‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ ends Mary Oliver in her poem The Summer Day. This line is often quoted not only for its music, but because it poses a critical mythic question to each of us: How will you be you in your lifetime?
I sometimes fantasize how life would have turned out had I been a child prodigy. To be born gifted with an insane talent that propels you straight into the warm arms of an inspired life and obvious career seems to me an enviable trajectory. An instantly satisfying myth. But in my story, it was not to be. In fact, I’m a late developer. Yes, I have a resume that here and there boasts some notable features, but life has mostly zigged then zagged (with a bit more zag than zig) and I have found myself identifying more with Woody Allen in Deconstructing Harry when he questions whether he’s out of focus, than with any of the more alluring goddess archetypes, which I would prefer.
Then last year my father died unexpectedly and a few months later I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. Two brisk moves from the department of Life and Death and almost immediately my blurry worldview stopped pixelating as the kaleidoscope turned, twice. The call for me to drop my distractions and savor each day by noticing and following my core truth could not have been clearer.
Why does it take life events of this magnitude to help us suddenly wake up and see our personal myth with such clarity? Does our world have to rupture in order for it to simplify? And is there not perhaps an easier way.
Dr. Dennis Slattery is Distinguished Professor in the Mythological Studies program at Pacifica. He says that what people are really seeking – more than joy or happiness, or sometimes even a modicum of suffering – is coherence. And here is where myth is uniquely helpful. Myths, he explains, provide an organizing principle that takes the ordinary disparate happenings on any given day and organizes them into a patterned narrative. Feinstein and Krippner in their book Personal Mythology describe myth as ‘a loom on which we weave the raw materials of our daily experience into a coherent story.’
Jung put it even more strongly, saying, ‘The man who thinks he can live without a myth, or outside it, is an exception. He is like one uprooted, having no true link either with the present or the past.’
And yes, while some of us skid into our personal myths via a series of dramatic life-altering events, thankfully this is not a prerequisite for working effectively with myths on an ongoing basis. For this purpose the Jung Platform have invited Dr. Dennis Slattery to conduct a four week course, called Your Personal Myth and the Quest for Meaning to educate us on this potentially life-changing topic. To find out more click here.
In addition to the importance of noting the recurring patterns beneath our stories on a daily basis, Dr. Slattery recommends questioning our narrative identities now and then, to see whether they still fit. Sometimes we need to release the power that an old myth has over our lives to make space for a new one. He recalls a conversation with Canadian mythopoetic author and Jungian analyst, Marion Woodman, who told him that Wisdom, for her, was the ability to discern what parts of her personal myth were no longer operative, and needed to be jettisoned or cut away, because they were freezing her in place and curtailing her freedom.
Dr. Slattery also points out that importantly, people tend to have many myths running concurrently, in the same way as Aristotle in his Poetics observed that we are all a combination of tragedy, comedy, epic and lyric. In fact, he notes, the danger of living one myth can lead to a form of mythic fundamentalism, which often has us feeling trapped. The psyche, according to Jung, is polytheistic. To over-identify with one single myth is not only a missed opportunity, but also a disservice to the complexity within each of us. It is also, Dr. Slattery believes, the root of terrorism.
In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung, towards the end of his life, spoke of his own personal myth, saying, ‘Thus it is that I have now undertaken, in my eighty-third year, to tell my personal myth. I can only make direct statements, only “tell stories”. Whether or not the stories are “true” is not the problem. The only question is whether what I tell is my fable, my truth.’
Things do indeed fall apart. And thank heavens they do, because as they fall they drag the old stories away with them, if we are prepared to let them go. Tired grudges, petty obsessions, the expectations of others, circular ego wars… these kinds of things can be released over time when we learn how to reevaluate our personal myth and work with the evolving stories that are interwoven into it daily. Learning how to navigate and live our myths teaches us the practice of continual reopening – making room for a ‘wild and precious’ life, finding space for a truth that is urgent, beautiful and ours alone.
Dr. Dennis Slattery presents a four class course on these ideas, called Personal Myth and the Quest for Meaning.
Susan MannResident Blogger
Susan is a writer and a teacher. Her interest in Jung and post Jungian work has grown out of a love for mythology, dreams and the imagination, as well as a fascination for the creative possibilities that exist within the shadow.More Posts by Susan Mann