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Myth: Personal Myth and Everyday Life

A quotation from Joseph Campbell's Pathways to Bliss struck me as providing a nice summary of my purpose for writing a number of entries in EDN. I thought I would take a moment to collect these entries out of the archives and reframe them in the light of another one of Campbell's insights...

Now, all these myths that you have heard and that resonate with you, those are the elements from round about that you are building into a form in your life. The thing worth considering is how they relate to each other in your context, not how they relate to something out there—how they were relevant on the North American prairies or in the Asian jungles hundreds of years ago, but how they are relevant now—unless by contemplating their former meaning you can begin to amplify your own understanding of the role they play in your life.
- Joseph Campbell in Pathways to Bliss

Joseph Campbell constantly asked us to consider myths within the context of our everyday lives. In my opinion, unless we do this the importance of myth in learning never achieves its rightful status and is instead subservient to commonplace ideas about storytelling and transient notions of lifestyle.

In Chapter One: Narrative and Modern Life of The Experience Designer I proposed that authentic narratives of people in everyday life and everyday situations were the foundation of learning. I consciously avoided using the term myth since I felt it was too closely associated with a fanciful form of storytelling. Instead, I used the term narrative, but this term clearly pales in comparison to the underlying meaning of myth.

One of the themes within EDN I have been pursuing is to capture authentic narratives about people that can inspire us. This in essence is a direct extension of the writing I started in Narrative and Modern Life. If I were to select a few they would be:

  • Candace Pert: A lifelong scientific quest for the bodymind.
  • Steve Biko: A lifelong quest for cultural and psychological liberation.
  • David Whyte: A lifelong quest for the intrgation of work and bliss.
  • Kay Redfield Jamison: A lifelong quest to overcome the ravages of mental illness.
  • Viktor Frankl: A lifelong quest for meaning in the midst of evil.
  • Dan Eldon: A lifelong quest for life as safari.
Each of these people, to my thinking, lived a mythological life in the sense that Joseph Campbell speaks about. Referring back to the quotation above, we can see compelling ways of resonating with our individual identity - building a meaningful life - relating myths to our everyday lives - being relevant now - amplifying our lives through myth in each of their "narratives."

But merely reading and writing about myths, or viewing them through the lens of literacy, is not enough. Through our education, or so it is assumed, we acquire the skills associated with literacy. Simplistically, this means we acquite skills to decode text-based communication. Yet it is clear that, in Campbell's view, myths cannot be merely understood via text based-communication. They are sources of energy and inspiration for living, for finding a pathway to individual bliss. So this begs the question, "How can myths about achieving deep meaning and purpose in life that are communicated via literacy become something more significant?"

This is a conundrum we often face that I believe has something to do with the inevitable separation created between the thing we call literacy and the thing we call real-life experience. Sometimes, we read things yet do not act upon them in an authentic manner, or if perhaps we act on them we do so in a superficial way. Sometimes we write things yet do not act upon them in an authentic manner, or if perhaps we act on them we do so in a superficial way. We know that achieving basic literacy is important, yet we also know that achieving a high degree of literacy does not in any way guarantee that a meaningful life will follow.

Today, we see an emerging trend toward the pursuit of something we refer to as ifestyle. From what I have explored, this term seems to refer to being unhappy in one style of life and as a result finding another more productive style of living. Unfortunately, I rarely read about the essential and critical role that myth has to play in this quest for some notion of a styled living - other than the odd quotation from a dead author that seems to have no other reason for being other than making an attempt to equate the ideas of the lifestyle marketer to a famous individual. Although I see the question of lifestyle as being an important one, the present realization of it seems to be more a gut reaction to the mess we've created for ourselves than the pursuit of what Joseph Campbell refers to as the wisdom of life. It is also good to remember the old saying that the grass is not always greener on the other side, so a change in lifestyle even it it frees one from the burden of economic flagellation does not mean that one will be happier. Sometimes the green on the other side is because of the weeds.

They're [i.e. - myths] stories about the wisdom of life, they really are. What we're learning in schools is not the wisdom of life. We're learning technologies, we're getting information. There's a curious reluctance on the part of faculties to indicate the life values of their subjects.
- The Power of Myth

We need to recover and embrace a deep felt meaning of the ancient, not as investigation into the past, but as a way to illuminate the present. And this recovery can be achieved, perhaps, by culling the vibrant and living myths being experienced in our own time and finding resonance with the past. In other words, our experiences and the nature of our individual and collective identity that results from that are the most important basis for anything we might refer to as a historical investigation. Yet our lives are so chopped up into discrete components that this kind of unity has become harder to acheive. Education does not really teach us anything about subject matter. Education teaches us that our thinking, feeling and behaviour is meant to be classified, abstracted and sequenced according to the principles of information architecture and the bureaucratic administration of living. We emerge from our educational narcissism believing that we are somehow prepared for the life we face, and all to soon realize that what we face is a complete stranger now staring back at us. Learning is intimately and irrevocably connected to this stranger, and there is no way to change this.

Interactivity is often used as a term to describe a greater sense of involvement with something. In the computer age, it seems that interactivity, somewhat ineptly, is something closely tied to the screen and the role of an interaction designer is to foreshadow and then offer as many options and alternatives as possible. But we know that interactivity is something far greater than this. In mythological terms, interactivity seems to refer to adventure and quest toward meaning, purpose, and relevance, and with that the acceptance of risk and danger. Dan Eldon's life is an obvious example of interaction design that clearly embraces the mythological journey of the hero as captured in his motto life as safari.

It is now rather repetitive to declare that our heros in the modern society we have crafted for ourselves are ill-chosen. There is no disrespect intended in this statement, but it is to say that when a famous actor/actress or sports figure becomes more widely known and venerated than, for example, an individual like Steve Biko, we have definitely messed something up.

I cannot think of a single life during all my years of education that was presented to me in a manner that revealed the search for purpose and meaning. Instead, in history I memorized names, dates and places and spewed them back and was then mislead into believing I acutally knew something important about history. Instead, in music I was taught the signs and symbols of technique and was then mislead into believing that I actually knew something about the fire of musical creativity. Instead, in literature I was taught to decode the plot, mood and settings of Shakespeare and was then mislead into believing that I understood something about the immense insight into living that this remarkable individual produced. Instead, in science I was taught to conduct experiments with predetermined and known outcomes and was then mislead into believing that I acutally understood something about the fragility and complexity of authentic scientific inquiry.

When I use the phrase I was mislead I am not referring to some conscious plot or intentional design placed upon me, although a strong argument could be made to support that. My teachers were clearly not people trying to mislead me, but were instead dedicated and caring individuals attempting to help me through the system imposed upon me as best they could. At the same time I can say that much of my life, as Mark Twain has said, "been spent trying to overcome my education." No where is this more apparent than in my muscial self. Being classically trained I became expert and very efficient at transferring symbols through my eyes to my fingers. This skill faired well in various jobs as a pianist required to play music at sight and also provided a superficial entry into the classical repertoire. But all of this is misleading - the stranger was ready and waiting for me. And that stranger was the fire and brimstone of musical creativity, at first a destructive and humilating force for someone that had achieved numerous academic certifications in piano-playing, but destined to become a close and deeply personal friend. Sometimes a good friend will have the courage and good sense to humiliate you.

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