiences, “What if you meant to say, “What’s troubling you?” but instead you said, “What’s wrong with you?’”

The right words land us the job; the wrong ones keep the search going. The right words display our intelligence and the wrong ones hide it. The right words bridge, heal and connect us while the wrong ones isolate, destroy and haunt like the Ghost of Christmas Past.

The language of our life is the language of our stories. There is the story of our parents meeting, our birth, our childhood and teenage years, our relationships and their endings, first jobs, first apartment, house, car, etc. Our stories become books, movies, plays and stand up comedy routines.

A story has life when we can pull something out of it. When we connect to the storyteller’s tale, when we recognize the validity, the humor, irony, the whatever. We are friends with people with similar stories and perhaps attracted to those wildly different than our own. There is a story for everyone and everyone has a story.

Myths, legends, folklore and fairy tales derive from real life but not unlike the game telephone that has been carried across the school yard, we don’t believe in sandbox stories anymore. They seem exaggerated and unrealistic, just the product of an overactive imagination and made mostly, for entertainment.

But seemingly fictional stories come from real life. The sandcastles of our imagination were created by a person who saw something in the world that gave them the idea. I think we’ve been bullied into the believing that the hero and heroine, talking animals, nature helping spirits, magic and symbols are relegated to fantasy on high.

Not unlike our culture’s fascination with superheroes and legends, our stories have embedded in them meaning, moral substance and metaphor. We love to hear about the memoirs of the rich and famous, artists, musicians, kings and queens. And the very stuff of fairy tales possesses kings and queens, princes and princesses and everyday people too.

The figure of speech, “life is a journey” is well and worn out for good reason. It’s a metaphor that we physically, mentally and spiritually walk on a day by day basis. Cross-culturally we understand the meaning of climbing the mountains, hitting the peaks and valleys, running through the trails in the forest and maneuvering our boats through the vast ocean of seas.

The only thing that has changed throughout the years is the setting. Modern landscapes seem devoid of substance but there are many movies that depict and draw from fairy tale themes. Urban and suburban life has the same challenges of the hero getting lost, fighting for truth and finding love. There are just as many illusions in “real” life as there are in myths and legends too.

Sometimes these illusions greet us through the cast of characters that enter stage left. I’ve decided they are fortune cookies that need cracking open. The hidden message inside changes with each person they meet. And I cannot help but wonder what my fortune says to the people I meet throughout my life.

Intuitively we sense how our lives are stories with transitions, phases and rites of passage. Intuitively we understand that there is an underlying structure, birthdays, weddings, divorces, deaths, children, new jobs and new cities are all part of stories within a grander story.

Many writers and academic types, the obvious being Joseph Campbell, have urged us to learn from myths, legends and fairy tales from around the world. He believed these stories carried similar storylines and seeds of knowledge within them like an acorn, a tree. Myths are said to be roadmaps and guides to our own life journey.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell sifts out the archetypical elements of myths. He recognized the patterns within fairy tales, myths and legends. The hero or heroine in these stories go through what Campbell sees are these stages: call to adventure, road of trials, acquiring self-knowledge (gifts), return to the so-called ordinary world and then finally the sharing of gifts. It is immediately striking how the stages of mythical warriors are the same stages that everyday people go through during the course of their lives.

And while not all myths carry each of these stages they carry the key elements, just as our lives do. We each have our own call to adventure whether it is great or small. We face many trials along the road of life. And just like the hero, we too fall victim to its many obstacles and seductions and find our way back home.

It makes sense that we could find lessons and nourishment within fairy tales and legends but how many of us go through life living this way? How many of us perceive the great stories of Krishna, Buddha and Christ as blueprints to living our own lives? Why do we ignore, neglect and belittle the magic and wonder of the stories of the saints and fables?

It comes down to perception.

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