MythBlast | Telling Big Stories: Paradox & Personal Myth

“Tell me your myth that the whole world may turn to myth.”
Nikos Kazantzakis


The Talking Heads were right. We can’t truly know where we are going without reflecting upon where we have been. We look backwards to understand ourselves today and to prepare ourselves for the future.This spiraling, paradoxical movement is inherent within the logic of myth and, as Wolfgang Geigerich would phrase it, the logic of the soul.  In The Soul’s Logical Life, he concludes, “The subject matter of psychology, the soul, is the contradiction and difference.” (38)

The soul is the place of paradox. We must go back to move forward, go down to come up, be consumed to be whole.

As we tell each other our myths, we step outside the action for a moment to hear the story. And in that outsider moment, we can catch our breath and begin to see our big stories as constructs that live larger than we do, architecture that can help us reflect into and back out from what we understand not only about ourselves and the world around us. We rarely learn when we are in the heat of the experience; we need distance to see. Myth can exquisitely give us that distance.

It’s very tempting, as we try to climb into these big stories, to want them for our own. To talk about one or more of them as our ‘personal myth’ and settle into the idea that it belongs to us as an individual. “I am Persephone,” we say, for example, “always stepping into the underworld…”

It’s a sexy idea, this image of the personal myth, offering us a glimpse into patterns and meanings larger than our generally work-a-day lives, and, if we grab it literally, offering us a dose of mythic mojo to bolster our sense of mattering in the world. It’s far more fun to be Persephone in all of her divine tragedy than just someone who hasn’t figured out how to climb out of feeling trapped in our own dark corners.

I think this is a dangerous move, seductive but ultimately reductive.

In order to see the small, we look to the large. And while we can see the large in the small – the mythos in our own lives – to begin to see ourselves as somehow mythic loses the paradox and point of myth. Myths are inherently vaster than we will ever be, and while we may have deep insights that emerge when we find stories that resonate in and for us, if we believe we can claim them, we have lost them.  If we decide that this myth is the story of our lives, we have weakened both stories: by presuming to believe that a collective mythos could be claimed by one person, we deflate the meta-story, and by broadening our exquisitely complex human-scale lives into the stroke of a mythic arc, we lose our nuance.

To know ourselves, we must hear the stories of others.  To know those around us, we must see our reflections within them, and to know ourselves, we must see their reflections in us.

So, perhaps the personal myth is simply the myth that we have, today, chosen to tell.

Joseph Campbell talks about personal myth (and, incidentally, doesn’t necessarily agree with me) in his audio lecture Personal Mythology. You can download a copy for only $5.99! 

All the best,

Leigh Melander, Ph.D.

About Leigh

Leigh has an eclectic background in the arts and organizational development, working with inviduals and organizations in the US and internationally for over 20 years. She has a doctorate in cultural mythology and psychology and wrote her dissertation on frivolity as an entry into the world of imagination. Her writings on mythology and imagination can be seen in a variety of publications, and she has appeared on the History Channel, as a mythology expert. She also hosts a radio who on an NPR community affiliate: Myth America, an exploration into how myth shapes our sense of identity. Leigh and her husband opened Spillian, an historic lodge and retreat center celebrating imagination in the Catskills, and works with clients on creative projects. She is honored to serve as the Vice President of the Joseph Campbell Foundation Board of Directors.

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