OCCUPY AS MYTHOLOGY
by James C. Henderson
A mythology is a coordinated system of understanding and beliefs that enables a human to function successfully in the world. Mythology does not explain why things happen, but shows—through analogy and metaphor—how to deal with and appreciate what happens. It is a set of stories of how others have navigated the challenges and uncertainties of life and have lived an honorable and fulfilling physical and spiritual existence, not in spite of the challenges and uncertainties, but because of them. These mythological heroes do not avoid life’s challenges and uncertainties but incorporate them into their daily routines. Mythology lends a sense of order to an incomprehensible world. It allows us to cope with its chaos without becoming confused, alienated, or depressed. Rather than closing us down to a set of limitations, it opens up to us a world of possibilities. As Joseph Campbell says, myths give us “the sense of ideal harmony resting on a dark dimension of wonder.” In this sense, I believe Occupy may function as a mythology.
As Joseph Campbell writes in Pathway to Bliss, mythology serves four functions:
The first function of mythology [is] to evoke in the individual a sense of grateful, affirmative awe before the monstrous mystery that is existence.
This mystical function awakens in a person the awareness that he or she is one with the universe and that all people are of the same consciousness, a transcendental and mysterious presence that is beyond description, beyond words. This function invites the individual to say “yes” to life’s terrible beauty without exception. It enables the individual to look into unimaginably vast and inhospitable night sky and feel he or she has a place in it. You cannot say “yes” to only part of life, only that part you agree with or that is agreeable to you, but you must say “yes” to all of it, to all of its benefits and liabilities.
The second function of mythology is to present an image of the cosmos, an image of the universe round about, that will maintain and elicit this experience of awe…to present an image of the cosmos that will maintain your sense of mystical awe and explain everything that you come into contact with in the universe around you.
This cosmological function is performed by religion or human experience that coalesces into religion. Our image of the cosmos is in a perpetual state of flux as new information is acquired about it. You must change your view of the cosmos as your experience and understanding of the cosmos changes, so that you always feel connection with the reality of the universe, just as a mythology must transform over time to incorporate new information in order to stay relevant. Campbell says that this explanatory function, in so far as it maintains in you a sense of awe, is now performed by science.
The third function of mythology is to validate and maintain a certain sociological system: a shared set of right and wrongs, proprieties or improprieties, on which your particular social unit depends for its existence.
This sociological function represents the ethical and moral imperatives of a society and must adapt to the needs for society’s survival. This is the rules and regulations section of myth, often represented as a list of what one can and cannot do to remain a member in good standing of society or to stay in the good graces of God.
The fourth function of mythology is psychological. That myth must carry the individual through the stages of his life, from birth through maturity through senility to death. The mythology must do so in accords with the social order of his group, the cosmos as understood by his group, and the monstrous mystery.
This psychological function guides and supports the individual during his or her lifetime. The myths here are the stories of the hero journey, whose protagonists show us the way through and, by their example, the manner in which we can best live a human life in harmony with the cosmos, society, and ourselves.
These four functions of mythology working in unison as a coordinated whole enables an individual to function successfully. It allows a society to function successfully. Each person needs to be able to say “yes” to life, to feel connected to the cosmos, to be part of a shared value system of right and wrong consistently applied, and to be confident he or she is on a path to a physically and spiritually fulfilling life. Without a coordinated mythology to bind it together and give it direction, a society will drift and eventually break apart. Our society today does not have such a coordinated mythology and we are suffering the consequences. We are a divided and fragmented people forced to navigate through competing mythologies, each incomplete, outdated, or inconsistently applied, whose goals are not to integrate the individual harmoniously with nature, society, or self, but to subjugate him or her to its narrow rigor. Our lives are dominated and shaped by mythologies that limit the world and our choices rather than open it up to us, whose designed effect is to confuse, alienate, and depress.
Examples of these dysfunctional and harmful mythologies are numerous and all around us. They take the form of political parties, various religious institutions and economic unions, the military, the banks, and Wall Street. These are often hierarchical organizations that demand from their membership loyal adherence to hypocritical and self-contradictory tenets or risk being ostracized. Campbell says that such institutions focus mainly on the third and fourth functions of myth, the regulatory and prescriptive aspects of myth that keep individuals obediently bound to and serving the interests of the institutions and the cliques that populate them, absent “a sense of grateful, affirmative awe before the monstrous mystery that is existence,” which “will maintain your sense of mystical awe and explain everything that you come into contact with in the universe around you.”
Mythology is the story we tell ourselves about how the world works and our place in it. The mythology we live by now is not telling us the right story because it does not serve the purpose of mythology, that of leading us to a harmonious existence with the cosmos and each other. The mythology we live by now serves only a select few—society’s elite. It seeks not to validate life or provide us a path toward a physically and spiritually fulfilling life but to justify the existence of the elite and to explain life in terms that benefit it. We instinctively know this story of how the world works and our place in it is wrong, that it is weak and corrupt, because it leaves us confused, alienated, and depressed. We can see it tearing society and the planet asunder, and these observable facts reveal it as a lie even though the elite is constantly telling us its mythology is true by reiterating its story over and over again through the media outlets available to it: the government, the Church, the press, and the schools.
The Occupy movement is an expression of the awareness that the current mythology is a lie, and it seeks to replace it with another mythology that restores for us a complete and functioning system of understanding and beliefs. But how will it accomplish this? Can it accomplish this? Here it is crucial to ask how myths are created, or rather, come into being.
Myths are not purposefully created, but come into being out of our collective unconscious. A myth that is engineered with a purpose will not work. The conscious mind only knows what it knows and does not take into account the element of wonder; the unconscious mind takes into account wonder with the transcendental mystery that is beyond all description, beyond knowing. The unconscious lives in the realm of dreams. Myths come from dreams—dreams that then find their way into consciousness. We all dream. Each has our own dreams. If enough of us dream the same dream, it will become myth. Campbell says, “Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.”
Cave Painting of Bulls and Horses, Lascaux Caves, France, c. 15,000-10,000 BCE. Photo by Jean Vertut
Occupiers are dreamers. And for a long time now, we have all been dreaming a version of the same dream. It is a dream in which the delusional mythology of the elite, a mythology of self-rationalized and self-justified lust, power, malice, and greed, is replaced by a new mythology that serves not only the interests of the 1% but the interests of all people. We have each been unknowingly, but just as surely, coordinating ourselves toward a common myth more in alignment with the reality of our situation as human beings living on this planet. Each of us thought we were alone in this. Then, one day in October 2011, we collectively woke up and went down to Zucotti Park in New York City or the Hennepin County Government Center Plaza in Minneapolis, Minnesota, or a thousand other gathering places across the globe and realized we were not alone. On that day, our private myths became a public dream—a new shared myth.
What this myth is exactly is hard to define. It is still being worked out. However, one thing is clear, it is a much more complete myth than the myth(s) we operate under now. It incorporates not only the sociological and psychological functions of myth but the mystical and cosmological functions as well. Occupy mythology says “yes” to life and, as such, is a tonic to all the naysayers, those high priests of current ossified myth, who say “yes’ to only those people who reform to their myth and to those aspects of life that conform to their way of thinking.
A strength of the Occupy movement is and has been that it casts a wide net. It accepts all people of all races, religions, and political and economic points-of-view, in a caring and transparent way, and so represents the needs and wants of a wide cross section of the population. Another strength of the Occupy movement is that is has a long list of wants. It does not prioritize or limit them, and never has, although many have requested Occupy do so, telling it that this is the politically expedient thing to do. Occupy sees all people and things as interconnected in a web of want and needs. To prioritize or limit them is to fall into the trap of reformist mythologies, which prioritize as an act of excluding.
Occupy is inclusive. It is diverse and open to new ideas. It accepts change and is willing to transform as new information becomes available. After the emergence of Occupy, which seemed so spontaneous and natural, the building of a movement toward a new mythology has not been smooth or easy, nor will it be. We have been harassed from without by the existing mythology. Occupy also has suffered division and fissures from within, but welcomes it all as long as they move us toward a renewed “sense of ideal harmony resting on a dark dimension of wonder.”
It may take a while to get to this point, but an Occupy mythology is not an end in itself—it is a process, a process of transformation. We should not and need not be confused, alienated, or depressed by the journey, for this is the hero journey and we are taking it together. We should not let others define us but should define ourselves by the possibilities of our dreams.
As we progress toward a new mythology, as we keep dreaming, as we seek once again a harmonious place in the cosmos, in our society, and within ourselves, we will not only be doing so for ourselves but for all others who share with us this planet and for all those who are to follow.