This is the true, biggest challenge I’m facing as a writer and thinker. Myth: Do we need a new one, or do we need to dispense with them altogether?
I used to direct theater. I left the theater because I got increasingly dissatisfied with its reliance on stories with clear beginnings, middles, and ends. Aristotle’s narrative arc with its rising tension, crisis, and catharsis wasn’t just predictable, but dangerously limiting. Things look bad, but as long as you accept the hero’s solution, everything gets solved and you can go back to sleep. Crisis, climax, and sleep – the much-too-male approach to everything from sex to religion, capitalism to communism.
I left theater for the net, which seemed to offer a more open-ended, connected form of sense-making. So I wrote about that, and the possibilities this opened for everything from economics to society. In my books, I usually tried crashing a set of myths – but then usually offer some alternative at the end. So in my religion book I smashed the myth of apocalypse and salvation, but offered an alternative path toward consensus, progressive collaboration. In another, I exposed the fallacy of hand-me-down truths, but then offered an alternative of collective reality creation. In a graphic novel, I undermined the authority of the storyteller (me) and then have a character hand a pencil to the reader as if through the page. In a book on Judaism, I smashed the idolatry that infected Judaism, but promote a new, provisional mythology of communal sense making. In my books on economics, I crash the cynically devised mythologies of capitalism and corporatism, but offer a new one of circular economics and sharing. In my Team Human podcast, I regularly crash the myth of the survival of the fittest individual, but offer a new evolutionary history of interspecies cooperation.
Better myths, like cultural operating systems, should yield better results. But if they are all myths, are they all ultimately destructive?
Even science falls into the trap. We get an idea – say, that agriculture was a wrong turn – and then “see” evidence that hunter-gatherers worked fewer hours than we did after the invention of agriculture. I have even quoted this ‘fact’ from neuorscientist/sociologist Robert Sapolsky, and others, before realizing it’s based not on science but a story.
People and institutions come to me to help develop a new myth for 21st Century, for digital times. But mythology feels more like the product of a television media environment – imagery and hallucination. The digital media environment is about fact. Memory. It all takes place on memory. That’s why we’re fighting less over who believes what, than what really happened. Where did humans come from? Are things getting better or worse? And the myths are no longer adequate. The stories are not up to the task.
I think Team Human’s job may be to find ways to work together without an overriding mythological construct. We should do something in a new way because it’s just better, on an experiential, practical, or scientific level. Growing food in a certain way – not because it’s connected to Mother Gaia, but because it keeps the soil alive. Not a metaphor. Reality.
If we are destined to think and communicate in myths – if that’s our nature – then we can at least accept that we all use stories to understand the world. Understanding another person means listening to their story – and sharing one’s own – but accepting that both are just stories. Myths are ways of connecting the dots between the moments of human experience. They create a sense of continuity and purpose, even though there may be none. Or myths may help each of us trace a path of cause-and-effect through a maze of reality that is so interconnected it would just overwhelm us to comprehend it in its entirety. We each make our own myth to explain the journey we happened to take. But it’s more of a convenience than a reality. And we can look back on our lives, and come up with a new myth to explain it. The myth is not for someone else, it’s for ourselves.
Of course we can still listen to one another’s perceptions and sense-making – and then gain some empathy for why they’re thinking and acting the way they do – without necessary believing any of it. And, maybe more importantly, without trying to get them to exchange their mythology for ours. Understanding other people’s myths, unconditionally and without being threatened by them, has helped keep me sane during this particularly tumultuous cultural moment.
So what’s Team Human’s job: to come up w a new myth? Or break them all? Whatever we decide, it should be a conscious choice.
This essay started as a monologue on TeamHuman.fm. Please come listen.