Taking Control of Personal Myth

A lovely friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Stacee Reicherzer, posted a blog on her website that raised a thought-provoking question: When is a good time to part ways with our yearbooks? She recounts her own break-up with her high school yearbooks, and that moment when the yearbooks no longer had power over her personal myth:

I’ve pulled them out occasionally, seen the smiling or brooding faces in headshots, the group photos of various teams and organizations, and the candids of kids I barely remember engaged in various activities. Peppered throughout the yearbooks are optimistic words about the fun and rigor of campus life and extracurricular activities.

And I feel…nothing: no nostalgia, no sense of connection, no real experience of this as a representation of my life.

I still have my yearbooks. I’ve moved several times since graduating high school, and I still carefully pack them into boxes and take them to my next home. I then unpack them, and, without giving them a second glance, put them on the top shelf of my Mythology/Depth Psychology bookshelf. Yes, I have one of those.

I also have a lot of stuff. Each time I move, I approach the process with a mixture of trepidation (moving is a pain in the ass) and exhilaration at the prospect of getting rid of things. Emphasis on “things.” They’re just stuff, right? Mementos of forgotten memories, memories of forgotten times, time-keepers of my life.

But they’re actually so much more than that. Those things are the artifacts of my personal mythology. My life narrative is tied up in those things, and after the memories have long faded, those artifacts can help me reconnect to those nostalgic, halcyon days of suck. (I’m not being hyperbolic; other than friends I’ve kept in touch with since high school, I have few good memories of anything prior to roughly 24.)

Stacee advises,

If the memories that are evoked by perusing a yearbook aren’t joyous but are instead either painful or simply stale, the yearbook no longer has a function in our lives.

The act of throwing something away is something I don’t take lightly, but it occurs to me that the simple act of discarding (or recycling) those artifacts are a symbolic act of me taking charge of my personal myth. In choosing to shed the memories of the past, I’m making the choice of the narrative past I choose to carry into my future. I have the memories inside of me, and some lucky folks get to be part of the story-circle when I recount those times, but there’s a point when it’s a good idea to let them go. Those things that we move from home to home, even in forgotten boxes, are physical manifestations of our memories. If we see them in front of us, we will always have the visual reminder of those memories.

Yearbooks are a particularly complex artifact, because, unless you’re fortunate enough to be your own editor, they’re someone else’s version of you. Those are even more toxic visual reminders if you’re trying to streamline your personal mythology. They’re not even your story.

Perhaps it’s time to think about the fate of my yearbooks, and my trunk of mementos, and my photographs stacked pell-mell in a box. Chances are, at least one of the other 2000 people in my high school class still has a copy of that yearbook. I can’t entirely escape the narrative, but I don’t have to carry it around any longer.

My thanks to Stacee for inspiring this contemplation! Image courtesy of the Baltimore Sun and this interesting article about yearbooks and colleges.

Moana: “We Know the Way”

I’ve been listening to the Moana soundtrack on heavy rotation lately. It gives me a connection to the film while I wait to go see it again. One song that I keep coming back to is this one, “We Know the Way.” Spoilers will come after.

Last night, I wrote about Moana and the ocean. This song appears at that crucial moment in the film when Moana learns that her ancestors were sea voyagers. The scene, which involves a cave in that epic sort of way would make Joseph Campbell proud. We can learn so much of ourselves when we go into caves, or at least that’s what the myths tell us. Moana goes into the cave at her grandmother’s advice, because Moana is trying to learn why the island is dying. She is instructed to bang the drum and listen to what the cave tells her. The cave sings “We Know the Way” to her.

Here’s a lyric excerpt:

We read the wind and the sky
When the sun is high
We sail the length of the seas
On the ocean breeze
At night we name every star
We know where we are
We know who we are, who we are

The wayfinding tradition is that they learn how to read the stars, the ocean, and the wind to navigate the sea. Because they have been landlubbers for so long, they’ve forgotten how. The secrets weren’t passed down. When Moana’s father tried to venture beyond the reef, he didn’t know how to sail, so when he encountered a storm, he lost his best friend to the depths. He never forgave himself, and when he became the chief, he put an end to voyaging past the boundary of the reef. Moana, whose name means ocean, couldn’t ignore the call.

Learning the origins of her people is a significant moment for her–it gives her the validation that she can, in fact, heed the call of the ocean. She realizes that if she can revive the sailing tradition with her people, it would solve their food shortage and dying island problem. Her father is displeased by this idea, and threatens to burn the boats. Her grandmother uses this time to fall ill (again, in a perfectly Joseph Campbell pushing-you-on-the-adventure sort of way). Her grandmother tells her to go, and while everyone’s back is turned…she does.

My interpretation of the song hinges on the line,

“We know where we are
We know who we are, who we are”

The very identity of the people is wrapped up in the adventure. By adventuring, they know who they are. They always know where they are, and they’re never lost. Importantly, their collective Self is never lost. It’s a rather popular notion in contemporary culture that “not all who wander are lost.” But what does it mean to be lost really? Can one be lost if one knows exactly where one happens to be?

This is something that I think American culture values in our myths. From pirates, to cowboys, to space explorers, American myth is filled with people who are never lost, yet are constantly on the move. The constant state of being rootless has created a weird phenomenon that Rollo May sums up through his analysis of “the lonely cowboy” (The Cry for Myth). We perpetuate the myth of this character, even if it’s not factually true–we want to be on the move, but it does get lonely.

Moana’s ancestors traveled as a tribe. This is something that is missed in American culture. We may move in our small families, but not the entire extended family. We no longer move in tribes, and seem to value the fact that we don’t. Part of Moana’s boon is relearning the wayfinding tradition so she can reactivate the identity of her people. Imagine what strength we could have as a country if we reactivated our identity as a people, and started to once again sail together as a tribe.

Some Further Thoughts on Instructions

Yesterday, I wrote about The Lego Movie and instructions. Last night, as my Munchkin game group taught the game to a newbie, I gave instructions a further think.

When was the last time you read The Instructions? Let’s back up a second–what are The Instructions?

Perhaps I’m a little biased in a particular direction, but my answer to that question lies in myth. I take that very broad Campbellian definition of myth that myths are the stories and guides that define people as a culture or as individuals. But I don’t consider these stories as just “stories.” A story can be, literally, a story. It can be a novel, a film, a comic, a play, etc etc etc. But a story could also be a football game, a business journal, a textbook. It could be a dance party, a furniture store, or a 3-course dinner. In other words, anything can be storied if we ascribe any special meaning to it.

There is no universal rule to what can become storied. Each of us find our myths in different things. Jung’s now-legendary story is that he once asked what his myth was, then remembered how much he enjoyed building with blocks as a child–so he built himself Bollengen tower.

As it happens, I’m attracted to the literary form of stories, so I have the tendency to talk about myth from the perspective of an armchair-Lit major. So for that reason, books, films, and media are, for me, The Instructions.

So, when was the last time you read The Instructions? For most of you, my dear readers, you probably read some form of Instructions recently. Perhaps you read a religious text, or a scholarly text. Perhaps you read a Cookbook, or a comic book. But did you actually read them? Absorb them? Take them to heart? Allow yourself to be changed by them? Or did you read The Instructions with the sole intent of not following them?

What do The Instructions mean to you?

We are living with half a religion.

Last night I had a dream in which a dear friend of mine went on an uncharacteristic rent about the soullessness of Walt Disney World. In this dream, I responded. We were at WDW, a place I long to visit (having never been), and our public debate was making cast members uncomfortable. Here is what I realized in my dream:

I maintain that there are two myths at the core of the American cultural psyche: Utopia and Manifest Destiny. Tucked under Manifest Destiny lies our relationship to consumption. For the American, there are three modes of consumption:

  1. Survival—well, duh.
  2. Power—By consuming the resources, none of the other kids can have them, making us king of the playground.
  3. Unquenhable Hunger—Our consumption is also a need to satiate a hunger, to fill some kind of spiritual hole.

I am an apologist for consumption. I don’t believe that the solution to number three is to reinfuse myth into our culture. If there is any single characteristic inherent in Americans, it’s our resourcefulness. We have been writing our own myths for centuries, albeit in nontraditional forms. I do believe, however, that the solution to number three is to rewrite the consumption myth altogether, but I’m digressing from my original intended topic.

It occurs to me that number three exists because our country was founded by Protestants. Sure, Protestants brought a strong work-ethic to this country. But Protestants also brought half a religion with them. Protestantism is Catholicism without the mystery and mysticism. I’m not sure why anyone would want to take the mystery and mysticism out of Christianity, but there you have it.

My flavor of Protestantism is Episcopalian. “The Thinking Man’s Religion.” The lineage of the Episcopal Church can be traced to Henry VIII and the establishment of the Anglican Church. Henry wasn’t trying to take the mystery out of Christianity; he just wanted power and control over the church. Oh yeah, and a divorce. As such, I grok the mystery of Christianity, but not the mysticism.

Let me also take a moment to point out that today’s Catholicism is not Christopher Columbus’ Catholicism. The Catholic Church has had to change dramatically over the centuries to fight against the allure of the Protestant Churches and, increasingly, other religions altogether. This, and the ease of establishing Protestant denominations/churches, is why Christianity is such a mess.

I’m not suggesting that America would have been “better off” if it had been founded by Catholics. Look at the history of Meso- and South America. At least the Catholic conquistadors were consciously searching for modes of consumption, but they still slaughtered anyone in their path who wasn’t cooperating. There’s that annoying relationship between consumption and power again.

I am suggesting, however, that Americans need to relearn the mystery and mysticism of SOMETHING. Perhaps “traditional” or “organized” religions is not the answer (I’m including Native American traditions here). Perhaps, instead, the secret is to disconnect from the Information Superhighway. I have to give kudos to Henry David Thoreau. While his abandonment of civilization isn’t for everyone (assuming there are still remote parts of America left), his attention to the little things is. How easy it would be to embrace the mystery the Romantic poets saw, and find even a little solace in our Soulless? world.