What is Personal Mythology?
This post is an excerpt from Sam Keen and Anne Valley-Fox’s Your Mythic Journey: Finding Meaning in Your Life Through Writing and Storytelling (TarcherPerigee, 1989).
In a strict sense myth refers to “an intricate set of interlocking stories, rituals, rites, and customs that inform and give the pivotal sense of meaning and direction to a person, family, community, or culture.” A living myth, like an iceberg, is 10 percent visible and 90 percent beneath the surface of consciousness. While it involves a conscious celebration of certain values, which are always personified in a pantheon of heroes (from the wily Ulysses to the managing Lee Iacocca) and villains (from the betraying Judas to the barbarous Moammar Kadafi), it also includes the unspoken consensus, the habitual way of seeing things, the unquestioned assumptions, the automatic stance. It is differing cultural myths that make cows sacred objects for Hindus and hamburger meals for Methodists, or turn dogs into pets for Americans and roasted delicacies for the Chinese.
At least 51 percent of the people in a society are not self-consciously aware of the myth that informs their existence. Cultural consensus is created by an unconscious conspiracy to consider the myth “the truth,” “the way things really are.” In other words, a majority is made up of literalists, men and women who are not critical or reflective about the guiding “truths”—myths—of their own group. To a tourist in a strange land, an anthropologist studying a tribe, or a psychologist observing a patient, the myth is obvious. But to the person who lives within the mythic horizon, it is nearly invisible.
The dominant myth that informs a person or a culture is like the “information” contained in DNA or the program in the systems disk of a computer. Myth is the software, the cultural DNA, the unconscious information, the metaprogram that governs the way we see “reality” and the way we behave.
The organizing myth of any culture functions in ways that may be either creative or destructive, healthful or pathological. By providing a world picture and a set of stories that explain why things are as they are, it creates consensus, sanctifies the social order, and gives the individual an authorizes map of the path of life. A myth creates the plotline that organizes the diverse experiences of a person of a community into a single story.
But in the same measure that myth gives us security and identity, it also creates selective blindness, narrowness, and rigidity because it is intrinsically conservative. It encourages us to follow the faith of our fathers, to hold to the time-honored truths, to imitate the way of the heroes, to repeat the formula and rituals in exactly the same way they were done in the good old days. As long as no radical change is necessary for survival, the status quo remains sacred, the myth and ritual are unquestioned, and the patterns of life, like the seasons of the year, repeat themselves. But when crisis comes—a natural catastrophe, a military defeat, the introduction of a new technology—the mythic mind is at a loss to deal with novelty. As Marshall McLuhan said, it tries to “walk into the future looking through a rearview mirror.”
Every family, like a miniculture, also has an elaborate system of stories and rituals that differentiate it from other families. The Murpheys, being Irish, understand full well that Uncle Paddy is a bit of a rogue and drinks a tad too much. The Cohens, being Jewish, are haunted each year at Passover when they remember the family that perished in the Holocaust. The Keens, being Calvinists, are predestined to be slightly more righteous and right than others, even when they are wrong. And within the family each member’s place is defined by a series of stories. Obedient to the family script, Jane, “who always was very motherly even as a little girl,” married young and had children immediately, while Pat, “who was a wild one and not cut out for marriage,” sowed oat after oat before finding fertile ground.
Family myths, like those of the Kennedy clan, may give us an impulse to strive for excellence and a sense of pride that helps us endure hardship and tragedy. Or they may, like the myths of alcoholic or abusive families, pass a burden of guilt, shame, and failure from generation to generation as abused children, in turn, become abusive parents, ad nauseam. The sins, virtues, and myths of the fathers are passed on to the children of future generations.
Finally, the entire legacy and burden of cultural and family myth comes to rest on the individual. Each person is a repository of stories. To the degree that any one of us reaches toward autonomy, we must begin a process of sorting through the trash and treasures we have been given, keeping some and rejecting others. We gain the full dignity and power of our persons only when we create a narrative account of our lives, dramatize our existence, and forge a coherent personal myth that combines elements of our cultural myth and family myth with the unique stories that come from our experience. As my friend David Steere once pointed out to me, the common root of “authority” and “authorship” tells us a great deal about power. Whoever authors your story authorizes your actions. We gain personal authority and power in the measure that we question the myth that is upheld by “the authorities” and discover and create a personal myth that illuminates and informs us.
What Santayana said about cultures is equally true for individuals: “Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.” If we do not make the effort to become conscious of our personal myths gradually, we become dominated by what psychologists have variously called repetition compulsion, autonomous complexes, engrams, routines, scripts, games. One fruitful way to think about neurosis is to consider it a tape loop, an oft-told story that we repeat in our inner dialogues with ourselves and with others. “Well, I’m just not the kind of person who can . . .” “I never could . . .” “I wouldn’t think of . . .” While personal myths give us a sense of identity, continuity, and security, they become constricting and boring if they are not revised from time to time. To remain vibrant throughout a lifetime we must always be inventing ourselves, weaving new themes into our life-narratives, remembering our past, re-visioning our future, reauthorizing the myth by which we live.
To the best of my knowledge, the idea of personal mythology was born on November 4, 1964, the day the ground on which I stood trembled, the day the giant fell and left me with a shattered world—the day my father died.
My father’s death pulled the linchpin that held my belief system together. When my “Christian” worldview and moral horizons collapsed, I had to find a new myth by which to live. For a while I remained in terrible confusion and anxiety.
Then one day it occurred to me that every people, every tribe had a mythology that gave them answers to its agonizing questions about the meaning of life. I began to study anthropology and mythology, not in an abstract, scholarly way, but to find what the stories of other peoples could tell me about my own life. I went to the collections of the myths of various tribes and peoples, such as Frank Waters’s Book of the Hopi, and analyzed the repertoire of fundamental questions and answers that were included in any mythology:
Where did I come from?
Why is there something rather than nothing?
Why is there evil in the world?
What happens to me when I die?
With whom do I belong?
How close should I be to my mother, father, brother, sister, wife, husband, cousin, son, daughter, lover, or friend?
What are my duties, my obligations?
What is taboo, and what should I avoid?
What is the purpose of my life, my vision?
Whom should I imitate?
Who are the heroes and heroines?
Who are the villains?
Who is our enemy?
What are the stages along life’s way?
Who are my helpers, guides, allies?
What is disease?
How can I be purified, healed?
What should we do with bounty, wealth, surplus?
What is our relationship with animals?
The next step in creating both the notion and the technique for recovering a personal mythology came in a flash when I realized that when I asked these questions to myself, I also had a repertoire of stories within my autobiography that gave me satisfying personal answers about the meaning of my life.
After experimenting with my own stories, I began in 1969 to conduct seminars around the United States and Europe on “Personal Mythology.” The magic of the seminars was due to the simple discovery that everyone has a fascinating story to tell, an autobiographical myth. And when we tell our stories to one another, we, at one and the same time, find the meaning of our lives and are healed from our isolation and loneliness. Strange as it may seem, self-knowledge begins with self-revelation. We don’t know who we are until we hear ourselves speaking the drama of our lives to someone we trust to listen with an open mind and heart.
I can’t promise that your stories will give you certainty or objective truth any more than the ancient myths gave the Hebrews or Greeks accurate maps of the world. They will, however, fill you with the stuff from which romance, tragedy, and comedy are made, which alone can give you an entertaining and meaningful life. They will hollow you out so you can listen to the stories of others, as common and unique as your own. And that remains the best way of storytelling animals have found to overcome our loneliness, develop compassion, and create community.
LEARN MORE AT THE PERSONAL MYTHOLOGY PROJECT