We have spoken lately of the importance of being in touch with and naming our own deepest experience, especially through images and stories. Stories of real depth, like the ancient mythologies, can also be approached from many angles, perhaps most helpfully through the lens of our sacred worth.
This past week, I began teaching a five week course on Greek Mythology. Besides looking at their original context, we can ask what these stories look like through the inclusive lens of the sacred worth of each human being and of all that is. From that perspective, we can also ask what their wrestling with basic life issues can offer to us today.
Sam Keen, a writer mentioned before, says that every mythology tries to answer in story form basic life questions. These concern our search for meaning in our lives, for a sense of identity and worth, a sense of purpose and belonging. He suggests that, instead of taking their answers, we try to uncover their questions. Then we can ask these questions of our own life story. Some of the questions he suggests are these. Where did I come from? With whom do I belong? What is the purpose of my life, my vision? Whom should I imitate? Who are the heroes and heroines? Who are the villains? Why is there evil in the world? Who are my helpers, guides, allies?
He adds that we have inherited a life-script, a story, a mythology from our family, education, culture, religion, and the like. The challenge is to sift through this inheritance and decide what to keep, what to refine, and what to discard. In his words: “The task of a life is to exchange the unconscious myth with a conscious autobiography.”
I would add that the challenge is to see as clearly and truthfully and deeply as possible, to see with the eyes of the heart. This is the difficult challenge to learn to see beyond our childhood scripts, our fears, our insecurities, our hostilities, our judgments. We may recognize that earlier images of ourselves and of the script we have been following are not an irreversible fate or a lifelong prison sentence but, to some extent at least, are optional and open to change. With the help of caring others, we may gradually come to look at ourselves, and others, and life itself, with a sense of our own worth and with eyes of compassion.
An example of a change of vision is offered by author, Stephen Covey. He tells the story of sitting on a subway when a man with four young children enters. The children are acting up and creating somewhat of a disturbance around them. With what he believes is restraint, he suggests to the father that he might do something to control his children. The father replies that he believes that is so, but that he does not know what to do since they have just left the hospital where their mother died an hour ago. Immediately Stephen’s response is transformed to one of compassion because he sees the situation differently.
An example from Greek mythology is the story of the sirens. These are creatures who sing so beautifully that whenever sailors are passing, they are irresistibly drawn to the island of the sirens. In so doing, their ships strike reefs and they perish. One approach sees this as a tragic tale which says that our life is over before we get to experience fully its beauty.
Yet we can ask if it there is another angle of vision that may see it differently. Perhaps its enduring lesson is that it is essential to experience beauty in our lives. Along the same line, the Muses (from which we get our word music), are part of the makeup of the universe and therefore necessary to our lives. Whether it is the beauty of music or of a starry night or of the conversation with a friend, these are essential to a meaningful life. We are more than a human having or a human doing, but are a human being. We need in our life things that are for their own sake and not just a means to something else.
I recall one evening class in which an elderly women told of a fire in her house which destroyed the house itself and all its contents. As she and her husband stood outside and watched with a tear-filled sadness, her husband said to her that it would be alright because they still had each other. Amid such a tragic loss, something deeper remained.
In a similar vein, after the death of his mother and his own flight from Nazi persecution as a teenager, social theologian Gregory Baum recalls that he sought a vision of life that could outlast tragedy. This is a way of looking at life that takes into account both its joys and sorrows, yet retains an underlying sense of hope in its lasting meaning. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl offered a similar perspective in the light of his own experience in a concentration camp.
Of course, story and music and friendship, and other things in life that are for their own sake, can fill us with the conviction of meaning. Ethicist Daniel McGuire has expressed it: “People see the bird in flight, the rose in bloom, the infant blessing us with smiles,” and they proclaim: ‘There is more to this than meets the eye.’‘ In simple terms, there is a central line from the story, The Little Prince: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Experiences and stories such as these can enlighten and heal us. They may assist in transforming the pain of the past into a resource for the present and future.
May you more and more discover and experience deeply the music of your soul, the bonds of friendship, a life-giving script, and all else that is essential and of lasting value in your lives.
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Norman King, September 19, 2021