I keep coming back to the ideas of “mythic themes” and the “four ages of life” in this blog. They are in the background of just about everything else I think and write about. My ancestral heritage for this stream of thought includes Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Northrop Frye – all pioneers on the frontiers of archetypal psychology, cultural and personal mythology, and the power of story in the construction of worldviews and the meaning of life.
In the interest of keeping this post tolerably short, let’s jump right into our topic, which I will name The Power of Myth using the title of Bill Moyers’ popular interview series with Joseph Campbell back in the 1980s.
The diagram above features the arc of our individual lifespan divided into four Ages, each Age identified with one of the four mythic archetypes of development: the Child (Birth to age 10), the Youth (ages 10 to 25), the Adult (ages 25 to 60), and the Elder (age 60 to our Death). In the background of each period or Age of Life we see what I’ll call the “developmental axis” of that Age: childhood as the Age of Faith, youth as the Age of Passion, adulthood as the Age of Reason, and our later years as the Age of Wisdom.
Each of the Four Ages represents a relatively stable period of growth and maturity, centered on its axis (faith, passion, reason, or wisdom) and providing a correspondingly stable worldview to engage with reality – but also to put some mediated distance between ourselves and reality for the meaning we need. The thresholds and transitions between Ages generate some degree of stress and upheaval as our axis is needing to shift for a more existentially relevant engagement with reality.
Trauma, adversity, and setbacks during a particular Age of Life can result in the carry-over of “unfinished business” into the next, along with the coping and compensatory strategies we used during those unsettled phases just to make it through.
I call these strategies “neurotic styles.”
So while my diagram offers a clean and uncomplicated view of the Human Journey, it is not so clean in real life. Nevertheless, the value of such heuristic devices as diagrams and theories is in the way they help us discern patterns in the persistent ambiguity of what’s going on.
So far, we have the Human Journey progressing through four Ages of Life, each one centered on its own axis and contributing a dimension of experience to the full picture that we somehow need to become fully human.
Living without faith, passion, reason, or wisdom is not, as we might say, in the design intention of an awakened and self-actualized human being.
A deep inner surrender to Being (faith), an emotional investment in life (passion), a commitment to truth-seeking (reason), and an understanding of how to live well and be whole (wisdom) are all essential to our human fulfillment.
The remaining elements of my diagram identify the narratives that shape, drive, and inspire our Human Journey, and serve to differentiate Campbell’s “power of myth” into distinct themes and storylines.
In the Age of childhood, a mythic theme of grounding, orientation, and security shapes, drives, and inspires our experience. More than anything else, we need to know that reality is provident, that we are safe and belong. Faith releases inwardly to the Ground within, as trust and wonder open us to the Mystery beyond.
Stories of grounding and orientation center on the security of a home place which may be lost or put in jeopardy, but only for a time, before safety is restored and everyone lives happily ever after.
The Age of youth moves us out from our shelters of safety and onto the high adventure of identity, purpose, and freedom. Our world suddenly seems to become a performance stage where everyone is watching us and we are trying out roles for their approval, or else acting out against social standards for the recognition we seek.
If we happen to carry insecurity from childhood, a pressing and anxious need for acceptance may compel us to forfeit our pursuit of freedom. Our purpose, tragically, can be reduced to pleasing, placating, flattering and impressing the people whose acceptance we so desperately need.
This trade-away of freedom and purpose for the sake of winning somebody’s favor and approval is a common trap used to recruit youth by evangelical Christian groups and other cults.
Those who fall into the trap may take decades finding their way out of a piety of submission and obedience to a god who is morally scrupulous, impossible to please, and only conditionally forgiving. Behind it is very likely a chronic insecurity from childhood.
Adulthood is the time when many choose a life partner, build a family, start a career, while still enjoying occasional mini-adventures called vacations. Love, sacrifice, and devotion are now the storylines we use to weave our world, around an axis of reason. It’s more important than ever that our life makes sense and gives us a “reason” to engage our roles and routines with commitment and responsibility.
For love’s sake we willingly sacrifice our pursuit of other options and devote our attention, time, and energy to cultivating the healthy bonds and anchors of meaning.
At midlife, or around the age of 40, the conventional nature of our life roles and routines can suddenly feel empty and pointless. We may be tempted to think that our rescue from this aridity will come by exchanging our partner, job, or residence for a different one, when what is needed is a breakthrough to a deeper appreciation and gratitude for the life we have.
In a sense, the trajectory of life concern is needing to shift from the horizontal plane and our place in the world, to a vertical revelation of depth, presence, and the undeserved gift of just being alive.
At last we enter the Age of Life as an elder. Around this time we are beginning to lose our parents and older relatives, think about retirement, and experience the gravitational pull of mortality. While in our youth we could casually ignore the reality of death all around us, in our later years it is quite literally in our face.
Storylines of suffering, hope, and vision transform our worldview into a beautifully ironic picture, with its double vision of an Eternal Now in the midst of life’s passing.
Whereas otherworldly religion will offer its comforts of a promised life in the hereafter, spiritual wisdom opens awareness to a “peace that surpasses understanding” in the heart of this life and in the very shadow of death.
Throughout cultural history, it has been the special gift of elders to both challenge and encourage younger generations to take in the larger and longer view of life – in full acknowledgment of the fact that while we are all in this together, each of us is only here for a brief moment in time.
In our era of therapy, this longstanding and far-reaching framework for understanding the Human Journey remains ever relevant. Just step into it at the temporal point of your life and listen to what it has to say.