Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Mythic Life

Myth is one of the most misunderstood concepts in our vocabulary. We have, unfortunately, equated it with untruths or lies. A more generous definition is a system of outdated beliefs. Most of us willingly accept Norse, Greek, or Roman gods as mythology, but we don't see that our own beliefs fit within a mythological system.

I believe in a complex mythology that spans from the creation of the earth by the hand of Jehovah under the direction of His Father God. The mythos that inspires my day-to-day life is deeply rooted in beliefs of a premortal and postmortal existence with God the Father. Prophets, scriptures, and good people all contribute to my family and people's belief system or mythos.

N. Scott Momaday explored his family and people's mythos through his autoethnography The Way to Rainy Mountain. The book is laid out in three distinct sections: "The Setting Out," "The Going On," and "The Closing In." Within each section he tells stories, three parts at a time. The first part is the mythos, the experience or believe of the Kiowa. The second part gives a historical context, often drawn from anthropological records. The third part is his own. Here is a sample from the very beginning of Momaday's inspiring work:
You know, everything had to begin, and this is how it was: the Kiowas came one by one into the world through a hollow log. They were many more than now, but not all of them got out. There was a woman whose body was swollen up with child, and she got stuck in the log. After that, no one could get through, and that is why the Kiowas are a small tribe in number. They looked all around and saw the world. It made them glad to see so many things. They called themselves Kwuda, "coming out." 
They called themselves Kwuda and later Tepda, both of which mean "coming out." And later still they took the name Gaigwu, a name which can be taken to indicate something of which the two halves differ from each other in appearance. It was once a custom among Kiowa warriors that they cut their hair on the right side of the head only and on a line level with the lobe of the ear, while on the left they let the hair grow long and wore it in a thick braid wrapped in otter skin. "Kiowa" is indicated in sign language by holding the hand palm up and slightly cupped to the right side of the head and rotating it back and forth from the wrist. "Kiowa" is thought to derive from the softened Comanche form of Gaigwu.
I remember coming out upon the northern Great Plain in the late spring. There were meadows of blue and yellow wildflowers on the slopes, and I could see the still, sunlit plain below, reaching away out of sight. At first there is no discrimination in the eye, nothing but the land itself, whole and impenetrable. But then smallest things begin to stand out of the depths--herds and rivers and groves--and each of these has perfect being in terms of distance and of silence and of age. Yes, I thought, now I see the earth as it really is; never again will I see things as I saw them yesterday or the day before. 
Dr. Suzanne Lundquist, my master's thesis chair and a good friend, taught me how to bring students to an understanding of their own mythic experiences through this same pattern Momaday uses. She called it "Mythos, Logos, Ethos." Sue encouraged our small class to write our own three-part Mythos, Logos, Ethos stories. Here is one of mine:

After rising from intelligence and dust, man and woman dwelt within the Garden naked and unashamed. They ate freely of all of the fruit save the fruit of the tree in the midst of the Garden. God had warned them that death awaited them if they ate or even touched the skin of the fruit. Without curiosity or interest in the fruit of death, man and woman tarried in the garden until the beguiling serpent exposed the power of the fruit to the woman. “Naive one,” the serpent beckoned, “the fruit does not bring death but the knowledge of good and evil.” After she and her husband ate the fruit and opened their eyes, they discovered their nakedness and were ashamed. Desperately, they gathered fig leaves and sewed them into aprons to hide their sexuality. For once they understood good and evil, they discovered that nudity is fearful, shameful, and evil. When the man and woman later heard the voice of God in the garden, they hid their nakedness from their God. Having never before known opposition, their fear exposed them. “Who told thee that thou wast naked?” God asked, knowing His creations had transgressed. They were cast out; man and woman would suffer greatly on the earth outside of the garden.

Christian European colonists generally assessed a nation’s progress on few premises: agriculture and industry, technology, written communication, and  the traditional dress of its peoples. The elaborate costuming of Europeans during the Colonial Era reinforced the supremacy they had granted themselves over the “savages” of the so-called third world. Women in corsets and layers of petticoats signified the apex of civilization while men in starched collars and silk ties epitomized industrial progress. Peoples in arid nations whose clothing was scant and technology appeared less developed were categorized as primitive. The Primitive, the Oriental, the Noble Savage–all acted as symbolic binaries posed against the Civilized European. Exhibitions of “primitive” peoples whose torsos were bare especially fascinated the sexually repressed Victorians in England whose empire spanned the globe. In 18th and 19th century Europe nudity was equated with indecency, and the primitive was associated with sexual promiscuity. Sexual repression was indicative of devotion to God, as embodied by celibate Christian leaders and the image of the Holy Virgin Mother, and such repression maintained the binary between primitivism and civilization.

I am standing before the mirror, naked and ashamed. The skateboarding and playground scars haven’t yet faded; years later they will be lost in the translucence of my skin. The roots of my shame are buried under skin and scars, unattainable and untraceable. I run my fingers over my hips, wrists, and palms, begging for an indication of the origin of my disgust. My mother never told me to despise the curve in my waist, to feel unquestionably dissatisfied with my appearance, or to loathe the inexplicable sexual impulses that sometimes inflict themselves upon my being. Through my mother’s refusal to weigh herself at the doctor’s office, the emotional escapade of clothes shopping, and the mournful loss of her slim thighs, she shows me every day the value of body-hate. Periodic church lessons and firesides on sexual purity reinforce my shame. Standing naked in the steamy bathroom after a shower proves my indecency. Studying the whiteness of my hips and smooth, round belly feels sinful. I am fourteen, virginal, unintentionally preoccupied with sexuality whilst curiously detached from sensuality. The guilt that drives my life begs me to cover my nakedness, clothe my body, hide the white curves. I close my eyes and picture myself standing before God unclothed and unconcealed. Mortified, I reach for the towel. My God tenderly asks me, “Who told thee that thou wast naked?” I search the map of my blue veins under my skin, longing to find the source of my humiliation. My veins tangle like roots, for I have inherited the fruit, the fear, and the sorrows. The legacy unfolds in my flesh, yet I cannot remember the fall.
For two consecutive semesters I taught an experimental service learning section of first-year writing and incorporated The Way to Rainy Mountain into the curriculum as a way for students to displace themselves as the "givers" and reconsider their positions to be more inclusive of the people with whom they served. When students turned in their own stories, I was amazed. Here is one I've never forgotten:
2nd Corinthians 4:8-9 8.We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; 9. Persecuted, but not forsaken, cast down, but not destroyed. Proverbs 3:5-6 5. Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not unto thine own understanding. 6. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.
Untreated depression is the number one cause of suicide, and suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers. Sometimes untreated depression and other struggles lead to unhealthy ways in which we try and deal with the hurt and pain we are feeling. We try and find anything that we can do to take away the hurt, painful feelings, or negative thoughts we are experiencing, such as self-injury. Self-injury is also termed self-mutilation, self-harm, or self-abuse. It can be defined as the deliberate, repetitive, impulsive, non-lethal harming of one’s self, including but not limited to 1) cutting, 2) burning, 3) picking or interfering with wound healing,4) infecting oneself, 5) punching/hitting self or objects, 6) inserting objects in to skin, 7) bruising or breaking bones, and 8) some forms of hair pulling. While these behaviors pose serious risks, they may be symptoms of a problem that can be treated.  Experts estimate that 4% of the population struggle with self-injury. It has the same occurrence between males and females, even though in popular culture it appears to be more prevalent among girls. Those who struggle with self-injury may have many different reasons for their behavior, some of which may be feelings of emptiness, inability to understand or express what they are feeling, loneliness, fear, past abuse, depression, as well as many others. Self-injury, is sometimes a way to cope with emotional pain and suffering.  While self-injury may be someone’s way to cope with or relieve painful or hard-to-express feelings, relief is always temporary, and usually only perpetuates a destructive cycle that continues the struggle. This cycle often means that those who do not get help can become more depressed and shameful, adding to the pain and need for relief, thus perpetuating the cycle.
My battle began in high school. The acrimonious remarks to my face and behind my back from catty girls shattered my already fragile self esteem. Turmoil raged in my life, and I was out of control. I told myself I was searching for answers, but God seemed to have turned His back on me. I had to abate my inner pain, or else I was going to explode. So, I turned to physical pain to lessen my emotional pain. The pressure of the cool metal from the knife against my wrist was a welcome relief. Whenever life became Hell, I would turn to cutting. I was proud and I convinced myself that God didn’t care and I didn’t need help, that I was in control. I felt that God had let me get past my breaking point, and so I had to deal with my depression on my own. I felt ashamed that I had turned to such a harsh form of what in my mind was relief. I thought that I could stop cutting myself at any given time. I couldn’t have been more wrong. My body soon started to crave that physical pain when things in my life went wrong. It was a form of addiction. I was becoming baneful to my own self.  I had to find inner halcyon before it was too late. I swallowed my pride and turned my whole soul over to my Heavenly Father. I begged him for the help I so desperately needed. My parents became lachrymose as I admitted my problem to them, yet they supported me fully in my journey to recovery.  God blessed me with the strength to overcome my battle with self injury. I acknowledged that I needed His help, and he assisted me in my darkest hour.  God will let us get cast down, but not destroy us.
Each of us has a complex mythic life. Our inner lives. We can take time to explore our own mythologies to better perceive that which drives our choices, disappointments, and hopes.

Please share your own Mythos, Logos, Ethos. Even if it's only a glimpse into your mythic life.

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