Myth, Choice, Truth: Think Globally, Act Locally

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We get into the habit of living

before acquiring the habit of thinking.

- Albert Camus


ost of us would like to think we’d be the mouthy kid in the fable The Emperor’s New Clothes, but it is surprisingly difficult to speak out against the status quo. First, there’s the social pressure, sometimes at near lethal levels, to accept the cultural canon. Then there’s existential self-doubt which causes us to wonder – is everyone right and I’m going mad? But the most common reason we usually go along to get along has to do with what Albert Camus suggests in the epigraph in that we are rarely taught how to critique and customize the layered culrural mileau within which we earthlings all swim. Like the two young fish in the David Foster Wallace commencement speech – many of us don’t even know what water is.

Figuring out what’s right for us

We obviously don’t want to throw out our cultures of origin completely and redesign every little aspect of our world, for it is convenient to have many conventions already in place. Nor do we want to behave like savages, ignoring the niceties that smooth so many of our interpersonal interactions. The solution, then, isn’t to jettison the values, rules and taboos we’ve inherited, but rather to implement a strategy for sorting through them and for saving or discarding elements of them based on our own experiences in the world and on our own tastes. We can liken this process to the sophisticated use of computers. Unexamined default settings – in computers and in life – are only for those not trained to customize their systems to better provide for their unique needs. Once we are able to design our own values, rules and taboos, the pleasure of rooting out generic presets and replacing them with our own special “formatting” enthralls us.

The process of sorting and selecting is easier if you think of doing it in three steps. The three steps can be called: myth, choice, truth.

The myth step

Before we can customize our cultural identity by accepting, rejecting or modifying the cultures of our ancestors, we must deepen our understanding of the constructs involved. Cultures reflect a set of values, rules and taboos that direct our daily life. Examples of cultural values would be: elders deserve respect, the resources of the earth are there for our use, people need to know their place in society, wealth is impressive, or an educated general public is the hallmark of civilization. Examples of rules would be: always put the needs of the community first, don’t drink and drive, family secrets are not to be shared, children are not to be hit, or Sunday is a day of rest. Examples of taboos would be dictums for recoiling from: incest, murder, equal rights for subcultures, violations of freedom of speech, or showing emotion in public. Obviously, you will see some of these examples as appropriate standards and some as repellent, depending, in large part, on how you were raised. Also, obviously, each value, rule and taboo is disputable. Some cultures choose to see the elders in their society as a rich source of institutional memory and wisdom, and some cultures choose to see the elders in their society as a rigid impediment to innovation and progress. What this means is that each culture has to decide for itself which story to believe – that elders are valuable to a culture or expensive to a culture.

Another word for story is, of course, myth, so here is how the concept of culture and the concept of myth interrelate. Cultures represent a collection of myths that, taken together, determine “how things are” according to the leaders of that culture. So myths are the social constructs that make up a culture. It makes sense, then, to start the myth step by identifying some of the many cultures within which we exist and the myths that fit together to create those cultures.

 

Dance of Intimacy

- Harriet Lerner

Raising Cain

- Michael Thompson and Dan Kindlon

Reviving Ophelia

- Mary Pipher

Masculinity Reconstructed

- Ronald Levant

The Games People Play

- Eric Berne

Gender Trouble

- Judith Butler

 

We live within layers and layers of cultures, brought to us by our country, our region, our family, our religion, our ethnicity, our politics, our schools, our profession, our sports teams, our age group, etc. Each layer has innumerable myths about “how things are.” For instance, some countries decide to support a standing military, other countries choose not to. The myths underlying that choice involve how resources are spent, whether or not one ought to be able to defend oneself, the acceptability of violence, etc. Some regions ban smoking in public places, others do not. The myths underlying that choice involve arguments about public safety versus individual rights. Some families believe that chores should be shared among all members. Other families believe that parents do the chores and kids are allowed to play. The myths underlying family chores revolve around child development philosophies.

It can seem overwhelming to imagine exploring all these cultures made up of all these myths. What is important to grasp is that we have been told countless stories about “reality.” Once we understand that the traditional stories are just one way to explain our existence, we can then start to believe that there may be other equally valid ways to understand our life. And one of those other equally valid ways may be a much better fit for us as individuals.

Okay. We understand that, although we learned many thousands of myths when we were very young, we don’t have to live now according to all of them. In fact, many, many of these inherited myths may be problematic for us specifically. But how do we find the problematic myths?

We are generally able to recognize the beliefs from our cultures of origin that best fit us and that least fit us for these are the traditions we either cherish deeply or reject out of hand. We integrate our cherished myths seamlessly into our adult lives because we are very willing to put effort into maintaining these meaningful traditions. To the extent we loved the way our family celebrated holidays, worked to recycle resources or committed time and energy to physical fitness, we will diligently preserve these customs in our own adulthood. We may adjust things a bit, such as substituting yoga for running, but our dedication to maintaining the tradition is wholehearted. At the other end of the scale, poorly fitting traditions have often already been rejected by the time we reach adulthood. If we can’t abide the idea of getting married, of not having a tattoo or taking Latin in college, we may have already rebelled despite the risk of family disapproval.

In general, as we pass into our twenties, there tend to be two kinds of myths that remain a source of unease. The first kind are those myths that obviously misfit us but that come with too high a price to pay for rejecting. For instance, choosing a religious affiliation different from that of the family, dating someone from another culture or wanting to move far away to take advantage of a great job opportunity may cause too much turmoil within the family for us to be brave enough to seriously consider. We are aware that we are not fitting with our culture of origin, but we feel unable to break free from the life that someone important to us still wants us to adopt.

Myths of the second kind are those that lie hidden within us, directing our lives from a place in our minds outside of our awareness. We would be more than happy to replace this second type of myth if we were aware of its existence. These inconspicuous standards, however, can be difficult to uncover. Let me use a couple of examples of clients who struggled with this process.

When clients are speaking, I am alert to the possibility that they are unintentionally misspeaking, which I think of in my head as “myth speaking.” (I inherited a love of puns from my dad.) Myth speaking is when someone states a belief that doesn’t truly reflect her/his value system and they are unaware that they are doing so. For example, Mary Louise stated, “If Marcos only wants a platonic relationship, I don’t want to be all upset.” I asked, “Why not?” With very little digging she realized that she was working from a family rule “It is only appropriate to have pleasant feelings.” Not only did she come to realize that she did not believe in that rule but she was very relieved and excited to embrace the opposite – to imagine feeling a range of feelings, including “unpleasant” feelings if this man didn’t want to be in a romantic relationship with her. It felt much more authentic to her to have (and even express) feelings of sadness, rejection and anger than to remain in a static acceptance of a stingy relationship.

Another client, Roger, was afraid to approach his dissatisfied wife sexually until he had the problem that was plaguing their intimacy all figured out. Since a sex life is co-created by two people, this approach of Roger’s was doomed. With some prompting, he was able to realize the twin family rules that were behind this obviously poor choice of strategy – “Never talk about sex.” and “Men are supposed to always know what to do.” When he became aware that these two default values had created a dead end for him in this situation, he decided to prefer another value relative to his marriage – “Sex is best thought of as a physical conversation between equal partners.”

These two types of misfit myths, the highly controversial and the deeply hidden, are the targets of our efforts in the myth step of the myth/choice/truth process. Within the highly controversial mythos we know what old value is pinching us. Within the deeply hidden mythos, we may not know what the badly fitting value is, but we know that we are uncomfortable. So, the whimper of a psychological pinch will tell us where to start looking for misfits. We explore the “shoulds” and “should nots” that cultures have planted within us around the place of pain in our lives. We are seeking to avoid what the brilliant psychiatrist Karen Horney called “the tyranny of the shoulds.” For Mary Louise the exploration was centered around her discomfort with trying to deny negative feelings in a painful relationship situation. Roger needed to explore his anxiety about not inherently knowing how to solve the intimacy problems with his disgruntled wife.

The myth step, then, goes like this: Start with discomfort, list the shoulds and should nots, find the “rule” and then relabel it as “just one option.”

With practice we learn to be alert to the fact that the values, rules and taboos that have been (and are continually) presented to us are just one way to approach life. Our job is to identify them and relabel them as theories rather than truths. There are many, many outstanding self-help books dedicated to this step such as: Dance of Intimacy, Raising Cain, Reviving Ophelia, Masculinity Reconstructed and the old classic The Games People Play.

The choice step

The second step of the myth/choice/truth process is to recognize that, although our beliefs have no more chance of being “right” than anyone else’s (some people believe in life on other planets, others don’t – who’s to say?), we have to choose our beliefs anyway. It is up to us to decide what is true for us about the world and about ourselves in that world. It is quite taxing to set our own standards. How do we know what it will mean to us down the road if we decide now to have only one child, save just 2 percent of our salary or take a year off to write a book? Even if the underlying values make sense to us now (zero population growth, live for today and professional risk-taking), will those choices still work for us in a decade or two? It helps here to realize that we don’t have to choose for all time, but rather we can simply choose what we believe in most and want to try out next. Yes, we are designing our individual world, but we can do it one step at a time.

Once committed to the act of choosing, we must then commit to the process of choosing. To that end, we must know how one goes about making a choice, existentially speaking. When distilled down to its essence, making a choice involves both taking a risk in terms of perhaps being wrong (as described in the previous paragraph) and also facing a sizable loss. The loss is created by the process of choice which requires that we generate many good options, say yes to one and say no to all the others. Sounds easy enough. It isn’t. And it isn’t, all because of those two little words – “good” and "no."

If you cannot generate many “good” options, then you have little incentive to make a choice because you are facing the dismal act of choosing the lesser among evils. (This is another reason why being exposed to cultural variety is so valuable – it enhances our natural ability to explore options and imagine possibilities. If diversity wasn’t provided for you already in your life, you must seek it out now and expand your boundaries.)

Similarly, if you can generate many “good” options it becomes difficult to say "no" to all of them but one, because all the lost choices are, to some extent, desirable. A familiar example of this difficulty is reflected in the despair heard when young college students wail “I can’t decide what to major in. I want to study everything!” If we are unaware of the fact that a "yes" means that we must simultaneously say "no" to many, many nifty other options, our willingness to make a choice will be hampered. The little part of us knows what we may be giving up (aka our petulant side) will silently sabotage our efforts to reach a decision.

I hope you can see here why choosing is so difficult. It requires an understanding of nearly every single concept discussed on this website. You have to know and like yourself so that your choosing self can represent your needs well (the topics of the first three sections of the website). You have to know and like the world within which you live so that your choosing self can trust the incoming data underlying the choice (the topics of the fourth section of the website.) You have to be both familiar with and well practiced in the skills that all of us need if we are to fully engage in designing our lives (the topics of the fifth and sixth sections of the website.) Your life has to matter to you enough to motivate you to make choices, and a life only matters to the extent it is connected to a social network (the topic of the seventh section of the website.) And, finally, you have to understand the human condition sufficiently enough to support the existential intelligence needed to make coherent choices (the topic of this section of the website.)

The choice step requires great imagination and commitment. It also involves courage for, as Sartre was fond of saying, our choices must be lived to be sincere, not merely given column space in the text of our lives. To that end, we must bravely enact our choices in order to determine for ourselves whether or not they fit our emerging character. We must choose and then do. To continue with our examples, if Mary Louise and Roger want to truly realign their lives according to their freshly chosen values, they must put the new values into action. Mary Louise can’t just think about how freeing it would be to have a full range of emotions accessible to her. She will have to learn to repeatedly break the family motto of “Show Only Happy Emotions” by expressing a variety of feelings – some of which will be unpleasant. Roger has to break with tradition and approach his wife to discuss how to work together to improve their intimacy. And he may have to do this more than once.

Which brings us to our third step.

The truth step

The third and final step in the myth/choice/truth process is enacting our choice consistently enough that it becomes our truth. Just because we can’t prove that our personal mythos is “correct” doesn’t mean that we don’t have to believe sincerely in it. By this I mean we have to understand deeply that adulthood starts on the other side of recognizing the need to devote ourselves to our chosen values, for they must become our individual version of the truth. Without the passion of commitment, our convictions will fail to thrive and we will find ourselves defaulting to someone else’s story about the way the world works.

If, for instance, we decide that our role as daughter needs to incorporate attention to an ailing parent even if that parent has always been unkind and rejecting, then we need to show up in that parent’s life and enact the role we have chosen to value. We will need to do so over and over again, even in the face of continual rejection from that elder parent. If, on the other hand, we have come to believe that daughterhood does not entail automatic care of toxic parents, then we need to struggle with setting boundaries in the face of perhaps considerable pressure from others who think we should donate care-taking time and effort. And the pressure to participate in the care of the parent will not necessarily ever abate. We need to commit to enacting our choice for however long we value the underlying myth that we have chosen. As is most often the case existentially, laying values down in our day-to-day existence can be the most difficult step.

The politics of myth/choice/truth

We increase our existential intelligence by learning to cull through the “rules” of living that we have inherited and to assess their veracity and applicability to our individual lives. The rules of our cultures around what is meaningful may apply to us all of the time, some of the time or none of the time. They may need to be modified slightly or discarded wholly. It is our job to make this distinction, to be a rebel. Rebellion, however, doesn’t need to signify a move toward chaos. The more people challenge automatic compliance, the greater the chance they have of living authentically. The more that people are authentically self-designed, the more mature and powerful they will be. The more mature and powerful the population, the more vital, stable and productive will be that society. It is also true that the greater the percentage in a population of folks who have connected with their passion, the greater the mental health of that community. When people are engaged in their passions, they are full of hope and power. Their contributions will likely be wonderful.

Summation

This process of customizing our cultural beliefs means we have to (get to) write our own stories, though not necessarily from scratch. We wisely choose to build upon the rich traditions of our cultures, resulting in a delightfully unique hybrid. The process of myth/choice/truth will cycle through all the stories of our lives on a continual basis. And each decade of our life will bring a new dimension to the challenge of characterizing our personal mythos.

Over time, with practice, we learn to identify the myths available to us (or write our own), we choose one that we value to try out, and we live according to that myth until we find it doesn’t fit us or until it becomes our truth. When this process becomes routine for us, we will find ourselves with a clear mind powered by the latest operating system that has been finely customized to provide us with personal, reliable guidance. The default settings that we have chosen to leave in place will be those we believe represent the best of our families and our cultures. When we manage to navigate our way through this process, we are left feeling mature and ardent hearted.





Note: The myth/choice/truth process is a critical existential skill needed to rebut the lie that, because adults are always right, resistance is futile. An equally important existential skill needed to self-determine is the ability to reject the predominant strategy used by adults to train youngsters away from self-determination. The strategy I’m referring to is punishment and the specific punishment is shame. If you have not already done so, please read the article on shame.

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.