Last week, we spoke of how important it is to experience and name our real feelings, however varied and even contradictory they are. I mentioned also the need to do so in a safe place, whether by ourselves or to a trusted and caring other.
In naming our experiences, especially the deeper ones, everyday language falls short. Images and stories are far better. They give pictures of our feelings so that we may take them into our hands and place them carefully in our lives. Their truth lies not so much in their being factual or not, but in the vision of life they contain.
The 13th century Persian poet, Rumi, writes: “Out beyond ideas of right and wrong, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” He is not talking about a physical place “out there” He is rather pointing to what I would call the sacred core of each of us. It is a place within us that is deeper than our moral behaviour and that remains and calls us home, even if we have somehow violated or betrayed ourselves or others. It is this place that we visit or are allowed to enter in another or another in us, when we are truly present to eaxh another.
Thomas Merton, a spiritual writer, made a similar comment. The world, he wrote is not merely a physical place traversed by jet plane and cars, but is a complex reality made up of my own and everyone’s hopes and fears, attitudes and actions. It is discovered not by looking out the window, but by looking within myself, as part of that world.
Images and stories help us to name our experience. I would define a myth, not as a falsehood, as it is taken to mean in much language today. Rather it is a vision of life or a basic dimension of life in story form.. I think that every story, even a television commercial, contains a way of looking at life. One old Star Trek episode told of how, in order to avoid endless destruction of property, two rival groups played a kind of chess game in which those who lost had to submit members of their society to a death chamber. The story implied a critique of war as a practice in which property was of more value than persons.
Stories of real depth, like the ancient mythologies, can also be approached from many angles. In a few weeks, I will be giving a five classes on Greek Mythology. The last few months, I had the privilege of spending time with my godson who developed a tremendous interest in these ancient stories. As a matter of fact, he did better on the topic of Greek Mythology than all the contestants on Jeopardy. In our conversations, we developed a more child-centred, inclusive, and egalitarian approach to these stories. The vision that they contained could be drawn out from some aspects of their cultural framework. They are then able to speak to us today with a real resonance.
A good example is the story of Narcissus. Here is how we retold it.
The Story of Narcissus Retold
Once upon a time there was a very handsome young man, named Narcissus, He was very popular with everyone, but did not let anyone get too close to him. He was afraid that anyone who saw into his heart would dislike him.
One day, while wandering through the woods, he came upon a clear pond of water. He looked into the pond and saw a reflection of himself. That person is beautiful, he said. Suddenly he realized that he was looking at a reflection of himself. He was startled to see his own goodness.
All at once a flower rose slowly out of the water. It was white with a centre of the colour of the sun. That flower stands for my sudden coming from shadow to light. I will call it Narcissus, like me.
From that day on, Narcissus was not afraid to let someone see into his heart. And he recognized that every heart is the colour of the sun. And he learned to be loving to himself and to be kind to everyone he met.
This approach is different from the more common view called narcissism, which has the negative idea of someone who is totally self-absorbed and devoid of compassion for anyone else. Our interpretation is more in line with that of writer Thomas Moore, whom I know from his days at the University of Windsor, and more recently from a workshop in Oakland, CA, as well as from a number of his books.
In Moore’s understanding of the myth, we will not let anyone get close to us unless we have an image of ourselves as lovable. To come to this understanding is a profound transformation, a kind of death and rebirth. In his words, “ The Narcissus story supports the adage that one has to love oneself before he or she can love others, but it is more precise. The story implies that before a person can love others, he or she has to have a deeply felt image of self as lovable.”
As we mentioned some time ago, our lives do follow a certain script with a related image of ourselves. These come from family, school, community, culture, and the like. We first think of ourselves in terms of who we are told we are and how we are treated. But our inner self tends to push against this model, whether to accept or reject it, ot to modify it. We are drawn to find an image and script that is more true to our deepest self. In this process we can be aided by entering into dialogue with the great stories of humankind.
Before accepting a first teaching position, I consulted Gregory Baum, who later became my thesis director. I was hesitant because of some inner struggles. He said that if you are humble you won’t hurt anyone, and suggested that I reads novels, go to plays and concerts, listen to great music, and the like. These will enrich your humanity and heal whatever needs to be healed. I have since that time realized even more how myths and other stories are like a mirror in which we see reflected who we are and the direction of our becoming. This reflection helps to unveil our core of sacred worth, while also acknowledging our wounds and shadow.
As in the story of Narcissus reinterpreted, our lives are made up of endings and new beginnings, marked by transformation, hopefully to a truer, more compassionate, and more just life. May the sun of a new day ever rise up within you, in a direction that enriches your hope.