Living the Lives We Choose

One of the unexpected benefits of producing a podcast (The Fullness of Midlife) is getting to talk to people who expand my thinking. I’d previously gotten this benefit from my book groupmembers of which selected reading I might not have naturally gravitated toward. With the podcast interviews, I can explore connections and intersections that may not be obvious on a printed page.

A recent example is my conversation with Druscilla French. She’s a cultural mythologist, not a line of work I ordinarily run across in my medical circles. But what we talked aboutthe stories we learn or adopt and how they influence what we think is possibleseemed especially appropriate to thinking about who we are as women at midlife. After our conversation, Druscilla sent along her notes from a lecture, which she agreed we could share here.

It may be that you’ve arrived at a point of introspection. Maybe this is your first autumn with an empty nest. Perhaps you’re assessing where you are with your partner now. You might be one of the disciplined who do an annual assessment through the holidays. Whatever your situation, you may find what follows helpfuland perhaps even fuel for discussion with your partneror your book club!

I love stories. I majored in English. I have a Masters in Film and Television. My PhD is in Mythology.  I have always been passionate about stories, but I didn’t really understand their power until I was in my forties.

My earliest love affair with a story was with Winnie the Pooh. My Disney princess was Cinderella. I have also fallen hard for Heidi, Nancy Drew, Scout Finch, Hermione Granger, Harriet Vane, and Idgie Threadgoode. In films I loved Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. I loved Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere in Camelot and as Julia in Pentimento; Audrey Hepburn in Charade but not Breakfast at Tiffany’s; Faye Dunaway and Renee Russo in The Thomas Crown Affair; Jessica Tandy in all her film incarnations; Whoopee Goldberg as Celie in The Color Purple and Terry in Jumping Jack Flash. I loved Jane Fonda after she grew up and Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin in pretty much anything.

In music, I’ve loved Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt, Barbra Streisand, Janis Joplin, and Bette Midler, always. “From a Distance” makes me cry, every time.

Here’s who I never wanted to be: Doris Day, Sandra Dee, Annette Funicello (or any of the Mouseketeer girls), Scarlett O’Hara, Snow White, June Cleaver, Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, or Lady Gaga; nuns, brides, or secretaries.

What does all that tell you about me? A great deal, I suspect. It was a long journey from Winnie the Pooh to Idgie.

But this isn’t about me. It’s about you. It’s about personal mythologies.

People cannot tolerate living without a myth. Neither can nations or planets, religions, families or tribes. Yet, this is precisely what we are seeing play out here. Some are clinging to the old mythologies, resisting the notion that evolution and change are inevitable. Others have relinquished the old stories, but are struggling with the existential angst of not having a mythic container in which to live. Having let go of one trapeze, we are all in that terrifying time before grabbing on to the next.

All mythologies are illusions. They blind us to truths outside our perspective. However, living without one is so anxiety-producing that we cannot function at our highest and best.

To live without a mythology is to be in a state of anxiety and fear. Life is pervaded by the feeling that life has no meaning, individually we have no purpose, and there is no way of knowing what is going to happen next. Fear and anxiety are so uncomfortable that some turn these emotions into anger. Anger gives us the illusion of power, as we see in the memorable Network line: “I’m mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore.”

With some exploration, we can determine what stories each of us has in her (or his) personal mythology. Get out your journal or a legal pad, and think about the characters and stories that you collected as raw material for your personal mythology.

  • What were the stories you asked to be read--or read yourself--over and over?
  • What movies did you watch again and again? What characters appealed to you? Who did you want to be?
  • Who did you hang on your walls? Who was on your lunchbox, your pajamas, or your notebook cover?
  • What music or musicians meant more than the others?
  • Think about how the people and stories changed as you grew up. What were they at 6? at 12? at 18?

When you’ve identified the characters and the stories, review what you’ve uncovered:

  1. What do your stories have in common? How do they differ as you grow up?
  2. Are there gender distinctions?
  3. What is the culmination of the story? A crowning? A marriage? A return home?
  4. Are there animals? What are their roles?
  5. When there is danger, what tools does the character you identify with have, and how does she or he use them?

The next step is to examine the path you’ve taken in comparison to the stories you’ve identified. Are there parallels? Has your story diverged from the plotline you’d learned or expected? Are there points at which you’ve given away your power?

Do you have a current story? You may find, as I do, that it’s challenging to find stories in our culture that we’re interested in occupying. We’re in a time of cultural change, and many of the archetypal patterns reinforce youth or patriarchy.

What other possibilities exist for me?If you’re uncertain about your current story, what stories engaged you this year? How does it compare to the stories of your youth? How does it compare with your earlier ones? Is this a story you can actually live in and manifest? Is it a remnant of what called to you earlier? Would it work better for you to have a new story, or is your current story serving your highest good?

We need stories, because we can’t tolerate the notion that we have no purpose and no destination. When we’re confident in our stories, we can say, “This is who I am. This is what I’m about.” It’s a way to keep asking, “What else is possible for me?” It takes courage and persistence, and it lets us live our lives as though they matter—because they do.


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