When I was a little girl, I thought, “I should have been a pioneer woman!” I thought I was strong, and self-reliant. Well, I was. But I am certainly glad that I was not born a pioneer woman or I would have died in child-birth somewhere on the western horizon. The myth of the pioneer woman, though, has stayed with me through time as it is definitely incorporated in some aspects of my personality.
Some of these traits are as named…strong, self-reliant. But I would also add creative, thinking of new ways to do things, starters, innovators, and backbones of their society and of the family. These are all mythical traits with connection to real and imagined features. What I learned as a young girl, where in Colorado I could still see the tire tracks through the prairie, was a one-sided view of a pioneer person.
The truth of the matter is that in order for western expansion to happen, people had to be pushed out and that was the indigenous peoples of North America. So an innovator, starter, pushy pioneer woman and her family was actually displacing native peoples. Bummer. They did not teach us that story in elementary school! Therefore, there is part of that mythology to let go of. The “surviving at all costs” thinking needs to be tempered with an awareness of what it means to negotiate power and an understanding of my own social location.
And there is the other part of my mythology. It stems from a story about my grandfather. He was 1 of 17 kids. Fact. I was told or heard somewhere along the way that my grandfather’s mother was Native American. This would have been one of the tribes from New York. Probably the Cayuga. Who knows? It is a great myth for a girl to latch onto. My pioneer woman is married to a strong, amazing (17 kids!) indigenous woman. That is fun. But what exactly do you do with that when it is hearsay and unsubstantiated? Holding the story became enough. Even when I got older and researched on ancestry.com, I did find the names of the two women that would have been the probable mothers to my grandfather, one was traceable further, the other was simply “Miss Kitty.” Hypothetically, that would be her. Cool. That makes me a smidge of everything. It also explains the profound connection I have with the land of my birth. It does not merely go back hundreds of years, but perhaps thousands. Steadfastness.
And then there is my spiritual mythology. I am a Christian and have a liberal understanding of what scripture is. I don’t hold it tightly in a literal way. But I do hold it tightly in a mythological way. There are amazing stories if we read with subtext and if I read, “In the beginning, there was a formless void.” I can easily imagine everything that the “Big Bang” teaches us from a science standpoint. Spectacular. The Big Bang becomes a new mythology or a new creation story to be incorporated into my life and beliefs.
What is the point of all this myth and where am I going with it?
Myth seems to the story, spoken or unspoken, that we live our lives by. I spend a lot of time talking to people about telling their story. What is your story? What does it tell you? How does it give you life? And stories do not always give life.
Thursday, I was sitting in the juvenile detention center with a youth. He opened up to me in a way he hasn’t in the last 12 months I have known him. He told me more about gangs and gang mythology than I had ever heard before. Oh, he would not have used the words “gang mythology,” but there it was.
“Miss Terri, do you know why we don’t ever say the word donut?”
“Uh, no. I’m not sure I was ever even aware you didn’t say donut.”
“Well, when King David was killed he was in the donut shop. So we don’t say donut out of respect for King David.”
I was mightily confused. King David? King David never went to a donut shop! Donut shops are not even in the Bible! Then it finally dawned on me. He was talking about a gang leader, David Barksdale. Now, I am certain that there has been a conflation of David Barksdale with local gang happenings for reasons that are beyond this discussion, but the point is that it is their myth. Their story. It defines who they are even to the point that they go for “pastries” not “donuts.” (Other parts of their myth – no fish on Friday because of a similar reason, and wear red every Friday to honor their fallen comrades. Oh, and the leaders don’t listen to the young people just like every organization in existence.)
With this conflation of stories about their gang leaders, they recover David Barksdale who did some extraordinary things with his leadership. (Stick with me…this is odd). David Barksdale was from the 1960s/1970s. He died in 1974. He became tired of the killing between gangs and united gangs in Chicago so that they came together in a truce. At that point, he started several social service programs aimed at helping his people have better opportunities. That’s a pretty good myth. (It goes bad again, but at his death and afterwards.)
This young person’s myth was defining who he was in extraordinary ways. He ritualized the mythology of the gang. And in this case, the overall mythology is not life-giving. I would describe it ultimately as death-dealing. So personal mythology or our personal story are very important. They can put or keep us on a trajectory towards greater life or towards death.
Please, let’s choose life.
I asked myself, “What is the myth you are living?” and found that I did not know. So…I took it upon myself to get to know “my” myth, and I regarded this as the task of tasks…I simply had to know what unconscious or preconscious myth was forming me. ~C. G. Jung, The Portable Jung
How do we get to know our myth? What can we recognize as myth? Can we have an understanding that our myths are sacred story created just for us? Here are fundamental questions that typically pop up in mythologies (from Your Mythic Journey):
Where did I come from?
Why is there something rather than nothing?
Why is there evil in the world?
What happens to me when I die?
With whom do I belong?
How close should I be to my individual family members, lover, or friends?
What are my duties?
What is taboo?
What is the purpose of my life, my vision?
Whom should I imitate?
Who are the heroes and heroines?
Who are the villains?
Who is the enemy?
What are the stages along life’s way?
Who are my helpers, guides, allies?
What is disease?
How can I be purified, healed?
What should I do with bounty, wealth, surplus?
What is my relationship to animals?
That is a lot of questions and a lot of potential for a variety of answers. The question I don’t see on this list that I would include is “What do I do with suffering?” or “Why do people suffer?” But it is a great list and a great starting point for examining your own personal mythology to see where you are maintaining sacred space (life-giving) or profane space (death-dealing).
Today, if you have time, hold just one of these questions in your mind and explore your personal mythology. As we can see just from the questions, our personal myth illuminates our relationship to the world and the types of actions we take in the world. My wish for you is that you write a story that is life giving for yourself and for the world. Transforming the cosmos into sacred space.
REV. TERRI STEWART is Into the Bardo’s Sunday chaplain, senior content editor, and site co-administrator. She comes from an eclectic background and considers herself to be grounded in contemplation and justice. She is the Director and Founder of the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition that serves youth affected by the justice system. As a graduate of Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, she earned her Master’s of Divinity and a Post-Master’s Certificate in Spiritual Direction. She is a contributing author to the Abingdon Worship Annual. (The 2014 issue just released!)