Perhaps it’s a symptom of the perverse materialism of our culture, or the rigidly logical behaviour that we are taught to expect and demand from our world. Perhaps we simply have too much else to do with our mental time. Whatever the reason, the result is quite clear: the legends in our lives step much more lightly today than they once did.
Many would say that this is a good thing. It is certainly hard to argue against the weakening pull of organized systems of thought, be they religions, political ideologies, or whatever else. Insomuch as the abandonment of myth correlates with an embrace of nuanced reality or self-understanding, it can be understood in its commonplace way: as something essentially progressive, a setting aside of childish things.
To end the story there, though, is to miss a great deal of the change that has come over the human experience. It is first worthwhile to make the point both that the hegemony of unreality is certainly not dead; indeed, there are a great many grand ideas bouncing around today that take their force not from any connection to empirical validity, but from collective well-wishing. String theory, capitalism, democracy, all these are perhaps more construction than reality.
Our thoughts on the hegemony of ideas misses a critical distinction, one all too often missed across discussions and disciplines: that between the micro and the macro. In thinking about our lives it is right and good to dispense or diminish the macro-myths, the fairy tales about god and meaning and morality that shut our eyes to the beauty of complexity. It is a bit more fraught, though, to abandon the small, everyday legends around which we construct so much of our lived experience.
Consider, as many of us do at this time in our lives, our relationships with our parents. What is this relationship if not a procession of myths, one legend replacing another? We begin our lives understanding them as omnipotent. We grow. The myth changes, but still enfolds us.
So many of the pivotal moments of childhood occur when something shakes our narrative about what, exactly, “parents” are. Catching them fighting, fucking, making mistakes, showing weakness. This doesn’t stop with childhood, of course. Most of us refine these narratives bit by bit for our entire lives, replacing the they carry with equally artificial narratives of self and independence. Weight
There is a problem, though, one that shows up in the umpteen million adult-children that wander through modern Western society. Not so long ago, adulthood started at 18. Not long before that, it was 14. Now, we’re often luck to make it by 28. People explain this away with references to technology, or debt loads, bad parenting, or sheer laziness, but that all misses the point. We no longer grow into adults because we no longer live in a world of legends.
Many myths are most powerful in their abandonment; the experience of abandoning a narrative around which we have built some part of our lives. So much of our parents’ power over us is simply an illusion, an artifact of this mythic structure. With one well-placed “no” can come the most important cognitive shift in our upbringing: the moment when parent becomes child, when you shift suddenly from fear or respect to pity or concern.
Without a life lived with and against myth, though, this process can never properly complete itself. If we aren’t rewarded by the cognitive liberation it brings, what incentive do we have to break free of our families, cut our ties, take a cut in living standards for the sake only of independence? That’s what adulthood means. By methodically undermining a world of myths in favour of a world of tools, we may be losing the defining pleasure of breaking free.