Throughout my life I have been thoroughly obsessed with imagery. My obsession with imagery began with fiction, specifically movies, as they provided my imagination with a great framework for images that I could play with. The interaction that takes place between an image and a framework is where we find ourselves in the midst of myth. I know, "framework" and "myth," those can mean a lot. Rather than barrage readers with definitions, I will demonstrate with one of my favorite genres, one that I discovered my love for in only the past few years: Westerns.
For the uninitiated, a quick, spoiler-free synopsis: Classic American tale of Cowboys and Indians (allow the phrase, I prefer Native American, but I'll pay my dues to the myth). A young girl is taken by a violent tribe after they raid her family homestead, and what follows is a long, violent journey to get her back. [I cannot recommend this movie enough as my favorite movie every made. Please talk to me about this film.]
This is the final shot of the movie. Uncle Ethan, Wayne's character, stands in a doorway at the end of the movie and proceeds to walk out into the desert alone. I want to note a few things about this character. He's exceedingly violent, assertive, and seemingly void of any emotional vulnerability, yet after 2 hours of seeing this rough 'n' tough cowboy put his violent machismo on display, he stands in this doorway looking weak and injured before trudging into the desert by himself.
[Feel free to watch this scene with this link, just know it could spoil things for you if that's something that would bug you]
In this image finds itself firmly situation in a Western framework we all know: tough guy killed lots of people, he's a bad person but the good guy because he accomplishes good things.
That is where we find ourselves in the midst of myth. I imagine all of us and conjure up some memory where we've encountered a piece of fiction that shows us someone who does things we consider bad or evil, yet we see them do heroic deeds. We often see the anti-hero in those characters. It's usually a character that has a depressive aura appear around them at some point as they grapple with the fact that they want to be good, but they know they are bad. These are the characters that often "do what others can't." They brutally kill the real villain where the pure, good hero spares them.
Of course, that's all fiction... or is it?
I argue that we all can think of at least one person, perhaps ourselves, that fits that archetype... but do they really?
I'll go back to my obsession with imagery and frameworks, mythology. During a psychologically unhealthy period of my life (and this still today when I am low), I found myself personifying this myth.
My wounded posture? The scars of battling darkness.
My yearning for connection? The obsession with what I can't have.
My isolation? The penance of my sins is exile.
Were any of those psychological rationalizations for my problems real?
I would say no. I found myself at odds with life and felt low, but the source of the problems could never be me. So I did what any unhealthy person would do: fashioned a raft that would keep my ego afloat.
Anyone familiar with Jung's work knows the importance of myth and its connection to our psyche, so it's no surprise that my mind (and doubtlessly the minds of many others) find that they rationalize their problems as the necessary elements of the story they are embodying, the myth they personify.
Perhaps my one example is too narrow, so I will expand it a bit and show other expressions of this mythology.
Oh yeah, beware explicit and major spoilers in these examples
Rambo, the tough guy of 80s action films, breaking down over the atrocities of war he faced in Vietnam after finding himself unable to reintegrate into civilian life.
[Feel free to watch the scene here]
Spike Spiegel, the bounty hunter and ex-felon. He never seemed keen on playing by the rules, and why would he exercise caution when he has the skills to take down any threat? Either way, he embraces death as a way out of this miserable life after losing the only thing that really mattered to him.
[Again, the full scene here]
[What's that? You want to watch the whole show? Okay]
Joel, the man who loses everything in the prologue of his story to rationalize his cold and brutal behavior. He's no hero... maybe he's the villain.... How do you fault the man who damns the world to save the only shred of humanity he has left?
[Here's the scene pictured above]
[Here's a video that provides context and shows the scene above, just a tad more spoilerish]
Wolverine, a character that all preceding movies set up as the man that's impossible to kill. A man that cannot face his maker may as well live as if he has none, but when that invincible armor cracks, someone in need of redemption shows himself.
[Here's the scene]
I could list characters all day: Arthur Morgan from Red Dead Redemption 2, The Man with No Name (Clint Eastwood's iconic Western anti-hero called "Joe," "Manco," and "Blondie") from Sergio Leone's famous "trilogy" (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly), Walter White from Breaking Bad, Christopher Nolan's iteration of Batman (think of that famous line: "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain"), etc. etc. Everyone has examples they can pull on.
The point in what I have said so far is that we rationalize our behavior through myth, myths of all sorts. We rationalize our downs through myths of judgement, perdition, redemption, etc. We also rationalize our highs. Myths are potent stories, frameworks and images (not necessarily actual images as I have laid out above but anything with a powerful imaginative element) that we can easily reiterate and overlay. This is why we constantly retell old stories, think of the hero's journey as a model that numerous stories are told through. Those are myths.
Now we must understand that mythology isn't about idle story-telling. We don't tell stories for the sole purpose of entertainment.
We tell stories, utilize mythology, as models that make our individual experiences meaningful and predictable.
Here is my secondary point: there is often a point with our use of myth and imagery that we stop merely overlaying our experiences with them, but we begin to actively personify them. If you are familiar, think of the Jungian idea of the Persona, that mask on the psyche that we project to those around us, our audience.
Now many of us have heard, or said ourselves, that we are our "true self" when we're alone. This is a falsehood.
[Fair warning, this section may get a bit twisted or hard to follow, for communicating some of these ideas require a lot of unpacking that I... don't... do.... But if you want clarification, just ask me in a reply to this, and I would be happy to dedicate my energy to explaining when I haven't just dedicated a lot of energy to composing a long post.]
As a rhetorician I often deal with the concept "audience." The problem of audience is that audiences don't objectively exist, as creatures that linguistically (rhetorically) construct our experiences, meaning we construct our audience.
Think of every time an individual has said people expect a certain behavior from them. Whether those expectations are accurately identified or not, ascertaining those expectations is a subjective exercise of constructing the audience we believe surrounds us as well as what they want from us.
More importantly, we subjectively/rhetorically/linguistically construct the Self.
I'll bring it all together here.
We are constantly barraged by mythology. It influences all of the images and frameworks available to us for understanding our existence. We express myths we know and identify with, and we consume all of the myths others express to us.
In other words, we are constantly in the midst of myth, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Myths have a profound effect on our behaviors. If we are conscious of the myths that affect us, we can utilize them, summon up and personify the myths we need to take on the problems in front of us. However, if we are unconscious of the myths and stories that we tell ourselves, we begin to mindlessly set ourselves on paths that could lead to our destruction.
So to all that read this, I encourage you with this friendly advice: examine yourself.
Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves?
2 Corinthians 13:5 [Partial quote]
Interrogate the feelings that you are doomed, or perhaps even destined, for anything.
In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand; for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.
It is through wisdom that we may grow as people. As we become more aware that we are not bound by anything that is so easily grasped in our ignorance, we may instead dedicate ourselves to the sowing of our seeds and the reaping of our fruits.
This is self-actualization, the path of transcendence.
I will end with a quote from Carl Gustav Jung, whose theories are integrally connected to what I've said here:
Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.