Exploring Personal Mythologies
For our Imagination is an oft overlooked aspect of our Character
It’s a commonly articulated concept that different people operate within different worldviews; that is, that they have various ideas and principles which filter their perspective of the world. Some might describe this as the ‘lens’ through which they view the world. Worldviews, whilst personal, are often communal or ‘tribal’. By this I mean that people can loosely be grouped by having similar worldviews such as whether they’re Christian or Muslim, whether their liberal or conservative, whether they studied the humanities or the sciences. I’m sure that you could imagine plenty more.
Worldviews are a useful tool for understanding - judging? - others but it can be harder to rigorously examine our own worldviews. This is in part because our worldview is an operative, rather than necessarily elective, system which is implicit in how we navigate through life; not necessarily in what we say we think about life. It’s a subtle distinction which may perhaps be best drawn out through an example I’m sure we’ve all had experience of, either personally or with people we know. We can say “I want to lose weight”. That’s a choice, a decision, we verbalise. But the necessary corollary is to then adjust diet and exercise accordingly. If we say “I want to lose weight” as we tuck into our second doughnut of the afternoon the disconnect between what we’ve claimed and what we’re actually doing becomes obvious. When we apply this to our worldviews we can quickly begin to identify other areas of disconnect between our verbal intentions and our actions, and some of these can become quite subtle. To adopt a second metaphor, this time from orienteering, a single degree difference in your bearing from your intention can over time lead to being miles from your destination.
As such I recognise that I operate within a particular worldview, and I have a reasonably good idea as to what the major themes and principles are within it, but I’ve found over the years that obsessive self-examination of my worldview leads inexorably towards staring at something of an epistemic blindspot of which I can only speculate. (More on this theme in a few weeks).
There is however a less articulated concept which I find far more intriguing and enjoyable to engage with; both personally and in conversation with others. That is of Personal Mythology. There’s various bits and pieces which have been written by different scholars, primarily of the psychological persuasion, which have formed this concept into something of a formal framework. I have to confess that I’ve never read any of them beyond looking to see if anyone else had ever had a similar idea. It’s a concept which I accidentally stumbled upon more intuitively.
It all began when I was talking with a friend of mine about favourite greek and roman myths. They had shared one about Hercules and the Horses of Diomedes, and I began to talk of the story behind a statue I remembered seeing which was of these two muscular brothers fighting to the death in a larger battlefield, each with only a sword and shield and neither realising that they were fighting their brother until they simultaneously each landed a killing blow on the other. In that moment, they see each other’s face and recognise who they’re fighting. My friend had never heard of this story, and I decided I’d google it to show them the statue.
“It looks like there aren't any great matches for your search.”
Hm, how odd.
It wasn’t until a day or two later that I remembered where the story came from. It came from my favourite trilogy, one which I’ve literally read more than ten times, and is a story which one of the characters tells the protagonist in the first book. Somehow I’d accidentally taken a myth from this novel and added it to my own mental library of ‘real’ myths.
Rather than being annoyed I’d forgotten where it was from, I became fascinated by the realisation that this had formed part of what I now refer to as my ‘personal mythology’. It’s a story and an image which is not just resident in my subconscious, but also my imagination. As such, if we were to visualise what this might mean we could describe it as being available on the palate of the imagination to be mixed with other such stories as we paint new metaphors into reality to reflect on and seek to intuitively comprehend the world around us.
Where worldview is a more active and operative system, personal mythology is a passive and rich repository of those things which we treasure and allow to influence us.
These stories, images, and emotions don’t guide what we think or chose - it’s not a choice of worldview or personal mythology - but they augment our choices with resonance and meaning. The joy of this mythology being personal is that there’s no right or wrong source, nor is there any pressure to accept into the canon of your imagination highly acclaimed stories others rave about. So while I adore the world of Middle Earth in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, you are at liberty to dismiss it. Equally, even though I have a deep appreciation of certain aspects of Lord of the Rings I often find that they’re not necessarily the same as other people appreciate. This is one of the reasons why I rarely find myself resonating with fandom communities even of things which I am very interested in. There’s also a sense of privacy and intimacy. The Aragorn who inspired me to grow my hair out all those years ago is ‘my’ Aragorn.
I know that this risks becoming very post-modern and subjective, but I would defend this on the grounds that the stories and characters we read are not products handed to us on the pages of a book, bequeathed to us by their author. The story lives not on the page, or even purely within our minds but somehow as a comingling of our imaginations. When I describe the poor bedraggled squirrel holding an acorn betwixt its paws as the rain tumbles down onto their head, cascading off of the broad oak leaves in the branch above, that squirrel does not exist in your email inbox nor purely in your mind. Somehow my words have mingled with your imagination and between the two of us we have created the damp, and rather cute, Tomlinson the Squirrel. I wonder whether he was red or grey, for you? In my mind, he was red; but you may well have filled in the blanks and visualised him with a grey pelt of fur. (If you would like to respond and let me know whether he was red or grey for you perhaps I could let everyone else know next time what the consensus was).
Imagination plays by its own rules. It is as free as you can encourage and cultivate it to become, and at the same time it holds a subtle yet powerful sway over us. I suspect that for many of us our personal mythologies aren’t something that we’ve spent much time reflecting on. Yet if we have ended up filling our mythologies with moments of fear it’s hardly surprising that certain situations will resonate with that fearfulness and cause us to be afraid, perhaps without even understanding why. I remember one time when I was working as a Pastoral Support Worker one of my colleagues, a counselling lecturer, realised why a particular student was causing lots of problems in class and tutorials when they blurted out “You can’t tell me what to do, Dad!” My colleague somehow reminded them of their father, who had abandoned them and their mother when they were young. Having this strong emotional memory as part of their personal mythology coloured their relationship with this lecturer because although they knew he was not their father the resonance elicited the same reaction.
It’s here that I have to admit that not all of those things which have shaped my own personal mythology have been purely positive. In fact one of the earlier examples I can identify was the novel White Fang. The experience of rejection from the pack, the sense of otherness from the others also pulling the sledge, was something which resonated with my experience of primary school. I, like White Fang, was different - primarily by virtue of my deafness, but also because we lived outside of the village and my dad was the vicar. Therefore I, like White Fang, needed to be content with my own company rather than worrying too much about friends. It took a long time for me to get to a place where I could accept that my friends were actually my friends and not just that they tolerated me because of circumstance. I’m sure there were other factors as well but I know in my gut that the White Fang imagery was a part of it. It wasn’t an entirely negative influence though as there are many virtues to self-reliance, the issue comes in finding the balance between self-reliance and rejecting possible friendships.
Because personal mythology is by its nature deep and immersive my intention is to spend some time exploring different stories and scenes from my personal mythology to share with you. This isn’t going to be a sequential series, but will be interspersed throughout the pieces I write. As soon as this email list becomes repetitive and formulaic I’ll stop writing, because I’ve no interest in writing for the sake of it but rather to have the chance to explore the themes and topics I find stimulating.
I wonder what you think of this idea of Personal Mythology?
What kinds of events, literature, or music have you taken to heart as fuel for your imaginative engagement with reality?
Having touched on White Fang let me draw to a close with one of the many fantastic quotes from that novel:
Fear urged him to go back, but growth drove him on.
- Jack London, White Fang
With every blessing,
Samuel S. Thorp
Husband | Priest | Wanderer
p.s. You may have noticed the new banner image at the top. It’s a hint of things to come. Watch this space.