I recently attended an anniversary party for a couple married 60 years, and every family member talked about how they were the people you could count on when you had a problem, needed to borrow the car, or got stranded in LA. Of course that was sometimes true and sometimes not true, but it was a perfectly appropriate way to express genuine love and gratitude. It was the family myth that got passed on to future generations as an ideal to live up to. If you happened to be the person in the family who felt forgotten, or who didn’t get rescued, you wondered what was wrong with you.
But of course, nothing was wrong with you. We human beings need a mythology to tie experiences together and make some sense out of life. When the reality doesn’t match, it leaves us feeling isolated and left out. Or as little children we buy into the myth and learn to manipulate our own feelings to fit it. Later in life, we have to work hard to get back to trusting what is authentic.
Take the fabulous best-selling memoir “The Glass Castle” by Jeanette Wall. Her family perpetuated the myth that they were better than other people and wouldn’t stoop to the wasteful, unconscious behaviors like proper sanitation. They lived in abject poverty and threw their garbage in a hole in the back yard (and said that rats had a right to live and eat too). Wall’s father gave her a star for Christmas rather than a plastic toy that would just create more trash. Yes, a beautiful sentiment, but they twisted their wisdom to create a myth of being better and above others to control their children. Of course, their states of mind were far more complex than just that. It’s a fascinating and disturbing book.
I started asking people if they could put into words the myth that got passed along in their family. One woman immediately said the message was “Our family is perfect.” That left no room to share her own experience that was far from perfect. In my case, the myth was: “What’s the point. It all gets taken away anyway.” After twenty years of exploration, I understand why that was my mother’s reality, but I have spent those years discovering that it is not mine. We may all be impermanent, but there’s alot of point to engaging with what is here and now, savoring, grieving, sharing, committing yourself to something that has purpose and meaning for you. That’s showing up for life.
Can you identify a family myth in the conversations of your childhood or youth? Maybe a few come up. I would love to hear your observations.