I can no longer remain silent about how people everywhere in western culture continue to misuse the word “myth,” equating it with terms such as “lie,” “rumor,” “falsehood” or “legend.”
Who cares? Well, park here with me for a moment.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines “myth” as “a traditional, typically ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors or heroes that serves as a fundamental type in the world view of a people, as by explaining aspects of the natural world or delineating the psychology, customs or ideals of a society.”
The psychologist Carl Jung suggested that myths were rooted in what he called the “collective unconscious.” a shared human experience spanning the centuries. Jung organized this collective unconscious into symbols and patterns he termed “archetypes,” expressed in our dreams, our religions, and our works of art. Myths, Jung claimed, have certain common features that illustrate a common humanity.
So, myth explains why we love the movies and certain books so much, captivated by stories such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars and The Matrix. Myths form the framework upon which rest many narratives from sacred works such as the Bible and the Koran (rather than get offended here, do the research!). Mythology and its archetypes surrounds us and inspire us, whether we realize it or not.
Kenneth Davis, author of the very reader friendly Don't Know Much About Mythology, adds that in the earliest days of humanity, “myths existed to convey essential truths. Myths, Davis added, “are about what make us tick. They are as old as humanity and as current as the news.”
But based on my observation, so many do not take the time to check the dictionary or consider the context before carelessly inserting “myth” into a conversation, a PowerPoint presentation or an authored work. Whether uttered by a blue collar worker, a physician, an MBA, a schoolteacher, or a newscaster–I am troubled (because of my respect for myth) by how prevalent it is to butcher the term while audiences simply nod in agreement.
If Davis is on target, then using the word “myth” when discussing something that is supposedly not true is to unwittingly declare that the item in question is, actually, essentially true! Oops. Most have no idea they are contradicting themselves when they say something along the lines of, “This rumor is a myth.”
It is simply sloppy word choice, quite rarely malicious but frequently found because we tend to make assumptions or adapt cliches without pausing for deeper reflection. This latter point–the prevalence of unexamined living–is a particularly western ailment that often keeps us stuck in mediocrity. In our fast-paced, information-overload culture we so often do not have a grasp of sacred, timeless concepts and a sense of our lives as part of a much larger, unfolding story.
But again, even while understanding and appreciating what “myth” means, who really cares if we get the term wrong most of the time? Seriously, does it do any harm?
I think it does; not the linguistic misdeed itself, but its revelation of the opportunities we miss due to insufficient examination and reflection. A true understanding of mythology and its archetypes can create much more self-awareness and other-awareness–leading, in my opinion, to stronger emotional intelligence and psychological health, more spiritual vitality, and more energy given to dialogue and bridge-building. The price of the lack of these dynamics is war, broken relationships, violent crime, staggering health costs, and perhaps even a floundering economy.
We are paying the price right now. Check your wallet.
More fully appreciating what makes all of us tick in tandem can only lead to a more solution-oriented, sustainable world. And our common humanity needs that world. Desperately.