Mythologizing and Complexity

Adapted from Cultural Maturity—A Guidebook for the Future

A key to understanding the seductions and risks of easy answers concerns what we might call the mythologizing of experience.  Mythologizing may be for some an unfamiliar notion, but it is not conceptually difficult. When we mythologize, we give something magical importance (whether in a deified or demonized sense). The basic idea that culture might have “parental” significance reflects this mechanism. With regard to complexity, mythologizing is not so much about leaving out aspects of experiences as interpreting what we experience in distorted ways that protect us from complexity.

Projection and mythologizing are related. When we project we do three things. We split some whole into two parts—for example, good and evil, leader and follower, masculine and feminine. We give one half to the other for safekeeping. And then we mythologize each part. We do more than just give a part a way. We give the projected part—and at the same times ourselves— special significance.

Individual development provides a good reference. The relationship between a parent and a child is always at some level symbolic. The parents of a two-year-old are more than simply people. To her they are all-knowing and much larger than life. It is critical that she see them this way. She needs them to be deities if she is to find the courage to venture forth into an as yet foreign and easily confusing world. This need alters and distorts what she sees. But in its timeliness, it does so in ways that are helpful, indeed essential.

In a similar way, through time and across continents, our cultural beliefs have provided us with elevated—mythologized—images. Beyond the general way we make culture a symbolic parent, we find endless more specific expressions. Our particular county’s flag affirms its divine status as a nation state and, by implication, our own special status—however tenuous in a global world. We’ve likewise symbolically elevated leaders and experts of all kinds—political leaders, professors, ministers, renowned scientists—giving them a standing and a perceived level of knowledge beyond that of the mere mortal. And we relate to our own culture’s beliefs about what is morally right—however disparate such beliefs may be from one culture to the next—with an emotional charge which makes obvious that their significance to us lies beyond mere conventions of behavior.

Mythologizing necessarily distorts reality. But when such distortion is timely, it benefits us. Specifically it has done so in our relationship with complexity. It has kept complexity—in all its aspects, not just multiplicity, but also the inescapability of change, the pervasiveness of uncertainty, and  the depths of life’s interconnections—within manageable bounds. Joseph Conrad observed that “every age is fed on illusion, lest men should renounce life and the human race should come to an end.”  Mythologizing is a primary mechanism for such illusion. It has served us.

But mythologizing today, only to narrowly simplistic answers—religious, intellectual, political, moral. It also keeps people dangerously at odds. I like how Emerson described the problematical role of mythologizing in national allegiances: “When a whole nation is yelling patriotism at the top of its lungs, I am fain to explore the cleanliness of its hands and the purity of its soul.” The absence of such emotional/conceptual “cleanliness” puts us at risk as never before—and not just  on the global stage. It keeps us from questioning institutional structures and practices that badly need reexamination, and leaves us vulnerable to exploitation and corruption. (We could not have had widespread, yet unchallenged, sexual abuse by clergy without this “protective” mechanism.) More personally, it blinds us to uncertainties and complexities that might seem on first blush harsh, but which ultimately provide keys to a vibrant and mature life.

Certain of our mythologizings, and indeed some that could most easily lead us astray, are particularly easy to miss. I think of how we mythologize ourselves as a species. We become God’s special children set in opposition to a natural world that is at best a realm of mindless reflexes, at worst dangerously untamed. Either view makes for ultimately unsatisfactory choices that in the end put not just nature, but also ourselves as an inextricable part of it, at risk. Later we will look at how in a related way we mythologize conscious awareness and human will. Doing so was central to the great successes ushered in by Enlightenment understanding and the Modern Age more generally. Today’s new questions call for a more humble, but also ultimately more powerful, picture.

We see important first steps beyond mythologized belief in the best of modern leadership and understanding, though such first steps do not necessarily make us more comfortable. We reside in an often awkward in-between stage—a fact that can amplify the dangers, or at least the confusion of what we are experiencing. We may say we want our leaders to get off their pedestals—and increasingly we knock them off if they will not step off voluntarily—but we often respect them less when they do. A political leader today must walk the line between the mythic and mortal like a tightrope if he or she wishes to be elected, much less stay in office. And the transitional nature of new realities in every sphere makes the posture of anyone in authority (and indeed any exercising of authority—even the most personal) equally precarious.

But with the majority of the challenges we face, we have made at least a solid beginning. I am not claiming that we are somehow beyond mythologizing experience. With the multi-million dollar salaries paid to modern sports heroes and the front page notoriety given to the tabloid lives of Hollywood “superstars,” a person could argue that mythologizing has never been more prominent. But if we look to dynamics closer to the core of everyday personal and cultural decision-making—such as those that define global relations, leadership, and love—we see that mythologizing today has ceased to serve a creative cultural function—and for a growing number of people has diminishing appeal.