Retreat, day four: Psychology and mythology

Hailstorm sky over Minneapolis

The sky puffed and brooded at sunset last night, recalling the awful grandeur of Zeus.

Photo by B. T. Newberg, May 10, 2011

– by B. T. Newberg

The sky roiled red last night.  Neighbors in my apartment watched in horror as hail rained down on their cars.  Afterward, my fiance discovered the door to the roof had been left open, so we went up and beheld the blood-red sky.  Through my mind shot a phrase from ancient Greek, Zeus uei – Zeus is raining.”

Zeus rules the sky and casts the thunderbolt.  It was commonplace for the Greeks to say not “it’s raining” but “Zeus is raining.” What is the effect of mythologizing the rain so?  What does it do for mental health?  And what does it do for me?

Psychology

For the first time in my life, I find myself in therapy.  Over the course of the last year, as I underwent an intensive graduate-level program to get my teachers license in English as a Second Language (ESL), I started to experience poor health.  A string of illnesses, from canker sores to strep throat to mono to a strange rash on my left foot that doctors could not diagnose, appeared suspiciously timed to stressful events in the program.  Bringing my concerns to the doctor, I was put on medication for generalized anxiety.  I had a terrible reaction, though, producing one of the most traumatic weeks of my life.  Instead of alleviating anxiety, it actually induced it.  I found myself unable to study or work; all I could do to keep it together was watch T.V. while gently rocking myself.

I got off the meds, and that was the end of that.  Now I have more time, so I’m trying another option.  This morning was my first session of group therapy.  It felt weird and uncomfortable having a cohort of strangers fix on me and my issues, even for a few minutes.  Nevertheless, some important points were made.  I have a tendency to throw myself into tasks heart and soul, whether it’s teaching or this blog, and work tirelessly to create a product of which I can be proud.  Unfortunately, this same process wears my body down due to accumulated stress.  Indeed, I have found myself working late into the night to publish these retreat reflections, not unlike how I pushed myself when I was student teaching. Even on vacation, I’m working myself into an early grave.

The Desperate Man, Gustage Courbet, 1844-45

Medication induced anxiety, creating one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.

image enhanced from original by Gustave Courbet

Mythology

Psychology has made much of myth in the last century.  Freud used it to form his Oedipal theory, as did Jung to inform his theory of the collective unconscious and its archetypes, and Claude Levi-Strauss to discover his “deep structures.”  Joseph Campbell thought he found a single “monomyth” pervading all mythology, a story told over and over in various iterations of the hero’s journey.  James Hillman founded his archetypal psychology on polytheism, Rollo May developed the notion of the daimonic from its mythic origins, and Carol Pearson mined myth to construct her model of hero archetypes in the personality.  Each in their own way gazed at myth, with its cast of deities and heroes, and saw some deeper meaning or structure.  Emerging from this vision, they concluded that the figures of myth are something other or more than they appear to be.

This is part of a tradition of allegorical interpretation going back as far as recorded history, and perhaps farther.  Alongside those who took gods and myths literally, there were those who had other ideas.  The Stoics of Greece and Rome, for example, proclaimed deities to be metaphors for forces of nature.  Some scholars believe myths are the products of early peoples’ attempts to explain the natural universe, a pre-intellectual mode of speculation called mythopoeic thinking.  The allegorical tradition has a venerable pedigree indeed.  However, I can’t help but feel that each in their own way has somehow gotten it wrong.  Interpreting myth x to signify meaning y has an air of finality to it that silences other interpretations.

What myths really are, in my opinion, are deeply resonant images to which the human imagination responds by creating meaning.  In the act of searching for the “true” meaning, a new meaning is created.  Myths are not reservoirs containing meanings waiting to be found; they are creative stimuli midwifing the birth of the new.  Each allegorist is startled to see in it something no one else has, and feels compelled to go tell it on the mountain.  In truth, however, they are simply participating in an eternal process of meaning-making.

I participate in this process when I contemplate myths, read omens, or talk to gods in ritual.  Each time I do so, something new is created that colors experience and situates it within a meaningful aesthetic context.  Erich Fromm wrote of two modes of meeting the world: the reproductive and the generative.  The former reproduces what is encountered “out there” as realistically as possible, while the latter brings something to the world from one’s own productive powers.  Everyone employs a combination of the two; I happen to be a highly generative person.  For me, experience is meaningful by virtue of a symbiosis between sensations from without and creative interpretation from within.

Apollo, c 450 BC

The gods, such as Apollo, send illness when they feel deprived of the honor they deserve, just as illness erupts when parts of the psyche are neglected.

Image enhanced from original: Apollon, Athenian red-figure kylix
C5th B.C., Archaeological Museum of Delphi

Psychology, myth, and me

Sitting at a picnic table at Elliot Park beneath a leafy canopy, watching parents watch their children play, I contemplated how it is that I manage to overwork myself to the point of illness.  The therapist had urged me to “dial back a notch”, to turn down the intensity to a reasonable level.  I’ve never thought of myself as an overly-ambitious person or a perfectionist.  Certainly I’d never experienced illness as a result prior to this grad program.  It is a bit of a mystery as to how I managed to become so over-zealous this past year.

With these questions in mind, I ambled about the park picking up trash.  Do you really think picking up a few plastic bottles makes any difference?, came a voice in my head.  I responded by asking, A difference to whom?  It certainly wasn’t going to save the world.  As for the environment, it’s but a drop in the bucket.  The park may be a little cleaner, but then again the same amount of trash will keep appearing day after day.  The real difference it makes, I concluded, was a difference to me.  I feel better for having done it, for supporting the planet in some small way if not saving it on a grand scale, and for being a responsible inhabitant of this earth.  Gaia, the earth mother, deserves as much.  Cleaning her parks is cleaning myself.  To put the outer world in order is to put the inner world in order.  It has meaning for me.

There goes that generative mode again.  Over and above the environmental impact of the activity is the personal impact on meaning.  What I bring to the activity is as significant as the activity itself.

It occurred to me, as I circulated the park, that I have two obsessions: one with science, and the other with myth.  The former is needed to feel effective, for I am not satisfied to teach and write and create for mere entertainment.  I want what I do to have a positive and lasting effect, and for that it is necessary to proceed according to proven, logically-sound, empirically-verified principles.  The latter, on the other hand, is needed to feel inspired.  As a grad student, I went all-in on the scientific side in order to procure the knowledge necessary to be an effective teacher.  Meanwhile, the mythic side steadily grew impatient.

The gods send illness when they feel deprived of the honor they deserve.  Apollo, for example, struck the Achaeans with plague after Agamemnon kidnapped one of his priestesses.  Perhaps it was my single-minded devotion to work that offended that other side of me, so that it sent me illness.  Psychosomatic sicknesses followed as the irrational, creative impulse erupted in protest.

This finally brings me to the Greek phrase that shot through my mind last night during the trembling storm: Zeus uei, Zeus is raining.  Why did the Greeks mythologize the rain?  Why have cultures throughout history turned to mythology to understand experience?  And why does the allegorical tradition continue even within modern psychology?  I get the feeling that mental health is a balance of inner and outer energies, a harmony of the reproductive and the generative modes.  True, many people live full and complete lives without particular need for mythology.  But others are more generative, and turn to myth as an aid in meaning-making.  The Greeks mythologized the rain to make it their own, to bring it within the fold of their creative understanding.  I mythologize my life in the same way.  Myth helps meaning body forth through creative acts of interpretation.  And this brings wholeness and healing to the psyche.

Picking up bottles

Over and above the environmental impact, picking up trash has creative personal meaning for me.

Photo by B. T. Newberg, 2011
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2 Comments on “Retreat, day four: Psychology and mythology

  1. Incredible post. One of the best things I’ve read on the topic of myth. I shared this on FB.

    • Thank you! These ideas have been percolating for years and years, but it took this kind of retreat and commitment to reflection to bring them out into the daylight. Having good friends around to inspire you doesn’t hurt either. 🙂

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