I found Rollo May’s The Cry for Myth stacked among the fiction section in a prominent library in Delhi. The term myth has a tendency to alert my neural pathways in ways that an unrequited love’s presence elicits in a pining lover. I have not read mythology more than I have read books on philosophy, but on any given day, I could read a chapter or two on the myths and symbols of the yester years. The Greek and Roman mythology fascinate me and I admire writers who have the tenacity to elucidate the symbols and their significance from these periods. But, myths in general take me to a world that I wish I was part of, or at least had witnessed in some way or another. So, when I found May’s The Cry for Myth, I picked it up from the shelf without a delayed thought. The only problem was that I had to finish reading the book that I had been reading before I could start reading it.
Existentialism, the struggle to live and afford a meaning to this life, has recently taken over my time and understanding. It is mostly so because I feel I am failing at this play and miserably unable to manage the chaos that it dedicates to the players. Partly, I am concerned because it has put me in a difficult position. Most of my peers have crossed over me, materially and in the affairs of the heart. And, while I try, boldly at times, and at times, in despicable shame that I am still figuring things out, I feel that it no longer suits me and my reality. Rollo May and other existential writers have always been an inspiration for people suffering from this disorder – this persistent inability to figure out what composes one’s life’s meanings and what one needs to continue doing to face this world.
In the book The Cry for Myth, May writes,
“A myth is a way of making sense in a senseless world. Myths are narrative patterns that give significance to our existence. […] But when the myths of the classical Greece broke down, as they did in the third and second centuries, Lucretius could see “aching hearts in every home, racked incessantly by pangs the mind was powerless to assuage and forced to vent themselves in recalcitrant repining.”
We in the twentieth century are in a similar situation of “aching hearts” and “repining”.”
It may be that we have successfully surpassed the pathos and the promise of the twentieth century, in our own manners, but it remains true still that we, in the twenty-first century continue to bear hearts that are near wreckage and that our yearning hasn’t lessened yet. In our modern times, we speak of philosophy and action, newness and upgrades, but our original self is veiled under the conditions of naivety and delicateness. The search for identity, especially in a period where there are multiple identities easily available, is still as persistent as the days when Oedipus set out to search for his own. We want to know who we are, what composes us not just materially, but organically. However, we have made progress, a slight one, but progress nonetheless.
Following our myths or not understanding our myths well, we have learned the importance of knowing our identity. Now it is the time to name that identity, the self that has been discovered (truly or partly). It is an act not partaken only by individuals, but also by groups, and nations. A threat or damage to this identity, this re-lived myth, causes tension in personal relationships and violent repercussions in the world today. Nietzsche writes in The Birth of Tragedy,
“What does out great historical hunger signify, our clutching about us of countless other cultures, our consuming desire for knowledge, if not the loss of myth, of a mythic home, the mythic womb?”
The question begs the answer, if all our internal and external struggles take us back to the mythic womb, then why do we struggle at all? Why do we hoard academic and material possessions over the nascent identity (the original myth) that we come with? Why do we try to forward our march into civilization and technology to explicitly detail ourselves down into words and columns if the only true nature is a myth itself?
If I understand existentialism any better, it means the journey is important, in this case, more important than the destination. But, as May writes, the repining remains – not for a lover, not for an academic honour, not for prestige, but for something, something that I had had once perhaps, but don’t have any more.
It is this something that May calls the myth, and Zen teachers call the One that floats even in this existential realm of brute mechanics and thinning lives. It is visible and yet stretches as a malleable layer over the surface of our lives, and I believe it tries its best to communicate to us. For I learned about the purpose of human beings, not from the books of science or philosophy but from a science fiction film called Interstellar. And, I believe, the human race is not meant to solve anything, but to exist and experience. It perhaps is meant to create its myths and live them – inspired by a dream or as God’s message.
For an ordinary individual like me, who has been more uprooted than has had roots, I can only hope that someday, someone may unground a myth that speaks for us. Until then, this existential crisis is likely to continue.