Years ago, when I was a graduate student in psychology, I was near the end of the educational road and as such had a fair amount of academic freedom. Of my varied interests, one was how mythology (or personal mythology–the stories we cling to) shape our perception of the world. I had learned that I had a very different perspective on life, Nature, and spirit from most folk in the modern Western world, and I became fascinated by how this had happened, and what it meant. How was it people came to understand and relate to the world so differently?
In my case, I came to understand that a very unusual life lived with traditional peoples had shaped how I knew the world. It wasn’t just that I had lived with them either. That wasn’t enough. I had learned their myths, and had absorbed and incorporated them into my way of thinking. It shaped how I understood the world around me and even myself. I grew evermore fascinated with how the stories we believe, be they fact, fiction or the nebulous realm of mythology and faery tale, shape our perception of and relation to everything around us.
So, in grad school at the tail end of one of my last classes, I did an experiment in the form of a presentation based on the concept of personal mythology. Having spent enough time with highly educated modern Westerners to understand their liberal, intellectual, basically skeptical frame of mind, I wanted to see if people could look beyond and see things from other frames. So I had the class (all ostensibly experts in human psychology at this point) listen to the telling of an ancient Irish legend: The Tale of the Lady Sadbh, a shape shifter faerie damsel of the Otherworld. To avoid coloring the story with my perspective, I used an artist’s rendition: “The Call of Sadbh” from the beautiful, bardic album, The Language of Birds, by Fiona Davidson, a remarkable harper from the Scots highlands.
Sadbh’s tale is ancient. It is the tale of a faerie damsel who could shapeshift into a doe. And she was a remarkably beautiful and gifted woman. The curse of her beauty and her power was that she was pursued relentlessly by a dark power of the Otherworld who wanted her for his own prize. Why is not exactly certain. Perhaps for her beauty or her magical gifts. Perhaps because she was fated to later birth into the world one of the greatest bards in history.
But Sadbh fled the dark one’s influence and came to the mortal world, where she found shelter and care among the warriors of the Gaels. Lord Fionn took her into his household and swore to shelter her, and they fell in love with one another. And time passed and they married and were very happy.
Then Fionn learned of invaders to the north. Leader of warriors and sworn defender of the land, Fionn had to leave Sadbh at his dun and venture out with his warriors to turn back the enemy. And in his absence, the dark one came and stole away the Lady Sadbh, taking her back to the Otherworld, to his domain, to his influence.
Fionn was driven nearly mad with grief and spent seasons searching the wild lands about for his beloved. Then one night he happened upon a doe who led him to a child resting in a glen. And the doe became Sadbh. She informed him she could not return to the mortal world, but she was leaving her son–Fionn’s son–in his care. And so Fionn found a bittersweet relief. He had lost his Lady-love, but had found the son he did not know he had.
He returned to his dun with his son and raised him right and well, and in time that son became one of the greatest bards of the Gaels, gifted in enchantment and music. And he brought much goodness to the mortal world.
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Upon sharing this tale with the class, I asked them to interpret it. Oh, the things I heard–they hurt my head. It was a metaphor of a woman fleeing an abusive relationship. It was a story of social injustice and inequality of power. It was a tale of the flaws of dependence upon men and a lack of equal rights. It was a warning against superstition. On and on the nonsense went . . .
After a time, I rubbed my eyes and shook my head and asked them to try to think beyond their frame. Try to put their heads into a time and world that was totally different. To drop preconceived ideas of power relationships as the period of the tale was an era where it was accepted that women could be warriors or great bards or poets, and where work was hard and physical and divided more often by the demands of strength and talent than gender. I asked them to try to envision a culture and time where personal liberty was barely a concept but service to land and lord were the values most sought. I asked them shift out of left brain reason and Western skepticism and try to enter minds that perceive the Otherworld as real, and legends as truths to live by, and magic as a thing to both fear and aspire to. I asked them to drop modern pragmatism and imagine the perspective of a people that perceives poetry as the foremost beauty, and which believes beauty is the goal of civilization.
And the interpretations of the class remained the same. They did not change one iota.
And yet when I heard that tale, what I heard was a deep yearning for beauty, a recognition that life can be tragic and unfair, yet it is full of magic and happiness finds ways to slip through regardless. I heard a story of hope, where one makes meaning in the face of an unknowable universe and incomprehensible loss. I know that if I had related the tale to traditional Aboriginal friends they would have likened it to their own myths of megumoowesoo and Inuqun and legendary figures. If I had related it to those few non-Aboriginals I know who are immersed in Nature and minded toward the old world, they would have found in it magic and hope and something wonderful and deep–not stories of social justice and warnings against superstition.
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So . . . where am I going with this lengthy bit of musing? I think it is a place that is difficult for most. Westerners like to see themselves as open-minded, broad minded. But they are not nearly so much as they like to think. When I think back to that class all those years ago, I recall a small but telling experiment: a group of ostensible experts in human psychology–in the interpretation of our inmost thoughts and dreams–could not shift out of their frames to really do a proper interpretation of an ancient myth. And if they could not manage so small a thing, even being given numerous clues, how were they to really understand others? Or themselves? They were bound fast by an unconscious yet arrogant surety in what they thought they knew. Their educations and philosophies had become the cultural myths that created for them frames as constraining as shackles. And if experts are locked into their frames, is everyone so constrained?
The implications are staggering. It implies that people may commit the most harmful deeds in full confidence they are right. ( I think of tearing up our precious, irreplaceable Earth for the much lesser cause of economy. I think of murdering people because they do not subscribe to one’s religion or political views.) It implies that people may live wretched lives simply through the constraint of clinging to unhealthy stories, and being unable to see around the frames such stories create. It implies that to really make a better world we must look past symptoms such as social justice, inequality and greed and examine the unhealthy myths we cling to that are at the very core.
Can we change our frames? Doing so would require re-evaluating the myths we believe most deeply. This is scary ground for most. Those kind of myths allow persons to make sense of a huge, barely knowable, and often frightening universe. But if we cling to myths that are unhealthy, myths that inspire us to undervalue ourselves, others, and the very world we share, we see and live through frames that are sick, and thus sicken reality wherever we touch it.
That long-ago experiment–it shaped my work as a therapist and a writer. I have spent much of my career dedicated to helping people re-write their myths and remake their frames. I know it can be done. It is hard; but it can be done.
When we are children, our parents and cultures begin writing our myths. If we are fortunate, those myths are positive, but all too often they are not. Yet as we grow and become adults and individuals we acquire a tremendous opportunity–the ability to assess our myths and choose new ones. Assessment takes a willingness to undergo painful self-examination, and to even evaluate the most sacred moors of our cultures and religious beliefs. If we then have the courage to choose healthier myths, we can create entirely new and better frames through which to perceive and relate to reality. It can be a hard journey, though. Often it requires travelling alone and being misunderstood. But it is a worthy journey.
With humility and honesty and a stout heart, breaking frames can be done.