It is interesting that one of the first questions coming to our mind when we meet a stranger is "What do you do?" True, quite often the job one does tells a lot about the person -- but not all. And, certainly, one's work does not say much about the depth of character of that individual.
Of course, "not-knowing" works very well in a populated, busy world such as ours. We do not have the time -- or interest-- to go deep in our conversations with people. The anecdote is told about the prominent theologian, Paul Tillich, who was rescued from Nazi Germany through the strong efforts of Reinhold Niebuhr and others who made possible a professorship at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, which in turn also made available a faculty apartment for Dr. Tillich and his wife. However, not always understanding the nuances of his new language, Tillich occasionally would not catch the real meaning of a very commonplace English expression, such as the greeting, "How are you?" It is said that as he left his apartment in the early morning on his way to his office, other faculty members soon came to learn not to ask him, "How are you?" Tillich would proceed to tell them in great detail -- how he felt, how he slept, any pains he might be experiencing in his body, etc.
So, yes, we can sometimes know more than we want or need to know about another person's life. We do not necessarily need to know the other person's personal myth, but I am suggesting that it is valuable to know our own. For the following reasons:
First, I am aware that even the word, "myth," is a problem for many people. As it is used in our everyday language, most often it connotes something not true, a fiction, an ancient story to describe the exploits of gods and goddesses of pre-historic people and places. However, "myth" may be used today in reference to a "symbolical story" (Oxford Dictionary). As such, myth does something nothing else does. As a symbolical story, myth provides a meaningful narrative that helps to "make sense" of a people, a geographical locale, a country, a group of people, an individual. A myth may have a collective meaning or a very personal one; sometimes it seems that the two may be entwined.
And, as you might expect, I am drawing significantly on the life and work of Carl Jung to throw light on our process of tracking our personal myth. For it is indeed a very psychological experience. As Jung puts it,
... the right way to wholeness is made up, unfortunately, of fateful
detours and wrong turnings. It is a longissima via, not straight but snakelike,
a path that unites the opposites in the manner of the guiding caduceus, a
path whose labryinthine twists and turns are not lacking terrors.
(Collected Works, 12, para.6)
One might say that the "path to wholeness" is the "track" to one's personal myth. In other words, it is the journey, not the destination that matters. And the track will probably lead through the narrow pass where the "opposites" threaten to collide, across the dark ocean of anxiety where we hear strange voices in the depths, and into the lonely desert where there are no road signs. In fact, if our journey does not have something of those features, then it probably is not the track to our personal myth. More than likely it is the well-worn collective interstate that leads to anytown, USA (substitute your country), and a "life of more of the same." As Robert Frost said,
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
("The Road Not Taken," Mountain Interval, 1916)
Granted, Frost's poem has been analyzed and debated for decades, and even Frost himself reflected a strange ambiguity regarding its meaning. But that is more to my point, There is a traveling, a journeying, a tracking, or -- if you will, a seeking to discern our true star that is experienced by most human beings provided we have not been so wounded by trauma, poverty, illiteracy, and cynicism that we lost the very human yearning for a meaning that fulfills and completes our unique life.
I say our "unique" life because there is no other life like yours. It is true that there are archetypal patterns of experience that are universal. We recognize something of our path in the lives of other people, living or dead. But, like our unique fingerprints, like the unique snowflake, there is no one else identical to you. And that is why it is your personal myth, your seeking for wholeness in the complex make-up of your personality, your search for meaning that can only be stated through a symbolical story woven from dreams, fantasies, defeats, victories, struggles, encounters, and an opportunity to "connect the dots."
In his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung opens his Prologue like this:
My life is a story of the self-realization of the unconscious. Everything
in the unconscious seeks outward manifestation, and the personality too
desires to evolve out of its unconscious conditions and to experience itself
as a whole. ................................................................................ .
What we are to our inward vision, and what man appears to be sub
specie aeternitatis, can only be expressed by way of myth. Myth is more
individual and expresses life more precisely than does science. .............. .
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.
Unlike many of us, Carl Jung seemed to have begun tracking his personal myth quite young. At least he traces his first dream back to age three and goes from there. Even so, it was not until after many dreams, many adventures, travels, highs and lows, successes and failures that he could say with certainty in 1927, at age 52, that he recognized his own journeying toward his personal myth, climaxing with the dream of a magnolia tree with reddish blossoms in the middle of an island, situated within a city square in Liverpool. (MDR, pp. 198-199)
We too have dreams. An on some level, even if it is unconscious, we too are tracking our personal myth. Some part of us is trying to make sense of our meanderings, to find meaning in the dreams and experiences of waking life with all their fateful encounters and symbolic narratives. Meanwhile, we excuse ourselves with lesser stories that we are too busy, too tired, too distracted, too old, too young, too sick. Or, we may indeed be caught under the compelling power of outer myths that urge us to make money, enlist in the army of doing-good, seek refuge in the ten-thousand diversions that promise to entertain us, make us look better, bring us happiness, or hold the key to the secret of life.
They too may become our personal myth, and maybe they serve us well. But we have to ask: Is the story of this myth complete? Does the myth hold us within the tension of our fragmented parts in the service of becoming whole? Does the myth carry us so that the movement of our life outside and inside leads to experiences of meaning, wisdom, reverence, and gratitude, enabling us to face death knowing we have lived our life and not that of someone else?
If not, we probably have fallen into a dysfunctional myth. Think about the biker whose tattoo proclaims, "Born to Lose"! That may be his/her personal myth, but it is a dysfunctional one. The example, of course, is extreme, but you get the point. Just because you know the plot very well and have memorized your lines does not mean the story is personally yours. Maybe it happened to be the only one you thought available, but no longer is this so.
In other words, the darkness around us is deep, the ways are many, and the shrill voices call us from every corner. But take heart: Our dreams do not lie, and the markers for our track are those symbols that will make us whole. When all else has finished and nothing else remains, what you will treasure most is your Story and those symbols that brought light to the darkness of your great uncertainties .
Randall Mishoe is a Jungian Analyst in private practice in Charlotte, NC.