Maybe the difference between myth and science is that myth feels right, in spite of the evidence. It falls into the category of something we wish were true. If science depends on empirical proof, then myth depends on psychological proof – emotional resonance.
A myth that feels right can eventually obstruct movement towards what is right. The notion that the sun revolves around the earth gets in the way of a real understanding of the universe.
Which brings me to the modern myth we’ve yet to acknowledge has essentially replaced the religious myths: the myth of Hollywood.
The average American spends hours more per week in theaters or in front of the TV than he does in any house of worship. No one has a firmer grip on the formation of what constitutes emotional truth than does Hollywood. And it largely puts the psyche at odds with the reality of the modern world.
The reality is, we are the products of systems. Systems as personal and hard to define as the one produced by the interactions of a family or the interactions of a family with its community. Or systems as well documented and closely studied as the ecosystem or economy we depend on for our daily life. Anyone who does not believe that we’re product of systems has only to look at the probability of one becoming a millionaire in the US vs. Sierra Leone, or the probability of becoming a Muslim in Afghanistan (99% for those of you keeping score) vs. Sweden.
And yet Hollywood’s persistent myth is that the individual knows better than the system and is able to transcend it. Personally, I love this myth. It resonates with me. I love the notion of Jesus challenging the Jews and Romans – the religious and political elites of his day - and claiming that in the kingdom to come, compassion for the poor and weak would matter more than power and wealth. I love the idea of a band of thinkers enthused with passion for Enlightenment principles who would take on – and defeat – the largest Empire in history to create the United States. It is a myth worth keeping alive. It is also a myth that is bound to come true only rarely and, for purposes of narrative arc, overlooks so much of what actually changes a system.
Perhaps the mythos of Hollywood has infected me as well, because I really do believe that the real proof of progress throughout Western history is the fact that systems are increasingly adapted to the reality and goals of the individual.
But the reason that Socrates and Jesus were heroes is because they changed the system – in spite of their first and apparent defeat by it. They were not heroes because they lived outside the system. That would have just made them hermits. The reason we tend to deify past heroes is because they have changed the system that we now live in.
The point is not to live outside the system – although one can hardly blame people for trying. The point is to change the systems we live in. And the real heroes aren’t the Hollywood heroes who prove the system wrong and conquer the bad guy in spite of the system (it is hard to think a character who better epitomizes this than Bruce Willis’ character in the Die Hard movies). The real heroes don’t work outside the system – they find the leverage point for changing it. It was not enough that Socrates was a brilliant man – he helped to begin philosophical inquiry in the West. It was not enough that Jesus was spiritual – he helped to begin a new religion.
The good news is that we’ve figured out how to avoid the dangers of communism. The bad news is that we’ve yet to figure out how to avoid the dangers of capitalism. Our economic system needs changing. The same can be said of our industrial systems that are at odds with our ecosystem and our political systems that still tilt madly on the side of big money interests. Education and health care systems continue to defy changes. At the risk of mouthing cliches, our future depends on our ability to change the systems we depend on and live in.
Although their life stories are so much less exciting than that of renegades, it is also true that people who change systems are the ones our progress depends on. We somehow need to make that story our new modern myth. Because it is this story that really can translate into something other than escapism.