Thursday, April 01, 2010

Magical thinking: mythologizing our daily lives

(This is a follow up to my post on Magical Thinking.) 

The meaning-attribution process is primarily automatic or subconscious, but also not entirely outside our influence. Meaning isn't attributed consciously. Yet, at some point, on some level, we have to choose what the pieces of our personal history mean. There are many ways that this plays into our lives. In cases of clinical depression, for instance, there is some evidence that the thought processes that produce depression are habitual. It is likely, if not absolutely certain, that at some point the "pathways" were conscious, or at least they lay closer to the surface, like young roots that have yet to fully embed themselves in anything other than topsoil.

    Only very generalized examples can be provided, but they will still hopefully be insightful. An early event in someone's life, lets say, demonstrated to a child that their parents don't really care for them. It shows them that caretakers are not to be trusted. A certain number of other thoughts are linked with this early belief. Eventually, even the slightest mention of one of those triggers follows the mental path, now burned in like the grooves cut by wagon wheels along a well-traversed path, and the person in question feels overwhelming despair as a result of a minor set-back, or a single thoughtless comment. Furthermore, all of those who embody the "caretaker" role must now contend with this personal mythological history. All would be care-takers are indifferent, or otherwise harmful or just ambivalent in the way that the original "caretakers" were.
    Consider also the rare and yet wonderful event that many of us may be familiar with, of meeting someone and having a sudden and instant rapport. That rapport might arise from any level, yet very quickly we will conduct a sort of revisionist history; we say, "you remind me so much of so-and-so" (who had a great impact on our lives), or we attribute to them a certain "role" within our lives. It is not long before we have contextualized this random occurrence- we feel a terrific urgency of meaning, and we react through mythologizing. Jung said, "religion is man's way of dealing with a religious experience." This is true here, as well. We must make sense of that urgency. And the greater the force of the sudden connection, the greater the need to mythologize and also label the connection. We fall in love, and we ask- What are we?" Where do we stand, how do we categorize these feelings and meanings that we're experiencing? On the whole, our society only provides very limited categories that people can exist within: an acquaintance, a friend, a lover, a fiancee, a wife, an enemy. Within the life of someone who is more mythologically inclined, so to speak, there may be more: I tend to fall back on Jung's archetypes; a connection might take the role of a guru, a judge, a muse, a seducer, and on and on.
    This does not so much define who they are, but rather what they are to us. Of course, this attribution can change over time, and it isn't without it's own inherent dangers. A lot of care needs to be taken as this process occurs, because - as I will explore more in my evaluation of some of my personal mythology - we can very easily find ourselves interacting not with the individual behind the "mask" we have given them, but simply with the mask itself. Similarly, if it is a "mask" that we have a history with, our past psychological history in regard to that mask comes to bear, and the individual can quickly become a scapegoat, or we could, on the other end of the spectrum, be carried away by the momentum of the mask and the archetype that it represents. If we're aware of this process, however, we can engage both with the mask and archetype it represents, and the person behind it. This is part of the task we face in any relationship with any real significance in our lives. Relationships between people can be an alchemical process, when it is a relationship that involves something other than the interaction of surfaces (psychological or physical), and cultural cliches. It is something of a paradox that all archetypes are, in a sense, cultural cliches; thus the need for the warning I already gave.
    What I say here is mostly the result of my personal experience in these matters, though I'm quite sure that many psychologists who have fallen in the footsteps of Jung have provided similar insights. Let's look a little closer at how this meaning-attribution process occurs.
    Something with a lot of emotion attached to it, like a divorce, can mean so many things. We write a lot of that story in our heads. Like it or not, as time goes on, our memories get overwritten with that internal story - that internal myth. Without being too academic for a moment, that's a part of what I mean when I talk about "living myth." Whether we take it the next step and build literal creative myths out of our experiences and dreams is probably as much a matter of personal inclination as anything else. The root mythological impulse is in all of us, even if the capacity to render it in such a way that it is an effective tool or even entertaining past-time for others is another matter entirely. That is, we all mythologize; only some of us have the calling and persistence required to become artists and attempt to render those mythologies in such a way that they are both useful and entertaining for others.
    Often associated meanings are arrived at simply by child emulating parent emulating culture, literally or figuratively. Or it comes from a simple instinctual response. Nevertheless, there is a place for personal choice in all of this, unless if we accept a behaviorist model of psychology. We all have the capacity to question everything, and choose for ourselves, even if it is not the popular choice. The emphasis on this power of individual choice is one of the defining myths and characteristics of Western civilization, and may be our largest contribution to the world's cultural tapestry. We have the ability, the freedom, to choose to make things mean what we want them to mean, and to live our lives accordingly. Those choices may make us outsiders, they may even make us subject to the hatred of others who simply don't understand or agree with our choices; but the right, and the freedom, is there. All we have to do is be brave enough to take it, and accept the consequences of living life in our own way, whatever they might be. (Americans seem to fixate on this as "freedom," but without the reckless willingness to give the finger to greater powers - as the colonial Americans did - it remains a myth that can be paradoxically used to limit choices. The American myth of freedom can be used to kill personal freedom. The post 9/11 rhetoric and shrinking personal rights in the face of the war on terror demonstrates this in a way that has always seemed to me as nothing short of painfully obvious.)
    What I'm getting at here is the difference between a static and conditional belief. Static belief is unavailable to new information, new contexts. It is inflexible and unnatural. Conditional belief is a bulwark for the creative soul against abject insanity, as well as a practical necessity of life. We've dealt with this so extensively in past chapters that little more probably need be said about that.
    It is through choosing to accept predetermined meanings that we opt into cultures. Of course, much of this occurs as we're growing, before we realize we have any choice in the matter. As we grow into adulthood, the onus of choosing an unpopular path is the fear of being an outsider. The crisis period for this is in adolescence, when issues of identity and social hierachy seem to reach a fever pitch. (Some of this may be a cultural peculiarity, but it's worth noting that the physical and social shifts that occur during this period are so commonly accompanied by rites of initiation that the crisis itself seems to be a biological necessity. The fact that capitalist societies seem to lack a clear ritual of this kind is the real peculiarity. More on this in Initiation: The Masks of Eternity.) Entire sub-cultures spring out of this conflict- rock, punk, goth, etc. all resulted from the clash of "insider" and "outsider" culture, and our own warring interests as the mold of identity begins to set. Of course, when any of these sub-cultures reaches a certain size or popularity it begins to flip-flop, exhibiting more behaviors and concerns that go along with insider, or popular culture. The fashion overtakes the ideology. FN We'll deal with this topic in much more detail in Myth & Modernity. For now, our eyes much remain on the big picture- the intersection of myth and culture.
    The cogency of a culture arises, in part, through an agreement upon certain terms. If a group all choose to give x meaning to object y, they are then entering the same ideological domain together, at least in regard to that object or practice. Some domains are more ubiquitous than others, possibly as a result of our biological commonality, so there are some “truth pacts” which are in certain places and times more likely to take hold and last. (Though in many ways this is a clear simplification of an incomprehensibly complex system, sometimes a little clarity through generalization will do just fine.)
    One outcropping of this implicit cogency is language. It should be fairly obvious that the meaning of language is derived, to one extent or another, through context. A "soldier" could be a man, or an ant, or it could be a way that one goes about something. "Myth" can be any number of things, as we are discovering, and only a keen eye can glean the subtleties of use in what as essentially an ongoing symphony. G# may be played twenty times in a musical composition. In terms of its frequency, it is always the same note, but does it always have the same meaning? If so, Western music only has twelve words. We all know this is untrue, notes in music work more like letters, which can be permutated, and meaning shifts along with it. Their meaning can be transmuted through juxtaposition with notes that come later, or those that are played at the same time, at the rate they are played, and so on. The underlying system allows for a homogeneity of meaning even if there are seemingly infinite possibilities for variation. This is a fairly obvious point about music theory. I ask that you consider it instead as a statement about all symbolic systems.
    We might also recognize that there is another heterogeneous layer, a personal one, hidden under the supposedly homogenous meaning of a statement. (For instance, what the OED would say about a word, as opposed to how it actually impacts you.) Imagine that your son went off to war and died. Would you experience the same feeling tone from the word "soldier" as an enthusiastic new recruit? Take something so simple and everyday as the color yellow. There is the English association of cowardice. Yet Buddhist monk's robes are a yellow-orange because to them it is the color of death. Even death itself has a different association for a Chinese Buddhist than a Catholic in London. We may also hold a personal association. As a result of a past experience, it may make us feel joy, or despair. Someone may say something offhandedly to you, they meant it as a joke, but you suddenly feel tears welling to your eyes, because it reminded you of an old dead friend. These associations often operate on multiple levels, and different reactions are triggered in different circumstances. (Much of this is detailed in the work of hypnotherapists like Milton Erickson. In my opinion, he provides a more thorough basis than many others in the field, such as Richard Bandler's popularized Neurolinguistic Programming.)

As always, you will be able to read these final pieces (and many more), when The Immanence of Myth is published. Until then- sign up and hope to hear from you in the comments.

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