The Stories We Live By

Author’s Note: When I use myth I simply mean a symbolic narrative or a story that gives meaning.

When I was in Kindergarten recess time amongst the boys was spent riding blue tricycles all across the playground.  All of the tricycles were the same except one.  All of the tricycles had a rainbow logo on the front except for one that had a lion’s logo on the front.  It was understood amongst us that this lone tricycle with the lion on it was the best and the fastest tricycle there was.  This meant that if you were the chosen line leader for the week that you got first ‘dibs’ on the greatest and fastest tricycle there was in all the playground.  This lionized tricycle also granted its rider a certain leader of the pack authority that was gained only to be lost at the close of each school week.  Kindergarteners would come and go but the tricycle’s lure and authority remained for it was the lion that gave it its power.  Eventually we would move beyond Kindergarten to 1st grade and with due time this myth or story of the fastest lion marked tricycle would lose its power over us.  In case you didn’t know, it turns out that the almighty lion tricycle was not faster than the other tricycles.  Though, the lion on its front was way cooler than a rainbow.

It would be easy for me to dismiss the collective belief of the 1987-88 Kindergarten class of St. Mark’s Lutheran School in the faster lion tricycle because we were five years old but I don’t think that would be fair.  As we get older we may leave behind certain stories or myths but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t replaced by others more fitted to our psychological development.  I may no longer believe in the greatness of the lion tricycle but I may believe in the greatness of the United States of America because of the stories and myths that indicate this to be so.  Similarly, I may no longer believe in the greatness of the lion tricycle but I may believe that everything happens for a reason with my own hindsight validating this storyline or myth.

We could go on with more examples but my main point is that we all live according to a story or multiple stories that help us to make sense of the world we live in and serve to give us meaning.   The conundrum of life in the 20th and 21st centuries is that so many of our stories have been deconstructed with the advancement of science and we’ve been left picking up the pieces in ways that previous generations never had to before.  We’re sort of left trying to make sense of it all without the certainty that such stories were able to provide previous generations.  While I’m sure there are those who would disagree it was probably much easier to believe in the Genesis creation story before the scientific revolution.   Similarly, no one apart from remote tribes in South America or elsewhere believes that the sun, moon or stars are gods or netherworlds consisting of aliens.

In reaction to this there seems to be two responses: a desire to go back to the ways things were, a sort of toxic nostalgia or throw everything out and move on into a materialist’s paradise.  One extreme resists the urge to change and is in denial while the other extreme wants to unburden itself completely to the whims of change and a hollowness that only modernity could leave us with.  But such results, on either end, seem so dire, boring, and hopeless.  Maybe the problem isn’t so much that we live by stories or myths that can be deconstructed but in the fact that we don’t really have much to offer in response to this deconstruction.  Instead, we carry on with the same stories with the hopes that some will just come to believe what we believe despite evidence to the contrary.  I don’t know, maybe I’m off but denial is a powerful thing.  Still, I am burdened by the fact that toxic nostalgia is almost always inaccurate, anachronistic and leads to a dead orthodoxy.  At the same time I am burdened by how secular materialism simply doesn’t account for the empathic and emotional qualities bound up with being human and those things which really do set us apart from the rest of creation.

We need stories to live by.  It seems to me, though, that now more than ever we need stories to live by that seek to answer and help us with some of life’s deepest questions at this moment in time.  Is it fair to expect a 21st century person to view the world with the ancient eyes of a 9th century B.C. Jewish peasant? Better still, how would they have responded to living in our world today?  What would something like Genesis look like if it were written today? How can ancient wisdom inform our modern approach to life?  Or are these questions not allowed to be asked?  Are they too much to bare?




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