Sometime around my 30th birthday (much too long ago!) I started to feel something was missing. Many of us will know this as the beginnings of midlife musings or crisis. I found myself turning first to literature and then to mythology to help me understand my predicament. Only in retrospect did I learn that mythology is often about transformations, and midlife is one of the great transformative moments we tend to go through as adults. The powerful lessons of literature, poetry and mythology have stuck with me over the years and have helped me weather many of the storms as well as appreciate the many blessings of life. Later, when I began to study coaching, I saw mythology as a potent tool to understand my clients — and help them understand themselves and the changes they were going through. A few years later, when I decided to go back for a PhD in leadership and change (a connection that had previously been unclear to me), I knew my research needed to encompass the mythopoetic.
The mythopoetic? Who in this decidedly difficult and crazy time needs myth? Who has time for poetry? These are the questions I asked at the beginning of my doctoral dissertation. I found the answer, or part of the answer, lies in a poem:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day for lack
of what is found there.
~William Carlos Williams, from Asphodel, That Greeny Flower
Why mythos? The English word myth comes from the Greek mythos which translates as “story or tale.” Organizational consultant and author Harrison Owen defines mythos as “a likely story arising from the life experience of any group, through which they come to experience their past, present and potential” (1987, p. 14). He emphasizes that mythos is not history but only a “likely story.” Owen writes, “Myth is neither true nor false, but rather behindtruth… On a deeper level, myth communicates the moving quality of the human Spirit as it seeks to become whatever it was supposed to be” (1987, p. 10). Philosopher Ernst Cassirer adds, “…Myth harbors a certain conceptual content: it is the conceptual language in which alone the world of becoming can be expressed” (1955, p. 3). In his book Mythopoesis, Harry Slochower (1970) writes, “The revival of myth in our time is an attempt to satisfy the human need for relatedness to fellow-travelers on our common journey.” He explains that myth deals with creation, destiny, and quest by asking, “Who am I, where do I come from, where am I going and how do I get there?” (1970, p. 15) And cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien clarifies:
"The psychological task of myth is to help us understand more fully who we are. Literally, this means moving us to ask questions such as: Who am I? How am I to conduct my life? Where am I going? What is my proper place in the world? How can I best serve this world? What is my vocation, life purpose, or calling?" (2000, p. 2)
These are questions that we must periodically answer, as we move into different stages of life, particularly in midlife and even in our late-life or elder years. These questions seed authenticity and transformation which result in true leadership, generativity, and a life well lived. Because it's about your story... Life is your story.
Work of the eyes is done, now
go and do heart work
on all the images imprisoned
within you; for you
overpowered them… Learn…
the not yet beloved form.
~Rainer Maria Rilke, from Turning Point
Who in this decidedly difficult and crazy time needs myth? Who has time for poetry?