Mythic Adventures

Sacred Stories from around the Globe

Archive for the category “problem solving”

A Farewell to Students

Commencement 04-30-16 015


As a faculty member, I’ve listened to lots of commencement addresses, but here’s what I wish I could say to my students as they prepare to leave us…

To our graduates:

We congratulate you on finishing a challenging course of study.  We hope that you have learned much and learned it well, and that you will become productive members of your communities and of this nation.  But now, after all that you have learned, there is one question that remains to be answered—and it must be answered by each of you individually:

What is the great problem to which you will devote your life?

Some of you can afford to ignore this question.  If all you’re interested in is making money, be on your way, then, and have joy of it.  If all you want is fame, good luck.  If you really just want to settle down and work at a job and earn a good living, we wish you the best.

But if you want your life to be more than that—more than grubbing for money or fame, more than the routine of going to work day after day after day and then you die—if you want your life to make a difference, so that people will know, long after you’re gone, that you lived, and that your life mattered… if that is your choice… then this is the one question you must not ignore.

What is the great problem to which you will devote your life?

You have completed the courses which we believe to be of the most use to you at this early stage of your career.  You have been given basic information on a number of subjects.  We hope that you have gained proficiency in thinking for yourself about those subjects and in expressing your thought clearly in writing and speaking.  You have learned a great deal about one particular field.  In short, you have been equipped to address certain live issues—issues which are of importance to our society or to some segment of society.  This has all been preparation.  Now the story begins, and the shape that your story takes—the quality of life that you will live—depends primarily on your answer to this question.

What is the great problem to which you will devote your life?

Did you notice, once you cleared away your required courses, how your classes started to become more open-ended, and how you were invited to see, from the inside, the current issues in your field?  Did any of those issues reach out and beckon to you?  Were there any questions or problems which quickened your pulse, or which made you stay behind to talk to your professor or your classmates after the hour was over?  Did you ever hear anything at this school that made you realize—even if only for a moment—that there might be something worthwhile left to do in this old world, and that it might be something for you to do?

For if you have learned only facts… only theories… only skills… then you have missed the most important part of your education.  You needed to learn facts and theories and skills so that you could build on them to wrestle with the problems in your field—for it is those problems to which you will be expected to contribute at least some small part of a solution.

Are you entering the field of education?  The main problem is still a live one: What is the best way to teach a person something?  As an educator, you are going to devote the next years of your life to solving that problem.  Are you committed to it?  Is that the great problem to which you will devote your life?

Some of you are headed for law enforcement. The community in which you are employed could either turn against you or work together with you to maintain peace. It’s up to you how you will approach them. Is that the great problem to you which you will devote your life?

We could list each major course of study and look for the open-ended problems that are just waiting for you to solve them. Is there something in your field that has reached out and claimed you? Something that keeps you awake nights, thinking about it?

Everything up to this moment has merely been a prelude.  Your education was supposed to awaken you to what needs to be done, and to equip you to do it. Over the past few years we have pushed your poor tired brain almost beyond its capacity for this reason: because you are now being entrusted with the great problems of the human race, and we are looking to you to help us solve them.

As a result of the time you spent here, you now know a little about history, about science, about the arts… but can you identify the great problems that are facing your society?  Did you pay attention to what needs doing?  Are you ready to pitch in, ready to make the world a better place in some way?  Are you full of ideas about how you will improve on our past mistakes?

What is the great problem to which you will devote your life?

Answer that… and the path will open before you.

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 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 50 Ears to Hear (Part 11 of How to Have a Mythic Adventure)

Far from expressing concern over the complete and infallible transcribing of his mind and will, the Savior of the New Testament gospels seems disinclined to spell things out for people.  Click on the link below to listen (4:26).

Episode 0050 How To Pt 11


“Go and learn what this means” (Matthew 9:13 RSV).

“Ears to hear” (Mark 4:9, 23; Matthew 11:15; 13:9, 43; Luke 8:8; 14:35).

The story of the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-31; Matthew 19:16-30; Luke 18:18-30).

The Syrophoenician woman (Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30).

The Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10).

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 0030 A Tale of Two Nations, Part 3

According to an ancient prophecy, Christ will visit the children of Lehi after his resurrection in Jerusalem.  But will it be too late?  Click on the link to listen to the dramatic conclusion of the Book of Mormon (15 min).

Episode 0030 Two Nations Part 3 1

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Episode 0028 A Tale of Two Nations, Part 1

Six hundred years before Christ, two civilizations fight each other for survival on the American continent.  They await the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy: that the Son of God will one day visit them after his death and resurrection in Jerusalem. Click the link below to listen (15 min).

Episode 0028 Two Nations Part 1

Next episode airs September 26: A Tale of Two Nations, Part 2

The good guys and bad guys trade places as the coming of Christ draws near.

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Episode 0027 Some Serious Hoop

Two young men are summoned to the underworld to compete in a high-stakes ballgame.  Click on the link to listen (15 min.)

Episode 0027 Serious Hoop

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Episode 0025 Two Heads Are Better. . .

In the Shinto epic, The Kojiki, the god Opo-kuni-nusi is destined to be the creator and ruler of the Japanese Islands, but members of his own family want to kill him. 

Episode 0025 Two Heads

Next episode airs August 8: Not Quite Heaven

The characters in Dante’s Purgatorio work together to face challenges that will prepare them for their future in a better place. 

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Episode 0005 Bad Day at Camelot

The Knights of the Round Table use a charming phrase when faced with a difficult challenge.  Click the link to listen (15 min).

Episode 0005 Bad Day at Camelot

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