Mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote about “The Monomyth” or “The Hero’s Journey.” All myths, he postulated, echo the stories of our lives, and the great trials and learning experiences that we face in our individual experience. In Part 1, I explained the myth-model and how it applied to some of the more well-known myths of our modern culture. In Part 2, I explained how we can apply the Monomyth in our own lives. In Part 3, I will give some tools and suggestions to work with our own myths to heal and move on with our lives.
Making Sense of the Narrative
When we endure a difficult and traumatic experience, often the big question is, “why?” “Why did this happen to me?” The need to make sense of the narrative leads us to indulge in a lot of self-destructive behaviors, such as self-blame, blaming the victim, or survivor’s guilt. This is why, in my experience, one of the worst things you can do to people who are in the process of dealing with trauma is to trot out anything that tries to do this work for them. When your husband is in the ICU from a horrible car accident, the last thing in the world you want to hear is, “Maybe he should have zigged instead of zagged,” “What was going on that made you attract this into your life?” or the best one of all, “Everything happens for a reason.”
No. No it doesn’t. Sometimes, crappy things just happen to people who don’t deserve it for no reason at all. It’s a comforting fairy-tale to believe otherwise, but it’s not the case. Nature is sometimes random and cruel, and the truth is, every life is a tragedy. We’re all going to die someday, somehow, and no amount of “attracting positivity” or good behavior is going to change that.
Often in a myth, the Hero is thrust into a situation not of his or her choosing, or sometimes a choice made leads to unexpected (or even expected) results. What did Luke Skywalker do to deserve having the people who raised him horribly murdered and his home destroyed? He was born with strength in the Force, which is really no different from happening to be born gay, or Jewish. Sometimes we’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And sometimes, our lives and circumstances lead us to make poor choices and we suffer for it. There’s a difference between blaming yourself and taking responsibility for your actions.
PTSD: Trapped in the Underworld
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is far more common than people realize. From the perspective of the myth-cycle we are stuck in the Underworld. Sometimes our experience is so overwhelming that we simply cannot process it properly or grieve it appropriately. There are reams of literature written about this phenomenon, particularly from a wartime perspective. It’s been called “shellshock” and “combat fatigue” before we gave it its modern moniker, but it’s been with us since the dawn of human civilization, and it can result from abuse, accidents and bad marriages as much as it can from warfare. Much depression and anxiety in our modern world results from PTSD that is unaddressed because we tell people to “toughen up” and “get over it.” I won’t reiterate a lot of this information here because more knowledgeable people than myself have written about it extensively. I can tell you this: modern psychology still has no idea how to treat PTSD effectively. Many people suffer with it for years. Most never realize why they are suffering.
Shamanism has been more effective. That’s because the work of a shaman is to confront the Dreamtime, which is the realm of myth. That’s where the demons live, and in battling those demons, it’s possible to confront the Underworld and emerge into the light once more. Shamans practice something that they call “soul retrieval.” Powerful emotional experiences, they say, especially traumas, fragment our souls, and a piece of ourselves remains behind, stuck in the situation. If you go back to re-integrate the soul fragment, grieving can occur and the trauma can be processed and dealt with. There has been successful work in modern psychology that imitates this by integrating the “child within,” sometimes with hypnotherapy.
The Five Stages of Grief: Emerging from the Underworld
You may have heard of this. Called the “Kübler-Ross model” by psychologists, grief (otherwise known as “processing something awful that happened to you and the resulting loss”) works through five stages:
Take note: If you don’t allow yourself to experience one of those stages, you’ll stay stuck. If you go around pretending nothing’s wrong, you’re still in denial. If you don’t experience your anger, you’ll never get through it. You must make some kind of deal with yourself or the Universe to adjust to your new reality. If you don’t give yourself time to be unhappy, then you will never be happy, and if you don’t eventually accept the truth, you will stay in the Underworld forever. And we must all do this in our own ways and own times, and no one else can tell you how.
Post-Traumatic Growth: Bringing Back the Prize
Paganism teaches us that suffering can be a great source of positive transformation. There’s a name for this in modern psychology; we call it “post-traumatic growth.” Sometimes bad things just happen, but if we can find our own meanings and learn from the process, they can be great catalysts for healthy change.
There is nothing like a brush with death to teach you to appreciate and enjoy life. There is nothing like a bad relationship to make you truly appreciate a good one. People who have experienced great horror or suffering, and survived, are often more spiritual, more empathic, have greater emotional strength, and have more intimate relationships and a greater enjoyment of life than those who have not.
Often such people are more extroverted and more open to experience than they were. Finding meaning after my husband’s near-fatal car accident led me to face fear more effectively and to doubt myself less. It was a direct catalyst in submitting my novel for publication, learning to drive, driving across the country to Montreal, pursuing music, and opening myself to loving relationships and friendships. It taught me to stop trying to plan everything in my life and surrender control; thus, I learned to take my time and enjoy experiences for what they are, without coloring them with my dashed expectations. And while I found that during the crisis I had much less patience with people that I had before, in the wake of the crisis, having returned to the world of the living, the exact reverse is true.
Why am I here? To write this column, to teach my blog and my workshops, to write my music and my stories; because I have touched the Infinite, and seen into the heart of the Abyss, and I want to share with you what I’ve learned and thus help others to find a great quality of life. I have found a meaning to the narrative. My meaning is the Myth. And may you also find meaning in your quest!
Next column: The role of music in teaching the Craft.