“The meaning of life is to give life meaning.” – Viktor Frankl
“A myth is a way of making sense in a senseless world. Myths are narrative patterns that give significance to our existence.” – “There can be no stronger proof of the impoverishment of our contemporary culture than the popular – though profoundly mistaken – definition of myth as falsehood.” – Rollo May
To enter into a discussion of “myth” we must let go of our understanding of myth as either some fairy-tale or way in which ancient, long-dead cultures expressed themselves. This is a misunderstanding of enormous importance for it completely ignores that just as ancient cultures revolved around stories of their origins and destiny, their heroes and villains, of opportunities and challenges, so do we today. In many ways, the “myths” of individuals and societies are more important to a person’s or society’s sense of purpose, motivation, and well-being than the “facts.” Myths are what we do with the facts, including sometimes ignoring them to create “alternate facts,” a capacity of the human mind that often leads to disaster.
Frankl and May were two particularly important psychological theorists of the mid-twentieth century who were foundational in the development of what is known as “existential psychology,” a psychology that sought to look at the problem of human neurosis and character in terms of the human need for meaning through stories of who and what we are as their driving themes. They saw very clearly how crises for persons and society arose when life seemed to have no sense of meaningful and inspiring myths or when the myths took on the character of the “shadow” or dark side of human imagination. Make no mistake about it, humans need to have meaning in their lives, and in the absence of positive meaning, we will readily embrace the negative, the shadow, all that is without regard for the sanctity of life and the dignity of others.
There is a reason why human beings have developed religions and mythologies, even economic and political ideologies. There is a reason why humans create art and invention and go to war and dream of a peace that is more than just the absence of war. There is a reason we create stories in films and books about villains and heroes. And there is a reason we live inside stories that are deeply implanted in our minds about whether we are or are not good enough, worthy enough, capable enough, to live happy lives. We are myth makers, just as we are culture makers and tool makers. It is what humans do.
Existential psychology acknowledges this need and looks to engage with this dimension of the human psyche that conventional psychologies largely ignore. Existential psychology emphasizes that both a successful society and full, happy human beings function best within living, inspiring myths that give positive meaning to our existence, and likewise, it tells us that to be possessed by dark myths of grievance, tribalism, suspicion and ignorance will bring suffering. The important question for modern Americans is, to what degree do the myths of our modern era give vibrant or dark meaning? And for far too many, are their myths so shallow and petty that they just bring a feeling of being lost?
Frankl, a Jewish Austrian psychiatrist, a survivor of the Holocaust, in an essay on the therapy technique he developed called “logotherapy,” stated that challenging physical and psychological circumstances can be transcended precisely “because of the self-transcendent quality of human existence, [that] being human always means being directed and pointing to something or someone other than itself.” He is stating that a meaningful life is always pointed beyond the self-interest of the physical or personal psychological dimensions toward the dimension that can be loosely described as spiritual, yet he is also pointing toward the requirements for true sanity and mental health. He declares that for stable and reliable mental health, there must be the experience of deep connection with life that is the realm of the human spirit, and there must be the ability to choose as one’s motivation and anchor a sense of self that is greater than who we are as individuals and our circumstances. He posits, because he is living proof, that a human being, in even the most extreme of catastrophic circumstances, has the freedom to choose and to will a sense of transcendent meaning that allows us to face any darkness, whether it is within ourselves or in the world.
Frankl is making the very radical assertion that there is an intelligence, a drive, within each human that must be acknowledged and accounted for in understanding humanity as individuals and collectively. He further points out that this drive, this need, looks for meaning beyond itself. Everything beautiful created by humans has arisen from this need. The problem is that this need for meaning can be perverted to serve the dark side of the human psyche as well, as did the hateful Nazi myth that destroyed Europe and victimized Frankl. What makes Frankl so remarkable is that he, as so often happens in these kinds of persecutory circumstances, refused to accept the victim myth for himself, choosing rather to live the story, the myth, of a survivor who turned his personal misery into wisdom for others’ betterment.
It can also be argued that modern materialism, narcissism, and the myth of the “organization man,” a popular descriptor originating out of the 50’s corporate and bureaucratic identity, is robbing people of vitality and meaning in their lives, and this became an important focus for Rollo May. Existential psychology argues that the challenge for a healthy individual and a healthy society is to find and express meaning that inspires toward inclusion beyond selfish interests, to embody traits and attitudes such as courage, compassion, spirituality, creativity, originality, even soulfulness in a manner to facilitate healthy and resilient living. It says we need courage in the face of challenge, adventurism in the face of boredom, and authenticity in the face of the shallow and superficial. We need to be able to see ourselves heroically, yet still humbly, to fulfill this need.
The world in which Frankl and May were formulating their view had just come out of the senseless slaughter of the Second World War driven by the murderous myths of fascism at a time when the traditions of the old European and American society were falling apart. Frankl’s views were directly resultant of his experience as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps, and he declared from within this hell created by the perverted myths of virulent racism and fascist nationalism, “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
Frankl chose life over death, optimism over despair, courage over surrender, love over hate, beauty over ugliness, meaning over meaninglessness. He looked to his ability to choose his attitude and view in this extreme circumstance as the power that could save him and he realized, as a psychiatrist, that this capacity to see and choose positive meaning over meaninglessness or perverted meaning had the same power to reclaim lives from neurotic despair. He saw the power of the positive myths such as humble hero, loving person, or spiritual mystic as what made possible overcoming the myth of being a victim. He also saw and warned against the false allure of finding meaning, that is, significance, in dark myths like religious or patriotic “true believer,” “organization man,” “great leader,” follower of “great leader,” in being a winner – or a loser – for this too can be a myth, an identity that hijacks a person’s life.
May, on the other hand, reflected the American experience of the War and post-war years, of the growing elevation of the national American myth and of the individual cut off from traditional roots in pursuit of the American Dream myth in an increasingly opulent world that simultaneously demanded conformity. May was a deeply feeling explorer in the world of American materialism who saw the prevailing myths of individual accomplishment, of wealth and status as life’s goal as spawning narcissism and sociopathy while simultaneously generating depression and anxiety. There never can be enough when the soul and heart are empty.
Frankl and May felt constricted within the prevailing psychologies based in scientific reductionism that failed to understand and account for that which is in the human experience that cannot be reduced to behavioristic or psychoanalytic formulas. They and others created what was known as a “third force” in psychology – humanistic and philosophically existential. While remaining grounded in traditional psychology, they looked upward into intuitive, synthesizing wholeness, even soulfulness. They saw the cure for individual and social confusion and madness in the fulfillment of human potential, a view remarkably similar to Buddhism’s insights into addressing “suffering” and “dissatisfaction with life.” Frankl and May saw the need for the ancient place of myth, of the hero’s journey, to be translated into modern life.
The world today is in many ways different from Frankl and May’s mid twentieth century, yet in many ways, not. The crisis in meaning for individuals and societies may well be even more acute. The myths, the stories, that animate us toward meaning, are probably more confusing than ever. Our political divide could well be reduced to the clash between a vision, a myth of America as a pluralistic, open, progressive, and inventive society and the myth of the traditional world of white privilege and conservative political, economic, and religious practices and dogmas. Since WWII, The United States has been grappling with a growing challenge to the majority population in which the myth of white, male, capitalist, main-stream Christian cultural, political, and economic dominance is being confronted by those inspired by new myths of an increasingly pluralistic and democratically open society. Simultaneously, the old myth of the Earth and Nature being humanity’s personal domain to plunder is beginning to pummel us into awareness as the winds blow harder, the fires and summers burn hotter, and viruses emerge from plundered jungles. New myths of Humanity finding meaning as tenders and caretakers of Nature’s bounty are absolutely essential for meaningful human existence beyond mere survival. Yet, ominously, we are seeing the old culture, in its desperation, turning increasingly authoritarian and corrupt, generating false and dangerous myths that no longer reflect any semblance of truth in its attempt to hold its grip on society’s meaning and power.
Equally important, as we all emerge out of the old world, is the challenge for individuals to examine the myths that have shaped their personal lives that do not seem to be fulfilling their need for meaning. There is a need to engage a process of opening into new myths of heroic presence in the world-as-it-is. In this time when a frightening number live in myths based in dangerous and out-of-date concepts of America and patriotism, of Christianity and faith, where the myths have ceased to be expressions of what is real or have positive meaning, the world needs heroes of truth, what Buddhism calls Dharma, if it is to shape new healthy and inspiring myths of meaning that can take us into the future. We must myth our way toward the unification of our beautifully diverse collection of American cultures into a circle of a shared and nurturing society happening within an increasingly stable planetary human society on a healthy planet. How do we wish to see ourselves? What myths, what stories can we imagine and manifest that will give inspiring meaning, stability, sanity, even soulfulness to our individual and collective lives? There are futures to build. Let them be heroic and true.