Sunday, December 25, 2011

Into the Forest - the Value of Literary Myths for Personal Insights

When I was a little girl, like many children, I lived a divided life. Perhaps you remember your own. I separated a vivid fantasy life from a rather rigid attachment to absolute, concrete truth.

On the one hand, I sleepwalked and sleeptalked and had powerful dreams. I spun elaborate fantasy games in which I was, of course, the heroine. I firmly believed in ghosts.

Many children decide at some point, probably in order to discount the possibility of parental sex as well as to dismiss ANY genetic connection to their parents, that they are REALLY adopted. In my case, because I really WAS adopted, I KNEW, with TOTAL assurance, that my absent mother was going to come and whisk me away on the eve of my birthday. Depending on how well I was getting along with my Mom that year, I envisioned this nighttime visitor as either a horrible harridan or a beautiful princess, either one with magical powers. On those years when I yearned for her, I would sit up by my window, waiting. When I dreaded her arrival, I would boobytrap my room or invent some excuse to sleep in my parents' room, although I sadly feared that they would be too weak to protect me from my doom.

Many children ask a lot of questions to find order in the universe. The books I chose to read as a child had to answer YES to the question, "Is it true, MOM?": encyclopedias, for example, and those red and blue bound sets of biographies found in school and public libraries. I started at the A's and went right on through: Clara Barton, Founder of the Red Cross; Helen Keller, Humitarian (probably read when I thought I would go blind).

But by the time I reached 10 or 11, the alphabetical biographies and encyclopedias no longer served their purpose of providing order in the universe. True though they might be, their content seemed remote and rather simple, whereas my little life was immediate and becoming overwhelming. These neatly packaged truths did nothing to impede the chaos that seemed to engulf me. My body and emotional life were changing, of course, and even more pressing at the time, my brother had begun to walk, throwing and destroying most inanimate objects in his path, like Godzilla in diapers.

What suddenly appealed to me were those volumes of fairy tales titled by color: The Blue Fairy Book, the Silver, the Yellow, I moved the set into my room and poured over the books. I even asked fewer questions at dinner because these books did not raise vexing questions. Instead, they comforted me and thrilled me. As the central character in my rather theatrical version of life, I felt like every motherless princess I read about. I, too, was besieged by three little demons (siblings) who existed in order to menace my life. Like these heroes and heroines, I too, felt betrayed by the powers I relied on. Imagine my disillusionment when my parents displayed a discomforting inability to protect me from childhood sorrows or predict some holiday disaster. Imagine my discouragement when my sincere prayers, made in good faith, to hit a baseball, to fly, to become invisible, were stonily ignored. Like the characters in these rich tales, found surprising allies, like the childless old crones of my neighborhood, or so they seemed at the time, who ALWAYS bought my Girl Scout cookies, ALWAYS stayed home Halloween night and offered GOOD candy, and ALWAYS helped me every spring to find the mittens I had lost in their snowy yards. These hero tales were my stories. They comforted by acknowledging my grievances and disappointments and self‑doubts. They held out the hope for unexpected help, discovered wisdom, secret caches of weaponry by which to torture my siblings, and well deserved treasures like Christmas presents bought early and hidden.

What I came to realize and would like to share with you, is that life is not so neatly divided into Capital T TRUTH and capital F FANTASY, but rather into several kinds of small t truths and many ways of illuminating those truths. The nonfiction addressed numerous facts, to be sure, and they offered insight into the world but not into myself, with which, like anyone growing up, I was starting to become confused.  For the comforting sense of self‑discovery and of warm connection to others, I recommend the world's rich resource of fairy tales, myths, and stories, particularly hero quests, to be found, in part, in the world's religious traditions.
The importance of religious stories is NOT whether each quote, each passage is divinely revealed, literal truth, albeit in thousands of years of translations. And it is on this very point that I feel sad when I hear the arguments of BOTH fundamentalists and those religious liberals (who would adamantly deny any similarity to one another) who cling to an historical and literary "all or nothing" approach to religious writings. To defend OR dismiss such full bodied stories BECAUSE they are true or BECAUSE they are false misses the point. Our own world experience is not so neatly divided.  Memories of beloved or fearsome fictional characters, for example, are often MORE vivid than our recollection of real people, and often teach us lessons that last longer than those imparted by our three dimensional friends. The point is that these stories do not promise CAPITAL T truths for all people and all moments any more than the encyclopedia does. Rather they offer a rich, resonating, mythological direction to a truth which a reader may need and may discover.

Hero stories, both fiction and nonfiction, tell the same story, speaking to the achingly familiar experiences of their readers.

Most hero stories conform to a set sequence of 4 episodes, with additions, deletions, and variations that make each story special. In general, the episodes are these: a young hero is compelled by circumstances usually beyond his control to undertake a dangerous journey through a strange land. There he must defend himself against evil characters and betrayals, usually with the unexpected aid of some surprising ally. Once he has dispatched the bad guy, the hero wins some treasure, which often includes wisdom, honor, and love. This he must remove from the strange land and take back to civilization and share with others for a satisfactory conclusion.

This format fits such religious heroes as Moses, Buddha, Mohammed, and Jesus. It also corresponds to such great classic heroes as Heracles, Aeneas, and Gilgamesh. It even fits Little Red Riding Hood, Dorothy in Oz and virtually every plucky detective. Significantly, it encompasses many recent heroes, too, like Ben Franklin.

Like this remarkable cast of characters, we too, feel challenged and vulnerable, treading alone through our personal forests, caught without adequate tools or preparation. "If only that experience had occurred to me later in life", we think, "perhaps I could have handled it better."

But one of the inevitable aspects of misfortune IS bad timing. No one says, “now would be a good time to lose a job” or “I choose today to develop a disease.” We are invariably caught off guard. We feel afraid, perhaps disappointed in ourselves. We may well feel angry or bitter. In hero myths, there is no pat answer to the why of life.

Bad, scary, evil things just happen. They happen to you and your children and your friends. Your enemies, too, if that is any consolation. Analyzing why events occur to us may well be important for each of us at some point, but equally important AND validating is losing one's sense of isolated suffering. Grief, fear, and betrayals are social phenomena as well as personal tragedies. At the very least, misery loves company, and these stories provide that. At best, the reader finds tales that sympathetically mirror his own experiences and offer insight for threading through the thicket of life's difficulties.

The first of 4 components in these stories is that most heroes, like us, do not undertake their adventures lightly, or even by choice.  In fact, most start only in order to flee death, a symbolic motivation for all of us. Motherless Hansel and Gretel and Snow White flee wicked stepmothers who would kill them. Similarly, both Jesus and Moses undertake infant journeys to flee imperial decrees to kill the sons of the Jews, almost certainly untrue historically, but symbolic of any baby's and mother's first journey together. Both Moses and Heracles are forced on their way because they committed murder: Moses flees the country and Heracles is forced to pay reparations to the king in the form of ten extraordinary labors.

Let’s consider the application of these stories to our own situations.  Who has not experienced this strong flight sensation, the wish that everything would remain as it was two minutes ago but is no longer; that awful realization that something horrible has happened that compels us to embark we know not where and to we know not what end? A child suddenly injured, damaging words or acts irretrievably said or done, terrible news received and no clock to turn back. These are the awful moments that divide our lives into temporal segments, with everything identified no longer by date but by phrases like "That was before I was diagnosed" or "That was after she died.” Some people even use the term, "my new life" or "my second life". Indeed, these ARE initiations into a new life, a new journey.

The second component is the journey, and very significantly, in NONE of these stories is the trip easy. Our heroes are fought, captured, tricked and tempted by formidable evil characters. They are also betrayed or ignored by powers they believed in. Heracles lived a life so difficult and had to perform labors so perversely chosen that when he died, burned alive by his own wife, Zeus raised him to Olympus as a god. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, like more contemporary anti‑heroes, are mercilessly pursued by evil witches, who, failing to kill them, condemn them to long lasting semi‑deaths. The lengthy Harry Potter epic details the trials and tribulations of his journey from the whipping boy of the Dursleys to a destined battle with Lord Voldemort. In both the codified scriptures and the religious folklore of their religions, Jesus, Moses and Buddha are tempted by every human torment imaginable. Jesus, of course, is tortured and killed by both secular and religious factions representing two aspects of life. He then descends to Hell and returns to the earth, like Aeneas, and also ascends to heaven, representing the unification of the three ancient worlds: earth, heaven, and the underworld, under the jurisdiction of one god.

Many characters are defeated, often betrayed, only to fight again years later. Certainly this was the bitter experience of the Jews exiled in Babylon. During the golden years of David's and Solomon's reigns, around 600 BC, the Jews developed a belief that they were the special, chosen people of a uniquely powerful god. Imagine their bitter humiliation when they were defeated by the infidel Babylonians, the capital beseiged, their people forcibly scattered. How impotent their god must have seemed as they watched His sacred home, Solomon's Temple, easily defiled and then razed to the ground. It is this pain that infuses so many of the Psalms. In fact, when he was the president of our denomination, John Buehrens, said that he never prepared for a funeral without first reading among those poems.

Ben Franklin was deceived three times by powerful men whom he trusted. Let me tell you the most egregious case. Governor Keith of Pennsylvania befriended the clever young printer, then aged 18, inviting him frequently to his home and offering to set him up in the printing business. He encouraged Ben to take passage on a ship to London to procure better quality supplies which the governor would secure with letters of credit as well as letters of introduction. Once on board, the American coast rapidly receding behind him, Ben discovered that the governor had sent along neither letters nor money, and the young man, betrayed by one he had regarded with pride and faith as a benefactor, was abandoned 3000 miles away with no way to return home. Ben worked for several years in London among various printers to earn the money to limp home again, dreams dashed.

Other cases of betrayal involve Daniel and Jason. Jason abandoned his wife Medea who then kills their two children in crazed revenge. Daniel is thrown into the lion's den by coworkers of many years standing who resented his promotion to grandvizier for King Nebcadnezzar. It does not invalidate the power, the truth of these stories to talk about Daniel, Jason, and Ben Franklin as parallel stories.  In fact, I believe the latter PURPOSELY structured his autobiography to EMULATE such hero stories.  He was an accomplished writer, after all.

Life, and our partners in it, are often fickle. Which of these stories does NOT ring true for you? Fleeing defeated, with your tail between your legs, knowing that you will be compelled to fight the same battle again? Feeling humiliated that something or someone you believed in has betrayed you or proved weak or unworthy? Being asked to perform functions you feel utterly incapable of fulfilling? These are not hollow stories, entertainments, opiates of the masses. We have met these characters and they are us.

The third component of these hero stories, following the reluctant start and the difficult path, is that our heroes are almost always aided by the least likely of allies. In fact, many helpers appear in the form of woodland creatures, tiny fairies, or superficially weak people. The Shoemaker's Elves are one example, Aesop’s Fables are full of them, and our first introduction to Yoda in the Star Wars movies makes use of this first impression proved wrong.  St. Christopher's old hermit and the seemingly small Christ child he carries across the river is, too. Certainly Oz is populated by a motley assortment of helpers for Dorothy.  The burning bush is another.  These allies often share a seemingly modest gift that turns out to be powerfully useful, like Moses’ staff, or magic words.

Pagan, Jewish, and Christian folklore are replete with stories of a god or angel disguised as a peasant, child, or animal. Good fortune comes to him who honors the humble visitor, misfortune befalls him who doesn't

These stories represent our tendency to undervalue others, particularly those we don't recognize as important or as like ourselves. What enslaved Hebrew would have expected liberation from an Egyptian prince named Moses? What Arab would have foreseen that Mohammed, of all people, who married a rich widow twice his age to become a very successful merchant, would retreat to the mountains to receive the divine sutras? What Indian would imagine that any prince would leave the pampered life of a palace for the monastic life of physical denial chosen by Buddha? And finally, how ironic that the most sustained Jewish messianic figure to emerge out of the many that appeared during the two centuries beginning this common era, would be NOT the expected military or political hero but a backwater preacher with a short ministry who was ignominiously killed by his own religious leaders.

Have you ever enjoyed some of those serendipitous moments of grace or revelation from a stranger or from someone you least expected? Someone who says exactly what you needed to hear and at precisely the right moment? Even better, each of you meets the needs of the other, connecting somehow, in a deep and resonating way; passengers on a plane, perhaps, never to meet again, or someone you have known for a while but never really noticed. These rich encounters pale in the telling, don't they? "I met this woman," you might begin, "and we started talking and she said ... and I said ... and she knew just what I meant and I understood her. It was as though we spoke shorthandSomehow your world view brightens.

The fourth and final episode of these stories, both of the heroes and of ourselves, is that the hero must leave the strange land in order to claim the treasure and fulfill the responsibilities that await him after his difficult journey. St. Paul makes the point that the Jesus story would be meaningless if he had not risen again. Protestant churches reinforce this by displaying empty crosses, stressing his resurrection, his conquering of death, in heroic fashion. Aeneas descended to Hades to speak with his beloved father, but he must return to earth in order to found Rome with the wisdom he gained below. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty's princes must lead them out of the forest to their own kingdoms, representing civilization, where they will now reign magnanimously. In many traditions, ranging from medicine men to psychotherapy, people undergo trances, a semi-death state to return to the past or some other source of wisdom, and must return to this world to relay to others the wisdom of their mental journey, and to live differently because of it.

The many reported near‑death experiences mirror this too. The experiencer travels through a tunnel illuminated at the end. There he meets a beneficent figure who is variously named, according to the religious tradition of the person. In this lighted place he gains insight into his life from flashbacks or loved ones he meets, and, like Ebenezer Scrooge, feels compelled to return to life in order to make changes based on his experience.

People I have spoken with who have undergone some transforming experience seem to feel similarly compelled to share it with others. This might be as simple as showing baby pictures to every person in a restaurant, because for some parents, the birth of their child is a mystical experience, although personally, that is not what I would call it. Support groups are predicated on this conclusion too. People whose second life, as many call it, begins with cancer, or the birth or death of a child, or sobriety, often need to discuss their journeys: the beginnings, the battles and betrayals, the unexpected grace notes, the light at the end of the tunnel that they have seen or hope to find.

Your lives, your futures are like this too, of course. Together here at church, and separately as well, we hope to find guidance, assurance, wisdom as we stumble from one adventure to another, EVEN when we feel most reluctant to embark on them. Sometimes we actually stride purposely toward one goal only to find, like St. Christopher, that we were looking in the wrong place all along. Other times we are overconfident in the skills we have, like Prince Five Weapons, or in the people we trust, like Ben Franklin, only to discover their limits. At times like this we will find help from one of two untapped resources: overlooked, undervalued allies or ourselves. With that help we can leave the forest and proceed with a renewed sense of purpose and responsibility.

These hero quests in the Bible, fairy tales, novels are not "Helpful Hints from Grimm" of “7 Habits of highly Effective Heroes." They are just real life, capital R, Capital L, with the spirit of life left intact for each of us to discover, and apply.

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