We Are Drawn to the Monomyth

We are drawn to the monomyth because it makes sense and our lives simply don’t. We’re afraid of our own stories because they are unlike the stories we’re familiar with. These two forces create a feedback loop.

The monomyth is the “only story” there is to tell. It is the hero’s journey: a step into the unknown, meeting a mentor, the darkest hour, then triumph, the return home.

Homer’s Iliad is one of the oldest stories to follow this template. You learn about these intricacies whenever you take a fiction writing class. It isn’t a secret. It is just the mechanics of how good stories work. Do it right, and your audience will feel comfort, cohesion, and continuity.

If only our lives were so tidy.

Our lives don’t work this way. Our lives are chaotic things. We meet characters who end up having no impact on the plot. We assume there is a plot. Horrible and wonderful events befall us, completely disconnected from all other events. Our lives offer no exploding Death Stars or melting terminators to signal that we’ve reached our goals.

I posit that the power of goal setting is that it allows us to live out miniature monomyths. The bigger the goal, the more satisfying and intricate the story. Lacking goals, we’re just tumblin’ birds.

I’m presently enjoying a season in life where, simultaneously, a 20-year, a 15-year, a 10-year, a 4-year, and multiple less-than-three-month goals are coming to fruition.

It feels like I’m on the last few pages of the book. That feeling used to be terrifying and empty. Now, I feel only energy and awe. All these little hero’s journeys are wrapping up. I’m eager to start more.

Since we tell each other stories that make perfect sense, our lives tend to feel like hot messes in comparison. I love a good mystery novel, but the celestial machinery of reality doesn’t issue puzzles with all the pieces included.

Is there a way to tell stories that are satisfying, but more closely resemble life? What would happen if we took a break from the monomyth? What would it mean to tell stories based around community instead of heroism? Threads instead of arcs? Harmony instead of conflict?

I’ve started exploring this in my practices. After all, what is the traditional pop song structure but another manifestation of the monomyth? And what is the expository blog post but the same?

Personal Mythologies II: 9/11

Where were you when it happened?

During first period English class, our social studies teacher popped his head into the room and announced, “A plane has hit the world trade center,” and promptly disappeared like a prairie gopher. We were dumbfounded. What is the World Trade Center? Why did a plane hit it?

In the hall, our normally jubilant and compassionate health teacher was weeping. Her partner was apparently a pilot for American Airlines and flying the east coast that day. This was before cell phones.

I got off the bus and my mom was outside gardening and listening to NPR. She had a calm but wild look in her eye about it all. I was upset I couldn’t watch the Simpsons. News was on every channel.

I wrote about 9/11 at length earlier this year. Obviously it is still on my mind. I have more to say.

The Simpsons had to be disrupted for me to understand the enormity of what happened. With age, I’ve come to associate the moment I realized I didn’t get to watch another Simpsons re-run with my loss of innocence. I was 13, a little angsty, and in the early throes of puberty. Something shifted in that instant and never shifted back.

I’ve been itching to write a story about a world where 9/11 didn’t happen. It always stalls out during development. How do you tell a story based on the negation of an event? Even though the whole genre of alternative history is based on this conceit, I can’t figure this one out.

In 2011 I found myself in New York City. I had been dispatched with a small cadre of Columbia College Chicago seniors. We were representing our school in a portfolio showcase. Between obligations, I photographed the city. One day, I shot the Freedom Tower construction site. Battery Park. The Statue of Liberty. That night I was in Times Square and another thing happened. Osama bin Laden: dead.

It has been difficult for me to suppress developing superstitious beliefs from this coincidence.

Times Square 1

Times Square 2

Freedom Tower 1

Freedom Tower 2

Statue of Liberty

In Ramy Youssef’s HBO special, Feelings, he posits that 9/11 actually “worked.”

Did we ever heal from 9/11? Why do I feel like we never talk about it anymore? Did the catharsis happen in the early 00’s and I was just oblivious to it all? Are there other people my age out there who are still totally confused about the whole thing? I don’t have closure. Why do I want closure? Why do I feel entitled to closure? How everyone else ever heal from Vietnam? MLK? Kennedy? Hiroshima? WWII? WWI? The Civil War? Did we heal? Or are they all permanent cultural scars? What other things of this magnitude happened that have been utterly forgotten?

I visited the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall this year. It was 4th of July and I went with my dad. We talked with a kind docent, walked the entire wall, read many of the names, wandered a forest of American flags.

Maybe I ought to plan a pilgrimage to the 9/11 memorial.

Vietnam Traveling Memorial

American Flag Forest


It seems either there is something in the air or I’m particularly sensitive to apophenia (again). I read two articles from Wired after I published this that are perfect compliments:

Personal Mythologies I: Tao Te Ching

The more clever and crafty the men,
The oftener strange things happen.

Tao Te Ching, Ch. 57, John C. H. Wu Translation

Ain’t it the truth? My anxiety of the news on any given day is allayed by these two lines.

We teleported a photon to a satellite? Of course we did.

We maybe figured out how to cure aging? Okie-dokie. Excuse me while I devise a strategy to forget these 500 ethical questions about that one…

We found a mysterious void inside the sphinx? Nothing thought provoking about that. Nope, nothing at all.

Stories like these typically send my imagination into places I do not enjoy. But still, I seek out this type of news. I do this because I am curious about the world. I am almost in a perpetual state of awe at everything that happens on this little speck of dust we call Earth.

I am an existential athiest with a frosting of Taoism and Zen to account for the rounding errors. I’m not sure when I first read the Tao Te Ching, but the evidence points towards early high school.

I’ve had numerous translations over the years. My favorite is the John C. H. Wu translation. I keep a pocket version of it with me all the time.

Tao Te Chings

I think this makes me something of a materialist-naturalist-mystic. I don’t believe in a spiritual world. I believe the fundamental interactions (electromagnetism, gravity, strong and weak nuclears) are sufficient describe the happenings in the material world.

Our understanding of these forces is not - and probably never will be - complete.

There are probably other forces.

Whether you believe mind gives rise to matter or the other way around, I think it is unarguable that we don’t have everything figured out yet. In high school and through most of my twenties, all I cared about were the “big” questions: ontology, eschatology, epistomology… These days, my mind usually spends energy pondering the “little” questions: family, friends, relationships, society, culture, the next 50 years of human civilization.

I always assumed the Tao Te Ching was more readily applied with the big questions, but I’ve increasingly turned to it for help with the little, human ones. The ones the Standard Model can’t touch. Context is everything. For me, I need some type of mysticism to account for all the messy and complicated human and cultural interactions out there. Perhaps this is an act of bad faith on my part, but I haven’t found any better explanation. And maybe there isn’t one.