Ed Cell’s Discussion Paper
2. Identity: the Search for Meaning
Notice that Boyer sees this category as fundamental: "Ultimately, the aim of common learning is the understanding of oneself and a capacity for sound judgment." Sound judgment concerns, especially, how we see ourselves connected to others and to nature, and what we sense as an overall purpose or meaning in our lives. A good starting point for your agenda, then, is to compose an initial list of questions about self-knowledge, connectedness, meaning, and how the three are related. Let's examine these questions.
2.1 Self-knowledge and Connectedness
There is an ambiguity in being human that will pervade your work on self-knowledge and related questions. On the one hand, we have a basic nature that includes genetic instructions about both how we are to develop and also, as we shall soon consider, what very general sorts of values we will find indispensable and most fulfilling. On the other hand, we become persons only by interacting in certain ways with one another, or, as many sociologists would put it, only by playing a successful part in the social drama. We need to know, then, what our basic nature is, what society requires of us if we are to be included in, and how we can gain this social recognition while acting in accord with our nature. Only on the basis of such knowledge can we reflect profitably on how we currently are attempting to combine the natural and the social, the given and the negotiated.
All of life is played out in the tensions and harmonies between human nature and social requirements. In making it possible for us to become selves, society demands a good bit of conformity, some of it necessary, some not. Some of it connects us with one another, some distributes power in divisive ways. Some of it enables us to live in accord with our nature, some estranges us from that nature. Our understanding of and response to the conflict side of the nature-nurture relationship depends on our view of our genetic makeup. For example, society expects us to be caring toward at least some other persons and yet, on one view, it is our very nature to be uncaring. Alternatively, some work place situations may pressure us to act without care for others and yet we may have a fundamental need to be caring. Further still, much of main-stream society demands that we live as heterosexuals, while we have evidence that many persons are genetically programmed to be homosexual.
2.1.A. Human Nature
We all face basic questions, then, concerning our essential nature, the expectations of other persons and groups, and the process by which we learn to combine the natural and social. As is indicated by the examples we have just considered, our culture holds widely differing conceptions of human nature. Many, including Skinner, Sartre, and Freud, take the reductionistic view that our essential needs are largely physical, pretty much those of the chimpanzees from whom we are descended. On this view, our nature is not a distinctively human one.
Others, including Carl Rogers, Erich Fromm, and, in a sense, Karl Marx, take the organismic view that, in becoming selves through the evolution of society and of a language that results in self-awareness, our organismically-based needs have been elaborated to include a set of psychological or spiritual ones. A need for sensuous strokes now extends to strokes that are psychological. A need for organismic actualization has resulted in one for self-actualization. A requirement for physical closeness now embraces one for union as whole persons. Differences within these organismic views tend to come down to an emphasis on a need for self-esteem and one that includes a need for union as well.
The issue here is very important for us. However our nature is viewed, there is a consensus that our essential needs are very powerful. They command great energy and fulfilling them brings a kind of joy in living, as a Rogers or Marx might put it, or a deep sense of pleasure, as a Skinner or Freud might say. Conversely, frustrating them results in a concupiscent discontent and desire to injure.
Consider, then, the desire to care for, and be deeply connected with, another as a whole person. On the reductionist view, this desire lacks genetic force. It may become quite strong through conditioning, but, in the final analysis, it is only subjective. It doesn't have the deep roots in us that our physiological needs do and so is inherently less powerful and less deeply pleasurable when acted on.
Contrast this with Erich Fromm's contention that "The deepest need of man . . . is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness. The absolute failure to achieve this aim means insanity. . . ." This need for caring union, he maintained, is "the source of all psychic forces which motivate" and "the force which keeps the human race together." What we believe about our nature, then, will determine greatly the significance we see in needs, such as those for self-esteem and personal union, that are distinctively human and, consequently, the way we assess the motivations of ourselves and of others.
Summary: What does human nature require of us? Are our essential needs largely physical or also those of being a person? Are our distinctively personal needs centered on self-esteem and self-worth or are they also oriented around union and connectedness? Ultimately, do our genes urge us more toward separation and conflict than toward unity and cooperation?
2.1.B. The Process of Becoming a Self
What of the process by which we learn to combine attention to our genetically based needs and to social requirements? Our understanding here will depend on how we conceive of the self in relation to its environment. Three main views of this in our culture may be thought of as insular, pliable, and dramatic. Those who take the island view see the self as programmed to unfold from within in much the sense that a tree is. Thus, by nature we are the sole arbiters of the person we need to become. Our teachers and others may only help or hinder us in attending to our programming and in pursuing the specific desires that we determine by looking within. We find this view expressed in Rousseau's "incontrovertable rule that the first [unsocialized] impulses of nature are always right."
On this view, then, "individuals' essential characteristics, their needs and interests, their capacities and desires, are given independently of their social context and are not created or even fundamentally altered by that context." Our most authentic impulse is to actualize these essential characteristics. Carl Rogers provides the following account:
The actualizing tendency can, of course, be thwarted or warped, but it cannot be destroyed without destroying the organism. I remember that, in my boyhood, the bin in which we stored our winter's supply of potatoes was in the basement several feet below a small window. The conditions were unfavorable, but the potatoes would begin to sprout--pale white sprouts, so unlike the healthy green shoots they sent up when planted in the soil in the spring. . . . In dealing with clients whose lives have been terribly warped . . . I often think of those potatoe sprouts. So unfavorable have been the conditions in which these people have developed that their lives often seem abnormal, twisted, scarcely human. Yet, the directional tendency in them can be trusted.
At the other end of the spectrum, the pliable view compares us not with a tree but with a ball of clay which others mold by rewarding, punishing, or being unresponsive to what we do. We simply become what the environment conditions us to be. Education is one of the processes by which we are molded. Thus, James McConnell has argued, "You had no say about the kind of personality you acquired, and there's no reason to believe you should have the right to refuse to acquire a new personality if your old one is antisocial."
For an example of being molded by our environment, we shall take the case of Professor Rasa, as we shall rename him, who was in the middle of a lecture on conditioning human behavior. Bit by bit his students had begun snickering and now were struggling to suppress outright laughter. When he ask what in the world was going on, they pointed to the blackboard. As always, he had used it a good bit but he found that this time he had written almost entirely on its right side. This behavior had been controlled by the students who had withdrawn their attention whenever he used its left side while becoming very attentive when he shifted to its right. He, in turn, although unwittingly, had rewarded their behavior by responding in the way they found rewarding.
The dramatic view sees becoming a person as a two-way street. The metaphor used to conceive of the self is neither a tree nor a lump of clay but a dramatic performer. The key idea is from George Meade: we become a self only when we experience ourselves from the perspective of another. We gradually come to understand that the other assigns us the status of being a self, gives us that special meaning--that sort of role in the social drama, and transacts with us accordingly. As Irving Goffman maintains, "The self is . . . the product of a successful performance."
Becoming a person is seen as a two-way street on grounds that we bring two things to that performance. First, we bring our experience of those impulses that convey a sense of our genetic endowment and, so, are not a product of our social conditioning. Second, although we gain a social identity by seeing ourselves through the eyes of others, we then form these experiences into an autobiography or private identity that unites past, present, and future around personal goals and concerns. This autobiography functions as a private identity that we often must sustain in tension with our social one. We become selves, then, through a process of negotiation with others in which both we and they contribute something essential to our identity. The self, we might say, is both private and public in its very nature. On this view, the ideal in education is that we both discover more fully what it can mean to be a person in our society and, in light of that, determine which of these possibilities we wish to embrace and in what particular way.
The kinds of performance that are seen as crucial crucial to becoming a self are included in what Alasdaire MacIntyre describes as practices. A practice is a "cooperative human activity" which we engage in for its own sake, and not primarily as a means to anything else, and which is defined by society. Music, science, literature, and medicine are commonly engaged in as practices. So are friendship, marriage, and parenting. On the dramatic view, we become persons only by learning to engage in some of these activities and this learning will be directed both inwardly and outwardly. Inwardly we must experience the activity, say friendship, as inherently rewarding. Outwardly, we must learn from others what it means to be a friend in our society and whether we are succeeding in this. What it means to be a self, then, will depend on how a given society defines such essential social activities as friendship, marriage, parenting, and creative work.
Summary: How are persons related to their environment, including that of their education? Is the environment purely external to us as selves so that our essential characteristics are given independently of it and we should minimize its role in determining who we choose to become; or do we simply become whatever it is others reward us for; or is our development a two-way street in which our essential characteristics as a self are determined both from within and from without and our basic task is to coordinate our individual and social identities? In what ways and to what extent have various societies enabled people to meet social expectations while acting in accord with their basic nature?
We are examining the complexities involved in understanding ourselves and others in that we must consider both our human nature and the social requirements and expectations that govern recognition and acceptance as a person. These requirements and expectations focus on our behavior but extend to key beliefs, attitudes, values, and life-orienting metaphors--in short, to a vision of human life. In our society, for example, among the assumptions we are generally socialized to live by, patriarchy and individualism are especially prominent. At the same time, these orientations are increasingly called into question. Much of our thinking, feeling, and acting is informed both by these ways of seeing and also by the challenges to them. Thus, they are deeply important instances of those basic orientations, the knowledge of which is vital to our understanding of ourselves and our society. Let's look briefly at these two powerful ways of seeing.
2.1.C. Patriarchy as a Way of Seeing
James Ogilvy speaks of patriarchy, or father rule, in terms of:
an interlocking metaphorical structure linking the self, the state, and the cosmos. . . . In moving from self-creation to social and political philosophy, it is helpful to locate these issues in their microcosmic form, namely, the family. Patriarchy . . . has its biological roots in the family [and] the family has often been taken as the rudimentary model of social and political organization.
But patriarchy is under fire, both from the women's liberation movement and . . . many third-world movements. . . . Not surprisingly, the political and sexual assault on patriarchy comes when there is much talk of the "decline of the family" . . . [and] of the decline and death of the great Father in the sky, God. . . . While it may be clear that historically patriarchy is on the decline, the meaning of that decline will not be clear until we have reflected on its ramifications, political, social, sexual, and personal.
Notice what Ogilvy is saying about the power of the concept of father rule in the whole gamut of our relations from family, through various organizations, to the cosmos itself. Any change in the basic way we conceive of our relationships will produce a great deal of strain in our personal and social lives. While some see the growing rejection of patriarchy as liberation others feel it as decline, and, for most, it fosters an ill-defined sense of being somewhat adrift--perhaps most evident in confusion about gender roles. Obviously, it plays an important part in our thinking about abortion and a woman's control of her capacity for child-bearing and thus of her subsequent role in the family and in society. Equally important is its affect on our conception of authority and of power relations generally. Its consequences are, and will continue to be, far reaching and, therefore, in need of careful attention. Ultimately, how we think of our relations is how we think of ourselves and of life as a whole.
Summary: Where do you see patriarchal assumptions in peoples' sense of self, of social relations, of government, and of religion? Where do you see a waning of or challenge to this way of seeing and what what do you see as the consequences of this for questions of gender, authority, and religion? Do you see it as liberation or decline and why?
2.1.D. Individualism as a Way of Seeing
Another paradigm that has long affected every level of our thinking, feeling, and acting is individualism. Right from its inception historically, it has been under challenge by critics of both genders. Individualistic assumptions differ from patriarchal ones in that they do not affect assignments of power in so direct a manner and they often include a rationally defensible and widely held moral value which we shall term authenticity. Perhaps in consequence, criticism of individualism has not had so clearly visible a constituency as has the challenge to male dominance or to paternalistic attitudes in international relations. Additionally, the stresses its critics associate with individualism seem to be manifested less in on-going changes in the roles by which we relate than in, often vaguely felt, personal discontents. At the same time, because individualism has long worked side by side with patriarchy in shaping our culture, the two are intricately intertwined and are often embraced or resisted together. You may, of course, find disagreement with some of this analysis but the basic point is to indicate something of the complexity and importance of this subject and the need for disciplined thinking about it.
"Individualism" has two closely related meanings. It may refer to the nature of the self or to a value orientation. Concerning the self, we have already touched on conceiving of the self as an island rather than as rooted in social and ecological systems. This emphasis on our separateness is really one aspect of seeing everything as separate. If we have this mind-set, for example, we view organizations, nations and other groups as essentially independent rather than interdependent; the mind is conceived as an entity inhabiting the body rather than as a dimension or function of the human organism; and God is thought of as a separate being rather than as, say, the divine ground of, or sacred depth in, all things.
When we see things in this individualistic way, Carol Gilligan is arguing, we will also view our ethical obligations differently than if we conceive of ourselves as relational beings who are essentially connected. Our sense of responsibility will be an ethics of justice as distinguished from an ethics of care. From a justice perspective, we will focus on the rights and respect that are due to each individual, the equality of worth that we all share. Our concern will center on our common vulnerability to oppression. Men are typically raised to take this individualistic view of the moral claim we have on one another.
An ethics of care, as Gilligan describes it, rests on seeing ourselves as essentially connected with one another. If we live by this view, we will see concern for the well being of the other as taking us beyond a respect for her separate rights to a focus on staying connected with her in a caring relationship. Our concern will be oriented less around oppression than around abandonment. Gillian notes that women are likely to hold this point of view.
Critics of individualism, such as Gilligan, point to social costs of this way of seeing, contending that it makes it far easier for us to respond to the rights of others than to their need for caring relationship, to experience conflict rather than synergy, to attend to narcissistic impulses instead of altruistic ones, to feel loneliness instead of belongingness, to relate through contract rather than community, to relate to nature on a basis of use rather than of kinship, to understand the sacred in terms of requirements imposed and promises conveyed at a distance rather than empowerment found and healing undergone within a relationship of union, and to think of values as private rather than as uniting us in a shared heritage and mutual understanding.
Individualism, then, is not only an account of the nature of the self but also, and consequently, a perspective on values. Critics are alarmed by an acquisitive individualism that is preoccupied with what persons can have. But there is another sort of individualism that embraces what Charles Taylor has termed "the ethics of authenticity." Here the focus is on the moral importance of what we make of ourselves in our separateness. We owe this way of seeing to a conviction originating in the eighteenth century, namely, that "each of us has an original way of being human" and that, if I fail to live in this unique way, "I miss the point of my life, I miss what being human is for me."
Taylor agrees with critics that the ethics of authenticity is "an ideal that has degraded" into a preoccupation with oneself. But, he also maintains that it is " very worthwhile in itself, and indeed, . . . unrepudiable by moderns." Taylor believes, and Gilligan agrees, that our need is to achieve a perspective that balances separateness and connectedness. It is his view that we do not become selves in separation and that our development as a unique self is stultified if we fail to achieve deep relatedness. There are goods fundamental to being a self, they maintain, such as friendship, that can only be realized in concert with others.
Summary: Where do you discern individualistic assumptions in peoples' sense of self, of social relations, of organizations, and of religion? What do you see to be the costs and/or benefits of this way of seeing? Does it take both authentic and inauthentic forms?
2.2 The Nature and Basis of Meaning
2.2.A. Narratives and the Creation of Meaning
We have been emphasizing the age-old questions concerning nature vs. nurture as fundamental to understanding who we are. Asking about the role of autobiography in becoming a self gives us another question of great power in our self-understanding. The idea that life tells a story runs through our understanding not only of ourselves, but of other persons, groups, nations, the human species, and even the entire universe. We seem to need narratives in each of these aspects of life to gain a sense of meaning and significance.
Consider that, in reading a novel or watching a film, we understand what is happening in the present in terms of what we have previously read or seen and what we anticipate or wonder about concerning the future. Someone beginning the novel or the film someplace in the middle would have very little sense of what is going on. This is similar to our experience if we lose memory of our past or lack knowledge of who our parents are or even of our family history or cultural roots. The meaning that the present has for us is how we see it growing out of the past and moving into the future.
Think, too, of our understanding of other persons. We scarcely know who they are if we have learned little of their life story, the way they give meaning to their past, present, and future. When we want to become better acquainted with one another, we talk about memories of the past and plans for the future. Even in serving on a jury, our judgment of someone's guilt or innocence will depend in part on whose story we use to interpret the facts and impressions we have received, the story presented by the prosecution or that by the defense.
Our need to find meaning through narratives also applies to our understanding of social groups and, consequently, of ourselves and others as participants in them. Groups achieve identity and bind people together by the way they construct their history--the events that have shaped them and the meanings they give to these events. Thus we Americans commemorate our wars, the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and the civil rights movement. We enshrine in our cultural discourse tales of the Western Frontier, the great depression, various riots and assassinations, national displays of generosity of spirit, and space explorations.
Shared stories, however, not only connect people with one another, but also both divide them from people of other groups and assign status within the group. Age old-enmities are often encoded in these histories and tend to have powerfully divisive effects. Consider the Israelites and Palestinians, or the Bosnian Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, or, in our country, various racial and ethnic conflicts, or, in Nazi Germany, the age old stories in which Jews were demonized and dehumanized, a way of thinking that, historians make clear, played a fundamental role in the holocaust.
Concerning status, we may reflect on what it means to a black child to learn history in which blacks play little part or to a young girl to learn mainly about the great things that men have done. Similarly, we may ponder the effects of emphasizing stories about Columbus, or the Pilgrims and the Virginia colonists, in rehearsing who we are and where we came from. What does this sense of "we" mean for the status of blacks, native Americans, or those from Mexico who were early settlers of the Southwest? Yet again, we may think of the stories that families dwell on and in which members are portrayed as heroes, goats, comedians, or scarcely attended to at all. The power of such stories is well brought out when they are referred to as "scripts" that tell us who we are, individually or collectively, what our place is, and what sort of future we are moving into.
Perhaps most dramatic of all, concerning our approach to meaning, is our dependence on narrative to feel at home in the universe. Especially people of biblical faith, with their stories of creation, fall, and redemption, think not only of world history but of the whole cosmological process as a story unfolding in the mind of God according to a transcendent purpose. Even the secular ideas that evolution is moving to ever "higher" forms of life and that social change is adding up to progress appear to derive from this biblical way of seeing.
Increasingly, however, our poets, artists, therapists, spiritual leaders, and others attentive to our deepest experiencing are giving voice to widespread feelings of homelessness, emptiness, loss of a sense of meaning and purpose. One of the keys seems to be a deterioration in our ability to live humanely with one another and with nature. But another seems to be an ever lessening ability to see the universe in terms of a transcendent story. From the holocausts of our history to the emptiness of our cosmic spaces we experience much that seems entirely foreign to any sort of purposive story.
We have reason to believe, then, that to grasp the deepest tensions in our Western and Near-eastern cultures we need to come to terms with the question of how meaning and narrative are related and, specifically, what sorts of stories can now make sense of life not only in view of human evil but also in a universe of dark matter, black holes, inconceivable distances and eons of time, a big bang, and the like. There are many for whom, without a transcendent story, life would lose all meaning. This may be important in helping us to understand the current militancy of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim fundamentalists.
There are others who find meaning without recourse to what they might term a story-book cosmos. Consider, first of all, the many Jews, Christians, and Muslims for whom conceiving of God in terms of purposes and plans is too anthropocentric--too much oriented to our image of ourselves. Their conception tends to be more mystical, a sense of divinity as inwardly accessed. Next, we may think of such Eastern religions as Hinduism, with its strongly mystical bent, and Buddhism, with its view that we would be much less concerned with meaning and purpose if we came to understand that our everyday world is really one of illusion--a construction out of mere appearances. Finally, we might examine those secularists, some of whom feel the loss of a sense of cosmic purpose quite keenly, for whom meaning must rest on more limited stories of our own making. In each case, since the universe is not conceived of in terms of a story in the mind of God, the findings of science are more readily accommodated.
To know ourselves, our families, our country, or our world, then, is to know the stories that provide our identity and that unite and divide us. Asking about our stories can be an important past of a liberal education. It can lead not only to deeper understanding but a greater responsibility for the way we experience and think. Our narratives, let's bear in mind, have a powerful affect on our behavior. Often our stories simply evolve with new experience and new decisions. Dorothy Canfield's story "Sex Education" gives dramatic expression to just how far reaching such change is likely to be. But sometimes we deliberately alter our stories by intense reflection, perhaps aided by a friend or therapist or studies we are engaged in.
Much of our power to be self-directed is our ability to change our stories. Similarly, our collective narratives--say as a society or as a group based on race or gender or ethnic heritage--are changed not only by dramatic events but by the work of historians, sociologists, poets, political leaders, and the like. Further still, the sense of the cosmos and of life as a whole that our religious heritage has given us may be influenced by contemporary visionaries and by our need to come to terms with findings about evolution and about the ultimate nature and origin of the physical universe.
Because stories are fundamental to our sense of meaning, identity and plans for the future, you will be asked in this course to start your liberal studies planning by writing an account of your own life-story. One of the activities of the Senior Seminar will be a revisiting of this account to see how your learning may have affected your sense of yourself and your world.
Summary: What narratives do you discern as shaping the meaning not only of your own life but that of groups and whole peoples? How are these stories related to science? In what ways do they unite and divide people? To whom do they assign preferred status? How do they affect perceptions in your own family?
2.2.B. Categories of Meaning
In telling our stories, we humans seem universally to deal with six themes or categories of meaning. They permeate both our individual and collective ways of making sense of things. Self and society, we have said, are distinguishable but not separable, so that the way we deal with the categories of meaning at one level will affect how we come to terms with them at the other. All six show up again and again in our art and literature, our social sciences and our personal quest for identity. You may find it useful to bear these themes in mind as you formulate your questions about meaning. Among other things, you may decide there are better ways of analyzing meaning. Huston Smith, for example, uses just five categories. We shall begin with his account and then supplement it with a sixth category.
The first category is trouble. Smith emphasizes the endless forms in which this is experienced:
[Trouble] varies in acuteness from vague unrest to anguish so intense as to be unbearable. It varies similarly in frequency. To some it comes as episode, while for others it is a fixture so permanent as to reduce all life to bitterness or boredom and the whole world to bog. In guise it ranges from pain that is purely physical, through psychological neuroses, to despair in the self's deepest strata: the dark night of the soul. For the Bible, trouble is sin--a pervasive severance of man from the ground of his being, which precludes wholeness with himself and others. For the Buddha, it was dukka, an unsatisfactoriness grounded in life's impermanence and dependence. Kierkegaard christened it Angst, the deep anxiety and unhappiness that arises from the fact that man is unable to resolve the conflicting drives and inhibitions that war in his deeply divided self.
The second category is hope. For life to move forward, trouble must be balanced by hope. Consequently,
[T]here are as many hopes as there are discontents. Those who suffer from bondage and confinement dream of freedom; those who walk in darkness see (in their mind's eye) a great light. He who groans under the weight of death and transitoriness previsions eternity; while his neighbor, distraught, restless, and riven with conflict, yearns for peace that passes understanding.
A third aspect of meaning is endeavor. Life can have meaning only if our actions count for something. Thus if our hopes are not related to our responsibilities they become hollow and self-defeating.
A fourth theme is trust. "Endeavor can itself succeed," Smith notes, "only within a matrix that supports and sustains it." Trust is our sense of and confidence in that support. This feeling of support enriches the meaning that we experience in our endeavors.
The fifth category is mystery. The world we inhabit is of our own making, a way of ordering experience in light of our needs, interests, and concerns. Worlds vary from person to person and culture to culture. The more we are aware of this, the deeper our intuition of a universe that encompasses whatever orders we create, our "sense of an enveloping, undefined whole that accompanies every normal experience" as John Dewey expressed it. The world as we know it is the universe reduced to the compass of our cognitive and sensory capabilities, a manageable version of the whole on which every day life depends. Our feeling of the vastness beyond the horizon of our everyday meanings is the feeling of wonder, of mystery, of awe that adds dimension and fullness to these meanings. Spinoza is among many, through the ages, who have referred to this as living "under the aspect of eternity."
Smith emphasizes the close interdependence of these categories:
When the human spirit is in health these five categories of meaning . . . function in concert. . . . But the balance between them is precarious. . . . Obsession with trouble to the neglect of hope leads to spiritual defeat, while the reverse leaves on living in make-believe. Similarly, . . . to stress trust at the expense of responsibility encourages sloth, while the reverse excess leads to the weariness of the man who carries the world on his shoulders. Too much reliance on hope and trust together, to the neglect of facing one's problems and the effort required to extricate ourselves from them, makes a soul fatuous; while obsession with trouble and duty can turn it to lead. . . . Meanwhile, unless the four paired categories assume their structure within the context of the fifth . . . they remain superficial however precisely balanced.
The sixth aspect of meaning is relatedness. While life is a matter of growth and human life of progressing toward a meaningful future, the present is not simply a way station but a place in which values and meanings are lived. Hope, then, taken by itself, is too future oriented to enable us to love and affirm life despite its dark side. Ultimately we do not infer the good from some evidence of future fulfillment but know it through immediate experience. It is in living the value inherent in certain ways of relating that we both learn what to hope for and also achieve the courage needed to pursue this good in the face of the under-side of life. For a great many of us, a paradigm of this is valuing friendship for its own sake. A second example is found in creative work, something we may hear in Hemingway's exclamation, "Who the hell wants fame. I want to write well."
Relatedness is not only a basis for hope and an answer to trouble but an essential aspect of both endeavor and trust. We need to experience our efforts not simply as means to an end but as inherently valuable, a giving meaning to our powers by connecting them to our world. Trust, too, is grounded in experiences of kinship, of having a nature that enables us to live in some accord with the environing reality. It is through such experience that our feelings of mystery or wonder are tied to what Dewey described as a sense that "we are citizens of this vast world beyond ourselves."
Summary: How do the narratives you discern in our lives, both individually and collectively, embody these categories of meaning? How are they given expression in the philosophy, history, literature, and social sciences you have studied? What is the effect of our cultural views of trouble, hope, and the rest on your personal sense of these meanings? To what extent do you see these meanings "functioning in concert" in our lives? Would you describe these categories differently than we have done here?
2.2.C. Meaning and the Language of Myth
Our sense of meaning, we have been saying, depends on the stories by which we live. By means of these stories, we apply the categories of trouble, hope, endeavor, trust, mystery, and relatedness to our individual and collective lives. Our basic understanding of these categories themselves, however, is gained through the language of myth. As Gilbert Highet expressed it, by our myths we "deal with love, with war, with sin; with tyranny, with courage, with fate." Myth is the work of the creative imagination in fashioning narratives that both transcend and make possible the stories of actual persons and peoples. Our myths transcend us in being fictions. They make possible the shaping of our lives into stories by providing the idealized or archetypical patterns of meaning that we draw on in making sense of things. Our dependence on these dynamic fictions gives all autobiography and history a mythic dimension.
Perhaps in the West the term "myth" most readily brings to mind narratives depicting the desire of Adam and Eve for knowledge of good and evil, the creativity of Prometheus in his gift of fire, the conflict of Oedipus with his father, and the costs of each. But our contemporary story-tellers are also engaged in our need for myth. Consider, for example, our great difficulty in coming to terms with the cruelties and degradations of otherwise decent enough, ordinary young men who we subjected to the conditions of warfare in Viet Nam. It is only though the mythic creations of films such as "Platoon" that we have been enabled to take a step beyond our initial recoil into numbing disbelief and irrational dissociation, to find some place in our image of ourselves for what happened there. In much the way that children utilize accounts of witches and orgres, our participation in this mythic portrayal engages us emotionally while providing the arm's length of removal that brings catharsis and perspective.
Beyond catharsis, however, we need to answer the destructive, alienating side of life by a compelling vision of its creative, uniting side. In the words of Peter Berger, "It is through myths that men are lifted above their captivity in the ordinary, attain powerful visions of the future, and realize such visions." But there is much question about the availability of such myths for our time. Rollo May seems typical of those who are dealing with this subject for us in speaking of
the lack of myths which will give us as individuals the inner security we need in order to live adequately in our day. The sharp increase in suicide among young people and surprising increase in depression among people of all ages are due . . . to the confusion and the unavailability of adequate myths in modern society.
Each age, May is saying, must have myths that speak to its particular conditions, especially the forms in which it faces the dark side of life, on the one hand, and the creative possibilities unique to its technologies, institutions, knowledge, therapeutic understandings, and the like, on the other. In times of rapid social change, May believes, myth lags behind. Thus, "When the myths of classical Greece broke down, as they did in the third and second centuries, Lucretius could see 'aching hearts in every home, racked incessantly by pangs the mind was powerless to assuage'. . . We in our day are in a similar situation."
Insofar as we fail to find myths that adequately bind us together and provide a feeling of community and collective destiny, we must make-do with the stories we create of our individual lives. Some groups, of course, achieve a stronger sense of community and myth than others but the experience of fully adequate meaning does seem to be more the exception than the rule. To rely mainly on our individual narratives and the poetry of our separate lives, however, is a lonely business and leaves us vulnerable to the demagogues, cults, and demonic myths that are injurious to our humanity. We might think here of Jonesville or of the mythology of Nazism. A basic function of education, then, is to enable us to become more keenly aware of our need for myth, to critique those that are available, and to live our myths more judiciously and effectively.
Summary: What myths do you see informing our individual and collective narratives. How are they given expression in the philosophy, art, history, literature, and social sciences you have studied? How do you evaluate them? Do they appeal to our cowardice or our courage, unite or divide us, enable us to live with ambiguity and uncertainty or provide us with full and final answers?