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28 Feb 2023

Personal mythopoesis – It has been about a month now since we returned from our recent trip to the States, which served two purposes: visiting my family in the DFW area and attending a conference in San Antonio. I am not going to talk too much about the trip itself here, except to say that it was nice to spend time with family again and the conference was great (as was San Antonio). Oh, and that we only barely managed to get out of Texas before a winter storm hit, and it was a good thing we flew out of San Antonio and not DFW; we were delayed for two-and-a-half hours at San Antonio because the airport has only one deicing truck, but over 70% of all flights out of DFW that day ended up being canceled.

“We can construct any number of narratives from the motifemes of our lives. These narratives are not just ways of explaining our past, they are also road maps for our future.”

Instead, I wanted to write about something I was thinking about during our trip and have been mulling over since then. These thoughts were originally prompted by a book that I was reading, Humble Pi by the mathematician Matt Parker (who also has a YouTube called “Stand-up Maths” (plural because he has lived most of his life in the UK, although he was born in Australia)). Toward the end of the book, he talks about an author who had examined 1,500 ancient megalithic sites (e.g., standing stones, dolmens, etc.) scattered around the UK and discovered that they were grouped in isosceles triangles. This author argued that they were somehow a kind of “prehistoric satnav.” Parker, who has a very British sense of humor, set about debunking this idea by downloading the coordinates for some eight hundred defunct Woolworths locations around the country. He was able to find three sites around Birmingham that formed an equilateral triangle, one side of which if extended formed a perfectly straight line that stretched out to two other sites. I’ll let Parker explain the rest in his own words:

To find these alignments I had simply skipped over the vast majority of the Woolworths locations and chosen the few that happened to line up. A mere eight hundred locations gave me a choice of over 85 million triangles. I was not at all surprised when some of them were near-exactly isosceles. If none of them had been, then I would start believing in aliens. The 1,500 prehistoric sites that Brooks used gave him over 561 million triangles to pick-and-mix from. I suspect that he is completely genuine in his belief that ancient Britons placed their important sites in these locations: he had merely fallen victim to confirmation bias. Data that matched his expectations was focused on and the rest of it ignored.

Incidentally, Humble Pi is a great book, and I would recommend it if you have any interest at all in learning how bad humans are at math(s) and how that sometimes comes back to bite us; I am awful at probability, among other things, so it was nice to know that I am not alone. The education and entertainment value of the book in general aside, though, for some reason this particular story stuck with me. I started thinking about how this principle could be applied to life in general. Our lives provide us with countless data points, and we pick and choose from them to construct narratives that fit with what we already want to believe about ourselves. While these thoughts were still embryonic I shared them with my brother B, and we talked about how the principle might apply in our own lives.

Then I went off to San Antonio, where I attended the Southern Humanities Conference. It was a small conference—I think there were fewer than fifty presenters—and one I had never attended before, so I was a little apprehensive about not knowing anyone there (it turns out that I did know someone there, a fellow folklorist from the American Folklore Society). But I was intrigued by the theme of the conference, “Myth and Mythmaking.” I suspected that I was going to be exposed to a lot of different theories and ideas about myths, and that many of them would not conform to how I as a folklorist conceive of myth. That turned out to be the case, but that was fine. I did at times share the folkloristic perspective on myth (as did Jim, my fellow folklorist), but my purpose in attending the conference was not to be a pedant. It was to meet new people with different perspectives and have some interesting conversations. In that regard, it was a complete success, and I had a great time.

For the purposes of today’s entry, though, one of the most interesting talks I heard was given by two scholars—a psychiatrist and a lit professor—who talked about the importance of “personal myths,” or stories that we tell ourselves about who we are. And I realized as I listened to them that they were touching on some of the things I had been thinking about after reading Humble Pi. Humans are, to quote a book title from Jonathan Gottschall, storytelling animals. It’s not just that we like telling stories, though; narrative is an important tool that we use to understand the universe, including the world around us and our very own selves.

Think back over your life. Think of everything you’ve ever experienced—or at least those experiences that were important enough to stick in your mind. In the mathematical sense, those are data points. In the narrative sense, they are motifemes or basic story units. I don’t think these two senses necessarily fit together seamlessly, or at least they don’t seem to at first glance. The point of personal myths is that you want to tell yourself positive stories about who you are—you want to be the hero of the narrative—in order to achieve better mental health. But from a purely mathematical perspective, it might appear that such narrative construction is a form of self-deception. As Parker says, “it's amazing what you can prove if you're prepared to ignore enough data.” Even if we construct a positive personal myth that ends up helping us, aren’t we still ignoring a large amount of data to do so? Isn’t that somehow academically disingenuous?

This question niggled at me after I read Humble Pi. The answer is obvious now in retrospect, but for some reason the pieces of the puzzle didn’t fall into place until I was listening to the talk in San Antonio. That answer, of course—or at least the first part of it—is that you can’t equate life experiences with the locations of megalithic sites or Woolworths stores. The latter don’t have any inherent relationships to each other; that is, the location of one site has no influence over the location of other sites, other than the simple fact that you’re probably not going to see two right next to each other. This doesn’t mean that there is no reasoning behind the locations of these sites, of course; each site was likely very meaningful within its local community. That is, local context is important. We just can’t try to uncover any global significance, because there are no relationships between them that would warrant that.

Life experiences, on the other hand, are related because they happen to the same individual. Now, we could argue about whether we are really the same individual now that we were ten years ago, or even if the concept of the self has any validity at all, but I’m going to assume for the purposes of this argument that most of us have a continuous sense of self—if you don’t buy into this premise, my argument here will be nonsense to you, so you can stop reading now (actually, you could have probably could have stopped reading a thousand or so words ago... sorry). If we assume this premise, though, then it makes sense to also assume that the data points of our life influence one another; an experience that I have today may determine what type of experiences I have tomorrow.

So does that mean that Parker’s example, no matter how amusing it might be, has no bearing on what I’m trying to say here? I don’t think so. We may not be able to draw a strict comparison between megalithic sites or Woolworths stores and life experiences, but I still think that there is something to be gained from the mathematical perspective: a reminder that life is chaotic. My choice of words here is deliberate—I am not saying that life is random. True randomness is completely unpredictable (and also very hard to achieve in actuality); chaos is only difficult to make sense of because of the extreme complexity of the system. Take the weather, for example. Despite all our advances in meteorology and weather-forecasting technology, we still cannot predict the weather with any real certainty beyond a few days (if that). Why? Because there are so many little factors that influence the weather that it eventually becomes impossible to keep track of and calculate them all. Life is like this: There are so many little things—many of which we are never even conscious of—that determine how our lives unfold that it is practically impossible to see how all of the pieces fit together.

The thing is, we don’t like chaos—we like order. When things are ordered, it is easy to see the logical relationships between them. So how do we reconcile the fact that the universe is chaotic with our desire for order? That’s easy: We impose order on the chaos through narratives. Deep down inside, I think we know that our lives cannot be explained as simply as we would like, but we construct narratives anyway. Is this disingenuous? Are we just fooling ourselves and hiding the chaos behind an elaborate curtain? If humans were beings of pure logic and nothing else, I might be inclined to answer “Yes,” but we are not ruled entirely (or even mostly) by logic—and that leads me to the second part of the answer I mentioned above. For better or for worse, we are heavily influenced by our beliefs about and perceptions of the world, including ourselves. Thus if I perceive an obstacle to be insurmountable, I am less likely to overcome it than I would be if I believed that I could overcome it. I may still be the same person with the same abilities, but if I don’t believe in myself I will sabotage myself in small and unconscious ways. And this isn’t just a psychological thing—if I don’t believe in myself, I won’t be able to perform up to my potential physically, either. The mind is part of the body, after all.

So while the narratives we construct about ourselves—our personal myths—may not always be 100% factual or complete, the influence that they have on our present and future behavior can actually bring them closer to the truth. That is, if we believe that we are a certain type of person and we construct a personal myth that paints us as this type of person, we are more likely to live up to that image than we would be without the myth. In that sense, regardless of whether these myths capture every aspect of the complex system that is our lives, they can still be true.

We can construct any number of narratives from the motifemes of our lives. These narratives are not just ways of explaining our past, they are also road maps for our future. That is, the way we think about our past can influence how we behave in the present and who we will become in the future. In short, if you want to be the best version of yourself, you first have to believe in the best version of yourself. Easier said than done, though, right? Personally, I am much more likely to discount my successes as either being due to luck or the actions of others and dwell on my failures as solely the result of my own incompetence or poor judgment. Why don’t I recognize the time and effort I put into my successes and the external factors that might have contributed to my failures? I don’t know—that’s just the way I am. I’ve always been a very critical person, and I am most critical of myself because I know myself so well (or at least better than I know others). But these recent opportunities to think about interpreting data and constructing personal myths have encouraged me to at least try to flip the script. I’m still working on that as I type this.

Anyway, that is one journey I’ve been on recently. I’m posting this here today partly as a way to work through my thoughts and partly in the hopes that maybe there is someone out there in the noisy, crowded void of the internet that might be inspired to rewrite their own personal myth. Until next time, then, happy mythmaking!

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