"Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people's myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts - but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message. Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive. Myth tells you what the experience is." (from The Power of Myth)
When Bill Moyers released his mind-blowing television series, The Power of Myth, I discovered Joseph Campbell and his amazing theories about myth.
Rites, symbols, rituals and myths are essential tools of mankind to explain life and its events, but more so, to cope with life and its events.
As a child, I had always been fascinated by mythology and fairy tales---the real ones, in hardbound, antique books with beautifully scary illustrations. The concise and consistent structure of each tale was reassuring and enlightening. The rules of both the genre and the repercussions and rewards for characters were solid. In fact, the monomyth remains one of the truest and most compelling forms of storytelling .
Just look at at the success of Star Wars.
Just read any popular, enduring children's book, such as Chronicles of Narnia.
Childhood is full of myths. Children are the best myth-makers I know. They are
also the best myth-recipients I know. I believe this is because they are truly in the position of needing to not only make sense of the world but also feel a sense of power and control, all from the vantage of not quite being able to grasp or understand it all yet. Thus, they rely on myths.
My friend Christina was convinced that if you wished hard enough on the star, it would really come true.
Kim was sure that if she stepped on a crack she'd curse her mother with a broken back.
I lost track of the number of grown-ups who swore thunder was just either (a) Rip Van Winkle bowling or (b) clouds bumping into one another.
As a child, I remember feeling irritated when I'd ask, "What makes thunder?" and get a response I knew was illogical, nonsensical or just plain not accurate such as long-dead Dutch settlers rolling balls at candlepins.
I swore I'd never "lie" to my own children when I grew up. And yet, as an adult, I understand the necessity of protecting children from information and putting things in terms they can grasp. I also understand the fun in believing in myths and symbols, such as the Easter Bunny. Moreover, I continue to believe in certain myths and symbols, and participate in certain rites and rituals. I have always been a sort of scientist---as are my kids---but I also believe in a meaning beyond science many times, or keep an open mind about it at least. Sometimes this leaves me in a personal quandry: how do I reconcile the science with the myth in my own mind, especially if both require a degree of faith?
And then there are my children. I have to find a way to answer their questions, all while juggling beliefs, facts, theories and information (as well as occasional ignorance).
Generally, my kids want a real, scientific, detailed explanation---preferably with a complete bibliography and illustrations. Generally, I give it to them, often in book and media form.
Still, other times, it's an unanswerable question and I find myself resorting to myths:
"Mom, how was the world made?"
"Mom, what happens when you die?"
"Mom, where do you find talking dogs for these TV shows?"
And yet other times...Patience observes and comes to her own conclusions, which she shares:
"The sun is hot like a rocket fire and it makes all the planets spin on strings around it. Like they are running from the heat, but really the heat is moving them. And sometimes a planet gets in front of us and that's why we have night."
She has others, even more interesting ones. For example, there is her absolutely riveting schematic explanation of death and reincarnation. (You can bet she didn't learn that in Catholic school. In fact, I have no idea where it came from.)
Now that Patience is school-aged, she is growing more skeptical of myths, and is more curious than ever.
I face a dilemma: where is the line between productive and okay and unproductive and harmful?
I often wonder when to let the incorrect things go on (such as when Patience generates the explanation---to which she holds fast to the point of really arguing with me about it) and when to open up (with additional information) the myths I've perpetuated, such as God created the world and Santa brings gifts.
At what point do I incorporate fact and share the various theories?
It struck me last night. We've been watching that awesome Planet Earth show, really enjoying it and all the information it teaches. Each night when we put Patience to bed, we have a goodnight tradition to say what we will dream about. So I said I'd dream about the animals in the mountains like in the show. Then I mixed animals from two regions. After I'd done so it struck me, was this an oops, should I have reinforced the facts we just learned and kept the red panda in China and the snow leopard in Pakistan? Or was it no big deal to go magical realism for a dream? I decided to not worry, not on this, but it did open up a broader question in my mind. (Upon checking my facts, it turns out that China hosts both red pandas and snow leopards...so I wasn't too wrong.)
There is no straightforward answer; it's a fly by the seat of my pants, case-by-case basis situation. It doesn't just vary by child, it varies by moment too.
Sometimes a child asks about thunder because he is scared. Other times, it is a genuine curiosity and she wants to know how this phenomenon works. It's essential to get to the heart of the question. As with anything, I often begin with, "Hmm, why do you ask?"
I have a friend who will make up any old thing simply to answer the question. I'm not afraid to have the conversation, and I'm willing to admit I'm fallible and don't know everything. We frequently go look things up. I encourage the children to find the answer themselves.
Today Patience figured out, on her own, how to assemble her rocket launcher. I sat down, and quite honestly, said, "I don't know honey, I'm not sure where all the pieces go, we can ask Dad when he gets home or you can try to figure it out." She chose the latter.
"I didn't know," she told me when I praised her, and asked if she felt proud of herself, "That kids could figure out how to do things Moms don't know how to do!"
I simply said sure, and smiled, but a million things ran through my mind. It's so easy for me to see all the things she can do, will do, that I never could. It's so happily heartbreakingly gratifying to see her trust in herself enough to try to do something she wants to do, without me.
It's not lost on me that some of the Myth of Mom was lost today. But I also think we laid a stone on the path to the mother-daughter friends I hope we'll be when she's an adult.
The myths are breaking down. She's forming her own, and releasing others. She's questioning ones I've told her, and investigating ones she hears from friends. She's also accepting outside myths. And, she's learning to balance which source to believe when myths and information overlap and conflict.
It's a vital step. I think Joseph and Bill would be proud. I am.
What were the myths you lived by as a child? What myths did you enjoy, did you fear? Was it hard to let loose of any myths?
How do you manage myths with your own children?
P.S. If you'd like to participate in the Hump Day Hmm, I hope you will. If you do, send me your link and I'll add you to the host post. This week's topic is:
What has the experience of being forgiven been like for you?
copyright 2007 Julie Pippert