Mythic Adventures

Sacred Stories from around the Globe

Archive for the category “Adversity”

Episode 79 Through the Sea

If Christ is “the Way,” can we say anything in practical terms about where that Way will lead us?  Here is a brief meditation on Psalm 77:19 (NRSV) with that question in mind.  Click on the link below to listen (4:43).

Episode 0079 Through the Sea

Episode 65 What We Have Learned (Part 26 of Series)

This is the conclusion of the series, How to Have a Mythic Adventure in a Monday-Friday World. To listen to the audio version, please click on the link below (8:09):

Episode 0065 Pt 26

First, to experience life as a mythic adventure is to live it as a story. People who are on such an adventure are not trapped in their routines, no matter how thoroughly their schedules may be regimented. Their lives are going somewhere. Macbeth in his madness may declare that life is “a tale/ told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ signifying nothing,” but his own career disproves his words (William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5, lines 26-28. In The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Minneapolis: Amaranth Press, 1975), 1068). Our thoughts and deeds shape us. The events of our lives aim in the direction of that shaping, for good or ill.

Second, it is a certain kind of story: a story about the education of our souls. By the decisions we make in all aspects of our lives, we decide who we are becoming. To have a mythic adventure is to recognize that we are the central character in a story about becoming spiritually mature—or at least about the invitation to become mature. We can, of course, decline the invitation. We may even become knaves or villains. But that choice is what the story is about.

Third, a mythic adventure is a lifetime commitment. We do not become spiritually mature in a matter of days, weeks, or months. What Aristotle says about happiness can be rephrased in terms of the mythic adventure: for as long as we live, new episodes await us with their unique challenges and opportunities for spiritual growth (or backsliding). The adventure goes on for as long as we draw breath. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book 1, chapters 9-10. In Richard McKeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York: Random House, 1941), 945-948.)

Fourth, to experience life as a mythic adventure is to make constructive use of adversity.  It is to accept our obstacles as learning opportunities. This entails, of course, that we must not ignore our problems. On the contrary, mythic adventurers understand their problems to be signs from God, alerting them to aspects of their character (or of their society) that need special attention. If we have this attitude, we will not be victims no matter how unfairly we may suffer. We will make the best of circumstances and use them to our educational advantage.

Fifth, the mythic adventure is a matter of give-and-take with God. Through all that happens to us, a subtle guidance is offered. We are given clues, but they must be deciphered. Since God’s ways are not our ways, we can plan on making mistakes, as well as being frustrated. This, too, is all part of the learning process.

But it is not for our benefit alone that we have a mythic adventure, and that is the sixth and final point. To have such an adventure is to embark on a quest of spiritual maturation that will ultimately bless those around us, and—if we are especially fortunate—may even bless future generations and bring to fruition the hopes of previous generations.

As I said in chapter one, this is essentially an interpretive problem. The framework I just described has fallen into disuse in modern times. When we tell stories about ourselves in this era, our treatment is usually anecdotal and episodic, not all-embracing. Nor do we tend to examine our lives for clues from Beyond, or form hypotheses about what God might be trying to tell us. If we do think God might be trying to tell us something, we do not engage in trial-and-error reasoning, moving forward decisively while remaining open to disconfirming evidence. Perhaps most importantly, we no longer expect our faith to make us useful to our society, especially when it comes to introducing technical innovations. We have stopped thinking that our work can be a significant part of God’s ongoing adventure.

According to the stories we have surveyed, however, God moves within all the details of our daily lives to invite us to greater maturity, not for our sakes only but to fashion us for service to others. That includes becoming more proficient as biologists, journalists, or salespeople. It means becoming better economists, computer programmers, or nurses. It means improving our competence as lawyers, insurance adjusters, or copy editors.

The challenge for this generation is to recognize that God is vitally interested in the secular world, in the greatest possible detail. According to an old saying, “The devil is in the details.” We are now invited to understand that God is in the details and always has been. We just haven’t known where to look.

This study has shown us. God is in the smallest details of our individual life histories, urging us to gain a wide variety of proficiencies, to overcome our problems, and to make the world a better place as a result. There are no longer dragons to slay, but the obstacles we face in this age are as monstrous as any that the human race has ever confronted. The question is, Will we face our problems with as much courage and faith as the mythic adventurers of yesteryear faced theirs? Will we learn anew the art of having a mythic adventure?

Episode 62 The Progress of Souls (Part 23 of Series)

To listen to the audio version, please click on the link below (6:04):

Episode 0062 Pt 23

In a poem entitled “Song of the Open Road,” Walt Whitman compares life to a journey. We are detained from time to time by obstacles and we may eventually triumph over them. However, in the larger scheme of things, the significance of each obstacle and of its corresponding triumph is that they shape us.

Of the progress of the souls of men and women along the grand roads of the universe [he writes], all other progress is the needed emblem and sustenance.  (“Song of the Open Road,” § 13, line 18. In Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (New York: Penguin Books/Signet Classic, 1980), 136-144.)

Neither the problems themselves nor our solutions (however ingenious they may be) are what matter in the long run. Each problem is for our use, to help advance us, to make us better than we are at present. Any success we have in surmounting our difficulties, however secular that success may appear to be, is an episode in a longer, sacred story: the story of the soul’s adventure toward its destiny, toward enlightenment, toward God. According to Whitman,

All parts away for the progress of souls… (Ibid., line 16)

The progress of souls! That is what these stories promote. Not that the different religious traditions agree on what constitutes progress, but they do agree on this much: that the problems people face can mold them into something greater than they are at present. In fact, the proclamation shared by the world’s religious traditions is that this shaping process is the purpose of the physical universe in which we live. This is the meaning of Life.

“All parts away for the progress of souls,” Whitman proclaims. Although there are many obstacles on the journey, those obstacles eventually move out of the way for the world’s heroes. Adversity’s purpose is not, after all, to keep heroes and heroines from succeeding, but to spur them on toward the goal.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that those obstacles move aside quickly. As we noted in chapter four, success usually takes considerably longer than the heroes think is reasonable. Obstacles “part away” once they have served their purpose, and not one minute sooner.

For Whitman, the body is an example. He believes that the soul continues on after the death of the body, but he also believes that the body plays an important role in the formation of the soul. “The body has just as great a work as the soul,” Whitman wrote in an early version of this poem, and yet the body “parts away at last for the journeys of the soul.” (“Song of the Open   Road,” 1856 edition, § 14, line 3. In Mark Van Doren, ed., The Portable Walt Whitman (New York: Viking Press, 1945), 201-214.)  Everything, including the body, eventually “parts away for the progress of souls,” but not until these things have performed their special service, however long that may take.

Like Whitman, many of the world’s religious traditions believe in some kind of afterlife in which the soul endures after the body has died. But there are also religious traditions which do not believe in such a thing. What matters for our purposes, however, is that even those traditions which do not believe in an afterlife nevertheless emphasize the formation of the soul in this life. In all of these stories, the “progress of souls” begins here and now, and not just in a life after this one.

Episode 61 The Meaning of Life (Part 22 of Series)

To listen to the audio version, please click on the link below (8:06):

Episode 0061 Pt 22

In the stories we have been surveying, life is viewed as more than an arena for mere enjoyment of pleasure or avoidance of pain. It is a time to make progress in the formation of the soul, a progress which is possible only by surmounting difficulties.

Although Christ teaches his disciples to pray for help in avoiding temptation (Matthew 6:13; Luke 11:4), this does not mean that Christians are to request freedom from adversity. The Epistle of James in the New Testament advises: “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” (The Greek word translated “steadfastness” is hupomenay, which means patient endurance of suffering or a perservering state of mind.) “And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4 RSV).

In this passage, the word “perfect” and the phrase “full effect” are English translations of the Greek word teleios. This word was important in ancient Greek thought, thanks especially to the writings of Aristotle (a few hundred years before Christ). It refers to the full realization of an idea or the complete maturation of a thing into what it is supposed to be. What James is saying, then, is that Christians’ struggles can transform them fully into the people God wants them to become.

The same word is used in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. In one section of the sermon, Christ talks about the necessity of loving one’s enemies. He concludes that section of his remarks with these daunting words: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 KJV). The word “perfect” in both phrases is teleios again in the Greek. Christ is telling his followers that their goal should be to become fully matured into the compassionate people God wants them to be. And, as we have seen repeatedly, this happens as heroes take on challenges that transform them.

The ancient Greek poet Hesiod writes: “Badness can be got easily and in shoals: the road to her is smooth, and she lives very near us. But between us and Goodness the gods have placed the sweat of our brows: long and steep is the path that leads to her, and it is rough at the first; but when a man has reached the top, then is she easy to reach, though before that she was hard.” (Hesiod, Works and Days, lines 285-295. In Hugh G. Evelyn-White, trans., Hesiod, Homeric Hymns, Epic Cycle, Homerica, Loeb Classical Library, volume 57 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 25.)

The phrase “sweat of our brows” does not refer merely to the performance of menial tasks, although there is no doubt that Hesiod does have that kind of work in mind. More importantly, it refers to the difficulties which arise in trying to live well. Hesiod believes that he lives in a benighted age, a day when true heroes are gone from the earth. In such a time, it is hard work to live a praiseworthy life. “For now truly is a race of iron,” he writes (as opposed to earlier ages of gold, silver, and bronze), “and men never rest from labor and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils” (Ibid., lines 175-180, pp. 13-15).

That last remark, for Hesiod, is what matters. Despite all the troubles humans face, there is some good to be had. But it will not come without hard work.

The subject of Plato’s Republic is whether such hard work pays off in the end. Socrates and his friends consider whether it would be worthwhile to live justly if they were to receive no rewards for being just. By the end of the book they decide that right living is its own reward. On this note, Socrates asks his friends:

And shall we not agree that all things that come from the gods work together for the best for him that is dear to the gods. . . ?

By all means [they reply].

This, then, [he continues] must be ourconviction about the just man, that whether he fall into poverty or disease or any other supposed evil, for him all these things will finally prove good, both in life and in death.  For by the gods assuredly that man will never be neglected who is willing and eager to be righteous, and by the practice of virtue to be likened unto God so far as that is possible for man. (Plato, Republic 10.612e—613b. In Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds., The Collected Dialogues of Plato (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 837-838.)

Notice, however, that one must be interested in self-improvement in order to appreciate the benefits of adversity. By themselves, problems do not make life better. Suffering is advantageous only if the heroes use their experiences as opportunities to grow into exemplary individuals. As they seize these opportunities, they benefit even from misfortune.

The Apostle Paul, in the New Testament, writes: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 KJV). What Paul says about the Christian life is proclaimed by all of these stories, from a wide variety of religious traditions. The obstacles that the heroes face along the way can speed them toward victory and, more importantly, toward transformation.

But the heroes have to be receptive to such transformation. It is not that all things work together for good for everybody. All things work together for good to them that love God (or rather, to those who are willing to accept adversity as a gift from God and use it to become better people). As one Book of Mormon prophet says in reference to God: “He shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain” (Book of Mormon, II Nephi 2:2 (Kirtland ed: 1:61)). This consecration of the heroes’ afflictions for their spiritual gain is what life is ultimately about, according to these stories.

Episode 56 The End of the World (Part 17 of Series)

To hear the audio version, click on the link below (6 min):

Episode 0056 Part 17

Just as it was to be expected that the heroes would make mistakes, so it is also reasonable to expect them to talk back to their gods and especially to express frustration. Here are the gods, perfectly capable of helping, and the best they can do is give obscure guidance by indirect means! And as a result, the protagonists make mistakes and must suffer the consequences!  Yet, however much the gods may sympathize with their plight, the heroes’ complaints are ultimately futile, for the heroes are capable of overcoming their problems, and they must do so in order to become the people they are meant to become.

The story of Pyrrha and Deucalion in Ovid’s Metamorphoses illustrates the problem (The Metamorphoses of Ovid, Allen Mandelbaum, trans. (San Diego: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1993), Book 1).  The world has just been destroyed. Pyrrha and her husband Deucalion are the sole survivors of the human race. They do not know why this has happened, nor can they guess how to proceed. They are frightened, and they are unsure what the gods intend to do about them.

To pray now would be extremely risky. For all they know, perhaps the gods meant for them to be killed, too. From their perspective, what has happened does not make any sense. But they need help, so they pray for guidance. This turns out to be the right thing to do, because they are unable to understand their situation without assistance, but they have no way of knowing whether their decision to pray (and thus call attention to themselves) is wise or extremely unwise.

They receive an answer, but it is frightfully enigmatic. They are told to leave the temple, veil their heads, and throw their mother’s bones over their shoulders as they go. They are stunned. Pyrrha’s lips tremble, and she says that she will not desecrate her mother’s bones. Although she is afraid, her fear does not prevent her from talking back to the gods. What they have asked her to do seems disrespectful to the memory of her mother, and she refuses.

But Deucalion tries to decipher the oracle, surmising that it is not to be taken literally. He knows how easy it is to make mistakes when interpreting divine messages. The command must be a riddle… but what does it mean?

Pyrrha and Deucalion’s predicament illustrates the process I have been describing at its most severe. There is the shattering of the world as they know it, calling into question everything they have ever believed about life, themselves, and their gods. There is the pressure of immediate need, which requires them to act decisively despite their confusion and disorientation. There is the anguished cry for guidance. There is an unexpected reply—what might be an answer to their plea for direction—but it is dark, open-ended, obscure. Then there is the struggle to understand this new revelation, the attempt to make some sense out of the guidance received. But through it all, there is the quite human need to talk back to the gods.

Deucalion develops a hypothesis. The word “mother” is a reference to the earth. If that is the correct interpretation, then their mother’s bones would be stones. The oracle is commanding them to throw stones behind them as they walk. Pyrrha is encouraged by this possibility, but she does not dare hope for the best because she no longer has confidence in the gods.

They veil their heads, throwing stones behind them as they walk. “And who would have believed it!” Ovid says, tongue-in-cheek: the stones turn into a new race of people who will help repopulate the earth. Deucalion’s hypothesis turns out to be right.

The gods do not punish Pyrrha for talking back to them. On the other hand, she does so only because of an erroneous interpretation of their command.

Episode 48 Hard to Get (Part 10 of How to Have a Mythic Adventure)

Pwyll, Lord of Dyved, tries to catch up with a maiden who is riding slowly along the highway–but she’s hard to get. Click on the link below to listen (9:30).

Episode 0048 How To Pt 10

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Episode 47 Accepting the Adventure (Part 9 of How to Have a Mythic Adventure)

To accept the adventure means that we are willing to learn from our experiences, however painful they may be.  Click on the link below to listen (8:30).

Episode 0047 How To Pt 9

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Episode 46 The Way of the World (Part 8 of How To Have a Mythic Adventure)

It is the way of the world to shy away from the adventures that heaven assigns, or else to be unimpressed by the dangers involved.  Click on the link below to listen (6:55).

Episode 0046 How To Pt 8

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Episode 45 Whatever Is… Is Right? (Part 7 of How to Have a Mythic Adventure in a Mon-Fri World)

In his poem, “An Essay on Man,” Alexander Pope asserts that, “Whatever is, is right.” Today I talk about what that means for us if we’re trying to live our lives as a mythic adventure.  Click on the link below to listen (8:43).

Episode 0045 How To Pt 7

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Episode 44 Auspicious Adversity (Part 6 of How to Have a Mythic Adventure in a Monday-Friday World)

For the heroes of these stories, adversity is auspicious. The very obstacles which seem to prevent them from achieving their goals are actually speeding them on their way toward their destiny.  Click on the link below to listen (12:30).

Episode 0044_How To Pt 6

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