People are always coming up with systems of deities who require our worship. But we’ve got a funny nomenclature for naming these systems.
If the person proposing a new deity is alive, we call it a cult. If the founder dies, but there are still active worshipers, the system moves to the status of religion. But if believers are gone, or mostly gone, or of little status or account in society, the system becomes myth. Thus we have Greek Myths and Norse Myths, but Christianity and Shintoism are still ongoing affairs.
It is not my goal here to talk about religion. There are certainly enough other Wise and Significant Thinkers talking about that. Nor do I want to get into any kind of pissing contest with true believers and true non-believers. I have always felt that religion is a little like underwear. If you have some great. If you don’t also great. If you prefer frilly or scanty or work-a-day, I am very happy for you that you know your preference. But I sure do not want to know about undergarments or lack thereof. I do not want to know what kind, color and state of cleanliness. And even if you think, nay you know, that your underwear is The! Best! Underwear! Ever! I do not want to know this. I do not want you to try and convince me that my life will be better if I wear yours. I respect yours, please respect mine. And, for pete’s sake, keep your underwear the heck out of politics and science.
What I do want to think about the role that myth and its little sib, storytelling, play in our lives. Myths can be politically safe, since everyone involved is dead. Myths can be the stories we tell. Sometimes the word myth takes on a negative connotation, of something we know is not true, yet cling to anyway. But myth as story is powerful.
What I wish to do here, is revive the word myth, and imbue it with all sorts of good and wonderful connotations, as something we need.
I was thinking about this when I re-watched Moana. Why did this movie, with its catchy tunes, good images and middle of the road character development stay with me? Why are all the young women in my group listening to the soundtrack during data collection, rather than their usual music of choice? Why did, a few years back, every young female between 2 and 10 become obsessed with Anna and Elsa and drive every parent bananas with singing Let it Go?
I have often objected to modern movies (and much TV) as being pornography for the young. You’ve got people, of various genders and identities, doing jobs at an age where it’s highly unlikely that they would have achieved the position and worth that they have.
Because everyone wants to see someone with whom they can identify on the screen, and young people as much as, if not more than, anyone need heroes. We need to see people fighting battles and demons and evil and winning. And growing and winning. Moana is simply a hero. She takes on an impossible task, has challenges, set-backs, gives up (for about a nanosecond), and then in the end, bravely stares down her antagonist, to triumph and literally restore beauty and life to her world.
Maybe as we get older we are more realistic at looking at the day. Maybe as we get old, we regret the undone things, but don’t quite see the arc of potential stretching out in front of us. Maybe we are tired running a home and a lab and a life and unrealistic, fictional, mythic heroes get in the way of putting dinner on the table and the laundry folded and the lecture prepared.
Sometimes, as we get older, heroes are hard to have. One is all too aware of the clay feet of our heroes, their flaws and falls and facades. One is sensitive to one’s own shortcomings, all the things one should have, could have, ought to have by now, done. When someone, especially a peer, is pointed out as doing better, it is painful, like a sharp paper cut that won’t go away. Yes, I too might have been an astronaut, but for, but, but, but. I am mired in dirty diapers, screaming children, and unfunded grant proposals, and not living that exotic fascinating and funded life that this alleged hero is living. I can barely teach my class to these snot-nosed children, or snotty adolescents, but really I’d like to be the Senator from New York. Or even just Delaware. It is hard to be gracious, let alone admiring, of the people who achieved the dreams you had 30 years ago.
Mythos can help. They’re not real. We know they are not real, and so do the young women in my lab and so do the 10 year old who want to learn to sail and navigate by the stars. Every old lady can close her eyes and dream of catamarans. Especially when there is a strong old-lady character in the movie.
When I watch Moana, am I thinking “convincing Maui is like convincing the NIH” or “the crab is the dept chair from hell?”. No, my tasks and challenges and trials are not so simple, no so black and white and clear cut. But watching the movie makes me a little happier, a little more positive about those problems.
The myths and stories and legends may have started as a mechanism for teaching children, for helping them paint the arcs of their lives. And modern movies still do this, filled with young people achieving unrealistic goals. The modern troubled adolescent who takes on the whole, very evil, establishment, and wins through their pure courage, genius or genetically given wizardly skills gives our mired in the real world adolescents that same bit of hope. Maybe a bit of courage. But certainly the basis for the dreams that life is made of.