The Changing Story
The Trap of Myth and The Living Hero
After nearly thirty years in public education and nearly as long a time studying story and storytelling I came to the realization that the stories that we use to teach, to define social roles and cultural values are flawed. I know this not only because my personal critic lives in those stories, but I also saw how those stories slowly and meticulously undid childhood inquisitiveness, wonder, innocence, and took away that simple beauty in life we used to call magic. I saw how, in raising my own children and in the educating of hundreds more how these stories create in us and or children a number of negative feelings and emotions that result in angst and conflict within and individual, in families, and in communities. To use but one example consider the impact of media produced body image on teenagers that result in eating disorders, uncontrolled demands for specific products that result in family conflict, and unbelievably bad hair styles and the fashion statements made by young men who wear their underwear on the outside of their pants. The media uses storytelling as an effective way of defining what is acceptable and COOL. Adults fall prey to this same insidious form of storytelling. Our consumerism, feelings of inadequacy, and fear are but some of the issues rooted in these stories.
I began to ask the question why and I began to feel like I had so many questions that my head might explode? Primarily I began to ask, what are the Myths of our modern times?
Let’s first look at the definition of MYTH:
Here I speak of “myth” in a scholarly sense, detached from popular associations with falsehood. The myth is a lie in the modern context.
This is one of the better definitions of myth that I’ve seen. It’s from an essay entitled, Story, Myth, Dream & Drama by: Dr Helena Sheehan: webpages.dcu.ie/~sheehanh/myth.htm
Myths are stories, but not just any stories. They are stories of special symbolic significance. Myths are prototypical stories, concretizing the really fundamental themes of human existence; involving archetypal characters and situations; expressing the really basic curiosities, hopes, fears, desires, conflicts, choices and patterns of resolution. Myths are paradigmatic stories, i.e., stories that are told and retold as shedding light on other stories, as linking past and present, as bringing the unknown into relation with known. Myths are resonating narratives, embodying the distilled essence of human experience; giving symbolic answers to the most basic human questions, questions of origin and destiny; offering stylized solutions to the most basic human decisions; staking out the choices to be made at life’s cross-roads. Myths are synthesizing stories, capturing the zeitgeist of a time and place, bringing to a focus what forces are at work, highlighting its problems, and crystallizing its values.
In the modern context Myths are normative narratives, setting out a society’s history, legitimizing its institutions, codes and values, and envisioning its future development. But what are those modern myths and how do they influence us? One of these Myths is embedded in the context of the mythic hero.
In his book “The Power of Myth,” Joseph Campbell popularized the concept of the Hero’s Adventure. After having given an in-depth account of the classic Hero’s Journey Campbell called for a new myth for our times. A new story that would serve us better to address the problems we were and are encountering in the age of modernity. The time of the solitary, iconoclast who is above and outside of society yet plays the savior role no longer serves us. We must redefine what it is that makes a Hero heroic and hold that new model up as a role model for our times.
Joseph Campbell often said that while mythic structure is universal, myth itself is constantly renewed through reinterpretation. Every generation must re-contextualize myth to suit their times, to create their own road map for how to fit into the world. He often suggested that the scarcity of modern myth is an incalculable loss to our culture.
I believe we have modern myths that permeate every aspect of our lives. We are bombarded by them in radio, television, magazines, newspapers, billboards and the entire myriad of means by which our lives are dictated to us. I would ask you to think about the myths that guide you or perhaps misguide you.
By what standards do you measure your fit into your culture and society?
What does this mean to us here and now?
Our society is guided by an image of a mythic hero that no longer serves us, if it ever did. We are also dictated to by cultural myths that define our visions, goals, values, and behaviors. Even our relationships are defined by using the right deodorant. When we look at the present state of the story, the cultural myth, it is in a very sorry state. Alexander Stille, author of the Future of the Past contends that we have lost our Historical Memory. That’s a fancy way of saying we have lost our folk stories. I wouldn’t say we have lost them, I would say they have been usurped.
In our ancient world stories brought us closer to the natural world. We are hard wired to put meaning to things so we created stories to pass meaning, practices, tribal expectations, and codes of relationship to younger generations. The stories belonged to everyone. In those stories a young Hero would be sent on or embark on a Quest of some sort. The quest was more often one of self-discovery and in the process they would find helpers to guide them. These helpers were often animals or some form of nature spirit. There are hundreds of these stories.
Somewhere in there during our development from hunter-gatherer nomads to agriculturalists this changed. Individuals began controlling the stories and thus become more powerful. The helpers were often elders of some sort who had some mastery over the natural world. These elders were transformed again and became vile old women that would only help for a price. The story givers soon transformed into Shaman, magicians, or priests and the group had to stay on their good side or terrible things would happen. People must have found it easy to give over their personal power because it seems so pervasive in our history and in the present. Whoever controlled the stories controlled the village. In some historical accounts the king’s storyteller or Bard had as much or more power than many ministers and advisors. Nature becomes something to subdue and control and we moved from power with to power over. Then the story givers/takers began redefining aspects of the story. One of these aspects was the nature of The Hero. The classic Hero was born in story. The Hero became one that all should aspire to be like, admire, and even worship.
As a teacher I became distressed at the Hero Images that the kids were looking up to. The Hero as the greater than life, above all (sometimes including the Law), Power seeking, Vengeance dispensing, quick to physical violence, less talk more action, Rambo type. Even within the retelling of classic stories the Heroes often succeed by killing or destroying the perceived bad guy. The bad guy is often portrayed as a metaphor for something of the natural world that must be defeated or controlled.
There are also the mega-million dollar sports stars, movie stars, and music stars. These modern Heroes, based on the classic Heroes of old have become cultural icons. None of these archetypical Hero types are accessible to most kids or adults, nor do they model positive community oriented behaviors. How does the aspiration to become a music star of the genre of the guitar-smashing hedonist serve either the individual or the community? Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n Roll, how does that serve anyone?
It should also be noted that the new action Heroine is now on the scene. They embody the rough and tumble Kung Fu, Martial Arts, Gun Shooting, and bone breaking solitary Hero only in a woman’s very hot body.
Think about the video games, the popular movies, the nature of play and I believe you will see that these media dispensed myths of what makes a Hero do not support the greater good. Sure the Hero may rescue an entire village from bandits or radioactive mutants. The Hero may even save the world. But in the end the village is burning and half the planet has been destroyed in the firefight. The modern Hero accepts collateral damage as a necessary evil. If the natural world is subdued in the process all the better.
We need to take back our stories and begin telling stories of Heroes who are defined by entirely different criteria.
Time for a Positive Perspective:
Now that you have indulged me in my negative rant please allow me to offer a positive perspective. Let’s take a look at the possibility that each one of us is heroic. I propose the idea of what I call the Living Hero. I chose this title primarily because I believe a true Hero lives a full and vital life.
The Living Hero lives in each of us and recognizing the power that each of us holds in our hands and hearts is essential to the challenges that we face individually and in community. As we share our stories we come to know the Living Heroes in our lives. To be a living Hero or recognize one in others is to offer a new way of viewing Heroism. We come to realize that Heroes do not work in isolation they work within and with families and communities to foster outcomes that serve the greater good.
Living Heroes don’t necessarily live from some religious or spiritual dictates, though many certainly do, but conduct their lives based upon right action. The Living Hero truly does consider how their actions will effect the here and now and the future.
Living Heroes accept and celebrate that it is our diversity of body, mind, and spirit that gives us our strength as humans. It is this very diversity that offers us a rich world of stories from which to learn.
To become a living Hero we need to challenge the stories that supports our personal critic’s strength and hold over us. The living Hero challenges the media stories that no longer serve us. To live in the place of the Living Hero is not fast or easy. There is work involved, action to be taken, paradigms to be shifted.
Here are some qualities that I have considered while thinking about the Living Hero. Others may be added or delete as experience grows, views modify, others share their ideas, and time passes:
The Living Hero asks first: What do I fear today?
The Living Hero then asks: Why do I fear this? What is the story that feeds this fear?
The Living Hero does their best to dispense with or face that fear.
How can I change my relationship to my fear and change the story?
The living Hero sees heroic action in the present through right action.
The Living Hero celebrates the Heroism of others without jealousy or resentment.
The Living Hero recognizes the importance of honesty and the value of empathy. Sometimes silence may be right action.
The Living Hero shares stories of real Heroism with children so as to guide and teach them.
The Living Hero strives to be both teacher and student.
The Living Hero does not live in isolation but seeks to build and sustain family and community.
The Living Hero strives to recognize their oneness with all things and honor those connections.
The Living Hero as leader strives to empower others to lead.
The Living Hero seeks ways to connect personally to the natural world.
The Living Hero strives to be enthusiastic about life in the face of darkness.
The Living Hero who is afraid of the dark carries a flashlight.
To be a Living Hero is to be one who asks questions of the stories that exist. Why? Whose says? Is this true?
The Living Hero challenges their own beliefs in the questions they ask themselves.
The Living Hero trusts that their creative muse will be readily available to them in the birth of new ways of being and thinking.
The living Hero is willing to embrace a new truth.
I believe a new truth to be this: We are not alone and unimportant. We can, as individuals and as a community, make a difference for future generations. No one can predict the future so it is what I do here today and everyday to do the right thing for my life, my family, and my community that will create the future. I may act as an individual but my actions have consequences beyond myself. I am a part of everything.
Campbell would often ask of his listeners….So is it going to be the Grail Quest or is it going to be the Wasteland? Are you going to go on the creative soul’s quest or are you going to pursue the life that only gives you security? Are you going to follow the star of the zeal of your own enthusiasm? Are you going to live the myth or is the myth going to live you? (Hero with a Thousand Faces)