12/22/15

Holiday Musings: Embracing the Myth

The fall semester is over and today is probably the first day in the last four months that I have thought critically about anything not explicitly related to teaching or grading. Whenever I return to record my thoughts after such a break, I do so with trepidation, fearing that I will have forgotten how to think on paper.

We’re also a couple days from Christmas, which makes present one of the most important questions nagging me since leaving religion: is some sort of myth-making necessary for human flourishing? I’ve been increasingly critical of what I might call the ‘collateral damage’ of religion, and I would suggest that this collateral damage is fundamentally related to the supernatural referent of a given religious tradition. In many ways, Christmas seems the epitome of this damage, so diluted as to be harmless, yet a constant reminder of the hegemonic power of myth to shape our lives.

Setting this connection aside for a moment, however, there are important—also potentially damaging—problems associated with the explicit disavowal of all myth-making. Deconstruction takes a significant amount of work and naggingly reminds us of the arbitrary construction of our realities. In addition, there is an inverse relationship between one’s willingness to tolerate the problems of narrative and the willingness of others to tolerate your presence. In short, the more critical you are, the less fun you are to be around.

I was reminded of this when my choice to forgo eating animals became a topic of conversation at Thanksgiving. While one relative asked me questions about my justifications with incredulity and I attempted to respond in a way that encouraged reflection without being accusatory—a difficult thing to do when everyone has animal flesh on their plates—everyone else sat in awkward silence, hoping the moment would pass quickly and we could move on to less controversial topics—ones that do not challenge our cultural narratives.

Of course the broader occasion for our gathering, Thanksgiving, is legendary narrative as well. It is a narrative that masks exploitation, racism, and religious oppression with thankfulness, a paradox that only coheres if we don’t acknowledge it explicitly, given that we increasingly recognize racism and exploitation as such rather than as part of the natural/Divine order. So, at least for our family, we increasingly just don’t acknowledge the occasion for our gatherings, much less the ethical tensions within them. We gather together for the holidays because that is what people do.

It is in this paradigm that I appreciate the holiday season. Thanksgiving and Christmas are the two times per year that the greatest number of our family gathers together, where the existence of a myth beyond us, reprehensible though it may be, provides sufficient social obligation to draw us toward each other. And of course when we do gather, we—or at least I—am glad that we have. I think, as I always do, how I should attempt to connect with family more often than the holidays, when there is no artifice to externally justify our gathering. Until then, these shared narratives draw us together.

Within my immediate family, we put up the Christmas tree with goofy ornaments, stockings over the mantle, and even a small manger scene. If these used to refer to some supernatural other, their referents are now localized, reminders of the good feelings associated with gatherings in times past and the possibility of creating more in the future. But maybe it was always this way. We first encounter our myths as reality, divorce ourselves from them, and then return to them as actors in a role that we are now more comfortable playing than refusing to participate.

The hypocrisy and duplicity in our broader narratives is still there to be challenged, insofar as myth-making provides structural shortcuts to critical contextual thinking. The challenge is not for its own sake, but to uncover our acceptance and perpetuation of inequity and oppression. It may be impossible to create narrative without ethical violation. If so, then perhaps we must be satisfied with smaller narratives—Lyotard’s petit récit—whose harm can be limited and benefit maximized. Strange though it may sound, this comforts me.

Happy holidays.