The Use of Mythology in the Recovery Process
One of the most comforting perspectives to be grasped as we deal with the trauma caused by a changing belief system is that provided by mythology. This shows how common this process is, and how integral it is to the creative forces that underlie both individuals and societies. We find evidence of this in most of human civilizationâ€™s major myths. But I am not talking about â€œmythsâ€ in the sense of stories that are not true. Rather, I am talking about the kind of story that gives meaning to peopleâ€™s lives â€“ stories that may not be literally true, but speak in a universal language of symbols and archetypes about recurring themes in human life. Stories like, for example, the resurrection of Christ and his Virgin Birth that are repeated in many cultures with regard to their foundational figures and represent among other things humanityâ€™s amazing capacity to reinvent itself in both its social and individual form. Carl Jung said that these mythologies are like collective dreams, and that they come from the same placeas do our individual or private dreams â€“ the experience humans have in common. We desire companionship, love, family, respect, power and many other things. We fear isolation, death, suffering, etc. We share biology as well as family and social structure. Any theme that resonates consistently with human beings over long periods of time and so has found its way into many foundational myths is likely of great importance to human beings.
As I was going through some of my darkest moments in the birth canal on my way out of Mormonism, a friend referred me to comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell. I found him and others like him to be immensely helpful for the reasons already noted (see in generalÂ http://home.mccue.cc:10000/bob/docume… andhttp://home.mccue.cc:10000/bob/docume… starting at page 36).
Campbell describes mythology as those beliefs that are used to make sense out of lifeâ€™s most basic questions and so to stabilize life itself: Why do we exist?; why do we suffer?; why do we rejoice?; why do we die?; what happens after death?; etc. He notes common threads in these myths, and in patterns related to the nature of myths and the human groups that believe them. For example, people who live in environments where resources are scarce and hence fought over by competing human groups tend to have myths that justify killing other humans, whereas people who live in environments of abundance donâ€™t tend to have such myths. Mythologies, Campbell would say, are mostly functional â€“ they help us to make sense out of what we have to do to survive. And, to serve their purpose they must be believed to be true, if not literally, then metaphorically or symbolically. In that sense, Mormonism is a classic mythology. If you would rather, you can substitute the term â€œbelief systemâ€ wherever I use â€œmythologyâ€.
Campbell quipped that we tend to think of mythologies as what other religions teach, while our belief system (religious or otherwise) teaches the truth. This is as true for many who use a largely scientific worldview as any other. Some such folk, and even some scientists, use scientific theory and data to support behavioural prescriptions and value judgements that science itself would never condone and in this sense, many science based worldviews are mythological in the same sense as are most traditional or religious worldviews.
It is also important to note that science does not support the belief in any particular understanding of God beyond the idea that the wonderful order we see in nature obviously came from something. If we are content to call whatever that is â€œgodâ€, then science will support us. This was pretty close to Einsteinâ€™s position. Beyond that, as Einstein noted, science simply does not address the â€œgodâ€ issue or many other issues that are of foundational importance to many human beings. This does not stop people on either side of many debates (including the â€œdoes god existâ€ debate) from invoking science whenever they think they can strengthen their argument by doing so. This understandably confuses those who do not understand how science works.
So, people like Einstein would support the idea that mythic themes that have stood the test of time and have cropped up in human culture after human culture often are found to contain kernels of truth that have been explained reasonably well by science or that are not in conflict with the scientific view of the world. Foundational or mythic stories of this type can help us to understand both the workings of our own minds (or souls â€“ use the term you prefer) and social groups. And while there is a lot about how mythology affects us, how stories weave both the ancient mythologies and our modern and â€œtrueâ€ (we are sure) belief systems, I will leave that for later and focus here on how a several mythic themes are profoundly encouraging to those of us who may feel that we have awakened in the bottom of a well, so far from daylight that we may never see it again. They are â€œThe Hero with a Thousand Facesâ€, â€œThe Night Passageâ€ and â€œSocial Masksâ€.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces
One myth that exists in almost all societies is the hero myth. This is the myth of the person who leaves the group to go on an adventure. Often this is required by a need within the group â€“ a battle to be won; a fair maiden to be rescued; a magical talisman like The Grail to be found; etc. A few of the common elements of this myth are as follows:
- The hero leaves the safety of the group and goes into the unknown where all kinds of horrors exist that are not found within the world inhabited by his group;
- The unstructured, dangerous nature of the world outside the group (chaos) represents the dangers most humans perceive to exist if they leave their group either physically or intellectually;
- The hero faces the horrors of chaos, and finds that he has unexpected powers, some given to him by the authorities who authorized his adventure and others that seem to well up from within or are found during the course of the adventure;
- The authorities who authorize the adventure are often not the mainstream authority within society, but rather alternative sources of wisdom or power that are unknown to the main group but have an important influence on the welfare of the group as a whole;
- The hero is changed by his adventure, and often returns with a treasure quite different from the one he set out to find.
- Ironically, the hero often finds the most important part of his treasure only after returning home. In one Near Eastern myth, the treasure sought by the hero the world over was buried under his own porch upon his return from his epic adventure.
Some mythologists have divided the heroâ€™s journey into three stages. First is separation, a time of great excitement or angst as the hero leaves or is torn from the known and thrust into the unknown. The second is liminality, when the hero is outside the reach of her society while pursuing her quest. During this time the rules of â€œnormalâ€ behavior do not apply as the hero finds her way through a strange land and undergoes the trials that will cause her reconstruction. And the third is reintegration as the hero rejoins his social group. This is often difficult for many parties since the hero has changed and sometimes his group has as well.
One way to think of the recovering Mormon is as a reluctant hero â€“ a â€œFrodoâ€ kind of hero. â€œThe Lord of the Ringsâ€ is, by the way, a classic hero myth. I could go on for pages (and have done so elsewhere in a half finished essay that will likely never see the light of day) about the analogues between â€œThe Lord of the Ringâ€ and recovery from Mormonism. Suffice it to say here that Frodo did not want to be the ring bearer. Others were stronger, seemingly better suited to the task, etc. In fact, many of them were baffled as to why Frodo seemed to be fated to bear the ring, and despaired for their civilization as a result. He did not seem to have what the task demanded. And yet, as he and his companions time and again threw themselves into the unknown â€“ into chaos â€“ they found out more about themselves and eventually found a way to complete the great mission which was entrusted to them. And Frodoâ€™s unique talents, as it turned out, made him the idea ring bearer. That story is great mythology, but of course would likely cause profound damage to anyone who decided that he was a literal Frodo of some kind carrying the sacred ring of knowledge that would destroy the evil kingdom of Mormonism, or any other.
Another hero myth with which we are all familiar is Christâ€™s story.
The process of facing the unknown, being pushed into it and having the courage to continue, and then being reconstructed â€“ reinvented â€“ by a combination of personal choice and the forces one has to face outside the secure confines of oneâ€™s social group, is one of the most basic of all human stories. And it is the story of recovery from Mormonism.
Note that the hero usually acts alone or with a small group of companions. The vast majority of the social group is usually blissfully unaware of the danger they face and of the adventure that is underway. And the heroâ€™s return is often understood as such by only a few. As is the case with many of the main features of widespread myths that reflect recurring social patterns, there is a sound sociological/psychological basis for this aspect of the hero myth.
A thirst for exploration and learning is basic to humanityâ€™s historical and continuing evolution, and is responsible for our continual learning about how to control our environment. As we continue to learn, we become more powerful. One of the longstanding concerns of some of the most insightful members of society has been that human power will outstrip human wisdom to the point at which we will destroy ourselves. I think that concern is, by and large, healthy since the more aware we are collectively of these risks the less likely we are to be harmed by them. The hero myth genre, as it is told by different societies, shows the balance they variously recommend between deferring to the view of the group and so slowing down change to make falling into chaos less likely, or on the other hand encouraging as much individual innovation as possible in full confidence that the resulting change and the energy that it releases can be controlled so that chaos will not reduce our society to rubble. The former tends to be favoured by Eastern cultures while the latter is the West (and particularly the USâ€™s) hallmark. For a wonderful contrast in this regard, see last years movie â€œHeroâ€ (Chinese with English subtitles) in which the powerful hero allows himself to be killed so that a tyrant king can continue his drive to unite China and so reduce the chaotic fighting between its factions, and â€œThe Matrixâ€ trilogy in which the power of the individual and small group to reshape a corrupt society is highlighted.
The Night Passage This is a particular kind of hero journey that has many tellings and if profoundly encouraging for those who have been shaken loose from the Mormon moorings. Since most who read this are likely familiar with the story of Jonah and the whale, we will use it as our primary narrative and refer briefly to other stories.
Jonah was an unlikely hero â€“ a regular guy. God called him to a difficult mission, and he declined. Therefore, God sent a great fish to swallow Jonah up, allow him some time to reconsider his options, and then spew him out on the shore in a place where it was convenient for him to fulfill his divine calling, which he then did. He was thus transformed, and at the same time made a contribution to his community that was essential to it
The Jonah narrative has roots in many other preceding Near Eastern myths that I am not going to trace. However, a review of certain common themes is useful.
- The hero seldom seeks this adventure. Rather, it seeks him. This often manifests itself in a force beyond the heroâ€™s control that takes her over and throws her into chaos. This is the fish that shallows Jonah or the monster Tiamat that swallowed Heracles. While under the control of this greater power (in the belly of the beast), powerful forces both strip the hero of her power (Heracles symbolically lost his hair, so becoming childlike) and cause new powers to coalesce. The hero emerges from this womb-like state humbled, reconstructed and ironically more powerful.
- There is often a descent from the ordered life into something less ordered or completely disordered as in the many cases where a hero descends into the underworld and its chaos (the usual rules cease to apply) to perform some task essential to those in the land of the living. Out of this relative chaos, a new kind of person is formed. Since as I am writing this the chaos in New Orleans caused by hurricane Katrina is still killing people each day, I am grieving that loss of humanity and civilization, and wondering what kind of new order will emerge from the chaos there.
- These heroic experiences often occur either at night or in a place of darkness, such as the whaleâ€™s belly or the underworld, and re-emergence into the light of morning or the outside word evokes the image of the rising of the Sun or its strengthening and life giving influence in the Spring of each year.
- The heroâ€™s journey requires a withdrawal from society.
- During darkness, wisdom is often conferred upon the hero either by humbling experience or divine gift. Mohammedâ€™s famous â€œnight journeyâ€ that some modern Muslims are trying to understand through the lens of near death experience research (see http://www.near-death.com/muslim.htm…). Near death experiences are well known to have reconstructing influences on those who have them that are similar in many ways to those found in the Jonah type of legend (see http://www.near-death.com/experiences/evidence05.html). I heard Bruce Greyson (seeÂ http://www.newsun.com/greyson.html), one of the leading researchers in this area speak about it recently.
- As the hero emerges from her seemingly dark, confined, chaotic space, the world itself often appears to have reconstructed and in hence more receptive to the heroâ€™s new powers. Thus was the world changed during Noahâ€™s time in the Ark, and for Lehi and his family as they emerged on a new continent from their mytic barge/submarines. The reader is often left to wonder whether the world is actually different, or whether the heroâ€™s new perspective causes all to be reborn with her.
- Often new parents, or guides, are found for the journey through the heroâ€™s new world, as was the case as Moses emerges from the bull rushes.
There is a tremendous amount of food for thought for post-Mormons in this mythic vein.
Social Masks v. Individual Masks
One of my favourite analyses of the hero mythic structure comes from W.B. Yeats in the form of his analysis of social masks. You can see that and related subjects summarized atÂ http://home.mccue.cc:10000/bob/docume…
The basic idea is that society tells us who we are â€“ puts a mask on us. This is necessary to create order within society, and it gives us a starting point. Some social groups put this mask on more tightly than others. The Hindu caste system, for example, is much more rigid than anything Mormonism has come up with. However, all groups to an extent at least resist attempts to tamper with the social mask, and there is an individual force that wells up from within that encourages us to find a more â€œauthenticâ€ way of living â€“ a way that â€œfeels rightâ€ for us as individuals. Yeats characterized this as the removal of the social mask and creation of an individual mask, or masks. That is, the formation of an individual identity. The same thing is known in the psychological community as the process of â€œindividuationâ€. The more powerfully our social mask has been attached to us, the more painful it is to take it off. In the Western Democratic part of our world, masks tend not to be as firmly attached as they are in other parts of the world (India or Iraq, for example). And, in the West the tendency toward the formation of the individual mask is the strongest. Not coincidentally, this is where human innovation has yielded its most abundant harvests in recent times. Mormonism and other fundamentalist leaning religious groups run counter to this trend in the Democratic West.
After our individual mask has been formed, we may identify wholly with it or we may continue to wear the social mask to an extent, recognizing it as such, and revert to the individual mask as often as we can. Or, we may develop a range of masks and wear them each on occasion. How we do this, the extent to which we do it, etc. is determined by our individual characteristics and the nature of our group. For example, some scholars have observed that the more structured a society, the more chameleon-like behaviour is observed. That is, in authoritarian societies individuals tend to wear of many different masks (See, for example, Richard Nisbett “The Geography of Thought”), each dictated by the different roles their society calls upon them to play from time to time (boss; subordinate; son; grandson; father; husband; friend; etc.) and are much less likely to experience the radical transformation from one state to another of which Yeats spoke to his largely Western audience.
Those of us who are able to remove our social masks and fashion individual masks are predicted by Yeats to be on our way to enjoying certain rare fruits. Middle age for such people is usually the most productive and exciting of life since they have learned to leap from the Moon to the Sun. That is, the Moon reflects energy created by others. The Sun is an energy source, as are those who wear individual masks. And as is the case with so much of human experience, it is only possible to understand the difference between the Moon and the Sun modes of life by experiencing it. For a faithful Mormon, this road goes through the terrifying valley of rejection of religious authority. This does not mean that religious authority must be ignored. It means that we must weaken Mormon authorityâ€™s influence over us to the point at which it becomes a possible source of wisdom like many others around us, and it must earn our allegiance by providing advice that is better than that readily available elsewhere. The experience of most Mormons who reach the point of questioning Mormon authority to this degree is to recognize that the wisdom on offer within the Mormon community is in most respects inferior to that available elsewhere. Once this realization sinks in, significant behavioural changes gradually occur as wisdom is sought from non-Mormon sources and as a result attitudes toward things like the role of men and women, how sexual orientation is formed, how political and social attitudes are formed, etc. begin to change.
Another lesson more accessible by those Westerners who wear individual masks than most members of society is the difference between essence and vehicles. We are more interested in light than what creates it. That is, we donâ€™t much care about the particular light bulbs (vehicles) we have in our sockets as long as they produce satisfactory light (essence). Our mortal bodies are vehicles for a particular consciousness â€“ our own. But consciousness â€“ the life and energy of which we are a part â€“ lives on after we are gone in various forms just as one wave crests and then returns to the sea. We are self-conscious waves on a sea of consciousness. We are like the little creatures that build the reef. What is important is the contribution we make to the reef, not the span of our own lives. As Einstein put it,
A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe’; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest–a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely but striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.” (See Nick Herbert, “Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics”, p. 250)
I can imagine some people reading this and thinking (as I did the first time I ran across this idea), â€œTry telling a light bulb who is aware of herself that light bulbs are not importantâ€. Fair enough. But we have thousands of years of Buddhist, Hindu and other traditions in which individual death has not held the power of people as it does in Western society. We westerners are much more individualistic than most other peoples have been. This is both our blessing and our curse. It is a blessing in some ways because our belief that we should take off our social mask and become creative has made our society the most productive, by far, in human history in terms of creating knowledge that allows us to control our environment. But this very emphasis on our individual importance makes us fear our own demise in ways that confuse many Easterners. They are much more humble about their place in the cosmos. They tend to see themselves as part of a whole rather than wholes in and of themselves. This takes away much of deathâ€™s sting.
Ironically, for the Westerner putting on an â€œindividualâ€ mask often means releasing herself from much of the individual emphasis of the West and thus coming to see herself much more as a part of the integrated whole of life.
It takes time for this counterintuitive set of ideas sink in. Become more individual by being less individualistic? The extinguishment of my own individual consciousness does not matter?! Etc. I think that it was well over a year ago that I first ran into these concepts and it has taken all of th time since then, coupled with a lot of reading and thinking, for them to feel comfortable; right. Perhaps for others who are brighter of more mentally flexible than I am it will not take so long. But in any event, I can state with conviction that once these ideas take root, they change us in important ways. We can simply revel in the period of our own creativity and watch with bemusement as our individual light fades and others take its place and function. This is as it always has been on this Earth, and for all we can tell will always be. We live; we create; we tire; and we depart the scene having left a legacy in terms of our genes, ideas, actions and inactions, and the myriad other influence we have exerted on life around us. A butterflyâ€™s wing in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas. What can a human life cause as its influence cascades down through the generations? Think in particular of the causal chain started by one boy in England (my great grandfather) who joined the Mormon Church and moved to America in order to take up the challenge and opportunity to better himself this new and radical worldview offered. He believed that he was a â€œgod in embryoâ€ and left all he know to follow a dream. How many lives have been changed by that act of faith and courage alone? Or how about the faithful Mormon or Taliban or Hindu etc. who radically changes her worldview to bring it more into line with a naturalistic understanding of our world. How many lives will be changed by such an act of faith and courage?
Throughout our adult and hence more aware aspect of life, and particularly as we feel our departure approaching, we feel connected to all those who have gone before us and those yet to come, and feel deep gratitude for the chance we have had to be conscious of our tiny slice of life and to have contributed something for those we love. In this contribution and its continuing effect on all those to whom we become connected by infinite chains of cause and effect, we live on.
This philosophy is at least as justifiable as the traditional Western fear of death, and I would suggest, much more pragmatic. Why should we spend a great deal of energy worrying about what we canâ€™t know â€“ that is, what (if anything) will come next?