Following CG Jung’s scapegoating by Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalytic community, he came close to a psychotic break. In his state of crisis, Jung looked to myths to give meaning to his life and shore up his overburdened psyche. He wrote about that time:
“I was driven to ask myself in all seriousness: ‘What is the myth you are living?’ I found no answer to this question, and had to admit that I was not living with a myth, or even in a myth, but rather in an uncertain cloud of theoretical possibilities which I was beginning to regard with increasing distrust…. So in the most natural way, I took it upon myself to get to know ‘my’ myth, and I regarded this as the task of tasks — for —so I told myself — how could I, when treating my patients, make due allowance for the personal factor, for my personal equation, which is yet so necessary for a knowledge of the other person, if I was unconscious of it?”1
When overrun with fantasy, intrusive memories, and imagery we often need a larger, imaginal context to make sense of and alleviate inner chaos and suffering. Nevertheless, most don’t think, “what myth might I be living?” when experiencing massive amounts of traumatic stress, or fearing a breakdown. Instead, we have been taught to seek resolution through scientific hypotheses as well as laboratory, clinical, and population studies — Jung’s “cloud of theoretical possibilities” — and spinoff self-help books, medications, and therapeutic modalities. These resources, like myths, provide a universal account of suffering. However, they often fail to create the sense of collective holding needed for recovery from trauma. Humans are of ‘two minds,’ the personal and the collective. In our attempts to heal our traumatic wounds, we must attend to both. And it is the mythic imagination that expresses the wisdom of the collective psyche.
Through modern psychology we learn to perceive ourselves as a constellation of characteristics more than a continually unfolding event as relayed through myths. Psychology can identify the type of person we are, what we suffer from, and even the depth to which we suffer. It can discern our attachment styles, character strategies, and personality traits, and use depression checklists and dissociation scales to measure our suffering. I don’t mean to disparage these resources, because they can be helpful along the journey of recovery. Yet I agree with Joseph Campbell, who observed, “We have this whole vocabulary of looking for the ‘meaning of life’. No one is really looking for the meaning of life. People are looking for an experience of life.”2 Myths give us an experience of life.
It is useful to know the symptoms of a mental disorder. For instance, when we know PTSD is correlated with both avoidance of reminders of trauma and excessive preoccupation with them, we are better able to identify when we need methods for managing traumatic stress. Finding one’s myth can’t replace the hard work of creating safety in mind, body, and environment. Certainly, for most of us with histories of sexual trauma, it is best to learn how to manage traumatic stress prior to discovering the myth we are living. Yet most of us want more out of life than simply managing symptoms and seeking safety. We want to feel we have overcome the past, and we are wiser and stronger because of our efforts. We want to story our lives in the direction of a happy ending. And when trapped in emotional and imaginal chaos, identifying the myth you are living is like spotting the North Star in a tumultuous storm. Finally, there’s a sense of direction.
Most of us must learn how to connect with the transformative power of myths, even as we feel their resonance with our journeys of wounding and recovery. Learning to heal through myth can feel a bit anachronistic. As Jungian analyst Donald Kalsched remarked, “mythology is where the psyche ‘was’ before psychology made it an object of scientific investigation.”3 However, the effort it takes to learn how to identify the symbolism found in myths is worth it. Myths connect us to the intuitive and instinctual wisdom of the body. They foster a sense of solidarity that empowers, revives resilience, and gives hope for the human capacity to overcome the greatest trials and injuries.
Sometimes our personal histories of sexual trauma feel too overwhelming to confront. From years of keeping the abuse secret, we can become filled with contradiction and shame. Telling the story (even just to ourselves) can feel alienating, or it simply doesn’t hold together. When we can identify with a myth, our personal stories often find the order they were lacking.
We know we have found the myth we are living when it resonates with the core of our being. We feel it tells our truth. Our emotions and memories somehow mirror events and dynamics found in the story. However, sometimes events happen in a myth that fail to correlate with our lived experience. Maybe this omission signifies the story is not about us, or maybe it tells us what we still need to do to reach ‘happily ever after.’
Perhaps we need to look to fairy tales instead of myths to find our story. Jung wrote, “[The] fairytale in its entirety represents an energetic process of transformation within the self….” Unlike an instruction manual, myths and fairy tales don’t tell us how to live. Instead, they foster an intuitive understanding of growth and change that responds to the deeply human yearning for wholeness.
Myths and fairy tales are more similar than different. However, some think mythical characters like Medusa and Persephone address unconscious archetypal patterns, whereas fairy tales like Manypelts and Little Redcape are grounded more in personal consciousness. I’m not sure how well such distinctions hold, as both myths and fairy tales relay archetypal patterns, depending on how you read them.
Both fairy tales and myths can have multiple interpretations. This is the nature of archetypes. Jungian analyst Jean Knox described archetypes as acting as “scaffolding” that shape personal experience.4 At the core of this scaffolding are emotional and instinctive aspects of the body that are both ancient and universal, yet also conditioned by personal experience. Therefore, certain aspects of a myth or fairy tale will be interpreted differently according to who engages with the story and to what end. Even more interesting, a myth or fairytale may be understood differently by the same person at different points in her life.
One difference between myths and fairy tales has to do with their subject matter. Myths are thought to deal with accepted, if not celebrated, experiences, such as initiation rites. In contrast, fairy tales are believed to address shadow aspects of civilization. Rather than revered, their subject matter is more often suppressed by cultures, such as child sexual abuse.
Fairy tales emerged more recently. They address the types of wounds endured in fragmented hierarchical societies, in which trauma and oppression are relatively common occurrences that people must learn how to avoid or overcome. In the introduction to The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Jack Zipes wrote:
“The tales of the first edition are often about ‘wounded’ young people, and many of them were told to illustrate ongoing conflicts that continue to exist in our present day. For instance, the tales frequently depict the disputes that young protagonists have with their parents; children brutally treated and abandoned; soldiers in need; young women persecuted; sibling rivalry; exploitation and oppression of young people; dangerous predators; spiteful kings and queens abusing power; and Death punishing greedy people and rewarding a virtuous boy.”5
Unlike Jung’s search for the one myth he was living, many of us live numerous myths and fairy tales. Yet regardless of how many, we all need collective stories to make sense of personal experience. This was true of earliest humans, and is true of us today. Our most authentic stories are not constructed solely from our personal lives, but always involve a collective rendering. This is the nature of being human. Just as we were never meant to carry the burden of our traumas alone, we were never meant to story them without the collective somehow holding our wounded imaginations.
Questions to ponder: Think of a myth, fairy tale, movie, book, or music that seems to story experiences in your life. What parts resonate with you and why?
1 Quoted in Shamadasani, Sonu, “Liber Novus: The ‘Red Book’ of C. G. Jung, in Jung, C. G. (2009). The red Book. New York, NY: WW Norton & Co, p. 197.
2. Quoted in Keleman, Stanley. (1999). Myth & the body: A colloquy with Joseph Campbell. Berkeley, CA: Center Press, p. 75.
3. Kalsched, Donald. (2013). Trauma and the soul: A psycho-spiritual approach to human development and its interruption. New York: Routledge, p. 285.
4 Knox, Jean. (2003). Archetype, attachment, analysis: Jungian psychology and the emergent mind. New York, New York: Brunner-Routledge.
5 Zipes, Jack (Ed.). (2014). The original folk & fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (First ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. xxxv.
© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).