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Archive for the ‘myth’ Category

“Let us now compare mythologies”
-Leonard Cohen

One advantage of blogging, I find, is that it reveals my personal mythology. A single entry might not do so, but if I look over a few dozen entries (something I rarely do, because the urge to edit and improve is almost irresistible), a definite pattern starts to emerge.

When I talk about mythology, I’m not talking about lies. Rather, I’m talking about myths in the anthropological sense – stories that explain where you come from and why you do things in certain ways. In this sense, whether a myth is true or a lie is only of secondary importance. What matters is whether the myth sustains you and gives a sense of identity.

For instance, to an American, does it really matter whether America was settled by the best and brightest from older countries? Or, to a feminist, whether a prehistoric universal matriarchy ever existed? You can examine and even debunk such stories – and there can be a certain satisfaction in disproving what everybody knows – but you won’t be thanked, and your proofs will not be welcomed (if anything, you’ll be pilloried). What matters is not the objective reality of myth, but the sense of identity it gives a culture or an individual. If a story helps to sustain identity, that is all that really counts.

So what is my personal myth? Looking through blog entries about my past, I’d say it could be summarized in five words: triumphing after a bad start. Or, in a single word: endurance.

Time and time again, the narrative I tell about myself begins with me doing something badly. Often, I am humiliated by how inept I am. But I am determined, and through perseverance, I make myself competent and even highly skilled where I was once inept.

Considering this story more closely, I find that it has all sorts of implications. For one thing, it’s not a story tied to a particular group or set of circumstances; instead, it’s about attitudes and applicable to a number of situations. Since I’ve always considered myself a generalist with a broad array of interests, I’m fascinated to find that view reflected in my personal myth.

For another, it’s about education – again, not surprising considering that I’ve always believed in education for its own sake, and research is what I currently do for a living.

But what I find most interesting is that my myth that emphasizes persistence. It make no claim to my brilliance or talent. Natural ability isn’t even a consideration. Instead, it’s about learning from mistakes and not giving up. Learning to speak, learning good handwriting, becoming a high school running champion, finding the right profession – time and time again, the story I tell myself is about plodding along until I do or find the right thing.

That’s not surprising, I suppose. The one story I knew about someone with my name when I was growing up was the one about Robert the Bruce learning persistence from a spider. And, as a distance runner, I had concrete knowledge of the importance of endurance, because it wasn’t speed or even strategy that won races so much as the ability to keep going. But, until now, I hadn’t realized how deep-rooted such values were inside me.

In fact, I’m not sure that this is a myth I would have consciously chosen for myself. It has limits, such as a distrust of anything that comes too easily. Perhaps, too, it suggests a lack of confidence, and an expectation of failure the first time. It certainly dropped me into the worst stress that I have ever endured in my life.

Nor, now that I have opened up the myth to examine it, am I completely sure that it is always true. I can think of exceptions to the myth, and, looking back, I think I can see places where I have tugged the raw material of my life to make it fit into the myth better, like the corner of a sheet on a bed. In other places, I suspect I’ve exaggerated or even made up things out of whole cloth.

Still, for better or worse, the myth is mine. And like all myths, what matters in the end is that, on some level, I’ve made it a part of me.

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