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Personal Myth and the Anatomy of Character

characterThe diagram above illustrates my newly refined definition of religion, as a cultural system that links together (from the Latin religare) individual consciousness (or psychology, represented in the purple triangle) and the larger order of existence (or cosmology, represented in the dome overhead) by means of sacred stories (or mythology, represented in the moving wave between them) that serve to orient us in space, guide us through time, connect us to one another, and support us across the adventure of life.

Once again, I am speaking here of religion itself, not necessarily of this or that religion, numerous examples of which have indeed lost this unifying function and fallen out of relevance in our day. I’ve explored in other posts what happens when religions misread their myths by taking them literally, defend outdated models of reality, and neglect (or even condemn) the inner depths of mystical awareness. They die, but continue on in fundamentalist orthodoxies, megachurch celebrity cults, metaphysical roadshows, or militant end-time sects.

Effective and relevant religion will provide the orientation, guidance, connection, and support that individuals and communities require throughout the full course of human development. Ultimately this will also include breakthrough realizations of a ‘truth beyond’ our conventional beliefs, and of a ‘power within’, deeper even than that cherished center of personal identity (i.e., ego) which religion itself (as theism) had earlier made the focus of salvation. This post-theist excursion into a more experiential, communitarian, and globally-minded spirituality is where the evolutionary design of our human nature is headed.

In a recent post I suggested that the narrative device of Apocalypse, which can be found in all developed mythologies, is not referring to a future cataclysm of world-collapse, but instead represents a self-conscious awareness inside the mythopoetic (storytelling) process itself, of their status as sacred fictions. Outside these narrative constructions of meaning is the present mystery of reality, the terminal end of our stories and thus of the storied world itself.

If mythology has done its work – referring to the orienting, guiding, connecting, and supporting functions mentioned earlier – then we are ready for a psychological breakthrough to a more rational, responsible, and reality-oriented way of life.

My term for this liberated mode of experience is ‘creative authority’: when the individual not only sees through the constructions that had earlier draped both reality and consciousness with veils of meaning, but goes on to take responsibility as the principal author of his or her own personal myth and its associated world. If it sounds like we’re returning to life under the shroud, I must emphasize the key insight of this breakthrough realization, which is that the individual is now a self-conscious storyteller.

In other words, we have entered the ‘ironic mode’ (Northrup Frye) where the storyteller is aware of the fact that he or she is spinning narratives across a mystery that cannot be named.

This brings us to the interesting challenge of composing our own personal myth. The art of storytelling (or myth-making) is millenniums old, which means that we have a vast library and useful tools at our disposal for the project before us. In this post I want to reflect on the features of well-developed character, using this term in its literary and not so much its moral (or moralistic) sense. A character is thus a narrative personification, an identity in story who strives (Greek agon) for (as protagonist) and against (as antagonist) the plot in its unfolding. A ‘good’ character (again, not in the moral sense) is one that evinces certain traits and makes the story particularly interesting.

Our work as self-conscious storytellers of our own personal myths will involve constructing an identity for ourselves that possesses four traits in particular: memory, integrity, grounding, and volition.

Memory

In any good story, character is an identity that becomes stronger (i.e., more definite and self-consistent) over time. A character’s memory has to do with how recognizable it is with respect to what we’ve already come to know about him or her in the story up to this point. The story’s audience starts to anticipate how a character will respond by virtue of how he or she behaved in similar scenes or challenges earlier in the narrative. With growing confidence in a character’s memory, they are better able to trust his or her performance.

As we take responsibility for the construction and management of our personal identity, each of us should consider the fidelity of our character to the person we have been. This is not to suggest that we simply repeat the mistakes of our past, or that spontaneity and fresh departures are out of the question. Even if we should undergo a conversion of some sort, the memory of character will deepen our understanding and empathy for others, adding dimension and complexity to the person we are. This is an aspect of what is known as wisdom. Alternatively, neglecting the character trait of memory can make us insensitive to others, even projecting on them the dark energies of our own repressed and forgotten shadow.

Integrity

If the character trait of memory is what establishes consistency through time, then integrity is about consistency across space, or across the landscape of life situations and social engagements. A narrative character who changes dramatically from one engagement to another leaves the audience unsure as to ‘who’ will show up next. In psychology this lack of consistency across situations is evidence of ‘dissociative identity’ (formerly ‘multiple personality’), where a personality lacks sufficient ego strength to coordinate and unify otherwise diverging streams of subconscious motivation and demeanor.

In the early years of ego formation when we were being shaped, instructed, and managed by our tribe into a compliant member of the group, identity contracts dictated our role in each social situation. Now, stepping through the Apocalypse and into our own creative authority, we can take ‘authorial control’ over the person we want to be. We can join the role-play, fully aware that it is just a social convention in make-believe. Or we might take a stand for a more authentic, self-honest, re-imagined and creative way of being together. This is what Jesus called the kingdom of God.

Grounding

A ‘grounded’ character in story doesn’t simply drift above the moving scenes, essentially detached from the situational dynamics of time and setting. He or she has the feel of belonging, of being rooted in that narrative world and not just an alien passing through. In this sense the story isn’t merely ‘about’ the character, but unfolds around and through the character’s individual evolution.

My returning reader will recognize this idea of grounding from my frequent references to ‘the grounding mystery’, that inner depth of spiritual life where our personal identity sinks and dissolves into an ineffable sense of being. Of course, if ego is caught in a neurotic tangle of insecurity and self-defense, any suggestion of sinking and dissolving into something else will be vigorously resisted, and inevitably misunderstood. Creative authority requires that we ‘loosen up’ and release ourselves to the deeper process, so that we can carry that ‘power within’ into the affairs of our daily life in the world.

Volition

Our fourth and final character trait picks up with that last sentence – as we take action and work out the evolving plot of our personal myth. In story, the action of a ‘weak’ character will be determined by external events and circumstances, whereas a ‘strong’ character chooses and determines it for him- or herself. Volition (from the Latin vol for will) is about a character taking action rather than reacting, moved by an internal drive or desire. The better stories in mythology, literature, film, and stage are those that are driven by strong characters whose action seems to proceed from their center.

As we break through from a mode of role performance (acting out the instructions and expectations of our tribe) to one of role transcendence (using our role in a more purposeful and creative way), we are able to construct a personal myth that supports the life and genuine community we really want. We don’t pick up a mask of identity (a persona) because someone else tells us to, because a tradition (or consensus trance) calls for it. We can live out of our own center, for values and aims that others might not find agreeable. Our action is not about defiance or transgression, but instead arches toward a deeper, higher, or longer goal.


More and more of us are ready for the responsibility of writing our own story, of composing our own personal myth. Our tribe and culture have done their part, for better or worse, and now it’s our turn. We have finally come to realize that our identities and the worlds we inhabit are really nothing more than narrative constructions, meaningful fictions of our personal and interpersonal life.

It is time to step into our own creative authority, take leave of the gods, and become fully human. This is life after the Apocalypse.

 

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When the Time is Right

Reasonable_PassionateWould you consider yourself more reasonable or passionate? Do you think things through before you act, or do your feelings inspire your actions? Is it a priority for you to maintain objectivity as you make your way through life, or is engagement with the moving stream of experience a higher value for you? Finally, do you more often plan and choose what you do next, or are you one who is moved by urgency and tends to see the options you had only in hindsight?

Most likely you will say “sometimes” to each of these, as well you should, since they characterize an inherent duality in the human brain. We are familiar with this duality as the opposition between thinking and feeling, and sometimes it’s hard not to divide the world into hard-headed thinkers and soft-hearted feelers. That’s when the inherent duality of consciousness breaks down and gets played out as a dualism in reality – no doubt the creative seedbed of mythology, religion, art, politics, and even a good deal of science insofar as it uses logic (as theory) to bring the mysteries of existence to light.

But “sometimes” doesn’t mean “equally,” and even a casual observation of yourself and other people will notice that each of us favors one of these more than the other. Just because I might be more reasonable doesn’t mean that I can’t be passionate. And if you are more the passionate type, this doesn’t necessarily imply that you can’t also be reasonable. It’s more true to say that reason and passion are inversely related, which means that more of one entails less of the other. Their dynamic opposition, and the inescapably paradoxical nature of experience as caught in their creative tension, is what makes it all so interesting.

Because I prefer being reasonable to being passionate – though, again, there are things I’m very passionate about – I’m going to analyze this opposition into two distinct personality types. I’ll refer to my own type as “high road,” and because I don’t want to suggest that passionate folks take the low road, I’ll name their type “deep stream.”

In the diagram above you should notice that I have not placed cognition (thinking) directly opposite to emotion (feeling), as popular psychology tends to do. Instead, the expressive urgency with which strong emotion drives us to act out is counterbalanced by the freedom to choose, in what is known as volition. For its part, cognition stretches across the system, although it intersects with (or intervenes on) the high road sooner in the process leading to action than it does with the deep stream. This is the distinction I was getting at when I asked whether you tend to weigh options beforehand (by planning and foresight) or more often become aware only later of what options you had at the time (in hindsight and review).

All of us are oriented by life itself on the specific challenges prompting us to act or react to the situations in which we find ourselves. The evolutionary idea of “fitness” refers to the way in which an organism’s behavior adapts to the conditions of its environment in order to maximize its chances of survival and reproductive success. If we loosen up our definition of behavior to include every kind of action, from physical movement of the body to glandular changes in the secretion of hormones, then it’s easier to understand how the quality, direction, and ultimate success of life turns on behavior.

If action is the ultimate outcome, then motivation is what moves us to behave in the ways we do. As we consider our own experience, we are aware that our motivation in a given instance might follow the high road of premeditated reasons, or be pulled into the deep stream of compelling passions – again in some combination, but stronger on one side than the other. Although my language makes it seem like it’s one or the other, I think we can all agree that volitional goals and emotional drives are intermixed in the action-path of our daily behavior.

Cognition, or conscious thought, gets involved sooner in the process along the high road of volition. When we are weighing our options and trying to determine which is more aligned with our longer aim, thought is assuming a vantage point above and outside the specific allure of the individual options themselves. This objectivity is critically important when we’re taking the high road, since it enables us to detach emotionally from something and make a rational appraisal of its value relative to our larger plan or purpose. It certainly is the case that much of our progress as a species is due to this ability for taking an objective view on the challenges and opportunities life brings our way.

But we aren’t just bloodless cyborgs calculating the probability of favorable outcomes according to preprogrammed logical algorithms. Our emotions are what make life really interesting, if also painfully complicated at times. Conscious thought typically shows up farther downstream for passionate types. Being “in the flow” of inspiration and spontaneous feeling is a higher value than trying to be so terribly deliberate about it all. But cognition does show up, and when it does, the quality of experience is not about objectivity but engagement. Thought at this level is metaphorical, fluid, and shape-shifting. To be engaged in what’s going on enables us to respond intuitively and empathically to more subtle signals. Think again about our progress as a species, and reflect on how much of it is the product of creative imagination, artistic inspiration, and spontaneous feeling.

All of this is not intended to pit one side against the other or force you to choose between them. There’s too much at risk when we glorify one side of ourselves and condemn the other, especially when our pathological divisions play out in the social realm. We elevate the favored part of ourselves to divine status and project the disowned part into our enemy, where it can alienated, vilified, and attacked.

We need to be reasonable and passionate, if we have any hope of being happy and healthy. There are times when we will benefit from taking a step back and working through our options with the big picture in mind. But there are also times when we need to jump in and let the spontaneity of life pull us from our well-laid plans.

Wisdom is knowing when the time is right.

 

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