I ended the last episode of “Making Sense” by acknowledging that it isn’t a simple matter to return to paths once abandoned, in particular, for a post-Christianity Europe to return to Christianity. It may be true that much of our culture is highly influenced by Christian role models, and personalities of the church, but the church has lost its exemplary status. This becomes very plain by the onslaught of popular atheistic personalities, who have revelled in the downfall of the church. However, I have a feeling that we have a case of the proverbial baby thrown out with the bathwater.
The reason I say this is because I am convinced that we need stories to make sense of things, and not just any stories. There is an extensive use of narratives made in advertisements today, with a clear intention of encouraging us to buy their products. This is a use of a basic story, an account of incidents or events, making it coherent to the goal that the narrators are trying to achieve. If you like, the story is enhanced with a significance that it would probably normally not have. This has also been the role of mythology in the past: to give a story an enhanced significance, or a meaning. Myths, such as foundational tales or origin myths, were instrumental in sense making in the past, and as a folklore genre consisting of narratives, they played a fundamental role in a society.
Myths still play a role today, although they are incorporated into artistic creations such as films and computer games, but myths also go unnoticed in some cases. People tell anecdotal stories that somehow spread over time and become “urban legends”, such as the well-known story about the alligators that supposedly live in the sewers of New York. Children are often targets for myths, like the story of Santa Claus or even the Easter Bunny, to whom thousands of requests are sent each year. In the early 20th century, there was the myth of cursed mummies in Egyptian tombs, and since then the conviction that alien civilizations are visiting us has arisen, and that people are abducted. In the series “X-Files” an iconic poster stated, “I want to believe”, and many do.
In fact, modern myths consist of conspiracy theories and fantasies, and curiously, include rituals that have grown in recent times. Burning man is an event that attracts thousands of people into the Black Rock Desert. Some older rituals have evolved and accommodate needs that they didn’t in the past. Women have played an influential role in making rituals more inclusive for them, as have members of the LGBTQ community, using rituals to channel emotions, and give a new meaning to welcoming the newly born, coming of age, coupling rituals, and funerals. The times of transition in life still require ritual, even if they are sometimes inadequate, and people aspire to give these times a proper relevance.
What seems to be missing, given that we are in a sensemaking crisis, or better, we struggle to make sense of crises, is the accompanying narrative. The problem we have with such narratives, or “enhanced” stories, is that we tend to separate stories into fact or fiction, but narratives seldom fall into these categories, just as poetry doesn’t. Poetry enhances an experience, a moment, a scene, or an event, giving us more than a factual account could, but it isn’t fiction. No wonder then, that many mythologies were written as a rhyming narrative, such as the Iliad, or the Idylls of the King: The Passing of Arthur by Lord Tennyson. There are also German legends written in rhyme, mostly so that they could be memorised. Also, the Qur’an is written as rhyme in the original language. These are just a few examples of literature that don’t fit into the category’s fact or fiction easily.
Instead of narrative, we find many people reading self-help manuals with titles such as “Lost Connections”, “Fewer Better Things”, “The Longing for Less”, “The 100-Year Life”, or “Burnout Survival Kit”. These manuals are clearly naming a problem and supplying an answer, sometimes by offering a ritual to overcome such problems. The lack of ritual seems to be the underlying problem, and a lack of community with which one shares such a ritualised lifestyle. This suggests, of course, that the ritualised everyday life of the past that revolved around the church wasn’t so far away from the truth of what we need to feel well. I remember meeting my Great Aunt when I was small whose life revolved around the Methodist church. For a while, because my immediate family had no such religious background, it seemed like entering another world. My immature judgement of what I experienced there was based on my experience of people, and how they presented themselves. My Great Aunt was a lovely lady, who was so compassionate and caring, that I felt at home each time I met her. At the same time, the life she led slowly became restrictive in my eyes, and when I had grown older, it seemed like another world.
We all have a personal ritual, and we often find ourselves tending to do the same things, eat the same meals, go to the same places, until we decide we need a change. Our individualised mind occasionally needs to break out of the routine we have set ourselves and take on another ritual, perhaps a vacation ritual, but we tend to return to our comfort zone after a while. Is it because we have a routine, but it is only a mode of existing rather than living a life that makes sense of the world? No wonder then that people latch onto stories that seem to have that enhanced nature. I know of a young woman who permanently watched the Waltons and had the box set that had a revered position in her apartment. There are others who gather around the Lord of The Rings ritually, which, fair enough, was an attempt to give the English language a mythology, comparable to the mythologies of other languages. The trouble with these examples is that they have no venerableness that grows with age, no tradition and no time-tested relevance that could enhance a modern life.
The reason for our lack of tradition seems to fall back on the fact that we have lost the communal spirit of sense making. Large gatherings are found, when there is no pandemic, where people socialise and generally it is accompanied by alcohol, which has a relaxing quality that enables sociability. Even there we tend to group together with people we know and only gradually make new acquaintances after a period of observation and increased relief from bodily or mental work or effort. However, it is this loosening or slackening of pressures that is the reason for such gatherings, a respite from the “daily slog” or some entertainment. Usually, people gain no insight into what makes sense at social conventions, sometimes quite the opposite. We all know people who are addicted to various means of relaxing and use alcohol extensively outside of social gatherings.
What remains are attempts to overcome the feeling of being driven by external forces, which are no longer regarded as spirits, but are identified as aspects of society, as work, as mortgage, as politics, or even as our partner. We notice an increasing need for relief, and a frustration when the means we find exert added pressures.
What helps you make sense of everything? Do you have an idea?