Seeing Your Life Through a Mythic Imagination
What makes us so interested in reading stories? Is it simply to escape into pleasant diversions from our routine lives? Some argue they help us make sense of the human condition. Then there are those who suggest that our fascination has to do with stories being able to speak to that part of us which yearns to live a heroic or significant life.The psychologist Carl Jung argued that stories provide a system for archetypal impulses to be made known.
Perhaps the purpose of stories and the archetypes they reveal is to help us feel rooted in history and eternity, transcending the rootless and emptier elements of contemporary life. They help us avoid what Jung called the participation mystique, where our individuality is dissolved by our need for group approval and belonging. Mythologist Joseph Campbell reflected on the enduring power of story to stir the human spirit, labelling it as the song of the universe. Laurence Boldt suggested that the key to tapping into the power of story is being able to identify with the characters we read about:
What a great motto for a new initiative here in the Blue Mountains, known as MTNS MADE. An outlier is defined as Something that lies outside the main body or group that it is a part of, such as a distant island belonging to a cluster of islands. The term was popularised recently when Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book on the subject of what leads to success. In researching successful people he found that “the biggest misconception about success is that we do it solely on our smarts, ambition, hustle and hard work.”
Gladwell argued that all successful people experienced various strokes of luck. Carl Jung and others would prefer replacing the word luck with synchronicity, the idea that when you go after something in life; the universe tends to meet you half way. Gladwell also spoke of timing. Bill Gates was a young man when the first do-it-yourself computer kit arose. Were he a little older, it is likely he would have been too settled in his life to take a leap of faith and launch Microsoft. Shakespeare argued that each of us encounters a particular threshold moment in life, where we must choose to boldly take a risk or remain safe. He maintained that the decision shapes the course of our life:
Surviving or Flourishing?
“Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” - Mary Oliver
Full immersion. It’s the recurring theme of Mary Oliver’s work. As a poet, she constantly invites and even provokes readers to question how fully they are engaged with their One Wild and Precious Life. If you applied her challenge to your work life, what answer would it evoke?
21 days ago I had a sabbatical from my usual routines and took part in a rewilding retreat with the tagline A chance to slow down for 20 whole days, live in a magical location and breath deeply. The respite from email, Facebook, mobile phone and computer, was a welcome break from all the surface noise. Having neglected to do a great deal of reading over the last few years, I savoured a couple of books, including Studs Terkel’s classic, Working - people talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.
In an interview he held with a movie critic, she spoke of traversing a sea of unfulfilling jobs until finally landing something she loves. Reflecting on the pilgrimage she said, “I never felt they [office jobs] were demeaning, but they exhausted my energy and spirit. I think most people work at jobs that mechanize them and depersonalize them.”
Leadership: Selfless or Self-serving
“Each of us is a unique thread, woven into the beautiful fabric, of our collective consciousness.” Jaeda DeWalt.
It has been long maintained that the wisdom of the collective unconscious speaks to us by way of stories. In channelling what needs to be heard, artists act as modern day shamans who are best able to express the zeitgeist of an era.
In his book, Vital Signs, Gregg Levoy explains our culture’s fixation with vampires & zombies, “Part of the reason so many people are fascinated nowadays with vampires and zombies is our collective fear of being sucked of our life force, drained of our vitalities, and left in a bloodless and catatonic state...Most of us know, or have known, the experience of feeling like the living dead. Being at a job that, like a vampire, sucks the life out of you. School years spent staring zombielike into space and dreaming about the pleasures of the flesh or perhaps about freedom. Evenings spent clocking your statutory 4.8 hours of daily television. Being in a relationship in which you feel like a mere ghost of your full vital self."
While zombies might have top billing in escapist-oriented culture, it is sociopaths that are featuring most in more realism-based ones. Think Don Draper in the corporate world, Frank Underwood in the political realm or everyman Walter White in small town nowheresville.
Venturing Beyond the Bounds of our Comfort Zone
“At times you have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself.” - Alan Alda
Of all the ironies, is there any greater than the fact that we work (or at least labour) extremely hard to build a comfortable life only to then discover that this comfort atrophies into debilitating states of depression or numbness? It used to only afflict those at midlife, but with the advent of the quarter-life crisis, we are being provoked to get real earlier than ever before.
We empathise with protagonists such as Frodo. Why on earth would one want to give up the tranquility of the shire, to enter the dangerous unknown - replete with orcs, wraiths, giant spiders and other deadlies? Sure, Bilbo Baggins may feel alive while he is reading about dragons and glittering treasure but he is not crazy enough to want to encounter them! While we secretly urge these heroes-in-waiting on as they vacillate over whether or not to leave their ordinary worlds behind, we always do so from the comfort of the cinema or our living rooms.
Ernest Shackleton lived in the era called the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. At 22 he had a dream he would cross one of the poles. It wasn’t until 1914, when he was entering midlife that he set off on a journey to become the first explorer to cross the Antarctic on foot. Raising funds for the expedition was just the first epic obstacle he had to overcome.
Of course it wasn’t a feat he could pull off alone. He needed to acquire a crew and so he plastered an advertisement around town which read: Men Wanted: For hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.
The honesty of his ad ensured that the vast majority of people were repelled by the invitation.
The timing certainly didn’t help matters. World War I had just started. Shackleton was prepared to stay and fight but as the trip was set and paid for the government ushered him to go.
For so many reasons the trip almost didn’t go ahead. Often we entertain a fantasy that our Calls to Adventure should be enticing, rather than terrifying. Consider a modern example of Shackleton’s ad for intrepid explorers.
The Intrepid Series
When Paul Hawken’s was invited to give a commencement speech, he was asked to give a talk to graduates that was direct, naked, taut, honest, passionate, lean, shivering, startling, and graceful. In short, to be intrepid.
The year was 2009 and the world was reeling from the GFC, where the lack of integrity displayed by the finance sector was having a ruinous effect on countless individuals and global economies. This was on the back of a collective that was finally facing reality in regards to climate change and the impending crossroads that humanity is at. Hawken’s delivered. The essence of his message was that civilisation needs a new operating system, it needs it within a few decades and we are the programmers.
If we are going to reconstitute the world, this new foundation will require individuals who have first reconstituted themselves.
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown. - H.P Lovecraft
Prometheus and the Gift of Fire
Here in Australia, forest fires are synonymous with wanton destruction, invoking tremendous fear in people. We imagine what it would be like to lose our houses, our possessions and possibly life itself. The early European settlers were equally perplexed by how comfortable the indigenous Australians were with fire and how it was present throughout the seasons. As a result, large intense bushfires were uncommon.