There is that, into which we cannot go. Call it the Mythical Realm—or anything you want to call it. Just know that it’s there, and we aren’t going to figure it out any more than we can figure out True Love. We don’t know what the deal is, or how, or why it works the way it works.
Abraham Maslow tried to explain it to us with his “hierarchy of needs/values.” You’ll remember, I’m sure, how he started out with survival, and worked his way through three other values (needs) to self-actualization. Beware of any structure that explains us to ourselves as neatly as this. Any time someone draws a triangle for you, or a pyramid, and says, “Look, life is like this,” get up and leave the room. Life is not like a triangle. It’s more like a really, really big canvass upon which someone poured paint with all the colors produced by Sherwin Williams rode a motorcycle through as it dried.
Joseph Campbell walked around Maslow’s Pyramid of Values and said, “This is the first thing to go when you’re in the grip of a Mythical Vision (That is, a vision of Mythical proportions).” Your family goes, your job goes, your concerns for self-esteem goes, your desire to “self-actualize” goes. You forget all about yourself and everything you ever held dear. To paraphrase Jesus, “Those who lose themselves in the service of the Mythical Vision will find themselves.”
Jesus actually said, “Those who lose their life for my sake and the gospel’s will find it.” It’s the same thing. We have to lose our life in order to embrace, and live, our Life. Jesus could have been talking about keeping your chin up in the face of martyrdom—about keeping your eye on heaven, and the eternal rewards and blessings. I hope not. The idea of heaven ruins a really good story. When you make getting to heaven the whole point of your life, you’re back at Maslow’s Pyramid, now with heaven at the top. Heaven becomes self-actualization taken to the next level. It’s all so rational, systematic, ordered and calculated. It’s the calculation I have the least patience with.
“What are you thinking about? What are you doing?” is answered simply with, “I’m getting to heaven when I die.” I so much prefer, “I’m in the grip of a Mythical Vision and don’t know what I’m doing. You’ll have to excuse me.”
When we are in the grip of a Mythical Vision, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, and we don’t have a clue about what is going on. We know what we have to do, but we don’t know why, or how, and we won’t let even a cross stand in our way. And, we aren’t doing it to get to heaven, or avoid hell. We are doing it because we have no choice, because we have been seized, much like the apostles were seized when Jesus said, “Follow me.” They didn’t ask, “Why should we? What’s in it for us?” and he didn’t say, “Well, because there will be heaven at the end, and you really don’t want to miss that, now do you? Because if you do, there will be hell to pay, and you certainly don’t want that, now do you? So, are you coming, or not?” You can tell it isn’t a Mythical Vision that stands before you if you can weigh your options, and decide where you are better off.
There is no “better off,” with a Mythical Vision. There is just having to do the thing in a “California Or Bust” kind of way. We don’t know why, or how, or what’s what, or who’s on first. It’s a Divine Imperative. A Glorious Compulsion. A Magnificent Obsession. And, it can’t be distinguished from a schizophrenic crack-up. It’s as crazy as it gets. Explain to your mom why you are going off to die on a cross. You’ll have to invent heaven to make it sound plausible.
The Mythical Vision is the Artist’s Curse. Artists are out there right now, painting, drawing, chipping marble, welding metal, carving wood, writing poetry, making music, and they have to invent something like heaven to make it sound plausible. So, they come up with the Big Time. “Why are you wasting your time with that?” say their moms. “I’m going to hit the Big Time, Mom,” they say. The Big Time doesn’t have anything to do with it. They have to paint, and draw, and write, and all the rest, but they can’t explain that, so they invent the Big Time.
The sad thing about the Artist’s Curse is that artists tell the Big Time lie so often they come to believe it themselves, and they think it really is about the Big Time, and they get dejected, and depressed, and into addiction because their Real Addiction isn’t paying off, isn’t delivering the Big Time, and they can’t stand not knowing what they are doing, doing the thing they have to do with no pay off, and they hate themselves for wasting their lives, for not having anything to show their moms, and make them proud, so they drink themselves to death.
But, what are you going to do? Ignore the Mythical Vision? That won’t work either. Nothing is sadder than living safe little prophylactic lives, and having it made. Nothing is sadder than refusing to get on board when the Mythical Vision is leaving the dock. Nothing is sadder than letting Jesus walk on without you because you have to finish the nets, and then patch the sail, and then, what was it, well there is the list, you know, and you can’t let go of what’s important to serve what is essential.
So, there is hell to pay, either way. We are “damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.” What’s it going to be? We don’t have to worry if we never look up. It isn’t a problem if we stay too busy to notice when the Mythical Vision stands before us, waving its arms, jumping up and down, shouting, “HEY! Over here! Over here!” We never know what we are missing if we don’t think about it. We don’t have to say no if we never open the invitation, or answer the doorbell, or the phone.
To complicate matters, the Mythical Vision doesn’t come to everyone in the same way. Jesus doesn’t say to everyone, “Come, follow me.” He tells some people very specifically, “Don’t come with me. Stay where you are. You are holding the world together, making the beds, and putting food on the table.” The artists’ moms have their place. Without the moms, where would the artists be? Life can very certainly consist of mending the nets and the sails. That, too, has to be done. And one might say, “Thank God!” there are those who have to do it!
There are those who are gripped by the passion for the regular, life-giving, life-sustaining, day-in-and-day-out, mundane, ordinary routines of living. They can walk around Maslow’s Pyramid and say, “I don’t’ know about that self-actualization stuff, but I know I have to get tomatoes for dinner!” If you think dinner is somehow not important, miss four or five. The Mythical Vision can very surely be the call to stay where you are, and put in a day! Which rather nicely leaves us wondering whether it’s the Mythical Vision we are serving, or if we are copping out.
How do we know? We don’t know. What do we do? We don’t know what to do. Do we leave, or stay? Do we have nothing to do with Mythical Visions that do not propel us into the hinterlands, but keep us at home, mowing the lawn? Do we politely refuse the inclination to leave our parent’s house, on the grounds that Mythical Visions can be about staying where we are? Are we failing ourselves by not leaving home? Are we simply running away from home, and the hard things that are being asked of us there in pursuit of an escapist fantasy beyond the far horizon, and excusing our exit on the basis of the need to serve the Mythical Vision that we have heard about, and think it may be over the far horizon because it certainly isn’t in this house with these people?
We can second-guess ourselves far into the night, every night. The artists’ moms sacrifice the glory of the Mythical Vision of their artist daughters and sons in doing what they, the moms, have to do around the house. The moms are as Mythical in their way as their artist sons and daughters are Mythical in their way. Doing what we came to do can be smoking a turkey as easily as writing a poem about the way our mom smoked turkeys. And, smoking turkeys and writing poems can be ways of avoiding the truth of who we are and what we are about. Maybe yes, maybe no. Time will tell.
We can be seized by the vision of home, hearth, and family, or by the vision of the hinterlands with their dragons and crosses. And, we can’t be evaluating the worth of our vision in light of the shape of someone else’s vision. Some of us are knees, and some of us are elbows, and all of us are crucial to the working of the body that is the world. The point is that there is a Mythical Vision with our name on it that we don’t order up just because it looks exciting—a Mythical Vision that comes to us from beyond us to draw us into who we are. The entire process is irrational. It is not intellectual. It is Mystery! There is that, into which we cannot go. And, that’s where we came in.