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Story and Myth

Story and Myth

by William H. Benson

December 31, 2015

     An article appeared in the New York Times two weeks ago, “Jane Austen’s Guide to Alzheimer’s.” In it, Carol J. Adams described her difficult days caring for her mother, who had lost the battle to Alzheimer’s. For solace, Carol listened to a recorded book, Jane Austen’s “most-perfect novel,” Emma.

     Carol identified with the novel’s main character, Emma Woodhouse, who felt trapped and housebound as she cared for an ailing parent, her father, Henry Woodhouse. “When a slight dusting of snow alarms her father, he asks her, ‘What is to be done, my dear Emma? What is to be done?’”

     Emma learned to redirect her father into more pleasant thoughts and activities, and so too would Carol do the same with her mother. “With Emma’s help,” Carol said, “I could give more and not feel I was losing myself in caregiving, because she [Emma] was always there, in my mind.”

     Jane Austen published Emma on December 23, 1815, two hundred years ago last week.

     By reading and applying the lessons contained in Austen’s literary work, Carol claimed for herself the mental strength and resolve she needed to remain calm and focused during a trying time. She thought, “If Emma could do it, then so can I.”

     Throughout the centuries of human existence men and women have relied upon literature and its corollary, scripture, to guide their lives. Cave dwellers who once sat around campfires swapped their stories and in so doing handed them to the next generation. Then, printed books appeared, and in recent years electronic books. The media may change, but the stories are still human, all too human.

     A story can so overwhelm certain people that they latch on to it, claim it for themselves, and it becomes that person’s life pattern. They hear the story, they perceive its main idea, and they construct their lives to match the story’s. They re-enact the past in the present and that then reflects their future.

     I wonder though: Is it always wise to rely upon a single story to guide our lives?

     If teenagers read Romeo and Juliet too closely, they may decide to fall in love and marry at a young age, and experience the same disastrous results for themselves and their families. Then, each of the world’s tyrants have read from Macbeth and his Lady’s playbook: kill King Duncan, seize power and the government’s reins, and then kill or drive off all who dare to challenge him or her.

     Would anyone want to emulate Hamlet? A student, devoted to philosophy, he cannot bring himself to commit to meaningful action. Instead, he wonders aloud, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” And would anyone want to live like Iago, who tells monstrous lies to Othello, and causes immense damage, to the point that Othello smothers his beloved wife Desdemona?

     If followed to the letter, great literary works can mislead people, but if applied in a wise way, they can expand our lives, prevent overwhelming damage, and foster appropriate decisions and responses.

     Perhaps the story that we follow is too small relative to the giant challenges that we encounter. It is like asking Mozart to play “The Cat Came Back,” a juvenile camp song. Such tunes and lyrics fall short and fail to provide a framework for an effective human decision. The lesson: choose stories wisely.

     In 1988, Bill Moyers, a journalist, interviewed Joseph Campbell, a writer who had investigated hundreds of myths, and published two books, The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Masks of God.  Campbell explained to Moyers that each culture carries its own set of myths, but when looked at in total, they are similar and universal.

     Human myths convey the obvious: immoral actions destroy those who commit them, but moral actions uplift and strengthen men and women and societies. Also, solitary heroes who dare to stand up for justice and truth will conquer the enemies of lies and deceit, no matter how beaten and crushed.

     Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist, published a bestseller, Thinking Fast and Slow, in 2011, and in a chapter he entitled “Life as a Story,” he writes, “A story is about significant events and memorable moments, not about time passing.” “This is how the remembering self works: it composes stories and keeps them for future reference.” “We think of life as a story and wish it will end well.”

     “Caring for people often takes the form of concern for the quality of their stories, not for their feelings.” “We can be deeply moved by events that change the stories of people.”

     Today the year 2015 ends; tomorrow the year 2016 begins. Today, in the present, we reflect upon our past 365 days and plan for our next 366 days. Throughout 2015, we have accumulated another series of stories, some filled with pain and sorrow, some filled with happiness and pleasure, and some filled with disappointments and dashed hopes. Like Carol Adams, we search for mental strength.

     As Pandora did, let us do our best to keep hope closed inside the jar, for “hope is the only good god remaining among men. The others have left and gone to Mount Olympus.”