Saturday, July 14, 2007
Myth vs. Reality
I have just finished listening to the audiobook “Mayflower: A story of Courage, Community and War” by Nathaniel Philbrik. It was a powerful, well told tale that gave credit where credit was due to those early settlers we know as the pilgrims However, with impeccable research, similar to that in his earlier work "In the Heart of the Sea" about the whale ship Essex - the true story upon which Moby Dick is based - Philbrick takes painstaking care to reveal as much as records (rather than legend) can show up about who those early Pilgrims were and what the legacy was they left behind.
Like literally thousands of others, I can trace my lineage directly back to William Brewster, one of the spiritual leaders of the Pilgrims, so I've always felt a bit of bond with that boat that brought him to this country. One of my cousins still has a plate that has been carefully handed down in our family which is said to have come over on the Mayflower.
However, the tale that Philbrick unfolds has more to do with genocide of the native peoples than it does of friendly folks standing around celebrating the first thanksgiving.
While I am more than a little impressed by the powerful words of the Mayflower Compact which my ancestor signed and may very well have helped originate, I cannot help but be troubled by the repeating cycle of war and mayhem, blatant genocide and arrogant exploiting that were part and parcel of the Anglo takeover of this country.
Whether we are talking about the mass extermination of groups of native peoples in this land, the legacy of Pol Pot's killing fields in Cambodia, the horrors of Rwanda, or current events in Darfur, misery and killing seem to be a reoccurring pattern of human history.
I think of how we have this romanticized notion of who the pilgrims were and what their relationship with the Native peoples were like. Reality is far from myth we want to believe.
It isn't just national histories that we twist to shed a better light on our forbearers. I think of how I have at times created my own myths - like what my first marriage was about, the pictures I hold in my head about my college years, or the meaning I give to other significant events or relationships I have been a part of. No one likes to think of themselves as lazy, unkind, petty or cruel. So we mute our memories of our misdeeds and shed the spotlight of recall on our more honorable moments. We build up stories and legends in our head that can take on the power of myth that Joseph Campbell speaks about.
Lately I've been trying to sort out some of those distortions in my own world...piece by piece looking at what things I believe about myself, the world, and my place in it. What things have I made up because it was more comfortable to believe them? What truths have I avoided? What have I exaggerated? What can I hold on to for keeps?
Philbrick did his research by going through historic documents. My task is a bit more complex than that since most of my "records" are memories...which are by their very nature slippery, elusive things.
When I get together with my siblings we often talk of past events from our growing up years. Rarely do we recall those happenings in the same way. So is truth relative? Is MY truth valid because it impacted me the way I imprinted it even if it may or may not be historically accurate? Or what of cases where I have heard a certain family (or national) story so often it FEELS like a memory even if there is no possible way I could have been there?
I think that what we believe about our history - both personal and political DOES matter. Only by being willing to wrestle with truth and self deception can we ever fully come to terms with making sounder choices for our future, in our families and in the world.
(prints of the above painting of the Mayflower by Mike Haywood can be purchased HERE)