We Are Not Alone
New Testament scripture quote the man many call Saint Paul as saying: “We live and move and have our being.” Most of us have been walking along a path or down a dark hallway and had the feeling we were not alone. Usually we will stop, look around, perhaps backtrack a few steps and then we ask: “Who’s there?” Psychologist Carl Jung believed myths were a part of the collective consciousness that all mankind shares. Whether they are part of our subconsciousness or simply the creative way we comfort ourselves when we have that feeling, myths became the first answers to mankind’s questions. J. F. Bierlein stated: “The myth is an eternal mirror in which we see ourselves.”
Every good storyteller knows there are basic elements that make up a good story. While we think of stories as entertainment, they really are educational tools and having a lesson to tell is one of the critical elements of a story. A young girl loses her mother in infancy and then, not long after he remarries, her father dies. The girl is left to live with a stepmother who favors her own biological children and turns the stepdaughter into little more than a slave. The girl befriends all she meets and when a chance comes for her to attend a dance and, for the first time, actually live an event of a girl her age, those friends help dress her and get her to the dance. This is all done in secret and the girl attends the ball in disguise. The guest of honor meets the disguised girl, falls in love with her at first sight and once she disappears after the dance, goes door to door to find his true love. They finally meet and marry.
The story we call Cinderella has many elements and they each depend on the telling. In one version, the forest animals are her friends and they magically come to life to offer assistance. In another, the stepmother tries to pretend one of her own biological daughters was the disguised girl. In another, the step mother realizes the subterfuge perpetrated and throws the girl out of the house only to have the guest of honor discover her, recognize her in spite of her disheveled appearance, and they marry.
The story of Cinderella is not considered a myth but it could be. Originally an Italian tale “Cenerentola” written in 1694 by Giambattiste Basile, it was retold three years later and published by Charles Perrault as “Cendrillon, ou la Petite Pantoufle de Verre”. Basile’s version has the girl’s governess becoming the stepmother and Perrault’s is the one adapted by the media that most of us know. Originally presented in the United States in 1957 as a television program for the actress Julie Andrews, the story became an award-winning Broadway musical under the talented skills of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein in the mid 1960’s. It has had revivals and new casts and with each telling, the story also undergoes revisions. The story was also reworked by brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in their nineteenth century tale, “Aschenputtel”.
Is this an example of Jung’s collective subconsciousness or are there common problems to all generations of man? In many cultures, the term Cinderella has come to mean someone whose talents go unnoticed or are not yet recognized. In some, the story is told to give hope to those who feel alone or who see their situation as hopeless. In others, the story is a testament to love at first sight and the belief that two people who are meant to be together will somehow find each other. Regardless of the reason for the telling the ultimate lesson learned is the same: It is possible to have a “happily ever after”.
Not all myths end happily but they do all teach us something or strive to teach us. Storytelling has even become a valued leadership tool in today’s world of international business. Steve Denning, management consultant and writer explains: “Storytelling is a key leadership technique because it’s quick, powerful, free, natural, refreshing, energizing, collaborative, persuasive, holistic, entertaining, moving, memorable and authentic. Stories help us make sense of organizations. Storytelling translates dry and abstract numbers into compelling pictures of a leader’s goals. Although good business cases are developed through the use of numbers, they are typically approved on the basis of a story—that is, a narrative that links a set of events in some kind of causal sequence.”
Still not convinced why we need myths and how they came to be told? Then tell me what F=G([m1*m2]/D^2) means. No answer? Okay, I’ll give you a clue or two. The “F” is the force which is calculated in a form of energy known as Newtons; “G” is the gravitational constant’; “m” are the masses being discussed. Now I really gave you one more clue since I used the term “Newtons”. The formula given is the scientific equation for gravity, something we all experience every minute of every day, unless you happen to be an astronaut reading this on the International Space Station.
For most of us, except perhaps that astronaut, the above equation makes little sense. If we had really paid attention in science class then we would know that to determine the gravity of the earth we would let “M” equal the mass of the earth, “r” be the radius of the earth, and “F” be the force of gravity on the earth or mass times gravity spelled out in scientific lingo as F=mg. If you are like me, long about now you are thinking that the story of an apple falling on Newton’s head is a much easier way to explain gravity. I trust the scientists when they explain that an apple falling will be affected by gravity differently than raindrops falling. The apple gains momentum and speed while the raindrops do not – something to do with terminal velocity, etc. I can appreciate the importance of gravity upon the two objects because of the images of the apple and the raindrop. I may not have experienced an apple falling on my head but I have dropped things on my toes. We all have had raindrops falling on our heads. Fortunately, while a book dropped on one’s foot hurts, it is nothing like what tons of them falling like raindrops would feel like! An object will gain a velocity of 9.8m/s each second during its free fall, neglecting other forces like air resistance acting on it. The raindrop has no such problem and we are not knocked unconscious by them.
The myths of our world were a way to communicate, one with another and one with the natural world. They calmed us down, they instructed us of consequences, and they ignited our souls. Most importantly, mythologies connect us and provide a narrative link between generations and cultures. In his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” Joseph Campbell wrote: “Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind. It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.” Truly, we are not alone.