Beauty / Health

Holiday reading: let us compare mythologies

Should we be living our fantasies or finding a way out?

A few years ago I began writing a piece I called “the danger of dreams”. I was 22 and had recently moved to New York, a city where many came to dream, or to replicate the dreams of those who had inspired theirs. Mythologies that had been immortalised by countless generations of artists and storytellers; fodder for both inspiration and aspiration.

My experience of living there taught me many things, most notably about the nature of stories, and how fickle they can be. Just like everyone else, I brought to New York my idea of a story, one in which I was the protagonist, surrounded by a cast of glittering extras. I came into contact with people, places and scenarios that had formerly existed only in my imagination, only unlike the hazy idealism of my dreamscape, these situations were operating on their own agendas. Real people in real environments, with real lives and insecurities; ones that didn’t always match my expectations. Up close, I could see that all that glitters is sometimes just gold paint.

While arguably the most cinematic place I’ve ever lived, New York still has much to answer for when it comes to fictive notions. It is a city that takes centre-stage in so many stories; on screen, in songs, memoirs, tales of bygone eras. The story of New York is so potent that it leads to an expectation, a projection of a dream that can only be tempered by a discovery of the reality. Someone once said to me that the most surprising realisation about moving to New York was discovering that there was no background music. Ironically, after existing for so long in an imaginary realm, the discovery of the real place seems far more surreal. 

At times I found it slick, glamorous and sparkly, at others, I found it posturing, inauthentic and false. I realised that this was a city where people came to reinvent themselves, to emulate their idols or to live the lives they had seen on screen or in a magazine – with varying degrees of success. I began to see warning signs. I met people who were so lost in the construction of their fictional ideal that the story became a stopgap for loneliness, unfulfilment. A way of stifling uncomfortable truths without acknowledging that, like bacteria, discomfort thrives in warm, dark places.

At first I blamed New York, but I soon realised that many of my observations were a universal phenomenon – New York was just an accelerator. As a generation, we are surrounded by an environment that blurs the parameters of truth and identity on a previously unprecedented scale. A world where fiction masquerades as fact, with an invisible addendum that reads: “based on a true story”.

Where formerly I’d thought of fiction as my friend, this period of early twenties existential angst began to make me think otherwise. I saw neuroses developing in myself and my contemporaries, byproducts of living in this fantasy world. Consuming the instability of a life built around a slippery, mercurial sense of truth; following aspiration to the point where its connection to reality dissolved entirely. I began to realise that storytelling could be a dangerous game.

It was around this time that I stumbled on the work of Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian known for his recent bestsellers, Sapiens and Homo Deus. Harari has spoken extensively on his theories surrounding humans and their ability to tell stories, citing storytelling as our main reason for becoming so dominant as a species. In his 2015 TED talk, Harari claims the secret to our success is due to the fact that “we alone of all the animals on the planet can create and believe fictions”. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that this ability has the potential both to help and hinder the progression of humankind.

Speaking recently at the 2018 India Today Conclave, Harari warned against the dangers of mistaking our fantasies for reality. “The deep source of so much of our personal and collective problems is in the fantasies that we create,” he explained. “We mistake them for reality and then we try to impose them on reality and we get extremely upset when it doesn’t work. When reality doesn’t conform to our favourite fantasy.”

Harari’s words serve as a timely precaution. Ours is a generation that has witnessed the rise and rise of social media, the most interactive and addictive form of fictive self-creation. These days, our hero worship has been placed within a realm that seems tantalisingly within reach. Instead of watching a film or reading a novel and dreaming of becoming its imaginary protagonist, we are now able to become the star of our own lives, with real-time feedback from an audience that responds to our every move. Although our conscious minds know this is artifice, our animal responses can’t tell the difference. That heady rush of dopamine tells us that the fantasy is our reality.

On television, ‘reality’ shows have taken precedence as our entertainment of choice, when in truth they are anything but. Real news has been tainted by fake news, and our mating rituals are now conducted via apps that place courtship in the digital realm. I was talking with a friend recently who said that, contrary to popular practice, she usually tries to meet prospective partners before engaging in much in-app chit-chat: the more talk online, the more time each party has to perfect and project their ideals onto the other person, only to be disappointed when the reality does not match the fantasy. We swipe and swipe and swipe, becoming constantly more dissatisfied, searching for a real connection by diving headfirst into a world of fiction, frustrated when the results prove thus.

“In an age of personal branding, culture asks us to squeeze ourselves and our experience into boxes that say ‘beginning’, ‘middle’ and ‘end’. To tie every experience up with a neat bow and proclaim Happily Ever After.”

What’s more, in an age of personal branding, culture asks us to squeeze ourselves and our experience into boxes that say ‘beginning’, ‘middle’ and ‘end’. To tie every experience up with a neat bow and proclaim Happily Ever After. In a world where advertising reigns supreme, retailers continue to enforce our identities based on the stories told by our clothes, our jobs, our cars, our hair. Roland Barthes wrote his Mythologies in the 1950s, a witty and often scathing look at the codes and signs that underlie the lives of the bourgeoisie. Had he continued his writings, one can only imagine how many volumes the work would span today.

Like Harari, the writer Rebecca Solnit, of Men Explain Things to Me fame, recognises the pull of a powerful story on the human psyche. In her book The Faraway Nearby, she articulates how the balance of power between ourselves and the stories we tell can oftentimes lead to instances of self-sabotage. “We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning.”

Certainly, I see this in my own experience. Although writing allows me make sense of things, it also encourages the part of my mind that seeks control in conclusions, the stability of a story. Taking the abstract or the uncertain and digesting it into a linear narrative that reaches some kind of finite end. While this process might make for a good piece, when turned onto situations in my own life, I can often be found led down a garden path of my own making, crying somewhere in the bushes, having convinced myself of the worst. “Catastrophising”, as it is more commonly termed.

So how do we connect to truth in a world where fictions are forced on us by both society and our own minds? For Harari, the answer lies in his daily practice of Vipassana meditation. “Vipassana is really about observing reality as it is, and being able to distinguish between what is real, and what is just a story or a fantasy created by our own minds,” he explains on Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast.

This notion of freeing oneself from unhelpful narratives lies at the core of many practices concerning spiritual and emotional cleansing. During my research for this piece, a friend invited me to a full moon ceremony, run by a woman who identified herself as an energy healer. During the ceremony, we were asked to write on pieces of paper things that we wished to be free of in our lives; essentially, stories that no longer served us. We then burnt them together, with the intention that the healing power of the moon would remove the burden of these useless narratives. 

I didn’t feel it worked for me, but that was probably because I didn’t believe the story. The healer was warm and kind, but her language of spirituality could not overcome my very British brand of scepticism. 

That’s another thing about stories – to be convinced, we have to hear them in a language we understand. That’s exactly what makes self-perpetuated fictions so persuasive, because we tell them to ourselves in our native tongue – that of our minds and egos. 

So often our stories about ourselves can be related back to a place of ego – either too much or too little. To convince ourselves of our own theories, catastrophes or otherwise, is also to be convinced that our assumptions are always right. My mother often tactfully reminds me that self-analysis and self-centredness frequently go hand in hand; the world does not operate according to my understanding alone. Conversely, the process of trying to enact a fantasy fiction version of ourselves suggests a deep-seated insecurity about embracing who we really are. In trying too hard to become someone else, we risk revealing a lack of respect for our true selves.

I spoke with another friend who, like me, could be described as an over-thinker; a lover of stories but often burdened by their manipulative streak. For her, meditation is also a tool for respite. But unlike Harari, she works with a teacher to tell new stories, using visualisation techniques that put her overactive imagination to use for healing, rather than harm. She described to me how the teacher guides her to visualise an island in her mind, one to which she can retreat and relax in times of stress. Through finding this level of calm in an imaginary place, she is freed from the belief that her mind is a volatile and uncontrollable beast, incapable of conjuring serenity.

What practices of meditation and spirituality touch on is the idea of communication with a deeper level of consciousness. Circumventing the everyday clutter to access the truth beneath the noise. Myth and legend can serve the same purpose, something author and psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estés explores in her book Women Who Run With the Wolves. Through the re-telling and analysis of various archetypal stories, Estes guides women to reclaim their “innate instinctual Self” which has been stifled by the false narratives placed on femininity. In her eyes, “stories are medicine”, and can be instrumental in leading us back to ourselves.

Like Estés, and despite my 22-year-old self, I believe stories can indeed carry a deeply holistic quality. It is worth mentioning here that I never did finish that piece on the danger of dreams. In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to condemn my own imagination, nor deny my love of stories. Instead I realised that aspiring to our favourite stories might not be so dangerous after all, provided we listen to what they have to say, rather than trying to emulate the person saying it. In Solnit’s words: “The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear [stories], to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the story-teller.”