The Myths That Shape Our World

Every day, every hour and every second, we are exposed to a sea of information from the world around us. How is it that we choose which pieces of information we prioritize?

What becomes salient to us, and which data points are discarded in the mental models that we develop of the external world? 

It is simply an impossible task to account for the infinite number of facts that we encounter over our life time.

Thus, we need intermediary and interpretive structures which allow us to sort all this information to make sense of our day to day experience.

Stories and myths don’t just make for entertaining tales we tell around the campfire but play a role in contextualizing and filtering our experiences into digestible narratives that we can comprehend. They help us understand our place in the world, where we stand in relation to others, and to nature.

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The Realm of the Storytelling

Derek J Fiedler in his article The Symbolism of Story provides some useful examples that help drive this point home.

Imagine you are tasked with writing an obituary for the passing of a dear friend. You must take on the job of sorting through the historical information of their life to prioritize what to include in your speech. Fitting a lifetime’s worth of data into a 10-minute speech can be very difficult to say the least.

So, what makes the cut? Including random incoherent moments of your friend’s life would be absurd and seemingly inappropriate.

Rather it is values esteemed by a particular society and the meaning we give to events which helps us discern what is important. The ideal obituary is one that uses qualitative judgement to pick events and stories which capture the essence of your friend’s character.

We look for meaning, and select for quality over quantity.

When told well, a story leaves out countless details. And yet, nothing seems to be missing.

Derek J Fiedler

Get to the Point

We’ve all suffered through a boring lecture or class where the teacher expects us to memorize a countless number of facts to score well on the test. We sigh in disarray and frustration as we can barely remember the first thing about the topic.

Compare this to how we are able to so easily absorb the contents and message of a well told story. It is memorable because it resonates with us on an emotional and visceral level. It can get the message across far better than any intellectual argument or essay ever can.

We don’t just remember the contents of the story, but recall how it made us feel.

The story speaks to you at the level of the unconscious, and communicates knowledge and wisdom in an effective and efficient means. This is why so many of the great religious and spiritual teachers communicated messages on wisdom, ethics and meaning in life in story or parables. 

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Higher Truths

Human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.

Karen Armstrong: Myths and the Modern World

As I mentioned in earlier posts, the goal of myths to point to higher fundamental truths about the human condition. Truths that are beyond the limited capacity of language, reason and the intellect. 

Myths provide us with a north star, an ideal to aspire to, a horizon of possibilities that inspires you to venture out into the unknown. They enable us to rise above the mundane of everyday existence – to contemplate the mystery of the cosmos.

We are not perfect, in many ways far from it, but if we immerse our self in the great myths at least we have a path laid out for us.  As the great fantasy writer J.R.R Tolkien reminds us,

Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbor, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of evil.

J.R.R Tolkien

Admittingly, this is a complex philosophical topic and this article just touches the surface of the issue. An interesting debate that gets at the heart of this issue I am trying to outline here is the debate between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris. Peterson articulates for the mythopoetic viewpoint that I am trying to get across in the article.


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The Hero Within

Why is it that hero stories continue to capture the human imagination?

While we have no shortage of action-packed Marvel films, the archetypal hero myth is manifested is different cultures throughout history.

If you pay close attention, you’ll start to realize similarities in structure and pattern across different stories and mythology. Achilles in the Homer’s Iliad, to Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films and Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings are all connected in their journeys of adventure and personal transformation.

For the mythologist and scholar Joseph Campbell, the ubiquity of these stories reveals some fundamental truth about the human experience. He calls this framework commonly found in our literature, stories and films the hero’s journey.

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The Framework

In the Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell lays out the 17 steps of the hero’s journey which can be summarized in three key stages:

  1.  The Departure

The story begins with the hero in the ordinary world when they receive a call to adventure. The hero is hesitant at first due to the great risk and danger that the journey entails.

However, with the aid and persuasion of a mentor, they accept the task that they are called to do. The hero embarks on the journey leaving behind the comforts of the everyday life to enter the unknown world.

Venturing from the ordinary to the un-ordinary, offers the opportunity for personal and spiritual transformation.

2. The Initiation Act

Throughout the journey the hero is continually faced with trials and tribulations that must be overcome. Further, they are presented temptations that attempt to distract and derail them on their quest.

Using the skills and wisdom learned thus far, the hero is able to conquer their greatest fears to   overcome adversity to complete their task.

Their final struggle usually represents the climax of the plot. Think of Frodo destroying the ring or when Harry Potter defeats his enemy Lord Voldemort.  

The hero reigns over the villain, good defeats evil, chaos is tamed and order is restored.

After successful completion of the journey, they are rewarded in some capacity for their work. This gift, commonly gold or a treasure, represents the hero’s personal triumph, spiritual transformation and enrichment.

3.  The Return Act

After the victory, the hero returns to the ordinary world transformed by their adventure.  They impart their wisdom and knowledge to the next generation.

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Can we be Hero’s Too?

While the hero’s journey can give us insights into the narrative structure so commonly found in mythology, what morals or lessons can it teach us about how we ought to live our own lives?

Campbell argues that we all go through our personal hero’s journey as we transition from childhood to taking on the responsibilities of being an adult,

To get out of that posture of dependency, psychological dependency, into one of psychological self-responsibility, requires a death and resurrection, and that is the basic motif of the hero’s journey. Leaving one condition, finding the source of life to bring you forth in a richer or more mature or other condition.

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

Throughout our lives, we are called to leave behind the familiarity of the status-quo and move towards the unknown in hopes of evolving into more capable, responsible and mature human beings.

The hero’s journey inspires us to overcome our fears to pursue something meaningful – something greater than ourselves. It provides a roadmap enabling go rid ourselves of self-doubt, and actualize our full potential. Further, and most importantly, inspiration to face our inner demons head on.

In the midst of the craziness and uncertainty of 2020, perhaps we are all forced to take the path of the hero. Our sense of normal has evaporated. We no longer stand on stable ground.

However, every crisis represents an opportunity. We can either throw our hands up in resignation or willingly plunge into the depths of our fears – into the great unknown.

It may seem daunting at first, and we may tremble with trepidation. However, if we look within, we can find the courage, bravery and resilience we never knew we had.

You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.

Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh

So maybe we don’t have any superpowers or wear any costumes, but we all can be hero’s even if it’s ‘just for one day’.

 Now cue that David Bowie song.

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On the Duality of Life

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Let everything happen to you

Beauty and terror

Just keep going

No feeling is final

Ranier Maria Rilke

Regardless of who we are or where we are born, we cannot escape one of the most inevitable experiences in life, the certainty of suffering. While we desperately try to find stability, we soon realize the inherent state of change and decay in the world. Birth and death, love and loss, pain and pleasure – life is an intricate interconnected web of opposing forces. 

Faced with the negative aspects of this duality we are given two options – to escape or to embrace. Nietzsche argued that personal transcendence and fulfilment require us to overcome our difficulties. To affirm both the good and the bad experiences is to accept and acknowledge our existence as human beings. As Michel de Montaigne writes in his Essays,

We must learn to suffer whatever we cannot avoid. Our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of dischords as well as different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud. If a musician liked only some of them, what could he sing? He has got to know how to use all of them and blend them together. So too must we with good and ill, which are of one substance with our life.

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The French philosopher Albert Camus reflects on the story of the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus who was condemned by Zeus for his deception and immoral behaviour. His eternal punishment was to roll a boulder up a hill only to have it fall down once he reached the top of the summit.

Camus uses this story as an analogy of his philosophy of absurdity. The Myth of Sisyphus represents the conflict between our innate search for meaning and order and the seemingly random and indifferent nature of the universe. Despite the absurdity of Sisyphus’ punishment, he writes ‘we must imagine Sisyphus happy.’ Camus believes that the best alternative for Sisyphus is to accept and come to terms with his circumstances embodying the notion of amor fati – loving one’s fate.

We can also opt to find meaning in our suffering, and seek for the lessons it can teach us. We can tolerate these hardships if they are the necessary steps, we must endure to reach a higher-level goal. Fulfilment comes to us not when we take the path that is most convenient but rather the road less travelled.

Compare the euphoria one gets after a tough hike up a mountain versus an individual who takes a car or gondola. It is precisely the trials and tribulations we endure during the difficult hike which makes our enjoyment of the peak so much more meaningful.

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An appropriate metaphor for these philosophical ideas is that of the artist. An artist can use difficulty and hardship as resources for their creation. They turn melancholy, sadness and confusion into beauty and awe. As Nietzsche brilliantly writes,  “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” We are attracted to great art because it accurately depicts the vast range of emotions we experience – from hope, to sorrow and self-understanding.

Alain de Botton notes in his book The Consolations of Philosophy,  

What we encounter in works of art and philosophy are objective versions of our own pains and struggles, evoked and defined in sound, language or image. Artists and philosophers not only show us what we have felt, they present our experiences more poignantly and intelligently than we have been able; they give shape to aspects of our lives that we recognise as our own, yet could never have understood so clearly on our own. They explain our condition to us, and thereby help us to be less lonely with, and confused by it.

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Hence, I think it is important to remember that what seems immediately pleasurable to us may not be good for us down the road, whereas unpleasant experiences may be help us cultivate the positive virtues we need.