“Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.” – Joseph Campbell
When I was very young, I noticed that what people said about the world did not describe what I saw. Their truths seemed pre-packaged, and they treated what “some guy said” as if the person who said it was sacred.
People seemed to treat ideas like some “came from above,” whether religious or secular.
No human being’s words were sacred to me.
I watched Ronald Reagan on TV. People said he had civility and decency and a strong moral sense, and that was why I was supposed to look up to him.
What I remember, was comparing what he said to what I had observed:
“Life and liberty? As far as I can tell, all the people around me want this stuff even if they use other words. If America is a group of people who are aware that they want these things, this is a team I belong to.”
Later, it would occur to me that Reagan’s “decency and strong moral sense” were debatable. But I’d never cared about those things to begin with.
The mythology of his words had nothing to do with him, for me.
I allowed it to point toward a truth that nobody could tell me. I could only know what “life and liberty feel like” on my own, but I allowed him to create a mythology for me that these things were American.
As far as I can tell as an adult, the world is full of people who’d prefer life and liberty to their alternatives. I have observed the desire in me to be shared by human beings. My team is much larger now.
As a country, our myths about leaders have taken new directions. In modern stories, “civility and decency and strong moral sense” are not requirements to attain power or success. Our tales include losers who displayed these traits, and winners who displayed their opposite. Other ways of gathering attention and approval have been proven effective. A basic respect for the humanity of others was once a virtue, requiring pretense at least. It is now illustrated to be “beside the point,” at best.
Our secret fear is that the darkness is more powerful, and that decency has become a hindrance to success. But perhaps this is an old fear with a new face.
The myths about “who” made America may be lacking, as its defining essence was not created by anyone. Our stories about leaders may change, but what our first leaders pointed toward cannot be created nor destroyed.
Our myths about the life and liberty and equality America “is,” point toward what can only be known by many.