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Myths and mythtakes

November 8, 2013

My father was the strongest man in the world. His forearms were Popeye's forearms. His legs were tree trunks. When he walked into a room, his was a dominant force. He was a man's man. I looked to him, not just physically, as a source of power, of stability, and of stamina. My father was the strongest man in the world. This was my myth. My father was the strongest man in the world… until he wasn't. As he approached his final days, everything went very quickly downhill. First, he couldn't walk. Then he couldn't talk. Then he couldn't even sit up without help. When he took my hand, I could feel him trying to squeeze into it whatever strength he could summon… but, no matter how intensely his eyes peered into mine, very little was there for me to understand. What was he saying to me, if anything? In the end, did he even know who I was? In the end, I didn't know who he was. Selfishly, I put off paying visits, not knowing what to say… empty… frustrated… disoriented… by a myth shattering before my eyes in the acknowledgement of my father's mortality… or perhaps in the realization of my own.
I live in myths. I have many. You live in myths. We all live in myths. Myths are our comfort food, or perhaps better said, a security blanket against all that we fear.
My father, as a source of power, of stability, and of stamina was the myth of a child dreaming of immortality. This child's myth is no different from the myth of nations. We write and re-write history so as to puff ourselves up, and to protect against our fears, against the unknown, and against reality. We interweave myth after myth until, after a mere handful of generations, we are entirely separated from any foundation in truth. We cannot see things as they are or even as they were originally framed. We can see things only as we want them to be. We can see things only as reflect consistency with our ingrained myths.
Above all, we protect our myths, for when these myths are shattered, we lose our footing and slide. There remains no basis for our story or perhaps even for our conjured identity. The slope is slippery and the next stop a very rocky place. The shattering of myths brings with it the harsh realization that we may have lived much of our lives, both individually and collectively, on the constructs of false foundation.
A uniquely Canadian myth was shattered in September 1972 with an eight-game hockey series against the Soviet Union. The contest was expected by all Canadians, myself included, to be a walkover trouncing in favour of our side. While the entire nation stood still, holding our collective breath, the Canadian team barely scraped this series out of the fire with just 34 seconds remaining in the final game. We won the series, but our myth of world domination in this sport was irrevocably shattered. We can say now that this shattering was a good thing, but at the time, it was a very difficult pill to swallow.
If you are not a Canadian, or if you are a Canadian but under the age of 50, this shattering of a myth may seem little more than trivial to you. For those of us who lived through it, however, the experience was anything but trivial. The consequences for what we had staked out as central to our national identity, if there is such a thing in this country, were far-reaching and long-lasting. Lesson learned? Take nothing for granted. Nothing is permanent.
Sun gods, flat worlds, utopian society, world domination in hockey – all of these notions are mythical. Two kids and cars, and a dog and a cat – the mythically perfect family. Economic theory, considered as something other than theory, is mythical. Dictatorship and democracy are, in the real world, approximations at best. When these ideas leave the realm of theory and become superimposed on our society as if real and clear and timeless constructs, they are no more than mythical creations. No world is as simple as we make it out to be.
Myths make a valuable contribution to our lives. We create myths in hopes of better explaining our families, our dogs and cats, and sports teams, in hopes of better understanding our societies and nation-states, and in hopes of finding a better place for ourselves in a complicated and increasingly confusing world. Such myths reflect and promote and perpetuate our view of the world stage, of the players on that stage, and of the dynamics through which those players interact with one another. This can be a good thing.
Too often, however, our myths instead reflect: a need for certainty; an all-encompassing framework of simple logic and rational thought; a zero-sum framework; and a fixed and singular vision of what is right – for ourselves and for everyone else, everywhere, and for all time. This, I would argue, cannot be a good thing.
It is my contention that, by identifying, understanding, and acknowledging our myths, and those of our ancestors, and our neighbours and our friends and our so-called enemies, we may better protect ourselves from the inevitable shocks and disappointments that arrive if and when these myths are shattered.
It is my contention that, having identified our myths, and at least having acknowledged them as myths, we should pursue a more flexible set of myths, enabling us: to embrace complexity and uncertainty; to focus on dynamic relationships rather than on ideology; to create wealth through relationships and values and character rather than accumulate wealth through indiscriminate conquest; and to abandon a one-size-fits-all-forever model for our view of the world.

Kevin Graham

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