September 20, 2010

Mythmaking (MDIV 555)

Journal for September 14, 2010

Fowler errs in confining (largely, if not wholly) mythmaking to his “Stage 2” of spiritual formation. When, in fact, we are always in the process of retelling the stories of our self, creating and recreating them. New myths blossom daily, and if we do not re-order our lives around each new myth, they all weave together into a singular story tapestry. This tapestry is not a perfect fabric. Other parts are always being unraveled; sections are patched and torn. Yet somehow every new myth is woven both from and for this tapestry. We are constantly reifying ourselves.

The standard definition of reification is the treatment of an abstract thing as if it were real, physical. However, though we do possess physical bodies, I tend to think the thing we most reify is our self. We take this conglomeration of experience, memory, culture, thought, body, relationships, and identity and turn it into a real, solid thing. The way we do this is by over and over telling ourselves the story of this self. Just as fictional character can seem to become real to us, we become real to us.

I know this because I do this. But I do it differently than the average person. I don’t just do it in my head through the repetitive incoherence of inner monologue. I write it down. This has a tendency to do two things. It reinforces the myth, makes it more real, and it deconstructs the myth, makes it less real. They myth is stronger, singular, more coherent, more easily understood, described, and communicated. Yet at the same time, the more I construct my own myth, the more I see it as constructed, to some extent arbitrary, and, most of all, fictional.

The nature of this fiction is independent of the facts. There are facts in my story. I am thirty years old. I have blue eyes. I was raised in Nebraska. I studied architecture. The fiction is the idea that any, all, or some of these facts add up into a self that is inherent and eternal. This is little different from characters in books. That’s another fact – I love books. My family are all bibliophiles.

When I was about twelve, I was bored with the youth novels I had been reading, the Nancy Drew and Black Stallion books. So Mom took me downstairs and gave me the first of the Dragonriders of Pern novels by Anne McCaffrey. That opened a whole new world for me, but the author who really turned that world upside down by Denis L. McKiernan. McKiernan wrote the books Tolkien would have written had Tolkien been an author and not a professor of dead languages. But in all of his books, as his group of heroes were on their journey to save the world and defeat the enemy, they would debate a philosophical question. “What is a nature of evil?” “What is free will?”

As I read those books, so compelling and so mythic, it made me question. Why do people believe the Bible is any more true than the Hobbit? Why would God drown the entire world just because he was pissed off? Why do people claim to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit?

In the end, the myth woven by the Bible and the Christian church just didn’t hang together for me. That piece of my tapestry unraveled and left a large hole where an entire ethos, moral system, and culture had been. That hole has by no means been replaced by Buddhism. Rather, Buddhist thought has woven a new section of story and helped me see my Christian upbringing in a better light, so the hole, if still a hole, is much less ragged than it once was.

And I continue to tell my stories. I’m no longer the angry atheist. I’m not the mellow agnostic I matured into. I’m an engaged Buddhist on my way to becoming a chaplain. I’m still a skeptic. I’m vegetarian and I’m moderately liberal and I want to save the planet and travel everywhere. I contrast this with my conservative, Christian, stable, Nebraskan, beef-eating heritage. And in that contrast I find the story of who I am.

Moreover, I state it very explicitly. The tagline of my blog reads: “The journal of a normal white girl from a conservative Christian family who found herself to be a liberal, vegetarian, tree-hugging, Buddhist in the middle of Nebraska beef country ... and then moved to big, bad Los Angeles to become a Buddhist chaplain much to everyone's consternation, including her own.”

This is what I claim I am presenting to the world is a very public way and so, to a certain extent, I feel compelled to be that person. I also realize that person does not really exist, at least, not as a separate, concrete, and certainly not unchanging self. I made her up.

Which is yet another reason I eschew talk of “faith.” My faith is as made up as the rest of me. It is constructed from ideas, myths, and notions I need to make my world coherent and manageable. Belief has a certain utility to it. Belief and faith should not be conflated, but they are nonetheless intertwined.

A grandmother (in a story by Eric Flint) once explained it this way: If a child believes there is a monster under the bridge, they won’t stray too close to the edge. By the time they are old enough not to believe in monsters, they are also old enough not to fall off the bridge. There was a certain utility to that belief, and because the child had faith in her grandmother who told her there were monsters under the bridge who eat little children, she believed it.

I don’t merely believe people are good because I have witnessed it. This may be true and serve as a very strong foundation of my faith. But I must admit to myself that I believe people are good because this belief serves the purpose of my life at least as much as my life serves the purpose of my faith.

I act a certain way because I believe people are good. That action allows me to get along and move forward in an otherwise ambiguous and inherently meaningless world. Did I believe otherwise, I would act otherwise and the world that I have so painstaking constructed over thirty odd years, the tapestry I have woven, would all come apart. It may yet at some future time, and I may reweave myself into some new story. It has happened before.

When I write these journals, I am practicing storytelling as much as exploring. When I write about trying to see my own face when I was five years old, trying to feel Jesus love when I was six, or the questions I began to ask myself when I was thirteen, I am mythmaking. I weave a story around my angers and triumphs to explain to myself how they came about and, more importantly, where they fit within the larger context of my faith. If I tell a story about my Uncle Vernon stealing Aunt Alberta’s pumpkin pie and weave that into the part of the tapestry that displays my heritage, but it also shows these people, my people, as essentially good (if mischievous). Somehow it all gets added in. No one ever really moves on from this stage. We dwell in it day by day. We hold it in us as we continue on through Fowler’s other stages (if one can suppose we do).

We are always mythmaking.

1 comment:

Dogo Barry Graham said...

Some of what you said here makes me think you might like David Loy's new book, The World Is Made of Stories.