Myth: The Secret Ingredient to Modernity

One morning on my patio, I turned to one of our potted plants and beheld an audacious fuzzy caterpillar energetically exploring the leaves. He stepped so lively that he won my heart, and I thought, “Why not take him inside and let him pupate and become a moth, and we’ll have some opportunity for Nature Study?”

So, feeling like Charlotte Mason Mom of the Year, I carefully put him in a glass jar. I added soil, water droplets, and a variety of leaves. I poked some air holes in the Kleenex top and brought him inside. I didn’t do any research except to identify what kind of caterpillar he was—a fall webworm—but how hard could a caterpillar be? The girls were very excited and named him Fuzzy.

The next morning, I noted that Fuzzy only seemed to like one of the leaves I had given him; he hadn’t touched the others, and they had all dried out. So I provided more leaves, of different varieties. He ate none of them. For a whole day. Hmm. His air of cheerful busyness had disappeared.

The next day we went to a park, and I spent a good bit of time selecting a new menu for Fuzzy, which I shared with him as soon as we got home. He ate one, but it was dry and yucky (one would assume) by the end of the day.

Caterpillars, I reflected, were more complicated than I’d assumed. I thought his diet would be simple—leaves—but it seems that there were only a few types he liked. And it seemed my glass haven for him didn’t have whatever magic ingredient he needed to retain the zeal I’d observed in him earlier. Fuzzy was languishing.

Before I had this little dude’s blood (figuratively) on my hands, I told the girls we were having a Fuzzy Release Ceremony, and we threw his leaf into some bushes in our woods while there was hopefully time for him to restore himself. Godspeed, Fuzzy.

HIJACKED METAMORPHOSIS

I ignorantly assumed I was doing Fuzzy a favor: he would be more comfortable, less prone to becoming bird snack food. But in some mysterious way, his “comfortable” environment was cutting him off from something he apparently needed. I hadn’t done my research, and Fuzzy reaped the consequences.

Thomas Howard argues we have done something similar to ourselves in the modern West:

Once more the obvious irony is that these notions [majesty and mystery and purity and nobility and taboo and heroism] . . . are the very notions that all myths and all religions have supposed formed the real fabric of our real existence. In other words, from that point of view it would be impossible to tell any true stories about human existence without taking these notions into account. . . . [T]he question might be put this way, as though it were being asked of the modern world by the whole long lineage of poets and tellers of tales: ‘If you (the people who live in the West after the eighteenth century) are going to confine your narratives to what you call ‘realism’, and not even allow the sort of narrative that the human race told itself for thousands of years, how complete and clear a picture of human experience will you be able to get?’ (47)

This quote was running around in my brain during Fuzzy’s stay with us, and I saw parallels to our own situation. I hadn’t done research on fall webworms. If what Howard says is true, we’ve neglected some pretty important research, as well: what the thousands of years of humans that have come before us can tell us about humanity.

Until 200 years ago, almost all the literature written by this humanity insists that the material world is only half of what we see. Their stories assert unapologetically that there is a real spiritual, supernatural dimension to human life.

Yet we of modernity turn and behold the millennia of our ancestors—and ruthlessly cut their most sacred beliefs away as inconsequential. Or even as stupid. All because it doesn’t fit with our modern opinion that there is no such thing.

OF BABIES AND BATHWATER

Life in the modern West, even with its great technological advances, is on the surface of a human history that goes thousands of years deep. To look only at today for a definition of humanity, of what we are and what we need, is to skim the shallows. Even evolutionary biologists agree with me, arguing in this fascinating article that human well-being depends on a reliance on culture: culture made by the generations who have come before us.

Could it be that in our chronological snobbery, we are in a glass jar of our own devising, cutting ourselves off from some aspect of culture—not obvious to us—that we actually need?

I wouldn’t claim that belief in the supernatural, in the ability of Myth to give us truth about ourselves, is THE single “secret ingredient” we in the glass jar of modernity lack.

But I adamantly believe it’s at least one of them.

Work Cited:

Howard, Thomas. C. S. Lewis: Man of Letters. Ignatius, 1987.

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