THE "LOSS OF MYTH" AND ITS AFTERMATH
There’s a “loss of myth” in the world today.
Understanding the effects of a “disintegration of a mythology” can be surprisingly helpful in helping us understand what’s happening in the world.
A general decline in mental health means people need “therapy.”
But Rollo May once said this:
“As a practicing psychoanalyst I find that contemporary therapy is almost entirely concerned…with the problems of the individual’s search for myths.”
He also said this:
“Western society has all but lost its myths.”
Nietzsche said something similar over a century ago:
“Here we have our present age…bent on the extermination of myth. Man today, stripped of myth, stands famished among all his pasts and must dig frantically for roots…”
- from The Birth of Tragedy
Believing in bad ideas is always a hazard.
But believing in nothing isn’t an option at all. (Even the belief that “I should believe in nothing” is a belief.”)
The risk in that is an intellectual pesticide that doesn’t just kill bugs, but all crops as well.
We might imagine that the result of this would be something like the carefree romping of Deadpool.
But the actual result would be a condition of being "famished," as Nietzsche mentioned, or worse.
“Losing myths” doesn’t result in a mere removal of superstitions, as May describes it, but an epidemic of angst, anxiety, depression, and meaninglessness.
This also echoes Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning:
“Such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression and addiction are not understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying them…The existential vacuum is a widespread phenomenon of the twentieth century.”
The “existential vacuum” arises due to a “disenchantment” of the world.
This happens when we encounter serious contradictions in our core beliefs – or, from a slightly different angle – when we find "plot holes" in the basic stories we use to explain life.
An existential crisis can happen at the individual level.
But the same thing can happen at the societal level.
The philosophy of an entire culture can collapse, resulting in a culture-wide existential crisis.
A secondary consequence of living through a culture collapse can be a culture-wide mental health crisis.
Ernest Becker said as much in The Denial of Death: the primary job of a society is to provide a “hero-system” – a life philosophy or myth or narrative that solves the “existential vacuum” by explaining life in the face of death, or at least keeps that vacuum at a manageable distance.
If Becker is correct, and that really is the most basic job of a society, then our society often seems to be failing spectacularly at its most basic job.
May, writing in the 1990s, echoed this:
“Many of the problems of our society…can be traced to the lack of myths…”
But what does this really mean?
This seems to be yet another huge topic that hardly anyone talks about.
So let’s talk about it.
A brief story can illustrate this well.
In The Cry For Myth, May tells the story of a young woman with schizophrenia.
The woman, Deborah, told her story in the novel I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.
She described her experience as consisting of “mythic figures with names” such as “Idat,” “Anterrabae,” “Lactamaen,” etc. – “all of whom inhabited “the Kingdom of Yr.”
That was how she functioned in the world. This kingdom and these mythic figures were part of her daily life. It was part of her “mythology” in helping her make sense of the world. As May described it, “the gods of Yr had been companions – secret, precisely sharers of her loneliness.”
Most of us would probably just call her crazy and move on.
But luckily, Deborah was being treated by someone – Dr. Freida – who understood certain things about human nature.
Dr. Freida “wisely made clear to Deborah at the outset that she would not pull these gods away against Deborah’s will. Dr. Frieda…worked them into the treatment, suggesting sometimes to Deborah that she tell her gods such-and-such, or occasionally asking her what her gods say.”
“What is most important is that (Dr. Frieda) respected Deborah’s need for these mythic figures…”
But then there was a twist in the story.
Dr. Frieda had to go away for a few months during the summer.
Deborah was reassigned to a younger psychiatrist.
This brash substitute psychiatrist was “imbued with the new rationalism. This psychiatrist marched in to destroy the ‘delusions’ of Deborah with no understanding whatever of Deborah’s need for her myths.”
As a result, Deborah – her whole system of gods and their extraterrestrial kingdom in shambles – quickly deteriorated.
“She regressed into a completely withdrawn world. She set fire to the sanatorium, burned and maimed herself, and behaved like a human being whose humanity is destroyed. For this is literally what had happened. Her soul – defined as the most intimate and fundamental function of her consciousness – was taken away, and she had literally nothing to hold on to.”
Is there a chance that this same dynamic is playing out at a larger level?
Maybe, in some ways, we’re all a little like Deborah?
The basic narratives or axioms we base our lives on might not be as unusual as hers.
But we’re essentially in the same basic position. As May says,
“We may take the rationalist psychiatrist’s behavior as an allegory of our modern age.”
If May is correct, the world at large today is often run by brash young substitute psychiatrist types who “know everything” except for certain critical features of human nature.
There seems to be a widespread misunderstanding of how mythology works.
A fundamental confusion is highly revealing.
It revolves around the definition of the word “myth.”
We commonly use the word “myth” to refer to “something that isn’t true” (as in “That’s just a myth!”). Yet the very same word is defined – in the sense that May and others use it – like this: “A myth is a way of making sense in a senseless world.”
So, to clarify:
The word “myth” today is a single word that refers to something that’s both “a profound key to human nature” and “something that isn’t real.”
Is it any wonder we’re confused?
This confusion lies close to the heart of the problem.
If our “way of making sense” of the world is the same word as “something that isn’t true” – and this isn’t understood comprehensively and thoroughly – then a degree of cracking up becomes inevitable. Our very efforts to find truth would result in us razing the ground we stand on, the very basis of our way of making sense of the world. When we try to rid the world of “myth” (illusion) we can easily wind up robbing ourselves of “myth” (the source of meaning).
We wind up demolishing the ground floor of the building we’re standing in.
The result, again, is a loss of the ability to make sense of the world. The world can then become absurd and senseless.
The results of this appear as a thousand different symptoms.
It even appears, for example, in areas such as crime.
Decades ago, we explained crime with various predictable motives. X crime happens for money, greed, jealousy, crimes of passion, etc.
But when a mythology is cracking up, even crime itself becomes more arbitrary and unpredictable. It becomes increasingly bizarre, and only becomes somewhat understandable with depth psychology, as a matter of individuals lashing out randomly at the world in general.
But it’s baffling only when we’re missing key pieces of the puzzle of human nature, like the young psychiatrist.
The myth-as-illusion/myth-as-what-makes-sense-of-life ambiguity is a serious intellectual pothole.
To work our way out of this predicament, we don’t need more technology, information, or platitudes. We need insight.
We need to elevate our understanding of human nature.
We need a more nuanced understanding of myth.
As May explains, “Myths are narrative patterns that give significance to our existence…”
A myth is like the basic premise of a logical argument, or the axiom of a mathematical system.
Myths serve as “…our way of finding…meaning and significance.” They’re “…essential to the process of keeping our souls alive and bringing us new meaning in a difficult and often meaningless world.”
On a broader scale, they’re “narrations by which our society is unified.”
He described how, in modern times, we’re finding ourselves in a strange and dangerous situation.
It parallels ancient Greece before its collapse.
In ancient Greece, when its myths were vital and strong, the culture and the people in it thrived.
But that changed.
“But when the myths of classical Greece broke down, as they did in the third and second centuries, Lucretius could see ‘aching hearts in every home, racked incessantly by pangs the mind was powerless to assuage…”
When myths collapse, “mental health” deteriorates.
“Our myths no longer serve their function of making sense of existence, the citizens of our day are left without direction or purpose in life, and people are at a loss to control their anxiety and excessive guilt feeling. People then flock to psychotherapists or their substitutes, or drugs or cults, to get help in holding themselves together.”
Today, science has gradually replaced religion as “the authority” on reality.
We’ve often replaced myths with piles of stale facts.
As Eliot noted, we replace wisdom with knowledge, and knowledge with information. We reduce everything down to the machine code of a bunch of ones and zeros and then wonder why we can no longer make sense of it.
Instead of “wise elders of the tribe” like Dr. Friedkin, we often wind up in the hands of “experts” like the brash young psychiatrist who nearly demolished Deborah’s mental health.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell described how we’re losing our myths, and we haven’t found any to replace them yet. He was asked, “Where are we now in our mythology for a way of man?”
“We can’t have a mythology for a long, long time to come. Things are changing too fast to become mythologized.”
It’s the same explanation that so many others have arrived at for why we’re cracking up. “Without a vision, people perish,” and without myth – without a sturdy life philosophy – we can become demolished on the inside, either gradually or suddenly.
But with respect to Campbell, none of us can wait a “long, long time.”
We have to live now.
How can we solve this while we’re still young enough to enjoy it?
If Campbell is correct, and “things are changing too fast” for us to get our bearings, what can we do?
We seem to have only four options:
1) “Scientism,” or the tepid, sterile approach of Deborah’s young substitute psychiatrist. This approach offers a critical, “scientific” analytic rationality that reduces reality down to the mundane, the whole mundane, and nothing but the mundane. With this course, every experience is a beat in a scene in a meaningless plot. Even if we would try to launch on some fantastic adventure – say, if we’d journey to Mars and colonize there, we’d just wind up with the same rat race on a different planet. The problem isn’t the planet. It’s the predictable result of a materialistic worldview, where reality consists solely and exclusively of what we can see under a microscope, reproduce in a laboratory, and publish in academic journals. This pattern of thinking views the world through a tiny keyhole, and tries to either flatten or discredit everything it can’t see. This approach often benefits machines, but not humans. In its worst moments, it treats humans like machines, and even tries to transform humans into machines. It can transform society into a kind of labor camp that’s impersonal, soulless, and dehumanizing. Over time, it can become an existential sausage-grinder that takes in rich, raw vitality at one end and renders out a meaningless, absurd existence at the other.
2) “Romanticism,” or a rebellion against the soulless, antiseptic state of #1 above. This leads to embracing irrationalism. (“Even if it’s pure fantasy, at least it has heart!”) It gives authority to personal, subjective whims, and encourages us to dive into whatever substitute religion we find attractive.
3) "Can't we all just get a long-ism," or everyone agreeing on “one true myth.”
Each of these seems either dysfunctional or unlikely to work anytime soon.
#3, everyone agreeing on “one true myth” might sound attractive. But this approach would require genuine dialogue and a sincere spirit of inquiry into truth. Both of these today can often seem like rare, highly fragile, endangered species bordering on extinction.
#1 might initially seem agreeable to some as the “intelligent” approach of “science.” But it took time for the consequences of the young substitute psychiatrist’s approach to become apparent. And even more unsettling: despite the visible deterioration of her patient, would she have noticed? If she had noticed, would she have admitted that something was wrong? And even if she admitted that something was wrong, is there a chance that she would have considered the possibility that the problem might lie in her approach? That would require both honesty and humility. So, maybe not.
#2, romanticism, seems attractive to many. They can see the sterile, soul-dissolving effects of #1, and naturally want to rebel against it. Passion, imagination, and a sense of childlike wonder clearly have their attractions. But the risks here lie in seeing the flaws in one approach and merely doing the opposite.
Instead of subjecting myths to withering skepticism, this approach insists with defiance that “my myths are real.” From here, the effort becomes about defending “the courage of your convictions” no matter what – even if the cost is reality – and sanity – itself.
How would this approach have played out with Deborah? It likely would have led to Deborah insisting that “The Kingdom of Yr is real! Idat, Anterrabae, Lactamaen – they’re all real!” It would have meant seeing not just the substitute psychiatrist, but also Dr. Freidkin, as wrong and Deborah as right.
The romantic approach clearly sees the flaws in one approach.
But then it errs in the opposite direction.
Clearly, mythologies can be treated with respect, or not.
But it’s also possible to adopt a wrong premise in an argument, a wrong axiom in mathematics, a bad line of code in computer programming, a piece of misinformation in data analysis. Here, the self-esteem movement becomes self-justifying intellectual quicksand. Any wrong premise, axiom, assumption, or idea is treated as a threat to one’s very self – and threats to one’s self are not allowed. This dynamic puts people in the position of “my country, right or wrong!” – except in this case, it’s not a country one is defending, but one’s ideas about their own self. This approach can encourage someone to fight to the death over a case of mistaken identity.
Just because a myth exists doesn’t mean it’s an accurate window to reality. And even the success of having a proper myth doesn’t mean we’ll necessarily understand, interpret, communicate, or apply it well in our lives.
Blindly adopting the romantic approach means essentially making a blanket statement that “all myths are correct.”
And so the solution might seem to be “tolerance.”
After all, we’re different, yet we still have to live together. Slathering layer upon layer of “tolerance” across every disagreement can sometimes appear to solve problems.
But mere tolerance isn’t a universal panacea. It doesn’t necessarily solve problems as much as it urges individuals to give each other space.
Myths “come from within.” In some ways, they can be like hallucinations.
And not all hallucinations are compatible.
Myths can contradict.
The romantic solution, then, would lead to everyone forcing their unique, individual hallucinations on each other. This would result in the dual effort of everyone simultaneously trying to be tolerant of each other’s hallucinations on a widespread scale while simultaneously working to impose them on each other, overtly or not.
If one person believes that a god named Anterrabe is ultimately in charge of reality, not everyone would agree.
Along these lines, encouraging everyone to just hallucinate freely uninhibitedly, to just “believe in something” – anything – and defend “the courage of your convictions” as a mark of one’s self-esteem – is a recipe for chaos.
In this condition, intimacy would be impossible.
Everyone would live in their own private Matrix. The meeting place at the center of the town square would be a Tower of Babel. “Community” would essentially vanish and cease to exist.
(A comparison here could be made to a statement that “all prayers should be answered.” But some prayers conflict. Two people can pray for opposite outcomes, as when both sides of a war can pray for victory.)
But if these three approaches don’t work, then we wind up with the fourth option.
The eventually endpoint to this would be nihilism – an abyss of chaos, senselessness, and depression that everything collapses into when myths fall apart.
So, is there a fifth alternative?
If it’s true that none of the above approaches will truly solve the problem, what can we do?
It seems so. It’s an approach that sits at the center of the various conflicting forces and tries to take the best from each while leaving the worst as part of a quest for a "higher life."
But it’s an approach that requires another rare and precious commodity: nuance.
Dr. Frieda respected Deborah’s position and understood the importance of an individual’s personal myth. But at the same time, she didn’t merely indulge her. Her position wasn’t, “The truth is whatever you say it is!” “Whatever you’re doing is great!”
She understood the hazards of toxic skepticism. But she also seemed well aware of the dangers of mindless, gratuitous affirmation. And she seemed to grasp the critical importance of staying in the "sweet spot" that dodges both extremes.
A glimpse into Dr. Frieda’s approach demonstrates how she respected all sides of the problem.
“’Our time is over,’ the doctor said gently, ‘You have done well to tell me about the secret world. I want you to go back and tell those gods and Collect and Censor that I will not be cowed by them and that neither of us is going to stop working because of their power.’”
That kind of nuance and skill led to Deborah’s mental health eventually improving.
It might also lead to our own.
To consciously and deliberately engineer a sustainable life philosophy and culture – we could call it “antifragile happiness” – isn’t a task many of us are familiar with. There’s nothing simple about that challenge.
But one thing we can say with some certainty: any genuine solution would require a nuanced understanding of both human nature and the role of myth.
It would require more Dr. Friedmans and fewer substitute psychiatrists.
Today’s age is sometimes described as “postmodern,” “post-Christendom,” “The Age of Nihilism,” or – to use a term May has referred to – “The age of anxiety.”
If those labels are anywhere close to being accurate, we again need to ask:
How can we get through this?
Whenever the miseries of our current predicament finally become unbearable, what can we look forward to in the post-postmodern, or post-post-Christendom, or post-nihilism – after the age of anxiety?
How can we resolve the dysfunctions that are clearly causing so much unnecessary suffering?
As difficult as current times might be, there’s the potential here to step up, meet the moment, and become equal to the task.
To overcome the immensity we’re up against, it’s not enough to merely say that “we need better myths.”
We need to better understand the role of myth itself.
Better technology, newer apps, or fancier gadgets won’t really help us in these realms. These issues are personal.
What we need is a clearer understanding of human nature.
We need a clearer understanding of ourselves.
In this, there are no shortcuts. But there is reason for hope.