Jeff Swain’s new column on The Good Life explores the myths that tell the story of what it is to be a man.
Life is narrative and the only way we come to understand the world and our place in it is through story. Everything we do is an unfolding narrative. We are all artists in the sense that we create our own unique story as we make our way—a way that begins with a physical birth and ends with our literal death. This is true for the baker and the banker as well as the president and the homeless man living in my town. Living is an act of creation. Whether you accept that, or believe that, it doesn’t matter. It just is.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure: My name is Jeff Swain. I do not claim to be an expert on anything. What I do claim to be is a seeker. I want to know things. Most of all I want to know what it’s all about. I want to understand why I’m here. And what purpose I serve, for myself, for humanity, and for the grand scheme of all things. This makes me no different from you or anyone else living, or who has lived, or who will come to live.
It is because I want to know things and it is because I believe life is story that I’ve come to myth. Myths are the stories we tell ourselves; myths are our attempt to explain the otherwise unexplainable. In his foreword to the Complete and Unabridged Bulfinch’s Mythology, the anthologist Alberto Manguel writes that myth is a form of “social thinking” and I agree with him. Myths go beyond the individual and his, naturally limited, understanding of the world and get into our collective way of understanding things. Myths represent the universal psyche of mankind, what the psychoanalyst C.C. Jung referred to as our “collective unconscious”, the universal database from which all thought comes from. It’s important to note her that myths are not our collective unconscious; rather, they are the way we come to understand it. Jung captured this in The Structure of the Psyche when he wrote that of “mythology could be taken as a sort of the projection of the collective unconscious.” In other words, they are the stories we create to explain the unexplainable.
Jung went on to say, and what is most relevant to this column, that the collective unconscious could be studied in one of two ways, through mythology or through psychoanalysis of the individual. This column will do a little of both. Ostensibly, it will be about the study of what it means to be a man though time. Together we’ll explore various myths, practices, cultures, and such from various places in time and relate that to what is happening with and to men today. Oftentimes we’ll look at real people as a way of gaining access to the greater understanding of what is going on.
But before we begin there is one question that begs to be answered: Why study myth? What purpose does it serve me today, as a man living in the modern world, perhaps struggling to make ends meet while juggling the demands of work and family? What can I get out of it? My answer, simply, is everything.
You see the study of myth is not the study of the past, no; it is the study of the now. It is the study of the self and your place in the world. Joseph Campbell, the foremost authority of mythology who ever lived, said that mythology is “progressive rather than regressive”. He argues, and I agree with him, that myths are generative in nature. Myths are living things that help us create our story.
There is a fallacy surrounding myth that it calls for us to return to something, to regress back to a past way of living or doing things. But to put this interpretation on the study of myth is to do it an injustice. Myths are for the now; they are for you living in your own time. Myths are, as Thomas Mann said, “the foundation of life.” We use myth to write our story and in writing our story we create myth.
Now, creation is not easy. Life is not easy. In fact, to the contrary it is often hard and filled with pain. And, perhaps the biggest pain of all may lie in our knowing that Life, in its grandest sense, is indifferent to us and whether we are happy or sad, good or evil. Life, for lack of a better word to describe it, has one aim—to keep pushing on. It does this through means of birth and death. What is born and what dies is almost immaterial. And, a great deal of the myth we’ve developed has been in response to this knowledge. As far as we know, we humans are the only the animals aware of their mortality. The brain whose incredible development over millions of years has enabled us to thrive has also gifted us with other capabilities, such as the ability to know from a very young age that our days on Earth are numbered: that we will die.
We will die as sure as we will live and the question asked of all of us is, how do we want to do it. We answer that through the myths we write.
I hope you will find this column interesting, educational, and fun to read. I also hope we’ll interact. Please share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences on the subject. I’ll respond as appropriate and we’ll talk about things. That’s the other fallacy that surrounds myth: that it is the realm of the sages, and academics, and holy men. If that were true there’d be no point is studying myth at all. No, myth is about us. Let’s take it back and have some fun with it.
Jeff Swain’s column, “Man on the Run,” will appear on The Good Life on Mondays beginning November 11, 2012.
Read more: Ancient Male Rites of Passage, by Earl Hipp. How do you know when you’ve become a man?
Image credit: Joaquín Martínez/Flickr