Wednesday, May 6, 2015

When you need a myth

My pregnancy with Miriam was a pretty miserable time for me emotionally.  I was overwhelmed, hormones made me depressed, and I felt completely out of control of what happened to me.

I just don't know how to think about pregnancy.  It seems unnatural, which is odd considering that nothing could be more natural.  I keep thinking, if I had to explain pregnancy to an alien, they would think it was pretty weird.  What, a new person grows inside your body?  It is disconcerting to watch your own body -- you know, the thing you've always thought of as "you" -- change shape, losing abilities it once had (like doing situps) and gaining ones you aren't used to (making milk). 

And all of this without your willing it -- it just happens.  That's the part I find most upsetting.  People will say "you are doing a powerful thing," but in reality, you aren't doing it at all; your body just does it without asking you.

In all of this, I started searching for a good myth. That is, I was longing for a story about what I was doing that would make it feel heroic, powerful, meaningful -- anything other than victimhood, which was how it felt.

The Catholic faith has a powerful story about suffering -- uniting it to Christ's suffering on the cross -- which many people find helpful.  But it wasn't working for me.  I kept thinking, "People say You suffered more than anyone ever has, but You never gave birth, now did You?"

Tried to think about Mary, but Mary has never inspired me the way Jesus does.  She doesn't seem super heroic.  She seemed to be in the same boat I was in -- letting stuff happen to her.  I know there is more to her than that, but "more to her" comes down to "more than just having a baby," and it was having a baby that felt so awful to me.  Our priest's insistence that Mary didn't suffer labor pains didn't help.  Personally I think it seems likely enough, but if true it just makes the suffering of pregnancy and birth that much more lonely, unredeemed.

I began to see that there is a reason why so many pagan religions obsessed over sex, pregnancy, and birth -- it is one of the great mysteries of human experience, something we can never quite make sense of, even while it informs everything we do.

In the end I found a lot of comfort from a picture of a Celtic goddess, Sheela-na-gig, giving birth to the universe.  (Warning: I mean, it's a picture of childbirth.)  Identifying myself with some sort of divine action was helpful, even though I know God did not actually "give birth to the universe," perhaps there was some sense in which creation was like that.  Another helpful bit was just a line from Paradise Lost:

"Thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like sat'st brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant."

Was the universe "pregnant" with life before it burst forth into the Big Bang?  I don't know.  But it was a nice thought that kept me going when I was depressed.

Throughout my life I've needed different myths, different archetypes and role models.  In boarding school I was encouraged to imitate Christ, and couldn't really manage it because (according to them) he was a different personality type and no matter what I did, I couldn't force my personality into that mold.  Some time after I had the amazing revelation that Ideal Sheila was a totally different person from Ideal Anyone Else and I should try to be Ideal Sheila.  I built her out of a lot of other people I knew and liked -- that I would be hospitable like Mrs. X and friendly like Mrs. Y and wear a lot of bright colors.  This model has shifted a lot over time, but the idea still works for me.

There have been times when I needed to see myself as Eowyn, as Evan MacIan (from The Ball and the Cross), or as a mother tiger.  Not because I think I am those things, but because it is an image that can speak to me much better than a list of statements.  What is more inspiring when you're going in for a root canal, to say "I must be brave" or to think of Eowyn saying "I fear neither death nor pain"?  Thinking of Eowyn makes me pull my shoulders back, lift my chin, and set my mouth firmly, without particularly thinking about it ... but when I take on that posture, I start to feel braver.

I tried to understand nonviolence for years, and a Doctor Who episode ("Dalek") made it clearer to me than anything else could have done.  When Rose touches the Dalek, showing it mercy, it's a stupid decision ... and yet her mercy transforms the Dalek.  That means something very deep about how risky nonviolence is, and at the same time displays its amazing power.  It's something I think of, when trying to use the principles of nonviolence in my own life -- remembering that showing vulnerability is a great risk, but it can utterly disarm the person I thought was my enemy.

For most of my life, "what would Jesus do?" has been a deeply useful question.  Jesus, as the figure in my mind for all that is good -- though of course not simply the goodness I attribute to him, because I do know the Gospels thoroughly and can tell you what exactly he said and did -- makes a better rubric for decisionmaking than most of the other questions I could ask.  "What do I want to do?" might be the wrong question, but "What is most unselfish?" is a question that has led me to ignore my own boundaries.  Jesus was unselfish but not passive and boundaryless.  And since God loves everyone, asking God for help in an argument has often led me to the realization that he loves the other person as much as me and would appreciate it if I showed love instead of trying to win.

And this is one way in which I can still cling to the myth of Christianity while I wait for factual belief to (possibly) return -- there is no reason at all I should not continue asking "what would Jesus do?"  Keeping an image in my mind of a God who is boundless being and love -- in my current favorite quote, "ground of being, and granite of it" -- is a good image.

In a way I'm afraid I will anger everyone with this attitude -- Christians want God accepted as fact, and atheists do not want him accepted at all.  Even to myself, this isn't entirely satisfying -- I can think about God, but praying to him just distracts me with the question of whether anybody can hear me or not.  The whole promise of Christianity is that it is a wonderful fairy tale that also happens to be true.  I find myself thinking "well, if this wonderful fairy tale is not true, where is the wonderful fairy tale that is true?"  Sadly, that is a question that may not have an answer.  There is no necessity for the universe to be constructed on a rule that is psychologically satisfying for humans.

That said, it's a belief of mine that inner space -- the vast complexity of what humans think and experience and are -- is as real and important as outer space.  And to accept a being into one's inner space -- as I have accepted Jesus -- may not be the same as knowing he is Lord of the outer space as well, but it isn't meaningless either.  At the very least, it may transform who I am.


SeekingOmniscience said...

What makes a myth a myth, though?

Jesus as suffering to save us isn't a only nice story about how suffering for a good purpose is good--it's supposed to reflect how this is, in some sense, something you can get strength from and be joined to. I think.

I don't really know stuff outside of Catholicism, but if this is something important for myth, then I would agree one is out of luck. I don't think there are such stories that one can somehow draw strength, through any aetherial connection, from in a more than psychological way. Unless, of course, you can find an actual cause that one really does contribute to and draw strength from, and tell oneself a story about that. The kind of thing one could do as part of an organization or community or group that was actually good; the kind of thing that one can actually contribute to, or actually be supported by. In that sense one can be a part of a myth and draw strength from it, by being part of a story people say about themselves. And that's what religions are to a certain degree.

On the other hand again, if one wants a particularly good story to draw psychological strength from, apart from a community, and this is what one means by myth... I don't know if I would choose Jesus as the first kind of story to be inspired by. Jesus thought he would rise from the dead, and ascend to Heaven. His actions, in the face of Roman and Judean authority, seem somewhat less heroic than those who act without such confidence.

Sheila said...

I am talking about purely psychological help. I haven't literally "offered things up" in ages because no one has ever been able to explain to me in terms that made sense how that is supposed to work. I wish I could get this further sort of help from religion, but I can't.

And yes, it's true that Jesus is not the only hero one can have as a model, nor even the best in all cases. I mainly think about him as a model of charitable behavior: "What would Jesus do?" "Well, he definitely would NOT punch this jerkwad in the nose like I feel like doing." But at other times, I certainly have needed other sorts of myths, and qua myth it doesn't seem to matter very much where you get the myths from.

Enbrethiliel said...


And now I'm kicking myself for not sending you a copy of Robin Lim's Butterfly People along with the dried mangoes! =(

The idea of letting Jesus in as a myth and still being transformed by Him reminds me of . . . *the peanut gallery starts taking bets on which of my constants I'll quote again* . . . something Father Malachi Martin said to a woman who said she was experiencing demonic activity. She was willing to go to a Catholic priest if that was what it would take to banish the demons, but she was a Jew who didn't at all care for Christianity. So she asked Father Martin if she'd need to believe in Jesus before being helped (because she honestly didn't think she could). He told her that she didn't have to . . . but that after the demons got banished in Jesus's name, she would find His love living in her heart anyway. Even if she never became a Christian.

As for Jesus and boundaries, Father Martin also pointed out that Jesus never actually turned the other cheek. When someone struck Him in the face, He immediately confronted the guy.

Like you, I've tried to find a good story to make myself feel better about a low point in my past; but unlike you, I picked the most depressing one I could find. (We really do seem to have opposite approaches, don't we? LOL!) I was feeling really depressed about being single when I started thinking that perhaps it was because the man I was supposed to marry was aborted before he could be born. And as strange as this may sound, the idea did make me feel better. I stopped asking myself "What's wrong with you?" and blaming myself for everything.

Unknown said...

"And to accept a being into one's inner space -- as I have accepted Jesus -- may not be the same as knowing he is Lord of the outer space as well, but it isn't meaningless either. At the very least, it may transform who I am."

That is about as much faith that I can have. It is good to hear another person say that. Jesus made this world what it is today more than any other person in history (although Mohammed has done a lot to undo the good that Jesus has done).

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