What can mythology teach us about tough times?
What does an average day look like for you? You wake up roughly the same time, you do the same activities to schedule appropriately, and you can know whether you will be free next Wednesday for lunch. Obviously everybody has a different normality, a different routine. Perhaps it is something to do with our ancestry, an evolutionary craving for regularity, or maybe it is a cultural disposition. Either way, the creation of your normality is one worth considering. Probing your normality can lead to questions such as, “am I bored?” (Click here to read what I do when I’m bored and alone), “is there something more than this provincial life?”, do I like my job / house / partner?” And the ultimate stickler – “am I happy?”.
These questions are often the prerequisite for a midlife crisis (although, my experience tells me that people have various, leading to the neologism – quarter life crisis). The heart of these questions is your relationship with primordial forces. It would be easy, now I have mentioned this, to write this off as esoteric nonsense, but bear with me as I navigate a psychotherapy and mythological smoothie to delve deeper into this idea. In Peter O’Connel’s book he follows in Sigmund Freud’s footsteps to label these forces Eros and Thanatos. Eros, traditionally the god of love, is the manifestation of order. There is a love to this order, and a safety (think caring parents as the implement their benevolent regime over their children). The opposite of this is Thanatos, the god of Non-existence, the ultimate manifesto on of chaos.
One of the contradictions between these two entities is that chaos is more difficult to define than order. We all experience order on a daily basis. Your routines, the underlying rules of your job, social and cultural conventions, I probably use variants of the word order as a teacher at least once an hour. Chaos, is something we experience, hopefully less often, but you know it when you are there. Jordan B Peterson points out in his lectures on personality, that time is also a place as well as it’s physical counter part. He gives the example imagine you are sitting at home, living your normality, then you are given some bad news. Really bad. You are not in the same ‘place’ as you were before, even if you haven’t even lifted a finger. Where are you then? What has changed? This is the introduction of Thanatos. You are, for all intents and purposes, in hell. That seems drastic if you take a religious perspective as ‘hell’ as a burning underworld reserved solely for all the ruffians, but let’s take a step back here.
Almost all pantheons of mythology have a concept of hell, a dark place – pain, suffering, but it isn’t only an awful place awaiting after death. It is a place that can be visited, and in most cases, must be visited. The adventures to the underworld, to rescue, find, destroy things are repeated cross-culture. A useful analogy would be Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – hero descends into dark dungeon to defeat reptilian monster and save virgin girl – oh wait, that could also be George and the Dragon. The repetition of these stories are not because the ideas are stale and constantly reinvented, but because they are so powerful, so as Carl Jung would say, archetypal that they transcend time and speak to all of us. Peter O’Connell describes mythology as for the soul, with logic, he claims, for the brain. He discusses the idea that in our modern time we have undervalued the importance of nurturing the subjective element of our lives, the traditional domain of mythology. A consequence of this is expressed in the modern epidemic of anxiety and depression, and generations of people with no ‘goal’, drifters. Sure there might be immediate goals, ones that even stretch to the year ahead (“go on holiday”, “buy a car”, “have a huge wedding”) but there is something fleeting about these goals. The falability of these kind of goals is that they are attainable. Slavoj Zizek says that happiness occurs when people are working towards goals, not when they are realised. He argues that the worse thing you can do to someone is to give them what they want, as to rob them from their goal is to separate them from intrinsic meaning (sorry SMART goals supporters). In his book 10 Types of Human, Dexter Dias uses a study to demonstrate a very interesting point to this effect. The study was completed over a period of time and asked two groups of people to rate how happy they were. The first group were people who had recently won the lottery; the other group people who had suffered life changing injuries for one reason or another. As you might expect the lottery winners rated themselves as incredibly happy, while the injured people very unhappy. As the study progressed the gaps began to narrow, until there was no difference between the two groups. This is an important thing to consider – the lottery winners were no happier than the people who had life changing injures. After a period of adjustment, both groups were in pretty much the same place they were before – normality.
You made my heart break and that made me who I am
Here’s to my ex, hey, look at me now
Well, I, I’m all the way up
Powerful words, Little Mix. It is true to an extent that getting dumped or something like that rips you away from your normality, and sends you into such a down that you feel lost. An important distinction I think to call out here is that when we try to describe this feeling one of the many adjectives we use is ‘numb’ a nothingness or an inability to feel, but it’s not that really – it’s pain. To be numb you would need to feel nothing at all, not even sadness which is something we are unable to do, but our bodies are just as tricky to read and express as Eros and Thanatos. Happiness, love, joy are easier to express, pain and suffering are not. When you are in these places you are experiencing the mythological hell, or rather mythology has been used to express these feelings in a way that is so powerful that they have existed, in some cases, for thousands of years. As our Little Mix quote shows, a descent into despair is hopefully followed by a return in which you, the real life protagonist returns, but changed in some way. The importance of Thanatos here is to facilitate that change. Too much order results in sterility, healthy doses of chaos keep everything moving.
In mythology, the hero follows this pattern. Joseph Campbell defines it as the Hero’s Journey. The hero is living a normal life, then receives a ‘call to adventure’. They can deny this call, and continue to live the life they had before, or they can act upon it. Think about your own life, have opportunities presented themselves to you? When have you responded to this call, and when have you rejected it? A nice thing to keep in mind is that unlike in movies, there isn’t just one opportunity in your life, but many, some of them are very small but grow exponentially. You haven’t missed your opportunity. The hero leaves the domain of the ‘known’ their community, their home. In the Lord of the Rings, the hobbits leave the shire; in Harry Potter he leaves Private Drive, in Star Wars Luke leaves Tatooine, in Game of Thrones the children leave Winterfell. In the legend of King Arthur, he was just living his life, then bang – drew the sword from the stone and became King. Odysseus is summoned away from his home on Ithaca to participate in the battle of Troy, thus begins his Odyssey. This story repeats itself over and over again in our culture, in our books, in our movies and then once you notice it, in our lives. The hero enters into the unknown, and while there; makes a sacrifice, loses something, finds something, saves someone or something, battles some external threat and overcomes an internal one. Perhaps an incredibly unbelievable one, but powerful none the less. We enjoy watching these things, reading and telling these story’s, because we see ourselves in them. We do the same thing in our own lives. We face monsters, internal demons, and we change, we grow, we develop. The idea of the ‘rebirth’ is crucial to story’s like this. Although in the myths and the movies the characters may die and resurrect, that doesn’t mean it’s not relevant to you experience. Our lovely Little Mix shows, there is a symbolic death, perhaps the part of you that was naively in love needs to change, and where there is death, symbolic or real, there is pain, and mourning. The end of a relationship, your time at a school, university, holiday, employment, ends with the collapse of your routine, and that death is experience. When Frodo returns to the Shire, he has changed and cannot continue to live life in that way. When you reach adolescents, you have changed and cannot live the life you did before. The Shire (your childhood, for example) is closed to you, like Frodo upon his return. You have changed, your childhood has symbolically died, and our teenage years are spent mourning this (and masturbating, I suppose). This pattern repeats itself in your normality.
Over the new year, I looked back at my “things to remember” I wrote last year to see how much I have developed and grown. What is very interesting is that I know I have. I can see the physical differences, and also teaching – I know I have learnt new things, but I don’t feel changed. I feel the same this obviously led me to revisit a favourite thought experiment of mine Theseus’ boat. Some of that change has been caused by pain, some of it by purposely entering into the unknown, in my case represented by new situations, new jobs, new environments, new people, new experiences. These are all part of your Hero’s journey. An important take away from this is the idea that humans can create a normality out of anything. Our example with the lottery winners and the injured people show that even the most drastic of circumstances at either end of the spectrum will stabilise. Nothing is unmanageable. Jordan B Peterson stresses the importance of facing the inevitable voluntarily, and as polemic thinker he is, I agree. I hear echoes of stoicism in this idea, and even though this is sometimes the hardest thing to do, it is the only thing to do.
Recently, I had some world shattering news, the kind that Baz Luhrman describes in his song Everybody’s Free “The kind that blindsides you at 4am some idle Tuesday.” If you are anything like me this is enough to shatter reality. Questions of mortality, meaning and futility circle your mind. The unfairness of it, the cruelty, the empathy, the unforgotten emotional weight you carry physically from that point on. I’m not rescuing any virgins, or finding any treasures or defeating any monsters, but I am in the unknown. I am trying to navigate difficult waters, and the key word there is try. The Hero’s path is never easy, and there are times of fatalism, questions of meaning and the futility of it all, but ultimately, we know from mythology that is normal, that’s expected, that’s part of the journey. Earlier I discuss the transience of goals, but here is one I feel is less futile or detrimental, and something I think even Slavoj Zizek would approve of. My goal is to face this journey into the unknown as best I can, I won’t deny it, or ignore it, but face it with what tools I have. By creating a new normality out of challenging times, I am reestablishing order, reasserting Eros in the face of the unknown.
Joseph Campbell – The Hero’s Journey
Slavoj Zizek Podcast
Jordan B Peterson – “personality and it’s transformation” lectures on YouTube.
Peter O’Connell – Beyond the Mist – What Irish Mythology Can Teach Us About Ourselves